The lack of accountability at all levels remains the fundamental human rights problem in Sri Lanka, according to the latest report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk on the island nation.

The Rights High Commissioner wants the international community to undertake further targeted sanctions such as “asset freezes and travel bans against those credibly alleged to have perpetrated gross international human rights violations or serious humanitarian law violations.”

Lack of accountability marks Sri Lankan governmental actions, the report emphasises. “Whether it refers to war crime atrocities, post-war emblematic cases, torture and deaths in police custody, excesses in crowd control, corruption and the abuse of power, Sri Lanka suffers from an extraordinary accountability deficit that, unless addressed, will drag the country further behind.”

The High Commissioner’s report is to be presented to the 54 th. session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to be held from September 11 to October 6 in Geneva.

While acknowledging that the Sri Lankan government has been addressing the country’s economic problems and alleviating the miserable conditions that prevailed in 2022, Volker Turk’s report warns that unless issues of accountability in regard to war crime atrocities, post-war emblematic cases, torture and deaths in police custody, excesses in crowd control, corruption and the abuse of power, are addressed, the country will be dragged down further.

“The High Commissioner urges the Government and Sri Lankan political parties to strive for and deliver on long overdue democratic renewal, deeper institutional reforms and tangible progress on accountability, reconciliation and human rights.

“This would be particularly appropriate in a year that marks both the 75th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence and the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” the report states.

While financial support from international institutions and structural reforms are important steps to bring the economic crisis under control, it is equally essential that the burden of reforms does not fall unequally upon some segments of society, it adds.

It recommends “robust safety nets and social protection for the most vulnerable from the negative spill-overs of economic restructuring.”

Importantly, it states that it is “vital to address the underlying factors in the crisis, including corruption, centralization of power, lack of accountability.”

On the question of ethnic and religious reconciliation, the report calls for accountability on the part of the government. “Accountability remains a crucial element of any genuine reconciliation agenda. Any new transitional justice measures, including a truth commission, must meet international standards and the expectations of victims and their relatives to deliver lasting gains.”

While the responsibility for addressing rights violations through credible investigations and prosecutions is principally that of the Sri Lankan government, “the international community can play an important complementary role, including through supporting relevant criminal justice investigations and prosecutions, the use of universal jurisdiction, and consideration of appropriate targeted sanctions against persons credibly implicated in serious human rights violations,” the report states.

It recommends that international donors “assess any potential human rights impact of international financial assistance programmes and take preventive measures to reduce it to the minimum.”

“As a matter of priority”, the Sri Lankan government should create an environment for a successful and sustainable transitional justice process. This should include ensuring full, free and safe participation of victims, witnesses and civil society.

The government should end all forms of harassment and unlawful and arbitrary surveillance against victims and witnesses and support initiatives to acknowledge and memorialise the experience of victims.

Any truth-seeking process should be developed through broad-based consultations, the report states. It should comply with international norms and be complemented by an independent ad hoc special court.

The Sri Lankan government should strengthen the Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations to their full potential, and adopt institutional and other measures preventing rights violations in the future.

The government should undertake a comprehensive security sector reform, including the reduction of military spending, vetting, and the use of the military for civilian duties.

On gender discrimination, the report states that all necessary measures should be taken to increase women’s participation in political life, including in decision-making regarding the economic crisis, at the national, provincial and local levels.

The government should ensure the 25% quota for women’s representation in local government institutions, combat harmful stereotyping, and protect politically active women from harassment and violence.

The report asks the government to review practices in departments dealing with archaeology, forestry, irrigation, and other services regularly in order to avoid land disputes between ethnic/religious communities. Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims have clashed over archaeological diggings and building of shrines in the Eastern Province.

The government should ensure that new legislation replacing the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) complies with Sri Lanka’s international law obligations. There should be a strict moratorium on the use of the PTA, the report urges.

Government should also expedite the release of those detained and imprisoned for a long period under the PTA.

The report demands the acceleration of investigations and prosecutions in emblematic cases of human rights violations, such as the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, in compliance with international human rights standards, with international assistance, and ensure the full participation of victims and their representatives in the process.

The report demands free and fair elections at all levels of government. Elections have been postponed indefinitely in Sri Lanka citing adverse economic conditions.

The Rights High Commissioner wants the international community to “explore further targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans against those credibly alleged to have perpetrated gross international human rights violations or serious humanitarian law violations.”

It also wants the international community to support Sri Lanka in the investigation of economic crimes that have an impact on human rights and in the tracing, recovery and return of stolen assets, and in ensuring that returned assets are allocated in an accountable, transparent and participatory manner that contributes to the realisation of human rights.

The High Commissioner recommends to all United Nations agencies, funds and programs operating in Sri Lanka and to international financial institutions, that they take into account Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations with regard to economic, social and cultural rights and pay special attention to issues of accountability, governance and diversity when negotiating or implementing support programs.

The Human Rights High Commissioner’s report has some valuable data on the grim economic situation in Sri Lanka.

The report states that pricing and access to essential imports stabilised in the second half of 2022, despite the economy contracting 7.8% for the year. Projections from the IMF suggest that the economy will continue to contract by 3.0% in 2023.

Inflation has eased from its peak of 69.8% in September 2022, with growth in the Colombo Consumer Price Index slowing to 6.3% over the year to July.

However, the crisis has resulted in a dramatic increase in the poverty rate, which the World Bank estimates to have doubled from 13 to 25% between 2021 and 2022, creating an additional 2.5 million poor people. The poverty rate is forecast to rise to 27.4% in 2023, and remain above 25% for the next few years.

Food insecurity remained a major barrier for the enjoyment of human rights. Thirty- seven per cent of households were estimated to have faced acute food insecurity in November 2022, and 86% of Sri Lankan families were buying cheaper, less nutritious food, eating less and in some cases skipping meals altogether.

Poverty in urban areas has tripled in recent years. While agriculture for self-consumption has provided a safety net for some in the rural areas, it has often come at a cost in terms of lost revenue from selling crops, and overuse of natural resources.

UNICEF expects the number of malnourished children to rise further following the economic crisis, with more than 2.3 million children in need of humanitarian assistance.