Sri Lanka: Time to ensure the Right to Truth

Sri Lanka: Time to ensure the Right to Truth - Civic Space

Tamil women standing in front of a school building which housed the Sri Lankan Army. It was attacked numerous times, by both sides, during the civil war. The women are waiting to be registerd with government soldiers before moving back into their homes after a 4 year absence.

ARTICLE 19 calls upon the Sri Lankan government to take the opportunity, provided by today’s UN Report, to fulfil their obligation to ensure the right to truth, through providing information for the many victims of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict.

The violation of human rights committed by all sides during the Sri Lankan armed conflict, as outlined in today’s UN report, are extremely serious: the report presents grave and systematic violations in the country between 2002 and 2011, strongly indicating that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed by all sides of the conflict.

The Sri Lankan government and the international community have a responsibility to address the UN’s recommendations, which include the creation of a court inside Sri Lanka, to fulfil the victims’ right to truth.

“Some want the victims to forget, and want to keep the benefits of collective silence. But no victim has forgotten. We urge the government to consider the importance of establishing an independent mechanism, which would proactively publish information and allow individuals and organisations to seek out the truth to which they have a human right,” said Thomas Hughes, ARTICLE 19’s Executive Director.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees access to information, which includes facts about human rights violations. Realising the right to truth would enable victims and their families to better understand what happened, and open up paths to seeking justice.

The “right to seek, receive and impart information” under the Universal Declaration and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights places an obligation upon governments to facilitate the uncovering of information about human rights violations. This obligation applies particularly strongly where violations have occurred on a large, systematic scale and entire societies need to come to terms with the events which occurred. ARTICLE 19 has worked since 1993 with a number of bodies established to fulfil the right to truth. In any transition out of conflict or towards more democratic systems of governance, the individual and collective need for information about the past is pressing.

Importantly, governments are not only obligated to create their own means of establishing the truth about past violations, but ensure that civil society is given the space to participate and contribute to those processes and mechanisms establishing the truth.

A 1997 report by French, Louis Joinet, to the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, included an important definition of the right to information as a means to establish the truth following conflict:

‘This is not simply the right of any individual victim or closely related persons to know what happened, a right to the truth. The right to know is also a collective right, drawing upon history to prevent violations from recurring in the future. Its corollary is a ‘duty to remember”, which the State must assume, in order to guard against the perversions of history that go under the names of revisionism or negationism; the knowledge of the oppression it has lived through is part of a people’s national heritage and as such must be preserved. These then, are the main objectives of the right to know as a collective right.’

Joinet set out a number of guidelines to guarantee the effectiveness of a mechanism to seek out the truth:

  1. It should be independent and impartial
  2. It should safeguard witnesses and victims
  3. It should provide alleged perpetrators with the right of reply
  4. It should produce public and publicised reports.

Sri Lanka’s obligation to fulfil the right to truth, as guaranteed by Article 19, is not absolute. The obligation is limited by the same exceptions that apply to the right to freedom of expression more generally as defined under Article 19 of the International Covenant.

The government’s obligation is not to provide every individual with any item of information. In the case of the conflict, considerations of the right to privacy for example may be necessary. But any restrictions on the right of expression, including freedom of information, should be clearly and narrowly drawn and subject to strict “harm” and “public interest” tests.

However, when fulfilling the right to truth particularly in regards to serious human rights violations, there should be a clear presumption in favour of disclosure, and the onus must be on the authorities to justify any refusal the make.

ARTICLE 19 urges the Sri Lankan government to acknowledge and act upon the recommendations of the UN’s report, including fulfilling their obligations to realise the right to truth.