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Minister Samarasinghe addresses the Human Rights Council at Sri Lanka’s UPR

Madam President,


Distinguished Delegates,


It is my privilege and pleasure to share with the 14th Session of the UPR Working Group information and perspectives on the action taken to promote and protect human rights in Sri Lanka in the period since our first review in 2008. It has been our consistently articulated position that, in the particular circumstances and context of the Sri Lankan situation, the UPR process provides the best opportunity to raise questions and seek clarifications about the evolving situation in the country.


What we had hoped for earlier this year was time and space for Sri Lanka to complete the work of its domestic process that was in train in the post-conflict phase. In March, we stated that the upcoming UPR would prove to be the ideal platform to discuss all aspects of interest and concern, and today we appear before you to fulfill that pledge. A country’s human rights situation cannot be assessed in isolation and should be examined in the context of the realities on the ground. We are ready, prepared and equipped to brief the Working Group and to engage in a cordial and productive dialogue, in a spirit of candour and openness, as to the promotion and protection of human rights in Sri Lanka. We will also engage with the Working Group on our plans and expectations to achieve incremental improvements in the human rights situation in the context of post-conflict peace-building, reconciliation and the achievement of normality for all our people.


We appreciate the level of interest shown in the present developments in Sri Lankan– exemplified by the 99 countries that have subscribed to the list of speakers and the 20 countries that have sent in questions in advance. As much as we are here to put forth our perspectives, we hope that, through this dialogue, a greater understanding of the realities in  Sri Lanka will be forged. I appreciate Australia, Cambodia, Canada, Cuba, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ethiopia, Germany, Ireland, Liechtenstein, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Pakistan, People’s Republic of China, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, United Kingdom, United States of America, who have indicated their interest by presenting questions that permit a more focused discussion.


In the course of my presentation and those of my fellow delegates, we will respond to these questions. I would like to take this opportunity to introduce my delegation so that those of our peers participating in this interactive dialogue would be assured that the right people are available to authoritatively answer any question.I look forward to receiving the recommendations that countries may propose and assure you that we will give them our serious consideration.


Madam President,

Let me say a word on our former engagement during the first cycle of the Review and the steps we have taken pursuant thereto. In May and June of 2008, I was privileged to lead the Sri Lankan delegation to its initial UPR. We received many recommendations, a majority of which we were able to agree to. We were forthright in informing our interlocutors as to those with which we could not agree. We also made several voluntary pledges in keeping with our national goals and priorities. That UPR presented Sri Lanka with the opportunity of taking a structured and holistic view of human rights in the country. This was true of the internal and external dimensions of human rights. Internally, we were able to take stock of our strengths and the challenges before us. Externally, we were able to better coordinate and communicate our achievements with our friends and partners.


The chief positive that we can draw from that engagement in 2008 was the formulation of the National Action Plan for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (NHRAP). This was one of our principal pledges, made in keeping with the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action of 1993. Firmly based on our national plans and priorities, we took into account the recommendations accepted and the pledges made, recommendations of treaty bodies and special procedure mechanisms in devising this plan. We commenced work almost immediately thereafter to draft the Action Plan. Civil society representation was invited and co-opted into the exercise. Finally, senior officials reviewed the Action Plan and I presented it to the Cabinet which granted its approval in September 2011. In December, the implementation strategy was also approved by Cabinet including institutional arrangements for coordination and monitoring. It was an extensive, time consuming process, but one that we are satisfied with. Our civil society partners were fully involved – having near equal representation on the drafting committees. Government focal points were also extensively consulted prior to obtaining final approval. We have been engaged in the initial stages of implementation during the past 10 months and will be able to undertake a review towards the end of the year. It is also important to acknowledge that, although we received some initial material support from the UN Country Team in Sri Lanka, we ensured that the preparation and implementation of the Action Plan is a nationally driven and nationally owned exercise.


Madam President,

Several delegations have raised questions as to implementation of this National Action Plan which we call theNHRAP. It addresses 08 thematic areas, viz., civil and political rights, economic, social, and cultural rights, children's rights, labour rights, migrant worker rights, the prevention of torture, women’s rights and the rights of IDPs. I am happy to share specific examples of implementation which we have achieved in the course of this year so that our friends and peers would be able to appreciate our clear commitment towards the promotion and protection of human rights in Sri Lanka.  

·        We are preparing draft legislation on occupational safety, health and welfare at work and this is being done by the Ministry of Labour and Labour Relations (under Labour Rights);

·        Directives have been issued by the Police Department to ensure physical safety of persons taken into custody and the provision of access to legal counsel as of right (under Prevention of Torture),

·        the adoption and implementation of a national Trilingual policy as well as the enhancement of scope and reach of national vocational qualification (NVQ) by the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission (under Economic Social and Cultural Rights),

·        accelerated demining and awareness raising among IDPs of risks due to mines and  unexploded ordnance (UXO) (under Rights of IDPs),

·        implementation of the national action plan supporting the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 2005 (under Rights of Women),

·        strengthening capacity to support Child Helpline (under Rights of Children),

·        establishment by the Sri Lanka Police Department of a special unit to combat human smuggling and trafficking (under Rights of Migrant Workers),

·        completion of review and improvement of training syllabus and period of training for police officers on human rights and language training, especially Tamil language training (under Civil and Political Rights). The objective is to ensure that Police officers are conversant with the language when serving in areas in which the majority speak that language.


Madam President,


As you can see we have, in fact, commenced the implementation of the NHRAP and those who raise questions as to the lack of progress may be reassured by these specific examples. We will continue to provide updates to the Council on further progress.


This also outlines the major vehicle availed of to implement the outcome of the 2008 UPR. What must also be borne in mind, is the fact that the 2008 UPR took place at a critical juncture in Sri Lanka’s nearly 3 decade-long war against terrorism. Almost a year earlier, the LTTE had been defeated in the Eastern Theatre and measures to ensure a return to civilian life were being implemented. Soon after the Review, the final phase of the humanitarian operation was launched to rescue the civilians who were being held by the LTTE in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. A sea-change occurred approximately 12 months after the 2008 UPR with the rescue of nearly 300,000 civilians in the month of May 2009. What is of special significance is that our engagement with the community of nations – especially in the Human Rights Council – never lessened in intensity, and we regularly briefed the Council of contemporary developments in Sri Lanka during the most difficult of times during the humanitarian operation.


Madam President,

Sri Lanka, like any post-conflict polity, faced challenges of a magnitude and scope that were truly daunting. The housing and maintenance of hundreds of thousands of civilians, restoring security, law and order, clearing of vast tracts of land contaminated by UXO including IEDs and landmines, restoring physical, administrative, economic and social infrastructure, preparing people for resettlement, identifying ex-combatants for rehabilitative care, the transition from humanitarian assistance to a development phase, all while maintaining a stable economy and sustainable growth in the rest of the country, were just some of the tasks that the Government had to contend with. At the same time, we were not complacent but tried our utmost to prevent and forestall acts of destabilization from within and outside the country. There are still some elements that support the LTTE’s cause of dismemberment and separation of our island nation. We are aware of these initiatives and will defeat them by our ongoing strategy of re-democratization, reconciliation, reconstruction and development.


Madam President,

Conflict touches the lives of everyone. When armed conflict continues for as long as 30 years – as it did in Sri Lanka – it affects generations of people. It is for this reason that the Government has placed such primacy on non-repetition of the mistakes of the past and on genuine reconciliation. No one who lived through the conflict would want their children or their children’s children to experience what Sri Lanka collectively experienced in the past 30 or so years. We are aware that reconciliation is not an easy exercise, nor is it one that can be achieved overnight.


Some of our friends by way of questions posed have indicated a desire to see a more comprehensive approach taken with regard to the allegedly disappeared. The UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearance (WGEID) has long engaged with successive Governments to clear a longstanding backlog of 5,679 cases. I must note that many of these cases (over 4,000) date back over 20 years to the pre-1990 period. A further 1,089 date back to the 1991 to 2005 period. The remaining number lays to rest the canard of an increasing trend in disappearance in the recent past.


We are working to establish a cross agency national mechanism to clear this backlog. A working committee has been established to respond to cases of disappearances and a Deputy Inspector General of Police appointed to conduct ground verifications of such cases to ascertain the present status.  A special piece of legislation to enable the issuance of death certificates to next of kin was put in place and next of kin can claim monies due to them and obtain secure a substantial  degree of closure.


As a part of implementing our responsibilities, the Government submitted its response on 59 cases of disappearances recently brought to its attention by theWorking Group. Another set of 100 cases referred by the Working Group has been verified and submitted. Initial investigations have revealed that nearly 50% of the cases have not been complained of to law enforcement. Further investigations are being conducted on the remaining allegations communicated by the Group.  I must note that a comprehensive addressing of this challenge would be greatly facilitated if countries that have received thousands of asylum seekers would cooperate with us by giving us the names of such persons of Sri Lankan origin so that a proper comparison with the allegedly missing can be done.


One of the questions we received has  pointed out  that the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has recorded 230 cases of disappearances in 2011. However, if recourse is had to the National Report of Sri Lanka, detailed information as to complaints of allegedly “missing persons” and “persons abducted” in 2010 and 2011 may be accessed. This information is presented together with the remarkable success rate of the Sri Lankan authorities who have resolved a great many of these supposed disappearances. The total number of persons reported allegedly missing in 2010 was 7,940 out of which 6,653 have been found. The corresponding numbers for 2011 are 7,296 reported and 5,185 traced. In 2010, the number of persons allegedly “abducted” was 225 of whom 207 were later traced. The number of allegedly abducted in 2011 was 239 of whom 226 have been traced. Outstanding allegations must and will be thoroughly investigated and any offenders brought to book.


Madam President,

On another question received, in Sri Lanka, the freedoms of association, thought, conscience and expression receive constitutional recognition. Our civil society has a long history of persons who have advocated for the rights of victims, the disadvantaged and the marginalized. Persons can canvass for the protection of these rights before courts of law. Civil society activists at all levels, have freedom to jointly or in association with others form non-governmental organizations and community based organizations. Organizations established as trusts, voluntary social service organizations or as private companies. They may seek registration at the national level if they require further facilitation by the Government. This registration is not mandatory. The allegations of intolerance or attacks against these organizations or their leadership - in verbal or other form - emanate from time to time. I must state with the utmost firmness that these alleged attacks are no part of Government policy to stifle criticism, activism or dissent. Neither does the Government condone any such attacks. As far as civil society activists who wish to engage with the Government is concerned, in general, they are a valued partner in the implementation of the NHRAP and we will work closely with them.


Madam President,

Several countries have also sought clarifications as to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and the implementation of its action plan published in July this year, pursuant to a decision by the Cabinet of Ministers. The President, His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa, appointed the LLRC in May 2010 in order to strengthen the national reconciliation process and to ensure the dividends of peace to all Sri Lankans. The Cabinet of Ministers in May 2012 decided that a Task Force headed by the Secretary to the President would monitor the implementation of the recommendations of the LLRC. In July, a matrix containing the National Plan of Action to implement the LLRC recommendations developed by the Task Force and presented to Cabinet was approved setting out the main focus areas for implementation.


Madam President,

You may recall that the primary focus of the ill-conceived March 2012 Resolution in this Council was the implementation of the LLRC Report. Long before the adoption of the Resolution, we assured the Council that we are committed to the implementation of the domestic process by way of an action plan and that we should be given time and space to achieve this objective. We have fulfilled our commitment with a clear time frame for implementation which is in process as we speak.


The main focus areas are IHL Issues, Human Rights, Land Return and Resettlement, Restitution/ Compensatory Relief and Reconciliation. The Task Force has identified a corresponding activity, an implementing agency, a key performance indicator and a time frame in respect of each recommendation. I must reiterate that the action plan and its implementation is being spearheaded by the most senior officials of the Government. Ministries and agencies have been requested to forward their budgetary requirements to aid in the implementation of the actions within their purview, commencing with the national budgetary process for 2013.


Several thematic sub-committees functioning under an apex task force is envisaged for better coordination and implementation. Some countries have expressed concerns that only some proposals have been included for implementation. It must be pointed out that 285 was the sum total of observations and recommendations of the LLRC. There was some duplication in Chapter 9 of the LLRC report. Moreover, some of the recommendations fall under the ambit and scope of the NHRAP.  The Action Plan is based on what is implementable in the short, medium and long terms, and the overall recommendations are further sub-divided on a thematic basis into policy and practical matters. The 4 main sub divisions relate to-

·        National Policy;

·        the final phase of the conflict;

·        recommendations related to Human Rights and National Security concerns; and

·        recommendations related to re-settlement and development


Certain matters of broad national policy in the Action Plan are to be referred to the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee.


Madam President,

Several questions received by us on the LLRC Action Plan asked for specific examples ofcompletion or substantial progress on activities . Like the NHRAP we are happy to share with our friends actual implementation since its approval by Cabinet in July 2012. The implemented areas so far are as follows:

·        Devising a centralized database of missing persons;

·        Implementing the Registration of Deaths Act (2010);

·        Creating a centralized database of detainees and make access available to next of kin;

·        Screening detainees to identify those with special needs;

·        Examination of cases of young ex-combatants, release and reunification with families;

·        Establish a task force to develop and implement a child tracing programme;

·        Ensure freedom of movement for media including in the North and East;

·        Remove restrictions on visiting places of worship;

·        Allow visitors from overseas to visit recently resettled areas; and

·        Free movement of persons on Kandy-Jaffna A9 Highway.

Hence the suggestions that only part of the recommendations are addressed, and the critique that there is no progress in implementation, is without basis. We will of course as in the case of the NHRAP continue to update the Council on further progress made.


Madam President,

  Further progress has been made in relation to the recommendation made on the treatment of ex-combatants. As of 22 October 2012, 11,012 persons, which included 594 LTTE child soldiers, have been rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. Of the approximately 12,000 persons identified as ex-combatants and  provided rehabilitation, as of 22 October 2012, only 782 beneficiaries are undergoing rehabilitation, and 262 are under judicially mandated custody (remand). Action is underway to expedite the legal proceedings. If this is not clear progress, I fail to understand what is.


Another important recommendation of the LLRC that we have done our utmost to implement is the rapid and sustainable resettlement. Sustainability is of prime importance in this context and resettled persons must be provided with “durable solutions” which means that people who return must be able to lead normal productive lives, equal or better to the life they led pre-displacement. The closure of the last IDP welfare centre in Menik Farm by 24 September resulted in our having to deal with only those IDPs who reside with host families and those in protracted situations of displacement. While our focus has been on the nearly 300,000 IDPs we received after their rescue in 2009, we have also paid due attention to the “older caseload”. As at the beginning of October our record of total resettlement was 501,194 persons. Among the remaining caseload are the Muslim residents of the North who were forcibly evicted by the LTTE in 1990/1991 numbering in the tens of thousands in pursuance of their policy of ethnic cleansing. Thousands of Sinhalese were similarly evicted by the LTTE. We are clarifying the remaining number of displaced of every category and will put in place programmes of resettlement for all those who wish to return. To aid in the process of resettlement  the total number of houses constructed in the Northern and Eastern Provinces up to September 2012, one hundred and twenty four thousand one hundred and eighty four (124, 184) at a cost of Rs. Billion 33.34 from 2005. Needless to say we are justifiably proud of our achievement. This is another example of implementation of a recommendation of the domestic process.


Madam President,

Sri Lanka’s rapid progress in resettlement would not have been possible without the intensive humanitarian demining operation. It is a matter of pride that a vast majority of the work has been completed, at considerable  risk  by the Sri Lanka Army. Initially, it was suspected that mines had been laid in an area of more than 5,000 square kilometres. Demining such a vast area was a formidable challenge that the Government unhesitatingly undertook immediately after the conflict ended. At present, 2,061 have been identified as hazardous areas. The area cleared is over 1,953 sq. km. The scale of the problem the Government faced in demining can be clearly seen from the number of mines and other devices unearthed and neutralised during the demining process. Over 900,000 hazardous devices have been recovered. These include anti-tank, anti-personnel and IEDs amongst the recovered UXO. As of 25 October 2012, about 98% of the areas identified for demining have been cleared and approximately 108 square kilometers of territory remains to be cleared. This data refers to 10 Districts in all including 3 in the East, 5 in the North and 2 in the North Central Province. Further demining will enable the remaining contaminated areas to be used for resettlement.


The Sri Lanka Army was responsible for demining approximately 75% of the land which was the largest single area assigned to any of the parties involved in demining and included most of the densely mined regions. The entire demining programme was carefully planned and executed. Priority areas were chosen to maximize efficiency and enable the speedy return of the displaced. The first was to demine towns and villages; the second, to demine agricultural areas and paddy fields; and finally to clear forested areas. Presently, nearly all of the two main priority areas have been dealt with. Work only continues in a few areas where the concentration of mines is at its highest. Many of these are places where heavy fighting took place during the last stages of the conflict. It is our aim to completely clear these in the near future. I ask the question once again: isn’t this progress?


Madam President,

As we pointed out in our National Report, special emphasis has been given to regulating the activities regarding the management of land in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.  The Ministry of Land and Land Development has decided to resolve the land disputes in these areas by implementing a special programme. Cabinet approval has been received for policy proposals relating to the matter. It is proposed to set in place mediation boards in terms of the Mediation (Special Categories of Disputes) Act to resolve disputes between owners who have paper title and have been displaced and those of them who are in unlawful occupation as an alternate dispute resolution mechanism. Furthermore, an amendment to the Prescription Ordinance is presently being considered whereby displaced or disadvantaged owners of land will be exempted from the rules of prescription during a period of 30 years so as to enable them to defeat any competing claims based on the lapse of time. 


Madam President,

With regard to matters of accountability and the allegations as to the violations of humanitarian and human rights law, the LLRC in its report clearly states, that protection of civilian life was a key factor in the formulation of Government policy for carrying out military operations, and the deliberate targeting of civilians formed no part of that strategy.

We have pointed out in our national report that the Government has already carried out a series of measures which will enable firm and verifiable conclusions to be arrived at on issues involving accountability, without any element of conjecture or speculation. If reliable evidence is available in respect of any contravention of the law, the domestic legal process will be set in motion. I must stress that these are Sri Lankans and our Government is determined to make a full accounting for our people. As no comprehensive census has been carried out in the Northern Province since 1981, the Department of Census and Statistics was charged with the task of making an enumeration of vital events in the Northern Province and this task was completed in 2011. Critical for socio-economic and development planning, the enumeration, followed by an island wide census in 2012, will provide an accurate picture of patterns of deaths, outward migration within and outside the country, caused by the conflict and other reasons. A comparison of the population data from the enumeration and from the island wide census will enable the Government to gain an understanding of the magnitude and ramifications of the conflict. Causes could include LTTE cadre killed in action, cadre and civilians who escaped the conflict and migrated to other parts of the country and/or overseas, civilians likely to have been killed in the crossfire, civilians killed by the LTTE while seeking to escape from their control, false reporting and reported deaths that did not occur during the period of the humanitarian operation. The outcome will finally and conclusively lay to rest the unfounded allegations of ‘tens of thousands’ of civilian deaths alleged to have occurred in the first five months of 2009. I am sure that you will agree, that this is indicative of a serious and systematic attempt to account for people.


Madam President,

Still on the subject of accountability and responding to questions received, a five-member Court of Inquiry was appointed on 2 January 2012 by virtue of the powers vested in the Army Commander under the Courts of Inquiry Regulations, read with the Army Disciplinary Regulations, promulgated by the Army Act and is headed by a Major General. This Court of Inquiry was tasked with inquiring into the observations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in its report on alleged civilian casualties during the final phase of the Humanitarian Operation and probe as regards Channel-4 video footage.


Since its initial sitting in the first week of January 2012, as of October 2012, the Court of Inquiry has  convened approximately 30 times and has examined many witnesses. It should be noted that the Court is investigating more than 50 incidents referred to in the LLRC report. Investigations cover whether or not any attacks were carried out  by the Army on civilians, on hospitals or in the no-fire zones including the specific instances referred to in the LLRC Report. Irrespective of whether the Channel 4 story is authentic or not, the Court of Inquiry has been mandated to take measures to ascertain whether the uniformed persons featured in the Channel 4 footage can be identified as members of the Sri Lanka Army, and other violations of military law, if any.