By Chathuri Dissanayake
Giving a damning report on Sri Lanka’s failure to take adequate action against human rights violations during the conflict and amend the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Countering Terrorism Ben Emmerson yesterday warned that the international community is running out of patience and called on the Government to fast-track its reconciliation measures.
“There will be a point that the international community reaches the end of its patience, and then a range of consequences could befall Sri Lanka,” Emmerson said at a media briefing to mark the end of his visit to Sri Lanka.
“The possible range of repercussions is a matter of international diplomacy and predictions, and depends on how far things go and how far along the path it is going. It depends on whether or not it enacts the counter terrorism legislation that meets international standards.”
Emmerson spoke to the media at the end of a four-day visit here during which he met with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Ministers, heads of the armed forces, the Attorney General as well as those detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
He warned the country is at risk of having its newly regained GSP+ facility revoked if significant progress is not observed on the reconciliation front. A host of other restrictions may be imposed on Sri Lanka if the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) commitments are not met, he added.
“Such as potentially increasing the various measures by the Human Rights Council or indeed a reference to the Security Council, there is a range of measures increasing in severity that are potentially available for the international community,” he said.
Emmerson also stressed that the country is being held accountable for commitments made by Sri Lanka. He went as far as calling individuals who seek to characterise them as demands imposed by international community and the UN as “silly, misguided” and said that they lacked in the information that is necessary to evaluate the situation.
“These are not commitments imposed externally, but commitments Sri Lanka undertook,” he stressed.
Emmerson claimed that even after two years on and another four months into the extension period granted, the progress displayed is “slow,” and observed that efforts “seems to have ground to a virtual halt”. He said that steps adopted by the country in fulfilling its commitments which he emphasised were voluntary, “are adequate to ensure real progress.”
“There is little evidence that perpetrators of war crimes committed by members of the Sri Lankan armed forces are being brought to justice,” he said.
Emersson was also critical of the “deplorable delays” in processing the cases of detainees held under PTA, stressing that the Government should take steps to release those held under the PTA act without a trial “on bail immediately, or bring them to trial within weeks or months, not years or decades.”
Stating that torture is “endemic and routine for those in custody”, Emmerson was severely critical of the Government’s lack of progress in repealing the current PTA. The number of features in the proposed legislation to be adopted in place of the PTA also came under severe criticism, including the provision making confessions extracted by a police officer while in custody admissible in court.
Claiming Sri Lanka’s record in torture in custody is one of the worst in the world based on his six years of experience in the current capacity, Emmerson said that the “only means by which counter-terrorism legislation could conform to international human rights standards would be the prohibition altogether of the use of confessions made to the police.”
Critical of the process followed by the Government to draft the new legislation he said that many he spoke to “expressed dismay at the lack of ministerial, parliamentary or public consultation.”
Emmerson also pointed out that the proposed law lacked provisions to deal with modern terrorism trends such as the prevalence of Foreign Terrorist Fighters in this part of the world.
Calling progress made in adopting the new legislation “painfully slow,” which has lead to delays in a wider package of transitional justice measures in the country, he claimed that the situation “reflects the continuing influence of certain vested interests in the security sector, who are resistant to change, and above all, to accountability.”
However, Emmerson commended the undertaking by the Government to engage in a process of constructive dialogue with the team in Geneva in an effort to improve the draft legislation before it is placed before Parliament.
“There is still time to get this legislation right, and for it to become the cornerstone of a new order in Sri Lanka,” he said.
Stressing on the need to support the Government, Emmerson urged different sections in the ruling coalition to unite to achieve goals set in the UN Human Resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka.
“We need now to be uniting behind the Government, all those within the Government who are committed to delivering peace,” he said.
However, he was not confident that the country would be able to deliver its undertaking within the stipulated timeframe. When asked if he would recommend another extension, he said “all of that, we will have to look at at the end of the current extension. But there comes a point where patience runs out.”