In the annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on Sri Lanka, militarization of government functions in the country has been identified as a potent emerging threat to reconciliation, accountability and human rights among many other issues.
“Resolution 30/1 included commitments that would foster an enabling environment for transitional justice and reconciliation, such as ending military involvement in civilian activities, accountability for military personnel, and security sector reforms. Yet, the past year has seen a deepening and accelerating militarization of civilian government functions – which the High Commissioner first reported to the Human Rights Council in February 2020 – particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The report highlights the fact that the government bringing 31 entities on 29th December 2019, under the Ministry of Defense including, the Police, the Secretariat for Non-Governmental Organizations, the National Media Centre, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, the Information and Communication Technology Agency, the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board, the Disaster Management Centre and the Department of Emigration and Immigration.
The UN also emphasizes that appointing military and intelligence personnel to key administrative posts is a red flag that could pose grave danger to reconciliation, accountability and human rights via militarization.
“Since 2020, the President has appointed at least 28serving or retired military and intelligence personnel to key administrative posts and has formed several Presidential task forces with vague, overbroad or overlapping mandates with existing institutions. Some task forces are composed almost entirely of military, intelligence and police personnel. The “Presidential Task Force to build a Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous and Lawful Society” and the “Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province” are both headed by the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, also a General.”
“The Army Commander has headed the COVID-19 response, the military has been tasked with administering quarantine centers and checkpoints, and 25 senior military officers have been appointed as Chief coordinating Officers for all districts to tackle COVID-19. The High Commissioner is particularly troubled that these appointments include senior military officials who have been alleged in United Nations reports to be implicated in alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final years of the conflict, including Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva, as Army Chief and Major General (retired) Kamal Gunaratne, as Secretary to the Ministry of Defence. They respectively commanded the 58th and 53rd Divisions, which were credibly alleged to have committed grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian law during the armed conflict. On 28 December 2020, both officers were promoted to the rank of General.36 In September 2019, the United Nations took the decision to suspend all Sri Lanka’s Army peacekeeping deployments, except where they would expose United Nations operations to serious operational risk.”
The UNHCHR is concerned over the fact that developments over the past year have fundamentally changed the environment for advancing reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka, eroded democratic checks and balances and civic space, and reprised a dangerous exclusionary and majoritarian discourse, the report states.
The report also points out that the social and economic impact of COVID 19 has exacerbated and deepened structural inequalities and discrimination.
The UNHCHR had specified that the political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations as another ground that could terrorize reconciliation, accountability and human rights in the country and had included the controversial arrest of former Director of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), Shani Abeysekara.
“On 31 July 2020, Shani Abeysekara, a former chief of the police criminal investigation division (CID), who led investigations into several high-profile crimes and “emblematic” human rights cases, was arrested on charges of fabricating evidence in a murder case. The HRCSL raised concerns over Mr. Abeysekara’s safety in prison, particularly after he was diagnosed with COVID-19 in November 2020. Another CID Inspector, Nishantha Silva, left Sri Lanka in 2019 fearing reprisals for his lead investigative role in respect of several emblematic cases.”
In the report, The High Commissioner had made several recommendations to the Sri Lankan Government, in order to secure reconciliation, accountability and human rights within the country.
a) Actively promote an inclusive, pluralistic vision for Sri Lanka, based on nondiscrimination and protection of human rights for all, and in line with the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda;
b) Ensure constitutional and legislative reforms address recommendations made by United Nations human rights mechanisms and the resolutions of the Human Rights Council;
c) Publicly issue unequivocal instructions to all branches of the military, intelligence and police forces that torture, sexual violence and other human rights violations are prohibited and will be systematically investigated and punished;
d) Order all security agencies to immediately end all forms of surveillance and harassment of and reprisals against human rights defenders, social actors and victims of human rights violations;
e) Promptly, thoroughly and impartially investigate and prosecute all allegations of gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law, including torture and ill-treatment, and give the highest priority to ensuring accountability in long-standing emblematic cases;
f) Remove from office security personnel and other public officials credibly implicated in human rights violations, in compliance with human rights standards; implement other reforms of the security sector to strengthen and ensure accountability and civilian oversight;
g) Ensure structural safeguards for the Human Rights Commission to function independently and receive adequate resources;
h) Ensure an environment in which the Office on Missing Persons and Office for Reparations can operate effectively and independently; provide both Offices with sufficient resources and technical means to effectively fulfil their mandate; and proceed with interim relief measures for affected vulnerable families with a gender focus, not withstanding their right to effective and comprehensive reparations and rights to truth and justice;
i) Establish a moratorium on the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act for new arrests until it is replaced by legislation that adheres to international best practices;
j) Establish standard procedures for the granting of pardons or other forms of clemency by the President including subjecting it to judicial review, and excluding grave human rights and international humanitarian law violations;
k) Honour its standing invitation to Special Procedures by scheduling renewed country visits by relevant thematic mandate holders; continue engagement with treaty bodies; and seek continued technical assistance from OHCHR in implementing the recommendations of UN human rights mechanisms.