Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination considers report of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka reviewed
16 August 2016
GENEVA (16 August 2016) - The Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on 16 August concluded the examination of the combined tenth to seventeenth periodic report of Sri Lanka on its implementation of the provisions of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
Presenting the report, Ravinatha Aryasinha, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that the new Government of Sri Lanka was committed to provide stability, protect human rights and strengthen democracy. He listed a number of measures aimed at strengthening human rights protection and the rule of law, particularly the introduction of the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution, the recent establishment of an Office on Missing Persons, and current consultations relating to the National Human Rights Action Plan 2017-2021. He referred to past abuses by separatist terrorist groups and said that several issues had remained unaddressed since the end of the conflict in 2009, including violations of human rights and humanitarian law by both sides.
During the ensuing discussion, Experts welcomed the new Government’s commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights in Sri Lanka, but noted that despite efforts, discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities persisted, referring particularly to discrimination against Muslims and against plantation communities. Experts referred significantly to the armed conflict, and asked a number of questions regarding efforts toward truth and reconciliation, as well as transitional justice and reparation for victims. Other issues raised by the Committee pertained to the independence of lawyers, pre-trial detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the application of customary law, hate speech and citizenship.
In concluding remarks, Jose Francisco Cali Tzay, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Sri Lanka, congratulated the Government for its commitment to peace in Sri Lanka, and urged it to pay due attention to the situation of racial discrimination. It was important to take lessons from the past in order to ensure non-repetition, he said.
In his closing remarks, Mr. Aryasinha said that the review had been very helpful for Sri Lanka to understand remaining challenges. Experts’ comments would be fully taken on board, including with the adoption of the National Human Rights Action Plan. He noted with appreciation that Experts had acknowledged the significant change that had recently taken place in Sri Lanka.
The delegation of Sri Lanka included representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Attorney General’s Department and the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
The Committee will next meet in public on Friday, 26 August at 3 p.m. when it will close its ninetieth session.
The combined tenth to seventeenth periodic report of Sri Lanka can be read here: CERD/C/LKA/10-17.
Presentation of the Report
RAVINATHA ARYASINHA, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that the report before the Committee today had been prepared following a consultative process involving non-governmental organizations. In January 2015, there had been a change of leadership in Sri Lanka following national elections. The new Government of National Unity was committed to provide stability, protect human rights and strengthen democracy. An illustration of the Government’s commitment was the recent establishment of an Office on Missing Persons. The Ambassador also referred to the current process of Constitutional Reform with the involvement of a Public Representations Committee and other governmental bodies. The Government’s renewed engagement with the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination was another illustration of its commitment to human rights. Sri Lanka was at present in the process of engaging in consultations for the drafting of the National Human Rights Action Plan 2017-2021, which would address all recommendations to be made by the Committee.
Continuing, Mr. Aryasinha referred to the abuses by separatist terrorist groups during the conflict in Sri Lanka, which had led until 2009 to an atmosphere of fear, anxiety, mistrust and suspicion, despite efforts by successive Governments to reach a political settlement with these groups. Since 2009, several issues remained unaddressed, including violations of human rights and humanitarian law by both sides. Achieving reconciliation among all communities and ensuring non-recurrence were essential for guaranteeing the equal enjoyment of human rights for all people. In the immediate post-conflict period, priority had been given to rebuild infrastructure, restore public order, and re-introduce political structures. There had been no clear effort to ensure reconciliation, while the country had witnessed a deterioration of the rule of law, stifling of media freedom and a confrontational approach with the international community.
Responding to the will expressed by the people of Sri Lanka through the 2015 elections, the new Government had adopted a more positive approach, which had been acknowledged by the international community. The head of delegation listed a number of measures aimed at strengthening human rights protection and the rule of law, particularly the introduction of the nineteenth amendment to the Constitution, which imposed a two-term limit for the mandate of Executive President, enshrined the right to access information, and recognized national reconciliation as a duty of the President. He also referred to a four-pillar mechanism that had been proposed to address truth, justice and reconciliation, to be defined by a Task Force comprised of civil society leaders. Media freedom had been restored, he added, assuring that all restrictions imposed by the previous administration had now been lifted.
The Government of Sri Lanka had continued to take measures to prevent racial discrimination, Mr. Aryasinha said. The National Human Rights Commission had a broad mandate to guarantee fundamental human rights enshrined in the Constitution. A 10-year-old National Plan for a Trilingual Sri Lanka had been launched in January 2012, which aimed at ensuring that police officers in the north had a sound knowledge of the Tamil language. Furthermore, Sri Lanka had continued its engagement with United Nations human rights mechanisms, including Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council and treaty bodies. It had ratified the ILO Convention on Employment Policy, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances. Sri Lanka had also passed a Witness Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act, enforced the Right to Information Act, and approved the issuing of Certificates of Absence. The Office of Missing Persons would play an important role for the achievement of the right to truth and the right to know, he said, recalling the establishment of a Secretariat for Coordinating the Reconciliation Mechanisms.
Questions by the Experts
JOSE FRANCISCO CALI TZAY, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Sri Lanka, started his intervention by recalling Sri Lanka’s recent history, referring particularly to the conflict that had ended in 2009. He welcomed the fact that the new Government had made efforts for the protection of human rights, but noted that discrimination against the Tamil, Muslim and Christian minorities persisted, and that antagonist attitudes continued to take place. He regretted that Sri Lanka’s periodic report failed to address the complexity of the situation on the ground.
Mr. Cali Tzay noted with satisfaction the adoption of the nineteenth Constitutional Amendment as well as the Government’s commitment toward reconciliation, but noted that progress was needed to consolidate the national human rights commission, protect witnesses and abolish capital punishment. It was regrettable that the report did not contain data on human rights violations and prosecutions. The shadow report presented by civil society organizations, together with United Nations resolutions and reports by United Nations human rights mechanisms, offered a very different image of that presented by the Government. These discrepancies were very concerning. The starting point to achieve reconciliation was to recognise errors of the past and address current challenges. Continuing to deny problems would not solve the problems.
During the first round of questions, Experts asked a number of questions regarding transitional justice efforts by the Government of Sri Lanka. They recalled that the cost of eliminating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam armed group had been extremely high, with hundreds of thousands of casualties, and underlined the importance of reconciliation. One of them asked for information on the Task Force in charge of defining the four-pillar mechanism on truth, justice and reconciliation, particularly whether all ethnic groups were represented in it. What forms would reparations take, an Expert asked? Was there any kind of institution aimed at promoting a culture of tolerance and combatting negative stereotypes? An Expert asked how the content of school history curricula was defined and implemented.
Referring to the composition of the Constitutional Court, Experts raised concern about risks of political interference, referring specifically to the removal of judges for politically-motivated reasons. They encouraged Sri Lanka to adopt better provisions ensuring the independence and impartiality of the judiciary, and to ensure that judges were appointed for life, or at least until a certain age.
The National Human Rights Commission could file cases of racial discrimination, an Expert welcomed. How many cases had been filed so far? When would sufficient financial resources be provided to this institution in order to enable it to participate in the sessions of treaty bodies.
An Expert asked what was the position of Sri Lanka regarding accepting the Committee’s competence for receiving individual complaints.
Experts asked some questions regarding the content of the human rights action plan being currently drafted.
A Committee Member regretted the lack of disaggregated statistics to assess the state of racial discrimination in Sri Lanka, including in the areas of education, health, and access to employment, including in the public sector. Were there statistics on the use of languages? It was important to ensure that public services were also provided in the Tamil language, Experts said.
A Committee Member asked what mechanisms were in place for ensuring that political opposition could play its role, including in Parliament. What measures had been taken to ensure the protection of human rights defenders?
An Expert asked about the situation of imprisoned Tamil prisoners since the conflict who were still awaiting trial. Experts were concerned about the 18-month period for pre-trial detention, and raised a number of questions in relation to the application of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Article 9 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka recognised Buddhism as the State’s primary religion, an Expert noted, emphasising the need for all religions to be treated equally. Were Muslims in Sri Lanka considered to be an ethnic minority? An Expert referred to reports that permission for the construction of places of worship were not often granted to members of the Muslim community.
Personal laws, including issues relating to property, marriage and others, were subjected to customary laws, an Expert noted, raising concerns that this could mean that citizens were not equal. Did customary law prevail over domestic legislation or over the Convention?
An Expert was concerned about allegations of hate speech against members of religious minorities, and asked what measures had been taken to combat such a phenomenon?
An Expert asked whether measures had been taken to discourage marriage between adults and minors.
Another Expert regretted the lack of data regarding school attendance by children from plantation communities. The number of physically-impaired children seemed to be very low compared to the number of mentally-impaired children.
A Committee Member asked whether women were represented in the political sphere.
An Expert asked whether members of indigenous communities in Sri Lanka could access education in their own language as well as health services.
An Expert asked what measures had been taken by Sri Lanka in the context of the Decade of People with African Descent.
The lack of citizenship and statelessness impeded the freedom of movement of many people in Sri Lanka, an Expert noted, asking what measures would address this issue. Another Expert asked what the procedures were for obtaining the Sri Lankan citizenship.
Replies by the Delegation
The National Human Rights Action Plan would be comprehensive and detailed, a delegate said. It would outline how to address specific issues, and direct public policies toward a rights-based approach. The plan would be adopted after a widely consultative process involving civil society members, hopefully by October 2016.
Through the establishment of the Office of Missing Persons, the Government had recognised the grief of the families of the victims, and sought to ensure their right to know.
The Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms had been set up, the delegation repeated to illustrate the Government’s willingness to address the issue of reconciliation.
The Government of Sri Lanka believed that indigenous peoples had the right to maintain and safeguard their identity and traditions. They enjoyed the same rights as others, equally, a delegate said. Measures had been taken to ensure that they had access to education that was respective of their culture. They were encouraged to participate in the elaboration of national policies.
The process of elaboration of the National Human Rights Action Plan had already begun, including consultations with various stakeholders. It was hoped that the five-year action plan would be adopted at the end of the year. Recommendations made by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination would be forwarded to the Committee in charge of elaborating the Action Plan. Disaggregated information and data arising from this process would lead to better human rights policies in the future. There were serious lacunae in the statistics system and Sri Lanka was taking steps to improve the situation.
Concerning the plantation community, the delegation said that all Sri Lankans had equal rights, including economic, social and cultural rights. A National Action Plan 2016 to 2020, developed with the support of the United Nations Development Programme, was specifically dedicated to identifying the needs and problems faced by the plantation community. With regard to education, the Government was planning to strengthen science education and to enhance the quality of education in plantation areas through mobile facilities. Early childhood intervention policies were also being developed. In terms of health, the delegation said that progress had been made through policies by the Government, including increasing public health personnel and midwives in the public health system. Housing programmes had also been introduced, with plans to provide each plantation community family with an individual house in cluster villages. The Constitution of Sri Lanka prohibited discrimination in the granting of citizenship, another delegate said, adding that there was a need to examine the historical challenges faced by the plantation community from India on this issue.
In answer to the questions relating to the application of customary laws, a delegate said that customary laws had been in place in the country since before the colonial era. These laws were recognized and codified, and regulated aspects of life such as marriage, inheritance and divorce. Sri Lanka’s legal system was therefore a mix between legislation and customary laws which were constantly monitored and reviewed. Any change of customary law had to change from the communities themselves, a delegate said. Their application was not automatic, but rather a personal choice by the concerned individuals. Specific constitutional provisions recognised and protected customary laws, he added. A special committee had been established to discuss the codification of customary laws governing marriage and divorce for the Muslim community.
The Government was committed to uphold the rights of the Sri Lankan people, including freedom of religion, as recognized in the Constitution. The State had adopted legislation to protect persons from any form of hate speech. The Penal Code contained specific provisions that criminalized deliberate attempts to hurt religious beliefs. The Prevention of Terrorism Act also contained provisions criminalizing hate speech and calls for violence against a specific racial or religious group. The Government was committed to bring the legislation on hate speech as close as possible to the recommendations made by the Committee in its various general comments.
Persons arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act were entitled to all safeguards, including visits by family members, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the clergy and the National Human Rights Commission. The Government was aware that concerns regarding this Act had been expressed, and would take them into consideration. A Special Committee had indeed been appointed by the Prime Minister, and would review Sri Lanka’s counterterrorism legislation, while giving due consideration to Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations and national security imperatives. The National Human Rights Commission had also issued directives on detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, to be followed by detention personnel with a view to ensure that the human rights of detainees were respected.
The Office of National Unity and Reconciliation was responsible for formatting and coordinating national efforts for unity and reconciliation, and preventing ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka. A draft national policy on reconciliation had been finalized, after the Government organized workshops and consulted with relevant stakeholders on that issue.
Considerable attention had been given to the protection of human rights defenders and journalists from minorities, and attacks against them had been significantly reduced since 2015. The Government was committed to engage constructively with civil society organizations, in Colombo or in Geneva, on human rights issues in the country. Human rights defenders from all communities had been targeted in the past, the delegation said. Investigations were currently being conducted on a number of related cases.
Questions by the Experts
Starting a new round of questions, JOSE FRANCISCO CALI TZAY, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Sri Lanka, referred to the current situation of women who had been raped or subjected to sexual violence during the conflict in Sri Lanka. He was concerned that no complaints at all had been submitted in relation to such cases, although this had affected thousands of women. The Law for Witness and Victim Protection had now been promulgated, but there were no funds dedicated to the mechanism that would deal with its implementation on the ground. More generally, he asked about the treatment of Tamil women in the north of the country, including widows.
Continuing, he noted that the Tamil population continued to suffer discrimination, and to lack access to public services in their own language. The police agents in the north of the country for the most part did not speak the Tamil language. What measures had been taken to protect Tamil women from multiple discrimination that they continued to face? Communities continued to live in fear, the Rapporteur said, particularly of the continued presence of the military in the area. Furthermore, he underlined the importance that the Tamil population had access to public places to bury and commemorate their dead, and regretted discrimination against them in that regard, which could constitute an obstacle to lasting peace and reconciliation.
What measures were being taken to ensure that hate speech and incitement to violence against religious or ethnic minorities did not occur? Further, could the delegation provide data on the number of complaints filed in relation to cases of hate speech? What measures had been taken to ensure the protection of places of worship?
The Country Rapporteur asked for information regarding the effect of special measures taken to guarantee minorities’ access to education, health employment and other services. He also asked what specific measures had been taken to protect minority languages, and required data regarding their implementation.
What measures had been taken to resettle internally displaced persons, Tamil refugees and members of the Muslim minority? What was being done to prevent sexual harassment against these persons?
Continuing, the Rapporteur asked whether human rights training was provided to law enforcement personnel, and if so what the effects of such training had been on the protection of minorities from discrimination and abuse.
Mr. Cali Tzay noted gaps in legislative measures, particularly with regard to the independence of the judiciary, and asked what measures were being taken to ensure that there was no longer military interference in this branch.
Another Expert asked for detailed figures regarding the ethnicity of those detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. She noted that this legislation belonged to a particular era, and asked whether the Government was considering repealing it.
Replies by the Delegation
The delegation said that initiatives had been taken to promote tolerance and harmony and to combat hate speech, including intercultural and interfaith dialogues. Steps had been taken to prosecute cases of violence against places of worship. The Government did not condone any form of hate speech or intolerance, the delegation said.
With regard to the independence of judges, a delegate said that every effort had been made to ensure the independence of the Supreme Court. The judiciary had evolved a lot over the past years, he continued.
All were equal under the law, and there was no discrimination against any particular group with regard to detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
Over 235,000 families and 800,000 persons had been successfully resettled since the end of the conflict. Currently, only 44,934 internally displaced persons remained to be resettled, and only around 5,500 of them were living in welfare centres, while the rest was living in host families. The Government was working on providing durable solutions to displaced persons, and was currently in the process of adopting a new national resettlement policy. The safe and dignified resettlement of all was crucial for ensuring durable peace, the Government believed, while also being committed to ensuring a rights-based approach to displacement. Releasing of land was also important, the delegation noted, as it was closely linked to resettlement.
The Government had created counselling programmes to offer support to women affected by the armed conflict. Some 2,000 counsellors had been deployed, the delegation continued. Single mothers could benefit from several livelihood and income projects, some of which were focusing on women living in the north of the country. The Government was determined to end sexual violence.
Questions by the Experts
An Expert noted that challenges remained in relation to access to the Sri Lankan nationality.
The decision to open more schools in the plantation area was welcomed, but Experts wanted to know more about the content of education. What had been done to disseminate information on the Convention?
A Committee member asked what legislative measures had been taken to ensure freedom of the press.
What comprehensive measures were being taken by the Government in order to protect human rights defenders and to ensure that perpetrators of violence against them were held accountable? Experts underlined the key role of civil society in combatting racial discrimination and in the context of truth and reconciliation efforts.
An Expert stressed the need for the delegation to provide the Committee with concrete information and data regarding ethnic groups and cases of racial discrimination, as well as on complaints filed.
Did Indian Tamils have the right to return to Sri Lanka, and, if so, did they have the right to vote? What data was available regarding the implementation of the plan for plantation communities?
Coming back to the issue of past massive rape by the military, an Expert noted that many of the perpetrators were still in place in the north of the country, and underlined the need to appoint newly-recruited Tamil elements there.
Experts reiterated concerns regarding the application of customary laws.
What was the percentage of women working in the civil service?
An Expert said that the Committee did not consider the absence of registered cases of racial discrimination as an absence of racial discrimination in a country, and encouraged the Government to strengthen efforts towards data collection in that regard.
Replies by the Delegation
Any Sri Lankan had the right to return. The Government had re-established the possibility for dual citizenships.
It was true that challenges faced the plantation community. The Action Plan developed by the Government sought to acknowledge and to address those challenges. The Government had not been in office for a long time, and it was hard for it to pursue all the priorities at the same time.
A delegate said that the provisions of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination were well-known in the country, and noted that programmes and activities were in place to provide human rights education.
The delegation said it did not have exact figures regarding the number of women in civil service, but assured the Committee that there were a lot.
In closing remarks, JOSE FRANCISCO CALI TZAY, Committee Member and Country Rapporteur for Sri Lanka, congratulated the Government for its commitment to peace in Sri Lanka, and urged it to pay due attention to the situation of racial discrimination. He welcomed the delegation’s openness, and thanked it for the information it had provided to the Committee. In his view, some important challenges remained. It was important to take lessons from the past in order to ensure non-repetition, he said. The situation of refugees and internally displaced persons, war widows, inter-ethnic violence, reconciliation, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the lack of human rights education were all issues of concern for the Committee.
In his closing remarks, RAVINATHA ARYASINHA, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that the review had been very helpful for Sri Lanka to understand remaining challenges. Experts’ comments would be fully taken on board, including with the adoption of the National Human Rights Action Plan. He noted with appreciation that Experts had acknowledged the significant change that had recently taken place in Sri Lanka.
ANASTASIA CRICKLEY, Chairperson of the Committee, closed the meeting after she acknowledged the new Government’s commitment to human rights and its willingness to bring Sri Lanka forward.
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