25 March 2014 | Anne-Kathrin Glatz

Can the UN Human Rights Council get Sri Lanka to take its commitments to its citizens seriously?

This week, the UN Human Rights Council will vote on the draft resolution: Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka. Representing the concerns of the tens of thousands of current and former IDPs, IDMC attended the council and asked why recommendations created and adopted by the government two years ago on its IDPs have yet to be implemented.


[UPDATE 27.03.2014 15:00] On 27 March the council adopted the resolution on Sri Lanka with 23 votes in favour, 12 against, and 12 abstentions.

The carefully constructed image of peace and economic stability in the north and east of Sri Lanka belies a very different reality for tens of thousands of current and former internally displaced people (IDPs). Not only does the military continue to control much of civilian life, but the efforts of humanitarian and development workers to improve the situation of those most in need have also been hampered by administrative hurdles and procrastination.

A worrying trend towards authoritarianism

The current debate at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva has, in recent weeks, highlighted concerns regarding an increasingly authoritarian approach taken by the Sri Lankan authorities. This has resulted in more and more democratic institutions and processes becoming dysfunctional. One of the consequences of this is how Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim citizens are unable to obtain justice or accountability for the abuses they suffered during and after the war, including, for example, the loss of land or tenure rights because of the conflict, or the disappearances of family members.

Last week, IDMC attended the council and was invited to speak at a side event organised by the International Movement Against all Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR). Representing the concerns of tens of thousands of current and former IDPs, the large majority of whom belong to the Tamil and Muslim minorities, we emphasised the importance of a more comprehensive response to their situation which goes beyond physical return, as opposed to the ad-hoc approach that the government has been applying so far. Such a response would include re-establishing processes of justice and accountability in order to help those affected rebuild their lives. In particular, IDMC focused attention to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) as an example of a domestic process going in the right direction, but which has not fulfilled its promises.

Why is the government ignoring its own recommendations on IDPs?

The LLRC was established by President Rajapaksa in May 2010. It faced widespread criticism from the start because it did not constitute a comprehensive and independent inquiry as called for by the UN Panel of Experts. For example, it neglected to inquire into the actions of members of the government or the military during the war. Nevertheless, the LLRC’s final report published in November 2011 contained a number of recommendations that, if implemented, would help to address the problems faced by Sri Lanka’s IDPs and ultimately facilitate an end to their displacement. 

Despite this positive step forward, the government’s National Plan of Action, revised in 2013, failed to include a number of key LLRC recommendations, and the government has since been slow to implement those that were. For example, the LLRC asked the government to assess the needs of Sri Lanka’s long-term IDPs – people who have been displaced for periods of between 6 and over 20 years. They recommended that, together with the UN, the government help those people to return back home in conditions that enable them to re-establish their lives.

More than two years have passed since the LLRC published its recommendations, yet the needs of tens of thousands of people in protracted displacement remain unaddressed. Indeed, according to IDMC’s analysis, those in protracted displacement situations in Sri Lanka suffer numerous challenges including the continued military occupation of their land preventing them from returning; a lack of durable housing; and a lack of options with regards to re-establishing employment or setting up small businesses. Thankfully, last year the government began to plan a Joint Needs Assessment (JNA) with humanitarian and development organisations, which will be carried out in the coming months.

Important to mention however, is that while this is a step in the right direction, this assessment will not cover the district of Puttalam, where tens of thousands of Muslims took refuge when they were expelled from the Northern province by the LTTE over 23 years ago. While the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris, in his speech at the Human Rights Council earlier this month, reaffirmed the government’s commitment to address the needs of this group in particular, the details of how they will do this remain unclear.

Returned IDPs in limbo

The LLRC further recommended that the government give particular attention to the needs of returned IDPs. However, over two years since this recommendation was made, and more than four years since large-scale returns began to take place, tens of thousands among this group still face considerable challenges and remain in a state of limbo, and this despite the fact that they have physically returned to their homes and land.

One issue particularly preventing returned IDPs from truly 'settling' back home is the high military presence in the north and east. Invasive visits and the monitoring of civilians by members of the security forces contribute to a sense of general insecurity, while the military’s economic activities are also barriers to those who have returned who find themselves facing increased competition which either squeezes them out of the market, or prevents them from re-joining it completely. 

Indeed, these activities are in contradiction with the LLRC recommendations, which called for the military to reduce its presence and stop carrying out economic activities. Unbelievably, while the military continues with such activities regardless, the respective LLRC recommendation is marked as 'completed' on the government’s website.

A strong vote is needed

In the current draft resolution the Human Rights Council 'calls upon the Government to facilitate the effective implementation of durable solutions for IDPs, including the long-term displaced.' With Sri Lanka’s track record with regards to implementation, as described above, a strong vote will be needed to push the Government of Sri Lanka to take its own commitments to its citizens seriously, including the LLRC recommendations.  

If adopted, the resolution will send a strong message to the Government of Sri Lanka that it needs to act so that the situation of IDPs in the country matches its rhetoric of 'all is well.'

For IDMC’s recommendations to the Sri Lankan government, see here.

For more information, see IDMC’s page on Sri Lanka.


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