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UN shows concern over Lanka’s proposed counter-terrorism laws

The United Nations has expressed several concerns to the Government about its proposed new counter-terrorism legislation including over a clause that allows admission of confessions made without lawyers present, said Una McCauley, UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka.

“There are a number of concerns that we had flagged up including the admission of confessions that were not made with lawyers present, the 72-hour initial holding period where international legal standards say 48 hours, the process of arrest and the levels of authority around when arrests can and should be made, as well as text around what is considered a terrorist act or an associated terrorist act,”  Ms. McCauley said in an interview with the Sunday Times. “So, ensuring that there’s tighter language around that.”

Ms. McCauley said there was a common misconception that the UN had a team working on the draft of the counter-terrorism legislation. “We had been asked to review successive drafts of the legislation to assess its conformity with international legal standards,” she clarified. The UN, therefore, used expertise from within and outside its system to review the successive drafts that were being produced by the Government. It also held a series of high-level discussions and workshops on international legal standards and how they could be woven into the text.

The UN’s focus in Sri Lanka has evolved significantly, the Resident Representative observed. As an intra-Governmental body that was neither an NGO nor civil society, the UN necessarily worked with Governments “but will always be between a rock and a hard place because we will never satisfy everybody”.

“We will never satisfy everybody and that means the work is a constant balancing act, and thinking through what people’s needs are,” she explained. “We have always had an analysis in the UN which is about who is most vulnerable at any one time. And in a conflict, and in an immediate post-conflict situation, it’s usually the people most affected by conflict.”

But now the UN had a new framework called the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that which says “leave no one behind”. This puts the UN as a smaller organisation in Sri Lanka than before with a smaller budget that focuses on the most vulnerable.

This may also mean that there are “uncomfortable decisions where some people in the North and East, which traditionally have been areas where we’ve worked on rehabilitation of the services, may no longer be the most vulnerable”.

“So, as we go into a new programme and planning cycle, we start to look at who is the most vulnerable in the country and doing analysis around that,” Ms. McCauley said. “We would be looking now at different vulnerabilities as well as the conflict-affected ones. Now, have we abandoned anyone? I don’t think we have.”

What the UN has tried to do is shift its conversation. Conflict made people vulnerable psychologically, in terms of their economies, what assets they had and now don’t have, what assets they needed to put their lives back on track.

“And they need some level of justice and truth as well,” she averred. “But it also means that we have to look at those people who live within this very poor section of the South, who also need a dialogue around how the UN supports Government to realise the SDGs, to move those people on as well.”

“I understand, politically, where there’s a feeling that people have been left out of our discussion but I think there’s also an understanding that the UN has to think carefully about how it works with a Government in a context like Sri Lanka.”

The past year has been one where the UN felt more useful in the country, Ms. McCauley admitted, adding that the organisation had usefully applied lessons learned from other countries to accelerate policy development in Sri Lanka. It also relied on its country team of nearly 500 people—predominantly nationals—to contribute towards humanitarian assistance development and long-term sustainable development goals.

Work has been done on issues related to children, women and vulnerable communities in the North and East and the hill country. The Government has been supported in resettlement and reconciliation. There has been contribution towards agriculture and discussions on the link between climate change and water management.

The emphasis now was on post-war needs. The UN is carrying out what it usually does in a middle income country—starting to look at systems that enable the Government to take back its role.

On reconciliation, there was an acceptance that it will not be easy or quick. “I think there is a start,” Ms. McCauley said. “I see a freedom of expression around what needs to be done, what has been done and what still needs to be done.”

The dialogue about what reconciliation means needs to become national; move out of civil society and Government circles into other circles of influence including within the armed forces. “I think that talking doesn’t always translate into a change of people’s minds and hearts in the short-term,” she accepted. “But what we do see clearly is a lot of discussion about what people want Sri Lanka to look like in the future.”

The people who make the most noise and get the most attention, however, are those who seek to detract and to stay within the confines of what makes the comfortable: a Them-and-Us dialogue. These are challenges in a country where people largely live in communities that are separate or in societies that are fairly mono-cultural, attend schools divided linguistically or by religion and “where people use their differences as a safety net”.

But there was understanding in Government of what needs to change and several structures—including the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms and the Ministry of Reconciliation—are coming together. “Can we say it has been slow?” she mused. “Yes. Can we say it could have been faster? Possibly. But what we look at is how, in 2017, we can encourage the bringing together of this work to really foster that discussion.”

Ms. McCauley pointed out that there was a complex environment in the country. “It’s always difficult to make things happen quickly after a war,” she said. It was also difficult in the context of a unity Government which faced multiple challenges “on the economic front, on the social front, in how you modify and change your services to make them long-term fit for a modern economy, and challenges of dealing with people who, for years, have experienced animosity because of conflict”.

The UN also had interest in supporting law and order structures. “We provide, at this point in time, a relatively small human rights team which dialogues with the Government on that and we have specialist teams that work on women, children and detention issues,” Ms. McCauley said. As and when the Government requests support, the expertise could be strengthened with national and international resources.

The UN Human Rights Council Resolution remained a useful guiding document and framework for international engagement. “It (resolution) was ambitious, and rightly ambitious,” she reflected. It was particularly ambitious in its timing and “progress hasn’t been as fast as it was laid out in the document”.

At the next session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, a discussion could be anticipated around what has been done, what needs to be done and what would be the time-frame.

One of the UN’s main achievements in Sri Lanka over the past year has been the Peace-building Priority Framework that takes a broad outline of the Geneva resolution and looks where the UN and other partners can provide support in developing aspects of good governance. It looks at reconciliation and education, return and resettlement as well as long-term durable solutions and confidence-building activities aimed at non-recurrence.

Author: TELO Admin