Voting results of the United Nations human rights council and Sri Lanka's pledges
The new UN Council shows an improvement over its predecessor Commission given that countries with abysmal rights records such as Iran and Venezuela have not succeeded in their bids for election.

Sri Lanka secured the lowest votes of 123 among the other twelve South Asian countries vying for a seat on the UN Council, securing even a lower percentage than Pakistan which obtained 149 votes and Bangladesh (160 votes). India secured the highest votes with a 173 reading.

We are also ranked with the countries having the lowest six percentages out of the total of 65 countries that competed for seats on the Council. Our companions in that regard were some of the Eastern European states, namely Poland (108 votes), Ukraine (109 votes), Czech Republic (105 votes), Azerbaijan (103 votes) and Romania (98 votes). Coming close to Sri Lanka on the higher end of the scale was Saudi Arabia with 126 votes.

With candidate countries needing a majority of 96 votes from the 191-nation United Nations General Assembly to get elected, Sri Lanka was able to obtain the coveted seat. The voting results may not be taken as a conclusive reflection on the democratic index of countries vying for seats, (given that countries having long democratic records such as Canada and the Netherlands have secured only moderate vote tallys).

Among regional and international rights groups that raised concerns in regard to Sri Lanka's's rights record in the pre election period were the New Delhi based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, the Hong Kong based Asian Human Rights Commission and Forum Asia in Bangkok. The primary attention of these groups was centred on the non-implementation of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.

But an important task lies ahead. Justifying Sri Lanka's seat on the Council is not going to be an easy task in the future. In terms of paragraph eight of Resolution 60/251 adopted by the General Assembly, the membership of any country which succeeds in obtaining a seat on the Council may be suspended by a two thirds majority of the Assembly if that country engages in gross and systematic violations of human rights.

The pledges made by each new member to the General Assembly when it bid for election will form the basis for scrutiny of their human rights record. In the case of Sri Lanka, a number of quite extravagant pledges have been made. These include its commitment towards implementing recommendations made by UN treaty bodies after considering periodic reports submitted in the past. A notable absentee part of this pledge is, of course, the government's commitment to implementing the recommendations of the treaty bodies in the individual petition procedure, concerns in regard to which were articulated last week. We have also pledged to build the capacity of the Human Rights Commission and other independent statutory bodies established as part of the national human rights protection system.

In addition, Sri Lanka has pledged to invite the Special Rapportuers on Freedom of Expression and Freedom from Torture would be invited to undertake visits to the country. These visits would now be pressed for by advocacy groups working on issues relevant to this country with renewed vigour.

It must not be forgotton that two visits in 2005 by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Philip Alston and the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Asma Jahangir resulted in two important reports.

In the Report issued recently on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, several outstanding issues affecting basic rights of life and liberty in Sri Lanka are examined both in the context of the conflict as well as generally. Insofar as the protection of the human rights of civilians in the North_East is concerned, a broader human rights framework and more comprehensive international monitoring mechanism is recommended as imperative to address the many human rights issues that go beyond the ceasefire.

Looking at the criminal justice system as a whole, his assertion is that "There is a nationwide pattern of custodial torture in Sri Lanka, and the Government has a legal responsibility to take measures to bring that pattern to an end. The vast majority of custodial deaths in Sri Lanka are caused not by rogue police but by ordinary officers taking part in an established routine. It is essential that government officials accept that disrupting this pattern of custodial torture is a necessary step not only in ensuring the human rights of those arrested but of retaining public trust and confidence."

These have been concerns raised time and time again by civil society groups in Sri Lanka who have buttressed their call for effective action by well documented cases of torture and ill treatment of persons at the mercy of aberrant custodial officers. The Special Rapporteur's findings constitute a useful validation of these studies.

His comment that though, independent oversight bodies such the National Police Commission and the Human Rights Commission) have rendered valuable service, they lack resources and, even more importantly, political support is also relevant as is his concern in regard to the non-implementation of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.

Meanwhile, the findings of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Concerns are also important. The warning that imprecise allegations made against some groups have resulted in generalised condemnation of religious groups is pertinent as is the Special Rapportuer's caution against the introduction of laws criminalising acts of conversion. Her call for an inter-religious body vested with the task of maintaining constant dialogue between all religious communities remains a priority.

Cumulatively, concerns emerging from these two Reports of the Special Rapporteurs need to be effectively addressed by the Sri Lanka Government. Past reports of missions of other UN Special Rapporteurs to the country have not resulted in noticeable differences in governmental commitment towards implementing their recommendations. This pattern of indifference needs to change if Sri Lanka wishes to retain its seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council.

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