Sri Lankan civil society in diplomatic talks ahead of review

On 11-15 September 2017, the Civil Society Collective in Sri Lanka and UPR Info, organised a Pre-session week ahead of Sri Lanka’s review in November. With the overall objective to contribute to an increased number of action-oriented, specific and relevant recommendations, the week encompassed two orientation days and two In-country Pre-sessions; in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and New Delhi, India.

Orientation days

The first orientation day gathered some 30 participants, representing Sri Lanka’s rich ethnic, religious and linguistic composition. The many grassroots organisations in attendance covered a broad spectrum of human rights issues including: land rights, enforced disappearances, transitional justice, torture, freedom of expression, natural resource management, persons living with disabilities, freedom of religious and belief, the situation for Tamils, and human rights defenders. UPR Info provided a session on the history, purpose and modalities of the Pre-sessions and shared good practices of how to effectively utilise the platform to advocate for CSO suggested UPR recommendations. The link between strong recommendations and meaningful implementation, as well as the importance of cooperating with the Government throughout the UPR cycle, was highlighted.

Before lunch, Henri Tiphagne, Convener of the Working Group on Human Rights in India and the UN (WGHR), shared his experience from the UPR process in India. In his inspiring talk, he noted that the UPR has contributed to a more inclusive human rights community in his home country. In this vein, he urged the participants to utilise the mechanism as a tool to promote the common objective of human rights advancement in Sri Lanka. In the afternoon, the 10 speakers selected for the In-country Pre-sessions worked on finalising their statements. UPR Info and the rest of the participants offered their support in strengthening the documents.

The second day of the workshop shifted the attention towards media interaction. This segment of the workshop also welcomed the participation of journalists who shared examples of often challenging environment in which they report on human rights. During the war, journalists often became eye-witnesses to rights violations and threatened not to disclose what they had seen. Weak witness protection exacerbated the situation and further curbed objective human rights reporting. Today, civil society often perceives that journalist do not report on the situation of common people and the challenges they face. However, as stated by a journalist, this is not necessarily due to a lack of interest or that these articles are not written, but sometimes a result of editors being reluctant to publish potentially sensitive articles. 

During the session, a representative from the Civil Society Collective mentioned that the second UPR of Sri Lanka in 2012 took place in a politically polarised post-war environment. Consequently, championing human rights at this critical juncture could be a dangerous enterprise for journalists and civil society alike. Comparing with the second cycle UPR of Sri Lanka, the representative argued that there is now more space for CSOs and that civil society is more coordinated and knowledgeable ahead of the upcoming review. The afternoon continued with a mock Pre-session in plenary after which the panellists received feedback from UPR Info before applying their final touches to their statements.

The Pre-session in Colombo, generously hosted by the EU Delegation in Sri Lanka, brought together 11 State delegates and several representatives from the EU Delegation. The panel, moderated by UPR Info, offered the diplomatic community a unique insight into the human rights situation in Sri Lanka based on credible first-hand information. The panel itself demonstrated the dynamic and diverse nature of Sri Lankan civil society with participation of both capital-based and local grassroots organisations. For some of them, it was the first them they shared their human rights concerns with diplomats. Following the presentations, the panellists received a series of questions pertaining to the transitional justice process, the fight against corruption and torture, land rights, cooperation with the Government in the UPR process, freedom of expression, the safety for human rights defenders, and witness protection. State delegates lauded the UPR Advocacy Factsheets that the Civil Society Collective had developed with the support of UPR Info and noted their usefulness in assisting them to phrase relevant UPR recommendations to Sri Lanka. These, together with the presentation, where also shared with the GSP+ monitoring mission. The event ended with informal discussions between panellists and State delegates over lunch. In the afternoon, the Civil Society Collective organised a press briefing in the National Library.

The main purpose of the New Delhi Pre-session, generously hosted by the EU Delegation in India, was to increase the exposure of civil society concerns by reaching out to Embassies covering Sri Lanka from the capital of India. This proved successful as nine states which were not present at the Colombo event participated in New Delhi. Following opening remarks by Ms Friederike Tschampa, Head of Poltical Affairs at the EU Delegation, the panel delivered their statements before the interactive dialogue with State delegates commenced. Several of the delegates had brought with them their second cycle UPR recommendations and requested updates on implementation levels from the panel. Questions from the diplomats addressed freedom of religion or belief, food security, transitional justice, persons with disabilities and women’s rights. The discussion continued over coffee during which delegates seized the opportunity to obtain further information from the panellists.

The Geneva-based Pre-session for Sri Lanka takes place on 10 October.

Countries: Sri Lanka