The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in her report on Sri Lanka attributes the economic crisis the country is currently engulfed in to what she called “economic crimes” committed by those responsible for running the country’s economy. Sri Lanka has protested against the use of this term at the ongoing 51st regular session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).
Addressing the council on September 13 – the same day the Acting UN Human Rights High Commissioner Nada Al-Nashif presented the High Commissioner’s report on Sri Lanka, Foreign Affairs Minister Ali Sabry said that the reference made to “economic crimes” in the report is vague and exceeds the mandate of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
It is vital to recognize and assist Sri Lanka to address the underlying factors, which have contributed to this crisis, including embedded impunity for past and present human rights abuses, economic crimes and corruption
The reference has been made in so many places in the report including the summary of it. In its summary, the report says “The High Commissioner encourages the international community to support Sri Lanka in its recovery, but also in addressing the underlying causes of the crisis, including impunity for human rights violations and economic crimes.” While explaining impunity prevailing in Sri Lanka, the report again refers to the term claiming “a number of corruption and other related economic crimes cases between 2020 and 2022 were discontinued, following withdrawal of charges or indictments on various technical grounds.”
Under the subheading Further “Options for Advancing Accountability,” the High Commissioner hopes “that the new administration will respond to the popular demand for accountability for economic crimes, including corruption, and abuse of power with a renewed commitment to end impunity.” When bringing the report to a conclusion, the High Commissioner reiterates it is vital to recognize and assist Sri Lanka to address the underlying factors, which have contributed to this crisis, including embedded impunity for past and present human rights abuses, economic crimes and corruption.
Sri Lanka is in a dire situation. Various UN agencies have pointed out that malnutrition is widespread among children. A recent study by the World Food Program (WFP) had found that 73 percent of participating households had reduced their diet and food intake
Foreign Minister Sabry’s contention about vagueness of the term had some validity as the report in some places refers to “economic crimes including corruption” while citing in another place “economic crimes and corruption.” A clear definition to the term had not been given in the report. However, the High Commissioner had somewhat negated his second argument about exceeding the mandate of the OHCHR, through her recommendations to the UNHRC. The report recommends to “support Sri Lanka in the investigation of economic crimes that impact on human rights and the tracing and recovery of stolen assets.” If something impacts on human rights it comes under her purview.
Sri Lanka is in a dire situation. Various UN agencies have pointed out that malnutrition is widespread among children. A recent study by the World Food Program (WFP) had found that 73 percent of participating households had reduced their diet and food intake. UNICEF last month said “severe malnutrition in crisis-wracked Sri Lanka was already among the highest in the region.” Although, the government rejected this claim arguing that the UN Children’s Fund had come to this conclusion based on 2016 statistics, the very argument on the other hand indicates a bleaker picture.
The COVID 19 pandemic and the bankruptcy of the country have impacted heavily on the people by way of increased poverty. Officials of the education sector point out that poverty impacted heavily on the school children. Many schools have organised their own arrangements to feed the children who attend to schools without food. In some schools the attendance of the children has halved due to lack of food. Hence, it is obvious that the current situation is far worse than what prevailed in 2016.
The health sector is collapsing for want of funds, especially foreign exchange. Many hospitals have run out of life saving medicines and equipment, threatening the lives of patients. Prices of medicines and medical equipment has increased threefold or fourfold during the past one year. Doctors are leaving the country. Foreign training for medical professionals has been suspended. Thus, all sectors have been hit by the economic crisis, infringing the rights of the people to education, healthcare, employment and most importantly the right to life.
And since the current economic crisis is clearly the outcome of the corrupt practices and mismanagement of politicians and officialdom, the term economic crimes indisputably gains validity. The International Monetary Fund Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva had told NDTV in May that the economic crisis in Sri Lanka is a result of mismanagement. In a recent interview former President Mahinda Rajapaksa also had acknowledged that all past governments and leaders including him have to be held responsible for the current economic downturn.
The main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) on Tuesday had requested Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena to appoint a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to investigate into the “economic crimes” committed since 2019 which have brought in the current socioeconomic mess. They in a letter urges the Speaker to appoint 12 members to the PSC, with a three months term. The SJB seems to have borrowed the term economic crimes from the Human Rights High Commissioner’s report as the party had used it immediately after the report was presented in the UNHRC. And the UN human rights body in turn might have picked up the idea from the recent people’s uprising or the Aragalaya where penalizing those who destroyed the economy and tracing the stolen money had been major demands.
The SJB seem to have decided the period to be probed with a view to take political mileage against the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). However, the country has been plundered by the politicians and the high ranking officials for the past several decades, not only after 2019. The Mahinda Rajapaksa government’s mega projects which later turned out to be white elephants and the Central Bank bond scam during the last government led by the United National Party (UNP) also contributed to the current economic downturn. The leaders of the SJB know where they were during the Yahapalanaya government. Nevertheless, it was the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration that decisively ruined the economy with its irrational decisions such as huge unsolicited tax cuts, banning chemical fertilizer imports and fixing the dollar exchange rate which clearly amount to economic crimes.
The international organizations such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the UNHRC also attribute the Sri Lanka’s economic crisis to these decisions. However, it was the Rajapaksa family that has been mainly held responsible in the Senate resolution introduced this month by U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and two others calling for a comprehensive international approach to address Sri Lanka’s current political and economic crisis and in the plaint filed by the Hamilton Reserve Bank in a New York court against the Sri Lankan government over the country’s decision to default on its $1 billion sovereign bond.
However, the recommendation by the Human Rights High Commissioner made to Sri Lanka for an “investigation of economic crimes that impact on human rights and the tracing and recovery of stolen assets” seems to be unrealistic given the fate of the other recommendations made by the UNHRC for the past thirteen years, since the end of the war.