CEDAW 2017: 'New Sri Lanka' slips back into old ways

“Mounting frustration at the slow pace of progress” was how the soft spoken country rapporteur, Yoko Hayashi, politely summed up the mood of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women or CEDAW towards Sri Lanka. This was a Committee that had been planning a full investigation of sexual violence by the Sri Lankan security forces before the Government changed; now members must be wondering why they put it off in favour of interactive dialogue. It’s likely there will be renewed calls for investigation once CEDAW publishes its observations on 6th March.

The questions fired at the ill prepared government delegation were pointed and fierce, requiring tangible details. Several focused on the country’s flagging transitional justice process. Was there going to be a hybrid court with international judges, prosecutors, investigators and other staff? Was the Government going to implement the findings of the consultation task force report and counter statements made by some officials discrediting the report? Has the President signed the law to establish the Office of Missing Persons? There was no clarification, except that at one point the Sri Lankan Ambassador rather desperately claimed the Government had been helped informally by the UN Special Rapporteur on Transitional Justice.

Channel 4 video

Delegates from Sri Lanka repeated the same pre-prepared lines about future plans and familiar excuses about why nothing had been put in place. CEDAW also witnessed the Sri Lankan Permanent Representative to Geneva, Ravinatha Aryasinha, cast doubt once again on the Channel 4 execution film, which shows clearly identifiable soldiers around the bodies of several bound semi-naked sexually mutilated Tamil women. On social media several commentators expressed horror that the Ambassador should revert to the blanket denial of the Rajapaksa regime. Under pressure, the veneer of “the new Sri Lanka” quickly slips back into old ways.

When asked about state intelligence units operating in the north and east with no legal process and perpetrating sexual violence, the best the Government delegation could come up with was that the country was about to recruit 200 Tamil-speaking policewomen for the former conflict areas. There was no explanation about how that will impact on on-going abductions, torture and sexual violence by the military or for that matter CID or TID. Clearly it will not.

Institutionalised violence

Committee member Pramila Patten interrogated Sri Lanka about its witness protection authority. She asked why it contains an alleged perpetrator named in a UN report and a senior government official known to have obstructed investigations in the past, clearly relying on the witness protection report of the International Truth and Justice Project, Putting the Wolf to Guard the Sheep. All the Sri Lankan delegation could do is robotically repeat that there was a National Authority and if anyone had any complaints they could make a request to the aforementioned authority. There was no attempt to engage with the substantive issues.

Typically the emphasis was on procedures and new bodies about to be set up in the future.  One notable absence was any plan for security sector reform. CEDAW asked Sri Lankan how it planned to address the structures and institutional culture that had enabled security force violence against women and there was no reply.

Second debacle

A committee member asked a question straight out of the submission by ITJP – what plans were there to enable thousands of exiled witnesses and victims to testify safely and confidentially by video link up to the future transitional justice mechanisms. At present this has to be done in a Sri Lankan embassy and with a government official sitting next to the witness, which is of course unacceptable to any victim testifying against the State.  The Government ignored this question, except in so far as Ambassador Ariyasinha complained about a certain NGO that had not replied to a letter from the Foreign Minister asking for evidence to be shared.  ITJP tweeted that it had indeed replied and sent two additional letters in 2016 – none of which was answered. JDS understands ITJP has now sent the letters directly to Ambassador Aryasinha by email. That’s one excuse he won’t be able to use again.

This was the second debacle in Geneva for Sri Lanka at a UN committee in four months. In November last year, the Government sent the official who ran the country’s most notorious torture centre at the end of the war to the UN Committee Against Torture. His presence overshadowed the entire event and the Government still has respond to the Committee’s detailed written questions about his role in torture by December 2017.



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.