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Sri Lanka tells UNHRC
Statement by Mahinda Samarasinghe, MP, Minister of Plantation Industries and Special Envoy of the President on Human Rights, leader of the Sri Lankan delegation to the 19th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council High Level Segment on February 27 in Geneva
I am honoured and privileged to be able to once again share with this august body, Sri Lanka's experience in promoting and protecting the human rights of its people, in accordance with universally accepted standards. In the two years and nine months since the end of the armed conflict against terrorism and the onset of peace, Sri Lanka has made significant progress towards recovery and achieving reconciliation, by incrementally overcoming many challenges posed to the nation and its people by almost 30 years of conflict. The rollback and eventual abolition of emergency regulations in August 2011, in tandem with the gradual improvement in the country's law and order situation in the post-conflict phase, has led to further consolidation of peace. It has also demonstrated to the world Sri Lanka's genuine aspiration in its approach to achieving a peace that is stable and sustainable.
Terrorism that ravaged our nation for nearly three decades adversely affected not only our people, their livelihoods, property and infrastructure; it also damaged the social fabric of our nation. The reconciliation process set in motion by the Sri Lankan government has therefore necessarily taken into account a range of factors including economic development, rehabilitation and resettlement and livelihood development in addition to addressing the need to provide a sense of finality among those who suffered trauma and the loss of loved ones.
In my statement to the Council last September, I urged that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, must be given the time and space to complete its mandate. We continued to brief the international community in Geneva of the interim recommendations made by the LLRC and the measures taken by the Inter-Agency Advisory Committee on their implementation. As you know, the Commission has now delivered on its mandate and submitted its report, including a series of recommendations, to the President of Sri Lanka. The Report was submitted to Parliament by my ministerial colleague and Leader of the House Nimal Siripala de Silva, who is here with me in Geneva today, on December 16, 2011, together with the government's position on the recommendations contained in the Report. Concurrently, the Report was made public.
In our view, the Report contains a detailed and perceptive analysis of past errors, including those that led to the failure of the peace process, and several recommendations for the future. The Report is comprehensive and contains detailed annexes, compiled following interviews with over 1,000 persons who gave evidence before the Commission, and over 5,000 submissions received. The proceedings were largely open and persons testified freely and openly before the Commission in public hearings unless exceptional circumstances required in camera proceedings. This was quite different to the Secretary-General's Advisory Panel which held closed door hearings with unnamed witnesses who were guaranteed 20 years anonymity to secure their statements. This meant that the testimony could not be verified or tested for its probative value.
The LLRC report, on the other hand, places before us material of the basis on which the Commissioners arrived at their conclusions, which are substantive and verifiable. The Commission has dealt with and made recommendations on a whole gamut of issues including aspects of accountability - something which several of our partners and interlocutors have failed to acknowledge; the resettlement of IDPs; the rehabilitation and re-integration of ex-combatants, the detention of suspects; bringing an end to the possession of unauthorized weapons; the deployment of security forces; land issues; issues with regard to restitution; implementation of the language policy; socio-economic and livelihood development; administrative issues; and on the need to arrive at a national consensus with regard to fulfilling the legitimate aspirations of all communities living in Sri Lanka.
I am happy to observe that advances have been made with regard to many of the recommendations in the Report. The government will continue to address these issues in a systematic and thorough manner. Some of the areas in which gains have been made include the resettlement of IDPs; demining; rehabilitation of ex-combatants; implementation of the language policy; the recruitment of Tamil speaking police officers; the removal of the military from facilitation of civil administration in the north making available land previously used for security purposes for resettlement/return; and carrying out a comprehensive census in the Northern and the Eastern Provinces. There are also other recommendations in the Report which need to be comprehensively addressed.
High Security Zones
In particular, the Commission's recommendations about the formulation of a land use plan for each district in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and, as a longer term initiative, the establishment of a National Land Commission for the country as a whole, require further study and careful planning. A pragmatic initial step towards resolving issues related to state land ownership has already been adopted by the government though in a more modest form. The initiative aimed at the construction of over 78,000 houses in the North, including those built under the North East Housing Reconstruction Programme (NEHRP) constructed with donor assistance. A Land Task Force was established at provincial and district levels to deal with land issues and to seek expeditious solutions, and is further evidence of our efforts. I may also add that the government is firmly resolved to ensure that all those who have been dispossessed of their lands, are afforded the opportunity to return to the lands they once owned.
In relation to livelihood support, a self-employment loan scheme has been put in place in the North and East and to date thousands of beneficiaries have been apportioned USD 318 million. Moreover, beneficiaries were provided with Enterprise Development Services (EDS) including the establishment of organizations for the self-employed.
With regard to the lands under the former High Security Zones of Palaly and Trincomalee-Sampur, the Commission has acknowledged that the area covered has significantly diminished in terms of both land area and restriction of movement. With regard to the re-demarcation and reduction of the former High Security Zones to aid resettlement, the process was initiated prior to the Commission's Report, which therefore recognized that the area had diminished significantly. By the end of the conflict in 2009, the High Security Zones (HSZ) covered 4,098.36 Ha and, at present, has been reduced to 2,582.45. The government will closely monitor and expedite making lands, previously used for security purposes, for resettlement/return.
International Humanitarian Law
You may have noted that the Commission offers detailed observations and recommendations on International Humanitarian Law issues relating to the final phases of the conflict. The Report endorses the position that the protection of civilian life was a key factor in the formulation of policy for carrying out military operations, and that the deliberate targeting of civilians formed no part of it. This was and remains the position of the government. I wish to inform this Council that an enumeration to ascertain the number of persons in the Northern Province and to scientifically identify the number of persons who lost their lives in the conflict, is now complete and a detailed analysis will be made known in the near future. Due to the unlawful presence of the LTTE, no proper census could be carried out since 1981.
Among the people not accounted for and classified as deceased, we count people killed as a result of the conflict, including those who carried arms for the LTTE, civilians killed by the LTTE as they tried to flee from the hostage situation, persons caught in the crossfire and people who migrated out of the Northern Province, either to the South and who left by sea to India or other countries seeking asylum. We need the assistance of receiving countries to ascertain how many persons they have admitted. As a further step, the government has decided to put in place a structure to further analyse and verify the data gathered in order to arrive at definite conclusions as to civilian mortalities and casualties. One thing is certain: the story of ‘tens of thousands’ of civilian deaths that supposedly occurred during the final phase of the humanitarian operation, is very clearly proved to be a gross exaggeration and a deliberate misrepresentation of fact.
The material placed before the Commission points to several specific episodes which, in its view, warrant further investigation. The government is committed to a mechanism for gathering and assessing factual evidence relating to the episodes indicated, buttressed by a strong investigative arm. The findings thus arrived at will form the basis of a decision on whether criminal proceedings can be instituted. The material yielded by this investigation will be placed before the Attorney-General for a decision in respect of instituting criminal proceedings, where warranted. The Attorney General is currently seized of and is studying the recommendations in the report with regard to allegations of violations of International Humanitarian Law. Military Courts of Inquiry in keeping with international practice have commenced investigations into specific incidents identified by the LLRC.
The mandate of the Court of Inquiry is to investigate, inter alia, civilian casualties and the Channel 4 video footages; including whether any deliberate and intentional attacks were made by the Army on civilians, with a view to causing them harm or damage, or on any hospitals or no-fire zones. If so, the persons responsible for any such activity and to make recommendations with regard to the measures that should be taken with regard to such persons.
Madam President, in respect of the controversial Channel 4 footage, the Court of Inquiry has been specifically mandated to ascertain whether any member of the Armed Forces was involved in the events depicted, authentic or otherwise and to recommend the measures to be taken. A similar Court of Inquiry has been convened by the Sri Lanka Navy to inquire into relevant allegations.
As you can observe, Madam President, Sri Lanka has taken clear and definite steps towards implementation of the recommendations of the domestic process, barely two months after the report was made public. We have evolved a mechanism to look into accountability issues raised in the LLRC report, both in the form of civil and military structures. This is coupled with a time bound plan in the form of the National Human Rights Action Plan catering to a number of other recommendations to move Sri Lanka towards comprehensive reconciliation.
As we have done in the past, we will keep the Council informed of progress when we participate in the sessions in June, September and in the course of the UPR in October. We have already extended an invitation to the High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Sri Lanka. I might add that there is already a senior advisor of the High Commissioner's office working in Sri Lanka from as far back as 2005.
Madam President, in the light of this commitment by Sri Lanka, there is no justification or urgency whatsoever in floating a resolution calling for the implementation of the LLRC's recommendations and engagement with the High Commissioner, when this has already been effectively undertaken by the government. What we now need from the international community is objectivity in assessing Sri Lanka's efforts. More than anything we need ensure that the process is allowed to advance unimpeded. We do not need unwarranted incursions that will compromise successful implementation. Such interference by way of redundant resolutions before this Council, would only undermine the sentiments of this Council as expressed in the decisive adoption of the Special Session resolution on Sri Lanka in 2009.
The number of persons in detention for suspected involvement in terrorist activity has been reduced to 225 out of a total of over 4,000. As many detainees as possible have been released or forwarded for rehabilitation and eventual release. The initiative to draw down the numbers commenced with the interim recommendations of the LLRC. We are still investigating several cases and these persons will be tried before ordinary courts of law in the shortest possible space of time. The Police have adopted stringent guidelines with regard to the treatment of persons taken into custody.
This will have a salutary effect on the allegations of torture and mistreatment. These are also direct follow up activities relating to the recommendations of the Commission.
You will be pleased to observe the establishment of normalcy and the re-democratization of the Northern and the Eastern provinces, including the holding of Provincial Elections in the East, Local Government elections, as well as, restoration of civil administration including the network of 33 divisional secretaries and 912 village level officials in the North.
In keeping with the recommendations of the LLRC, the military has been withdrawn from aspects of civilian life, and are now confined to security-related matters. As a result, development-related work which, during the conflict situation and immediately thereafter, came under the purview of the Presidential Task Force for Resettlement, Development and Security of the Northern Province, is now carried out under the supervision of the relevant line Ministries, in coordination and consultation with the provincial and local government representation. Development activities in the five districts of the North, are channeled through the relevant line ministries and institutions at the central government level; the provincial administration and the District Secretaries at the district level and Divisional Secretaries at divisional level. The District Secretary or Government Agent functions as the Coordinating and Executing Officer of the district.
To be continued