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Though govt pledged to implement 55 recommendations at Geneva UPR in 2008 performance has not been satisfactory

By Jehan Perera

In the aftermath of the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva in March of this year where a special resolution on Sri Lanka was passed, Sri Lanka now faces the Universal Periodic Review that commences in October of this year.

A wide view during the 19th session of the Human Rights Council. 23 March 2012. Photo by Jean-Marc Ferré

This is a mechanism that was established by the UN Human Rights Council to review the human rights records of all UN member states. This review is once every four years.

Sri Lanka’s last review took place in 2008 and its next review falls due this year commencing in October. At these reviews the government has to make a presentation as to how it upheld human rights and delivered on the promises it made at the previous review meeting. Non-governmental organizations are also permitted to provide inputs to the UPR process.

The logic of the arrangement to provide for both governmental and non-governmental submissions is to enable a fuller picture to emerge regarding the actual human rights situation prevailing within a country.

Such a full picture is unlikely to emerge from the government’s report alone. Most governments of the world would tend to give uncritical assessments of their performance, not dissimilar to a previous Sri Lankan government that claimed it was a “five-star Democracy.”

Governments also tend to give more priority to issues of national security and national sovereignty, whereas NGOs tend to look at issues of human security and people’s participation in governance. In addition, independent human rights experts, UN agencies and human rights treaty bodies are entitled to make their own submissions.

Unfortunately, at the last UPR review the Sri Lankan government did not involve civil society groups and NGOs in developing its presentation to the UN Human Rights Council. Such consultation would have helped the government to prepare a position in which there was an element of balance. But there was only a perfunctory meeting to discuss the methodology of presentation. Beyond that there was no consultation.

This was not surprising as even within the government system hardly anyone knew, or knows, about the UPR which is delegated to a few individuals who write the report. This is not satisfactory, as the UPR sessions require governments to make commitments on issues of governance that are wide ranging and cannot be taken in a casual manner.

At the 2008 session of the UPR there were a total of 95 recommendations made to the Sri Lankan government by other countries. Among these was one by Canada that called on the government to “Strengthen and ensure the independence of its human rights institutions such as the National Human Rights Commission including through implementation of the17th Amendment at the earliest.”

Others included ensuring that civil society organizations would be included in the follow up to the UPR process (UK), ensuring a safe environment for human rights defenders and prosecuting those responsible for harming them (Poland) and developing the former conflict zones to bring the afflicted communities living there to be on par with those living in other provinces of the country (Bhutan).

All these recommendations were accepted in 2008 by the government, including 55 other such recommendations which it pledged to implement. However, actual implementation has been hardly satisfactory with most government ministries not even knowing what has been promised internationally.

Not long after making the pledge in the 2008 UPR process to implement the 17thAmendment the government effectively nullified it by passing the 18thAmendment which, among other things, centralized the power of appointment of high state officials in the President. Most of the other recommendations are far from happening, such as ensuring a safe environment for human rights defenders several of whom subsequently fled the country. The situation of people living in the conflict zones is a far cry from the normalcy experienced in other parts of the country.

When the government makes commitments to the international community and fails to deliver on them, there is an erosion of trust.

Relationships invariably deteriorate in the absence of trust. There is a danger of broken promises made during the UPR process could lead to other setbacks to the government. The reviews are conducted by the UPR Working Group which consists of the 47 members of the UN Human Rights Council, which is the same group of countries that so recently voted by a large majority against the wishes of the Sri Lankan government.

The attitude that these countries will take towards the Sri Lankan government’s submissions to the UPR will be influenced by progress made by the government in regard to the resolution that was passed on March 22. This resolution called on the Sri Lankan government to implement the recommendations of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.

On the occasion of the 2012 UPR, one of the governmental institutions that are taking on responsibility to make submissions on Sri Lanka is the National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. This Commission began functioning in 1997 and was granted ‘A’ class status on account of the manner of its appointment, composition and mandate that ensured its independence.

However, by 2007 owing to irregular appointments to the Commission that were not in accordance with the17th Amendment, and also its weak performance, the Commission’s status was reduced to B class. It was downgraded to being only an Associate member of the Asia Pacific Association of National Human Rights Institutions and lost its voting rights.

At the 2008 UPR, the Sri Lankan government promised to implement the 17th Amendment and thereby strengthen the independence of the National Human Rights Commission and other state institutions but it was the reverse that happened.

The National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka recently called a meeting of Sri Lankan NGOs to discuss its proposed presentation to the UPR process. The Commissioners who met with the members of Sri Lankan civil society appeared very keen to restore the NHRC to the ‘A’ class status it had enjoyed in the past prior to been downgraded.

The NHRC will be making its own submissions at the UPR process which it affirms will be independent of the Sri Lankan government’s own official submission. If it had ‘A’ class status, the submissions of the National Human Rights Commission would have commanded more weight in the UPR process than it would at present.

Several among the NGOs who met with the National Human Rights Commission were prepared to collaborate with it and share the information and analysis they had. With their international linkages, both in terms of funding and exposure, NGOs are oriented towards working according to international standards.

At the meeting with the NGOs, the members of the National Human Rights Commission indicated that they too intended to work according to international standards and restore ‘A’ class status to their Commission.

The relationship between state institutions and NGOs do not have to be hostile and contradictory. They can work together in partnership on the basis of international standards to which successive Sri Lankan governments have given their assent by signing relevant international treaties and conventions.

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