By Dharisha Bastians Reporting from Geneva
The Government of Sri Lanka faced tough questions from the UN women’s rights watchdog in Geneva yesterday, as it presented its four yearly periodic report and pleaded with the Committee to acknowledge advances and improvements on the condition of women in the country.
“By all means push us and if we are not doing enough, you are free to say so,” Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva told experts on the UN Committee for Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). “Help us to do things faster, be constructive, that is my plea to you,” he said, urging Committee members not to “impute motives” to shortfalls in the Government’s reform agenda.
Ambassador Aryasinha complained during his submission that the many advancements made especially in the past two years on women’s rights was not being given sufficient weightage by the committee. “The processes and difficulties are not acknowledged,” he said.
The Sri Lankan Government delegation faced a barrage of questions from the UN treaty body about steps taken to demilitarise war-affected regions, the return of women’s lands being held by the military, the repeal of Article 16 that preserves the validity of oppressive personal laws that contravene constitutional protections against discrimination and steps taken to address sexual and gender-based violence.
CEDAW experts noted ‘mounting frustration’ about the pace of progress on reforms, during the question and answer session. “We encourage the Government to seize the momentum and have the political will to implement reforms,” CEDAW Expert Pramila Patten told the Lankan delegation. CEDAW experts raised question even about the hybrid special court to try war crimes, recommended by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, specifically asking the Government delegation if a gender component would be included in the court.
Patten also asked the Government delegation what action had been taken to address impunity, for sexual violence and atrocities committed during the final stages of the war, highlighted in the Channel 4 documentaries and corroborated by UN experts.
In response to questions on how the Government was addressing sexual violence perpetrated by the military, Ambassador Aryasinha drew the attention of the Committee to a series of directives by the Ministry of Defence in 2016, which he said instructed the tri-forces commanders to warn their troops of strict action against armed forces personnel committing such crimes.
“Any instance to us is one instance too many,” the Sri Lankan Envoy to the UN told CEDAW. “We urge those who have evidence of these crimes to make that evidence available to the Government,” he added.
Congregating in the corridors and lobbies of the Palais des Nations, the UN building where the committee on women is meeting, Sri Lankan women’s rights activists were dismayed by the Government’s approach to questions posed by CEDAW experts. The activists expressed grave disappointment about the Government delegation’s unpreparedness to deal with questions being posed by the committee on key issues facing Sri Lankan women.
Kumuduni Samuel from the Women and Media Collective told Daily FT that the Government had engaged in an attempt at “window dressing” at the CEDAW meeting. “The delegation read from prepared written texts without really answering anything – and falling back on action plans that have not even been properly adopted,” the women’s rights activist complained.
Others were equally critical.
The Sri Lankan Government’s submissions before the UN Women’s committee had been a lesson in how to “obfuscate, confuse, undermine and buy time, without doing anything for women on the ground,” said activist and researcher Chulani Kodikara.
Kodikara, who was also a senior researcher on the Government appointed Consultations Task Force on reconciliation mechanisms that held public hearings around the country, said that the CEDAW committee was quite a conservative body. “But even CEDAW noted that the Government was just referencing a plethora of action plans and displaying a lack of political will,” she added.
Activists said that the CEDAW meeting was supposed to be a constructive dialogue with the state. But Samuel noted that the composition of the Government delegation itself was disappointing, because many of the officials on the delegation were not working directly on women’s rights work in Sri Lanka.
The Government dispatched an all female delegation for the 66th Session of CEDAW, even sending its Ambassador to South Korea Manisha Gunesekera, a career diplomat with experience in multilateral fora to Geneva to participate. Ambassador Aryasinha was the sole male official on the Lankan delegation.
The CEDAW Committee heard submissions from the Sri Lankan Government Delegation led by Secretary to the Women’s Affairs Ministry, Chandrani Seneviratne. Members of the Government delegation outlined progress made on women’s rights, pointing several times to the National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP).
The Action Plan had special provisions to incorporate provision of the CEDAW convention.
“The absence of a special law on women does not detract from the constitutional measures and legal framework already in place,” Deputy Solicitor General Ayesha Jinadasa told the Committee yesterday. Jinadasa said the new constitution currently in its drafting stages would include a section on women’s rights in the fundamental rights chapter.
The delegation made a specific reference to personal laws, including the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act that has been the subject of recent debate in Sri Lanka. “The Government is mindful that certain personal laws are discriminatory toward women, including the Kandyan Law, Thesawalamai and Muslim marriage law,” DSG Jinadasa said.
The review of Article 16 that allows laws like the MMDA that contravenes sections of the constitution to exist, had been recommended in the NHRAP, the Government said.
On several occasions, the Government delegation acknowledged the work left to do on women’s rights, especially pertaining to access to justice and women’s representation in politics.
“Women obtained the franchise in 1931 and Sri Lanka produced the world’s first female prime minister, but women’s representation in legislative bodies leaves much to be desired,” Ambassador Aryasinha acknowledged.
The Government was also taking steps to address problems with access to justice and services by women in the North and East, the delegation told the committee. The Police Department was in the process of recruiting 200 Tamil speaking police officers and 2,000 Sinhalese speaking female police officers were also being given Tamil language training to enable their deployment in the war-affected regions, Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Samantha Jayasuriya told the women’s rights committee.
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is the body of independent experts which monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. CEDAW Committee consists of 23 experts on women’s rights from around the world.