War violations probe is Sri Lanka's decision
Says Prince Zeid who believes victims on all sides
must have faith in mechanism :
Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, United Nations High
Commissioner for Human Rights, may have been relieved that the kind of
Sri Lankan hospitality that his delegation received during his visit
here last week was quite unlike the abusive 'welcome' extended by some
pro-government activist groups and ministers of the previous government
when his predecessor, Ms. Navi Pillay, visited Sri Lanka. Indeed, at the
press briefing in Colombo at the end of his visit, Prince Zeid remarked
on it. Interestingly, the demonstration outside the gates of the UN
compound in Colombo, the venue of his media briefing, was not by a group
against the UN delegation but a group of Sri Lankans who wanted to meet
the delegation and share their human rights issues. In an interview with
the Sunday Observer (also telecast on Rupavahini TV), the UN Human
Rights chief addressed the thorny issue of a 'hybrid court' and
explained that the Geneva Resolution did not stipulate any such
requirement but only made recommendations.
Q. How satisfied are you as the United Nations monitor of the
Sri Lankan process on the progress so far - is Sri Lanka adequately on
track to implement the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Council
A. There has been progress. But, I think that everyone will
say - and I think even the Government would say - that there has not
been positive change at the rate that people would like. There are a
variety of reasons : some of which has to do simply with time.
The Government has only had its current parliamentary majority for
the last few months. And it has been attempting to move these issues
forward in a very difficult political climate. What has happened of
course - and I think that all Sri Lankans feel this - is that there has
been a change and so the expectations have been high as to where this
change ought to lead. And because time is required until we can see all
the pieces coming together, the frustrations are growing.
Q. A major issue, which has a lot of worries in Sri Lanka, is
the so-called 'war crimes' investigation. I note that in your press
conference just now, you clarified that the UN is not using the term
'war crime' to describe the Sri Lankan situation. How far do you think
that that particular inquiry process has gone here? Do you see that the
Government is taking concrete steps in evolving a mechanism for such
investigation and prosecution? And is there a compulsion or fixed
requirement - formally and legally in terms of international law - on
the part of the government under the Geneva Resolution, to meet certain
stipulations in the Resolution for international participation in this
inquiry and prosecution mechanism?
A. The Resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council is a
reflection of Sri Lanka's position more generally to look back at its
past, to examine its past, as a means of opening a new chapter for the
future based on reconciliation, mutual respect and harmony. Then the
international community can fully embrace Sri Lanka and the economy of
Sri Lanka can be given an enormous boost.
In terms of the early steps being taken here, well, there is thinking
being done. Certainly it has to be merged together because there has to
be a consultative process with all the victims' communities.
And out of that, I hope that there will be an examination of the
evidence that we have put together but also what is available to the Sri
Lankan government and then see where deeper investigations merit and
perhaps prosecutions at a later stage. We are at the very early stages
The important thing is that the State is moving in the right
direction. And, however, slow it may seem and frustrating to many, I
think that it is recognised that there is a difference between Sri Lanka
in 2015 and Sri Lanka of only a few years ago.
Q. Does that mean the nature and degree of international
participation by judicial or forensic experts, is dependent entirely
upon Sri Lanka's internal deliberations and consensus or is there a
fixed bottom line stipulated by the Resolution?
A. The recommendation is that Sri Lanka ought to consider
And the belief is that the victims' communities - and we have said
this in our report - will likely not agree on anything else. Ultimately,
it is a decision for the Sri Lankan government to take - in discussions
that it will undertake with all communities.
So, the recommendation from us still remains the same. The position
of the Sri Lankan government has been articulated. But clearly there is
a consultative process that must take place; discussions must take
place; and then the right steps taken.
We feel that, if decades of impunity are reversed, and Sri Lanka does
take the courageous steps to confront its past as the President has said
it would do, we feel that Sri Lanka could really set an example for many
other countries who similarly have been through conflicts or, are in a
post-conflict phase, and are grappling with these particular questions.
And, I can tell you that the reception to the singing of the national
anthem in the two languages was such that it was very warm. I think that
all of Sri Lanka's friends in the international community would, if they
have not already done so, applaud this gesture.
Q. To understand the Geneva implementing parameters more
simply: would you say that, in the internal consultative process of
designing the investigative mechanism, if, among the bulk of the actors,
including the victims, there is a kind of consensus and agreement on
this, then, a largely localised mechanism is feasible?
A. It is all up to what the victims should decide. For anyone
who has a lost a family member in the conflict on any side, if they feel
that in the end there is a mechanism or apparatus that is impartial and
discharging its functions and they have confidence in that then I think
all of us will feel that this is a mechanism that will work and work for
the benefit of all Sri Lankans.
Q. If we look at the charges of gross human rights violations
- and there are enough reports of atrocities - very often,
simplistically, people think that the armed forces must be held
accountable for this. But the armed forces are ultimately the tool of
the State, the political leadership. To what degree does the envisaged
UN process bring into bearing the political leadership of the country
who ultimately take the responsibility in directing the armed forces?
How much should the weight of the accusations lie there?
A. The UN report examined gross human rights violations and we
believe, by going through the evidence available, that there was reason
to believe that it merited further investigation and, that, quite
possibly it met the threshold of international crimes.
In other words, there was sufficient organisation and planning. It is
up to a criminal investigation to make the determinations on individual
So the investigations we made were basically human rights
investigations. We don't go into the actions of individuals. A criminal
investigation will look at individual criminal responsibility and, will
be in a position, at a later stage, to answer the very question that you
have raised as to what level will it reach and, who is ultimately
considered to be responsible. So we are not there yet. The important
thing though, is that there is determination to end the overall culture
Q. You disclosed in your press conference earlier that you had
also met a victim of rape by the armed forces in an incident that goes
back many decades to a previous episode of insurgency and
counter-insurgency about which complaints have been made to the UN Human
Rights Council. Does this mean that in addition to your gesture of
sympathy, there is an openness to violations of human rights going
A. The mandate that I have is not time-bound. We look at
violations throughout the world that can go back in historical terms as
The point that I made in meeting this lady is that her personal
experience is so real and so immediate for her. It would suggest that
once Sri Lanka starts to engage with its past - however difficult some
of it is going to be - those people who have long been waiting for
answers will have them honoured and there will be some relief and
Q. With regard to the reconciliation process: have you looked
at the political processes also under way for constitutional reform that
will also address the larger issue of settling the ethnic conflict? Is
that part of your mandate?
A. Some of the gestures of reconciliation such as the singing
of the national anthem in two languages - I hope that these are not just
a passing thing and will become permanent.
We did not really go in to this in any detail because we are a human
rights office and there are other bodies in the UN family that deal more
with such political matters. But we did have a brief discussion and I
listened very carefully, but I am not privy to the details of
negotiations that may ensue.