|Sri Lanka : Address by Hon. Mahinda Samarasinghe at the Universal Periodic Review of Sri Lanka|
|Tuesday, 13 May 2008|
Working Group of the UN Human Rights Council on Universal Periodic Review 13 May 2008, GenevaMr. President,
1. As we embark on this review of Sri Lanka, Mr. President, let me on behalf of my delegation welcome this opportunity to candidly discuss vital human rights issues pertaining to Sri Lanka. In keeping with the spirit of UN General Assembly Resolution 60/251, Sri Lanka is committed to full cooperation with this Council and we view our voluntary participation in this process as a further indication of this commitment.
As former Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, said at the Council's inauguration: “This Council represents a great new chance for the United Nations, and for humanity, to renew the struggle for human rights.” Sri Lanka, as a wholehearted collaborator in that struggle, has taken an active part in institution-building initiatives of the Council. A member of the Council from its inception in 2006, a former Chair of the Asian Regional Group and holder of the office of a Vice-President of the Council, Sri Lanka has worked to develop the UPR process, to give life to the aims of the noble aspirations of the GA Resolution which called for this process to be a “Review, based on objective and reliable information, of the fulfilment by each State of its human rights obligations and commitments in a manner which ensures universality of coverage and equal treatment with respect to all states”. We also expect the process to be cooperative in nature, based on open dialogue with our full involvement, involving also due consideration to capacity-building needs.
2. We appreciate Mr. President the deep interest in Sri Lanka of fellow members on the Council who have raised queries and sought clarifications on the review documentation. We also thank in advance members of the Working Group who raise further queries so as to make the ensuing dialogue vigorous, interesting and of practical benefit to the people of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka Delegation participating UPR
3. Mr. President, Sri Lanka’s National Report presents I believe an accurate picture of our current human rights situation. It highlights strengths and identifies challenges we face as a nation in our efforts to promote and protect human rights. Most importantly, Mr. President, we have identified our priorities and highlighted the capacity building needs that will enable us to actualize those priorities. As all rights are mutually reinforcing and interdependent, the Government believes equal attention should be given to civil and political and economic, social and cultural rights as well as the right to development. All these critical areas are reflected in our National Report.
4. The promotion and protection of human rights, based on internationally accepted standards, is a priority for all democratic governments, and we believe it is our primary duty to safeguard the human rights of all Sri Lankan people. Indeed, a positive obligation is cast upon the branches of Government to safeguard those rights which find expression in our national Constitution. Moreover, we have fulfilled international obligations through participation in most key human rights instruments and labour conventions, the full implementation of which is also one of our goals. We expect one of the outcomes of participation in the UPR process will be that international partners will come forward to assist us achieve the priorities set out in our National Report.
5. The Government’s ultimate aim is to implement a National Action Plan on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights, as envisaged in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. This will be a countrywide initiative spearheaded and coordinated by my Ministry. It will include a national mapping exercise on human rights, to identify challenges, constraints and gaps in human rights promotion and protection. The Action Plan will also focus on implementing recommendations of the UN Treaty Bodies, special procedures and mechanisms, pledges Sri Lanka made for our election to the Human Rights Council and recommendations that emanate from today’s review process.
6. Mr. President, I will, in the course of this presentation, respond to queries raised in advance in writing. My delegation and I will be glad to further elucidate on these and other matters as they arise during the dialogue.
7. Let me first deal with a question posed by the United Kingdom as to the preparation of the National Report. As stated there my Ministry – the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights – was the lead agency coordinating the drafting of the Report. We invited civil society representatives, some of whom are on my advisory committee on human rights, to a meeting where the UPR process, including intra-government discussion and consultation with independent state institutions, was explained in detail. The Government invited civil society organisations to raise issues or concerns for inclusion in the National Report – all responses and communications received were given due consideration in finalising the National Report.
8. Mr. President, I wish to also place on record our firm belief in building strong and independent national institutions that can sustain and deliver on their mandates to promote and protect human rights. We welcome technical assistance and capacity building initiatives but view them as temporary remedial measures. We are grateful to the many international institutions that work in close cooperation with the Government in building local capacity in key areas including economic development, governance, administration of justice, environmental protection and poverty alleviation. But we do not want to supplant national institutions with international bodies as the best guarantee of sustainable progress in any field is through generation of national ownership. So it is with human rights.
Hon.Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe and Hon. Attorney General C. R. de Silva
9. In this context, I would like to respond to two interlinked themes noted in some of the questions posed. The first is the establishment in Sri Lanka of an Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as to which there were several questions posed by Denmark, the Republic of Ireland, the United Kingdom, Canada and Germany.. In fact the Office is already represented in Sri Lanka by a Human Rights Adviser, working within the UN Country Team since June 2004, supported by a national legal officer and an assistant. This position was welcomed by the Government and we are now discussing, with the UNDP and the Human Rights Adviser, capacity building of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, the national Human Rights Commission and other national stakeholders, as well as a National Plan of Action on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. As these discussions reach fruition we will consider some expansion of support to the Adviser to meet mutually agreed upon capacity building needs. The questions also raise the issue of a monitoring cum reporting function for the Office of the High Commissioner. Much as we appreciate the work of this office, we are not in agreement with this suggestion. It is our firm and consistent position that models which may be relevant elsewhere, in the context of the breakdown of judicial and administrative institutions and mechanisms, are not relevant to Sri Lanka and should not be arbitrarily imposed. Sri Lanka has an independent and robust judiciary and other efficient and vibrant public institutions and mechanisms. Furthermore, the imposition of foreign institutions will stifle the potential for growth of national institutions charged with these functions at present. As High Commissioner Louise Arbour noted after her visit: “Sri Lanka has many of the elements needed for a strong national protection system. It has ratified most of the international human rights treaties. It has justiciable human rights guarantees in the Constitution. It has long-standing democratic and legal traditions. It has had a national human rights commission for more than a decade. Sri Lanka has an active media and benefits from a committed civil society.” It is this established institutional structure that we wish to nurture and cherish for the benefit of all our people.
10. This brings me, Mr. President, to the second theme, in questions about the national Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, from Ireland, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Canada and Germany. The National Human Rights Commission is a vital cog in the human rights promotion and protection machinery we have put in place. It is a vibrant, independent institution of State and supports and buttresses the range of institutional frameworks outlined in the National Report. However, as indicated in previous studies, it can do with technical support, and UNDP is currently engaged, to quote from a UNDP letter of 25th March 2008, ‘in the process of developing a new framework for UN support to the HRC’. Meanwhile I have also taken the initiative of proposing to Parliament that it should focus attention on strengthening the constituting enactment of the Commission which is now twelve years old. Experience gained over the last 12 years has brought to the fore some issues which demand the attention of the legislature. A Parliamentary Select Committee will look into and propose legislative measures to ensure that lessons learned are taken heed of and any shortcomings corrected. I believe issues such as funding and enforcement will form the key elements of the process and, leaving aside the much greater allocation given in the last couple of years from the government, I have secured a commitment for even greater funding in the future. It is important to note, Mr. President, that the Select Committee process also involves the receipt of public and civil society representations.
11. Mr. President, another significant development connected with the second theme has also been raised. The question from Canada deals with the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution and the establishment of a multi-partisan body – the Constitutional Council – that contributes to the appointment of certain independent national institutions and offices of Sri Lanka. The Parliamentary Select Committee on the Seventeenth Amendment which I proposed and which was unanimously adopted by our Parliament, had drafted an interim report taken up on the 20th of this month for consideration and adoption. The Report makes recommendations for reformulation of the Amendment so as to overcome perceived deficiencies and avoid impasses such as that which prevented the formation of the Constitutional Council in the past. Once the Report is endorsed by Parliament, His Excellency the President has stated that he will take immediate steps to place before the Cabinet of Ministers the relevant constitutional amendments, so as to bring them before the legislature to get over such roadblocks to the effective functioning of the Constitutional Council.
12. Mr. President, let me move on to the question from Latvia about cooperation with Special Procedures and Mechanisms of the UN Human Rights System. It is noted that Sri Lanka has received many special mandate holders in the recent past, along with a suggestion that a standing invitation to all such mandate holders be issued. Sri Lanka has maintained a record of openness and constructive engagement in this connection. Over the years Sri Lanka has not hesitated to invite special procedure mechanisms even under difficult circumstances brought about by the grave threat of terrorism. These include in the recent past visits by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons, Walter Kälin, and the Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak, who were received by the Government of Sri Lanka during the later part of 2007. Furthermore, we had visits by UN dignitaries such as High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Gutteres, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Sir John Holmes and, most recently, Angela Kane the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs. All these visitors have acknowledged the Government’s facilitation and engaged in free and frank dialogue with the Government and other stakeholders. In the context of our policy of constructive engagement, Sri Lanka will consider each request on its merits, and so the question of a standing invitation does not arise.
13. I would also like Mr. President to advert to the question of access and safety of humanitarian workers raised by Ireland, the Netherlands and Canada. The Government of Sri Lanka has taken several measures to ensure the safety of humanitarian workers and give them access to populations in need. We appreciate the work of donor agencies including specialized agencies of the United Nations and local and international non-governmental engaged in humanitarian work benefiting people in vulnerable circumstances. We deeply regret the loss of lives of any of these persons and are determined to do our best to ensure that humanitarian workers are not put at risk by proximity to high risk areas. Restrictions if any are to ensure that these persons are not caught up in the conflict or its fallout. All fatalities and incidents where these workers are harmed in any way are being and will be investigated and any breaches of the law punished. The situation in areas affected by conflict, as you will appreciate Mr. President, is complex and fluid. We need to work together to ensure that humanitarian workers are able to go about their duties without hindrance but without unduly placing themselves in danger. Modalities which involve international, Government and non-governmental parties engaging in an open, constructive dialogue on these issues is essential. The Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance (CCHA), which I chair is just such a modality to ensure that those workers’ activities are facilitated and that any difficulties are resolved to the mutual satisfaction of all stakeholders. I wish to reiterate my Government’s commitment to working with our partners to improve the situation in the future.
14. Permit me, Mr. President, to focus the Working Group’s attention on an important question raised by the United Kingdom and Canada relating to the existence of a political party known as the TMVP, which developed out of a breakaway faction of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam known previously as the Karuna Faction. The TMVP is a lawfully and validly registered political party under the electoral laws of Sri Lanka. They were part of two highly competitive electoral campaigns, the second of which has just successfully concluded with 65.78% of voters exercising their franchise despite the fact that Sri Lanka does not have compulsory voting and notwithstanding deliberate acts resorted to by the forces of terror opposed to the democratic process.
15. It is worthy of note that the government has thus successfully created a conducive environment for democratic pluralism and facilitated the entry into the political mainstream of groups who hitherto resorted to armed violence in the pursuit of a separate State. This constitutes the first step in the realisation of effective devolution of power based on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, as envisaged in the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord signed between the President of Sri Lanka and Prime Minister of India in 1987.
16. The high percentage of voter turnout in the Eastern Province also demonstrates not only an interest in protecting democratic right, denied for two decades by the forces of terror, but also confidence in the commitment of the government to devolve far-reaching powers to the provinces to address the genuine grievances of the people in these areas.
17. Mr. President, it must also be noted that induction of such groups, who have previously resorted to terror, into the mainstream of politics is a gradual process which cannot be achieved overnight. Let me assure you Mr. President that the government is fully committed to the realisation of this objective.
18. This development, which we believe is entirely salutary in the context of re-democratization of the Eastern Province, should not be confused with the existence of armed paramilitary groups. The Ministry of Defence has stressed that the only groups legally able to bear arms in Sri Lanka are the Armed Services and Police. Candidates generally campaigned in the Eastern Province under the protection of armed police officers provided to ensure all candidates’ security. Complete disarming of paramilitaries will take place when normality is restored, sporadic threats from the LTTE die down and democracy takes a firmer foothold. This will take time, Mr. President, as it does all over the world when armed groups are convinced to give up their weapons and enter the democratic fold.
19. It would be opportune at this point to refer to a very important factor confronting States in fighting terrorism. This is the phenomenon of terrorist fund-raising. It is universally acknowledged that such fund-raising, both direct and indirect through so called charitable fronts, provides a vital resource to sustain terrorist campaigns that destabilise democracies and lead to violations of human rights. It is therefore imperative that the international community effectively discharge its obligations in terms of relevant SC resolutions and international conventions by taking effective measures to counter fund-raising efforts in their territories and the transmission of such funds to other States to perpetrate acts of terror.
20. I will now briefly touch upon the question raised by Ireland and Denmark, Mr. President, in respect of the independence of the media. Sri Lanka also believes that a strong, independent and vigilant media is a sine qua non for democracy to thrive. Our Constitution enshrines the freedom of thought, the right to hold opinions and the freedom of expression. Our Courts have gone further in holding that this also encompasses the right to receive and impart information. We are perturbed by the alleged attacks on media workers and especially repulsed by the killing of media workers. The Government in no way condones or endorses any such attacks. The challenges we face are reflected in a decline in our rankings in the World Press Freedom Index from 2005 to 2007. Our rank in the Reporters Sans Frontières’ Index in 2005 was 115 and it has fallen to 156 in 2007. The question from Denmark erroneously states that Sri Lanka’s rank was 51 in 2005. This is, unquestionably, an area we have to focus greater attention on in the future. However, we are of the view that it is incorrect to state that authorities have ignored complaints of alleged harassment. Unlawful attacks against media workers are investigated thoroughly. Sri Lanka has a sound record of media pluralism and at present Government owned or controlled media outlets amount to just over a third of those owned by the private sector. In addition to this, satellite television and the internet, dominated by the private sector, are becoming increasingly popular. The sometimes harsh and intemperate language used by some media outlets in their criticism of Government and the political leadership, and the fact that the offence of criminal defamation is no longer part of our law, demonstrate our commitment to press freedom. But where media workers or any other persons are suspected to be compromising national security and threatening the cohesiveness of the social fabric, such incidents must be investigated and if any laws have been violated prosecutions must ensue. Sri Lanka makes no apologies for lawful action taken against such persons whatever their profession or status may be. We believe our commitment to respect human rights, the rule of law and due process inherent in our criminal justice system adequately provide for the rights of persons brought within these processes.
21. There is a further written question from Ireland relating to human rights defenders. Mr. President, the Government stresses that any unlawful attack against any person will be thoroughly investigated. However where such attacks take place in uncleared areas there are limitations on the ability of investigation by the authorities. In other cases of incidents reported to the competent authorities, complaints are gone into and acted upon. The registration of NGOs is done pursuant to the ordinary laws and regulations of Sri Lanka and any perceived inequity can be canvassed in the courts. The NGO Secretariat of the Ministry of Social Services and Social Welfare is a public body amenable to writ jurisdiction and also the fundamental rights jurisdiction of the ordinary courts of law. The registration and monitoring of NGO activity is a common feature of the legal systems of many countries. We are also working, Mr. President, with NGOs and INGOs and the NGO Secretariat to devise a jointly agreed upon mode of operations for INGOs and NGOs in Sri Lanka.
22. Sweden, the United Kingdom and Canada raised the issue of child recruitment for armed conflict. The Government reiterates the position taken in its national report and emphasizes its zero-tolerance policy supported by strong legislative measures. We are encouraged that the TMVP facilitated the release in April of 39 children held by the paramilitary group known as the Karuna Faction. These children now have access to rehabilitation, vocational training and reintegration which the Government working in close cooperation with international partners – notably UNICEF – stands ready to provide. The Government is pleased to note that UNICEF has recorded a drop of children held by the Karuna Faction from 164 in January 2008 to 76 at the end of April. Unfortunately the figures for the LTTE are not as encouraging. The Government has called on all groups that have used children in armed conflict to cease the practice immediately and to release all minors in their custody. With reference to the allegations against the Armed Forces in relation to child recruitment, I have established a Committee under the Chairmanship of the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice and Law Reforms, which is continuing with inquiries into these allegations. Those who have made these allegations have spoken of strong and credible evidence to back their claim. However to date, despite requests by the Government for this information, it has not been shared, to enable investigations that have been launched to proceed in a positive direction. This also raises the legitimate question of the bona fides of such claims.
23. I will briefly address three questions relating to gross human rights violations – enforced disappearances and extra judicial executions – that have been raised by Sweden and the United Kingdom. Again all complaints registered with law enforcement authorities have resulted in the initiation of investigations. The recent indictment of a former high ranking military officer who is accused of involvement in acts of abduction and disappearance demonstrates the Government’s commitment in this respect. Over 600 cases in the High Court have been initiated by the forwarding of indictments by the Attorney-General against members of the Police and Armed Services for such incidents going back over two decades. The Human Rights Ministry has taken steps to establish a 24/7 hotline to receive information of incidents of arrest, detention or suspected abduction/disappearance and to guide victims or their families to avenues of redress within the criminal justice and human rights protection systems. This event was widely publicized and we are confident that the trilingual service provided will result in substantial improvements in obtaining information into such incidents. This modality will supplement the existing complaints procedures put in place by the Human Rights Commission and the Police. The Special Rapporteur on torture Mr. Manfred Nowak indicated in his report appreciation for the challenges that the Government faces from the violent and long-lasting conflict with the LTTE. He further states that “notwithstanding the difficult security situation the Government is faced with, Sri Lanka in principle is still able to uphold its democratic values, ensure activities of civil society organizations and media, and maintain an independent judiciary”. It is also worth noting that the Police have established a special unit – the Disappearance Investigation Unit – for the specific purpose of inquiring into and launching prosecutions in respect of enforced disappearance. I may add that exhaustive victim and witness protection legislation is now ready for presentation in Parliament, having been recently forwarded by the Supreme Court to the legislature after reviewing it for constitutionality. I can state with confidence that the Bill will be taken up for consideration in early June when parliament is reconvened. We believe sufficient safeguards are built into the proposed legislation that will address the concerns raised by the United Kingdom.
24. In respect of the rights of freedom of religion, Sri Lanka has a non-derogable constitutional provision guaranteeing freedom of religion. This is the standard against which all proposed legislation including anti-conversion legislation is assessed. Legislation inconsistent with the constitutional guarantee must secure a two-thirds majority for passage through Parliament and also gain the approval of the people at a referendum. The question of unethical conversion has been examined by a committee of experts appointed by me to assess the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. The committee is in the process of submitting its report. I wish to also point out that the proposed legislation referred to by the United Kingdom has lapsed and can no longer be considered to be before Parliament.
25. Let me also touch on the question from Canada relating to the ongoing investigations before the Commission of Inquiry investigating alleged serious violations of human rights. This question presumes that the Commission has completed its investigation into the two cases mentioned. This is an erroneous assumption. Once the Commission has received all the evidence and comes to a conclusion on the matters before it and communicates its findings and recommendations to the Government, appropriate action to prosecute alleged offenders will be taken within the law with no consideration as to their occupation, rank or status.
26. The question raised by Germany implies some misperception between two distinct institutions and appears to suggest that Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) and the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) were intended to supplement each other. Let me clarify. The SLMM was established in terms of the ceasefire agreement terminated by the Government for the reason that it was observed in the breach by the LTTE. With the termination of the CFA the SLMM automatically ceased to exist. Conversely the IIGEP was the outcome of an attempt of the government to synthesize the domestic inquiry process with an international observer group with a defined mandate with respect to specific cases in order to ensure the observance of international norms and standards. It would be evident therefore that the mandate of these two mechanisms were specific and not of a general nature to monitor human rights. It is regrettable that IIGEP has withdrawn voluntarily due to misperceptions of their mandate. The government for its part will not resile from its commitment to ensure the smooth functioning of the Commission of Inquiry in order to complete its mandate. We have every confidence in our national institutions in the discharge of their functions. What is currently required from the international community is assistance for capacity building as identified in our national report.
27. Finally, Mr. President, with regard to the submission of all pending Treaty Body reports, let me announce that Sri Lanka submitted the Common Core Document together with its initial report under the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, last month.
28. The initial report of Sri Lanka under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict and the combined 2nd, 3rd and 4th Periodic reports under the Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights will be submitted this week.
29. Other pending reports to be submitted under the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, International Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, International Convention Against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child are being finalized and all these reports will be submitted this year.
30. I thank you, Mr. President, and members of the Working Group for your patience. I look forward to the interactive dialogue and my delegation and I will respond to issues you raise or comments you make. Let me again reassure you of Sri Lanka’s commitment to the success of the UPR process as a whole and the development of the Human Rights Council into the truly global forum on human rights that it was formed to be.
|Last Updated ( Tuesday, 24 June 2008 )|
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