20 June, 2024


The Role Of Civil Society In Sri Lanka’s Universal Periodic Review

By Kirsty Anantharajah

Kirsty Anantharajah

Kirsty Anantharajah

Sri Lanka’s game playing at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) during its first two reviews in 2008 and 2012 tested the ability of this human rights mechanism to achieve its aims and maintain the integrity of its principles, including objectivity and transparency. This post explores how the proactive participation of civil society pushed back against the rights ritualism displayed by the Sri Lankan state at the UPR.[i]

These analyses are particularly relevant to the Sri Lankan state, which is approaching its third review next year: Sri Lanka will be facing the UPR with a new government at its helm. Reflections on Sri Lanka’s previous two reviews must also communicate to Sri Lankan civil society its crucial role in human rights regulation through the UPR.

Narrating history

In both its reviews, Sri Lanka attempted to gloss over and conceal aspects of the nation’s recent experience of civil war, an ongoing rule of law crisis, and its peoples’ experience of human rights violations. The contributions of civil society through stakeholder submissions to the UPR provided a much needed alternative perspective.

Sri Lanka’s first review occurred in the temporal landscape of civil war that raged from 1983-2009 between Sri Lankan forces and the Tamil militant group the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE).

In its national report, Sri Lanka discussed constitutional and legislative measures facilitating racial equality, however, it avoided detailing the human rights situation on the ground. The stakeholder submissions stepped into this void, and laid the foundations for a more transparent review. According to the stakeholders, this temporal landscape was characterised by violence and discriminatory practices that targeted the nation’s ethnic Tamil minority. An increasingly endemic culture of ‘disappearances,’ torture and extra-judicial killings combined with growing state impunity marked the human rights situationduring this period. Sri Lanka’s first UPR cycle occurred in the later stages of this conflict. In its submission, a stakeholder expressed its fears, cautioning worse times ahead for Sri Lankan peoples:

…violations are likely to escalate further given [the] government’s failure to address impunity, increasing political interference of the government in the judiciary and other organs of the state, repression of dissent and ever more excessive powers to the security forces.

These concerns came to fruition during the final offensive of the civil war. This began only months after Sri Lanka’s initial review and concluded in May 2009. According to many stakeholders, this short period saw over 40 000 civilian deaths, and grave breaches of human rights law, humanitarian law and international law. A stakeholder’s submissionreflects the indiscriminant nature of the military offensive: ‘it made no difference between combatants and civilians.’ Another key feature of this offensive was ‘the repeated military action against Tamil people in the “no fire zones” established by the Government.’

Referring to this same offensive in its second national report, Sri Lanka congratulated itself for its victory over the LTTE. The final offensive was termed a ‘humanitarian operation,’ and the state detailed the ‘human rights focus’ of this military offensive. The report declared that ‘the humanitarian operation ensured for the people of the North and East their right to live in dignity and restored democratic freedoms. Sri Lanka blandly asserted that it had maintained a ‘zero civilian casualty policy.’

Sri Lanka’s second review occurred in the aftermath of its civil war. Submissions to Sri Lanka’s second review noted a continuing deterioration of human rights following the war. Torture and sexual violence against women by Sri Lanka’s security forces occurred against a backdrop of state impunity; enforced disappearances persisted; freedom of speech and human rights defenders were under serious attack; and discriminatory practices continued.

In its second report, Sri Lanka declared that the state had ‘achieved peace and social tranquillity’. In response to the international community’s concerns about disappearances perpetrated by the state, Sri Lanka declared: ‘the Police report a relatively good rate of success in tracing missing persons.’

Sri Lanka maintained a consistently self-congratulatory narrative in its provision of information to the UPR, and it was predominantly the UN and civil society organisations that provided the mechanism with a counter-narrative and information capable of shining a light into the ‘darkest corners of the world.’

 Follow up

The ongoing monitoring of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka by civil society highlighted the state’s inflated or false declarations of achievement.

Sri Lanka’s practice of demonstrating human rights progress by gesturing towards its complex bureaucracy and various special administrative bodies in its reports was confronted by civil society:

the standard response of the Government in the face of criticism of human rights abuses has been the creation of a multiplicity of ad hoc institutions, committees and commissions of inquiry, which…have done nothing to deter violations.

As a further example, Sri Lanka’s second national report made claims of successful de-militarisation:

with the…gradual restoration of normality, the strength of the military in the North has been reduced considerably. The present strength in the Jaffna Peninsula is approximately 15,000… The military is no longer involved in civil administration in the North and East.

These proclamations were directly contradicted in the stakeholders’ report:

[the] Northern province of Sri Lanka was under intense militarization…in the Jaffna peninsula, there are some 40,000 army personnel, a ratio of approximately 1:11 of military personnel to civilians. The situation in Vanni is much worse with the ratio reportedly being 1:3. The military has been given key civilian administrative positions, including the Governors of the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

 Truth telling

Sri Lanka’s adherence to a self-congratulatory narrative that was littered with jargon and falsities challenged the UPR’s principles of transparency and objectivity. But several instances of ‘truth telling’ by NGOs provided powerful support for these principles. Sri Lanka’s review highlights the ability of the UPR to empower and give voice to civil society, even in situations where its voice is not encouraged domestically.[ii]

The truth telling facilitated by civil society at the UPR somewhat countered the ritualistic participation of the Sri Lankan state. By comparison with the cynicism behind ritualistic engagement, truth telling can be a powerful public ritual with ‘the potential to curb the scourge of impunity, restore dignity to survivors, and contribute to the elusive possibility that such crimes will never happen again.’[iii] This role of truth telling is endorsed by survivors of the violence in Sri Lanka. A resounding theme in the testimonies of victims of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka is the desire to have their experienced recognised: ‘I want the UN to know … what I have gone through.’

One powerful moment of truth telling occurred during the plenary session following Sri Lanka’s second review. Dr Manoharan, a Sri Lankan citizen, was given the opportunity by Amnesty International to address the UPR and the Sri Lankan delegation. He gave an account of the brutal extra-judicial killing of his son and his friends in Trincomalee.[iv] Dr Manoharan was visibly emotional; his loss of composure provided voice to other accounts of indignity and suffering experienced by many Sri Lankans. He was able to address his account to not only the international community but also to high-ranking state officials: this is not a situation that could have conceivably occurred domestically. Dr Manoharan’s personal account invigorated the UPR’s rituals and formalities, highlighting the importance of truth telling in human rights forums.

The civil society push back against Sri Lanka’s game playing at the UPR demonstrates that this mechanism has the potential to facilitate truth telling. This should instill a level of optimism in early assessments of the capacity of the UPR to promote transparency and objectivity.

[i] For a discussion of ‘rights ritualism’, see Hilary Charlesworth, ‘Swimming to Cambodia: Justice and Ritual in Human Rights after Conflict’, Australian Yearbook of International Law, Vol. 29 (2011), 1-16, and Hilary Charlesworth and Emma Larking, ‘Introduction: The Regulatory Power of the Universal Periodic Review’ in Charlesworth and Larking (eds), Human Rights and the Universal Periodic Review: Rituals and Ritualism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014, 1-21.

[ii] The UPR has exposed a culture of intimidation and violence against human rights defenders, journalists, etc.: Human Rights Council, Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review Sri Lanka, 8th sess., UN Doc. A/HRC/8/46 (5 June 2008)

[iii] Nicola Henry, ‘The Impossibility of Bearing Witness: Wartime Rape and the Promise of Justice’ (2010) 16 Violence Against Women 1098, 1098.

[iv] UN Web TV, Consideration of Sri Lanka UPR Report 38th Meeting 22nd Regular Session Human Rights Council <Http://webtv.un.org/search/consideration-of-sri-lanka-upr-report-38th-meeting-22nd-regular-session-human-rights-council/2227262871001?term=sri%20lanka>

*Kirsty Anantharajah – Centre for International Governance and Justice, Australian National University.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Hello there Kirsty,

    I am going to say something that is going to shock you.

    However, before that I want you to do me a favour. I am going to attach a speech from the founder of the current Tamil narrative in verbatim.

    Please read it here.

    http://dh-web.org/hrsits/SJV1949.html – The address to the ITAK by Samuel J. V. Chelvanayagam, 1949, Maradana, Ceylon.

    So uncle Chevla is opposed to the idea of Ceylon being a unitary state. He gives the following reasons.

    Before the advent of the European nations to Ceylon on the 16th century, the people of this Island had their own governments. But a fact that must give rise to deep thought on our minds is that for a number of centuries preceding the advent of the Portuguese, the people of Ceylon had divided themselves into two nations; the Singhalese speaking nation and the Tamil speaking nation.

    … A Unitary Government with present composition of legislature and structure of executive totally unacceptable to the Tamils. In the absence of a satisfactory alternative we demand the right of self-determination for the Tamil people.

    – SJV Chevanayagam

    So the entire Tamil political formation in Sri Lanka even at present is motivated in their endeavors over the assertion above.

    Messrs, Wigneswaran and Sambandan and all his followers have articulated their position and their manifesto reflects the above.

    However, as you can see below 16th CE Jaffna and the East is predominantly Sinhala people.


    So the entire 60 year Tamil struggle has no validity.

    The reason people demand accountability is so that past mistakes are not repeated.

    Given the ITAK mistake over 60 years, don’t you think they should be held accountable? They should be held accountable for misleading Tamils and giving a dead rope to Prabakran.

    All human rights violations that affect Tamils can be directly traced to the Maradana speech I have given above.

    You yourself will have to account for the actions you take some day. So make sure you stand on solid grounds from now on.

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  • 3

    Kirsty Anantharajah

    You need to read more Human rights business. It is funded mostly by western govt. They want us to change the society in a way even they don’t have and they never expect to do so. they are simply looking political instabiloty, anarchy and uncivilized people. Because people very selfish and they don’t think about the country.

    So, don’t use the pen irresponsibly because you need employment or you enjoy it.

    So, please think about others too.

    UN has become highly politicized. that will change very soon most by members leaving the organization.

    • 3

      “”It is funded mostly by western govt. “”
      fasist gay skinhead.
      What in the world is not funded by westerners??

      your very survival is or you die of starvation.

      When even 80% of EU security is funded by western America

  • 3

    Quite right Sri Lankan people that will keep the country on track – not the corrupt politicians, nor civil society NGOs which are colonized by corrupt politicians and/or international donors who violate human rights in other parts of the world..!

    Corrupt politicians have made a mockery of accountability for war crimes and financial crimes. Indeed, while civil and political rights violations have reduced after 2009, Economic crimes of corrupt political caste of parasites on the body politic has increased massively.

    Yet, IMF and international donors who pull the stings of so called Civil Society NGOs turn a blind eye to financial crimes of Rani-Sir jarapalanay regime which is impoverishing the masses, and enabling the corrupt politicians who play Divide and Rule of the masses to ferment ugly Racism against minorities again..
    Sri Lanka will prevail despite its corrupt politicians and international donor driven civil society as long as India,China and US keep their hands off!
    It is India that is finally to blame for setting fire to ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka and the ensuring 30 year war that killed Rajiv Gandhi in classic BLOWBACK – let us not forget.

  • 2

    When you say ‘civil society’ do you include the sons, daughters, mothers, fathers who suffered violence at the hands of the LTTE?

  • 3

    Kirsty is one of correct information of problem Tamil people in North and East.

    North and East that there are long time Tamil people lived for years. Sri Lanka Tamils never came from South India but they came from Eelam Tamil.

    Sri Lanka must go to Hague for International Criminal Court for chargers War Crimes and genocide of Tamils people live in North and East. Take Mahinda Rajapska, Sarath Foneska and Gotabaya Rajapska all go to electric chair by Hague for responsible for War crimes and killing of LTTE surrendered!All of three people include War criminal ranks Army Commanders are evil people and destroys of Tamil people lives in North and East.

    LTTE is freedom fighters and seperate Tamil homeland in North and East which is protects for Tamils people lives in North and East. Now there is no protects Tamils people in North and East. SL army is drug trafficking, cannabis, alcohols to Tamil youth get a destroys life in the future. Sinhalese people wants destroys Tamil people and all Sinhalese people are evil and devils!

    I don’t see why they should kills all LTTE leaders because they are great leader and protects for Tamil people. SL ordered kill them because they are Tamil and terrorist.

    In Sri Lanka Sinhalese people calls LTTE is terrorist organized. In Tamil Diaspora and Sri Lanka Tamil people calls Sri Lanka is terrorist organized so both are completely different behavior!

    Sri Lanka goverments are responsible bombs targets on Tamil village and that why LTTE suicide bombers target on Sinhalese village in anywhere. It is make fair! If Sri Lanka goverments don’t bomb on Tamil village that LTTE will not bombs target on Sinhalese. All Sri Lanka governments are evil and terrorist Sinhalese leaders people who are not respects Tamil people!

    At the present, over 70% Tamil people do not have a jobs because SL discrimination of Tamil people due to ethnic and racism. Sri Lanka governments doesn’t improvement with Tamil livehood in Tamil homeland.

    Buddhist monks are being rebuilt in North and East for get a destroys Tamil culture and risk of violence between Tamils and Sinhalese.

    South of Sinhalese homeland!! North and East is Tamil homeland.

    Tamil diaspora do not want return to Sri Lanka due to Sinhalese. Until Tamil Eelam referendum then Tamil diaspora will returns and bring a peaceful and improvement economy and no longer racism or discrimination.

    Don’t call LTTE is terrorist so I call Sri Lanka is terrorist I am Tamil!

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  • 0

    austrlia is studying this kind of Crap in order to retain their hedegemony over Asian countries. But, if the consider the world politics sinc the ancient times, they should understand even the Roman Kingodm,which is western, vanished not because of reing influences, but their own mistakes. They hit the walls because they could not change. australia is killing aboginies and trying to dominate the world withtheir “five eyes” strategy. but, they decline to understand the reality.

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