Civil rights groups have welcomed a UK-led UN resolution on Sri Lanka as a “crucial turning point for justice” for victims of the country’s nearly 30-year-long conflict.
The resolution, which ramps up international monitoring and scrutiny of the country, was passed on Tuesday by the human rights council after the UN high commissioner for human rights warned Sri Lanka could rapidly descend into violence unless decisive international action was taken. Michelle Bachelet expressed alarm over “worrying trends” in the country since President Gotabaya Rajapaksa took office in 2019 and last month told the human rights council the country had “closed the door” on ending impunity for past abuses.
It also mandates the UN human rights office (OHCHR) to gather and preserve evidence for future prosecutions and make recommendations to the international community on steps they can take to deliver on justice and accountability.
Lord Ahmad, the UK’s minister for south Asia, said: “Too many people in Sri Lanka are still waiting for justice more than a decade after the civil war ended, and the human rights situation is getting worse. The adoption of a UK-led resolution at the UN human rights council sends an important signal to Sri Lanka that progress on justice, accountability and human rights cannot wait.”
Hilary Power, Amnesty International’s representative in Geneva, said it was a “significant” move.
“Years of support and encouragement to Sri Lanka to pursue justice at the national level achieved nothing. This resolution should send a clear message to perpetrators of past and current crimes that they cannot continue to act with impunity.”
Amnesty has published several reports condemning Sri Lanka’s refusal to address historic crimes and the deteriorating human rights climate.
The real impact of further monitoring and reporting will rely on other UN member states using the resolution as a basis for “concrete action”, Power said, including investigations and prosecutions under universal jurisdiction and possible referral to the international criminal court.
“We urge Sri Lanka to engage constructively with the OHCHR, to implement the recommendations of the report and to allow full and unfettered access to the country. Failing this, the human rights council may take more robust action, including the establishment of an independent accountability mechanism.”
Amnesty estimates 60,000 people disappeared during the 30-year conflict, which ended in 2009.
Melissa Dring, director of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice, described the resolution as an “important step forward”. She welcomed in particular the strengthening of OHCHR to enable the gathering of evidence of human rights violations, but said the resolution did not go far enough. Dring said: “It doesn’t quite meet the demands of the Tamil community and diaspora, who want to see Sri Lanka and individuals accused of mass atrocities to be referred to the international criminal court.”
The resolution, which was led by the UK, along with Canada, Germany, Malawi, Montenegro and North Macedonia, follows what Bachelet described as “insurmountable barriers for victims to access justice” at the national level and the “inability and unwillingness of the government to prosecute and punish criminals”.
As the resolution was being negotiated, Sri Lanka continued to issue blanket denials and reject the findings and legitimacy of the UN report.
Rajapaksa, who was defence secretary when his brother Mahinda was president from 2005–2015, oversaw the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009. During that period, unlawful killings and forced disappearances were widespread. Since 2020 he has appointed dozens of serving or former military and intelligence personnel to key posts. Some are senior officials implicated in alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final years of the civil war, according to Bachelet’s report.
Last year, the Sri Lankan government said it would no longer honour its commitments to a consensus agreed in 2015 to ensure truth, justice, reparation and an accountability mechanism for past abuses.
Despite high overall rates of vaccinations in the US, more and more Americans are getting infected with the new, rapidly spreading ‘delta’ variant of the coronavirus, once again testing the limits of hospitals and reportedly sparking talks about new mask-up orders from authorities.
The rapidly increasing number of new COVID-19 cases in the US caused by the more infectious delta strain of the virus is frustrating the Biden administration, as the problem draws attention and resources away from other priorities that the White House would like to concentrate on, the Washington Post reported, citing several anonymous sources. Among the problems that the administration reportedly had to de-prioritise are Biden’s infrastructure initiatives, voting rights, an overhaul of policing, gun control and immigration.
The White House reportedly hoped that the pandemic would be gradually ebbing by this time, allowing it to focus more on other presidential plans. Instead, the Biden administration is growing “anxious” about the growing number of daily COVID-19 cases, the newspaper sources said. The White House press secretary indirectly confirmed that Biden is currently preoccupied with the pandemic the most.
“Getting the pandemic under control [and] protecting Americans from the spread of the virus has been [and] continues to be his number-one priority. It will continue to be his priority moving forward. There’s no question,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on 22 July.
The administration had reportedly expected new outbreaks in the country, but not as many as they’re seeing. Current analytical models predict anything between a few thousand new cases and 200,000 new infected daily, the Washington Post reported. Washington also fears that daily deaths might reach over 700 per day, up from the current average of 250. However, the White House doesn’t expect the pandemic numbers to return to their 2020 peak levels.
At the same time, the Biden administration is trying to find scapegoats to blame for the current shortcomings in fighting the coronavirus pandemic in the country. Namely, Biden last week accused the social media platform of failing to combat the spread of disinformation on COVID-19 and thus “killing people”. The statement raised many eyebrows since many platforms mark COVID-related posts and insert links to reliable sources of information regarding the disease and the vaccination efforts aimed at fighting it. The White House also hinted that the Republican-controlled states became the main sources of new COVID cases, while often underperforming in terms of vaccination rates.
Sierra Leone has become the latest African state to abolish the death penalty after MPs voted unanimously to abandon the punishment.
On Friday the west African state became the 23rd country on the continent to end capital punishment, which is largely a legacy of colonial legal codes. In April, Malawi ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, while Chad abolished it in 2020. In 2019, the African human rights court ruled that mandatory imposition of the death penalty by Tanzania was “patently unfair”.
Of those countries that retain the death penalty on their statute books, 17 are abolitionist in practice, according to Amnesty International.
A de facto moratorium on the use of the death penalty has existed in Sierra Leone since 1998, after the country controversially executed 24 soldiers for their alleged involvement in a coup attempt the year before.
Under Sierra Leone’s 1991 constitution, the death penalty could be prescribed for murder, aggravated robbery, mutiny and treason.
Last year, Sierra Leone handed down 39 death sentences, compared with 21 in 2019, according to Amnesty, and 94 people were on death row in the country at the end of last year.
Rhiannon Davis, director of the women’s rights group AdvocAid, said: “It’s a huge step forward for this fundamental human right in Sierra Leone.
“This government, and previous governments, haven’t chosen to [put convicts to death since 1998], but the next government might have taken a different view,” she said.
“They [prisoners] spend their life on death row, which in effect is a form of torture as you have been given a death sentence that will not be carried out because of the moratorium, but you constantly have this threat over you as there’s nothing in law to stop that sentence being carried out.”
Davis said the abolition would be particularly beneficial to women and girls accused of murdering an abuser.
“Previously, the death penalty was mandatory in Sierra Leone, meaning a judge could not take into account any mitigating circumstances, such as gender-based violence,” she said.
Umaru Napoleon Koroma, deputy minister of justice, who has been involved in the abolition efforts, said sentencing people on death row to “life imprisonment with the possibility of them reforming is the way to go”.
Across sub-Saharan Africa last year Amnesty researchers recorded a 36% drop in executions compared with 2019 – from 25 to 16. Executions were carried out in Botswana, Somalia and South Sudan.
The European Commission announced it is on track to share some 200 million doses of vaccines against Covid-19 before the end of the year. It says the vaccines will go to low and middle-income countries. “We will be sharing more than 200 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines with low and middle-income countries by the end of this year,” said European commission president Ursula von der Leyen.