Sri Lanka: Damning UN report stresses need for urgent international action on accountability

The UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) must take urgent steps to address the worsening human rights situation in Sri Lanka, said Amnesty International, following the release of a damning UN report on the country’s efforts to ensure accountability for crimes committed during the civil conflict. 

Almost twelve years on from the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, the report, from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), warns that the country’s persistent failure to address historic crimes is giving way to ‘clear early warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation and a significantly heightened risk of future violations.’  

In February 2020, the Sri Lankan government announced that it would no longer cooperate with the UNHRC’s landmark resolution 30/1, which promotes reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in the country, and would instead pursue its own reconciliation and accountability process. 

“This report lays bare Sri Lanka’s abject record on delivering justice and accountability and the decaying effect this has had on human rights in the country. The seriousness of these findings highlights the urgent need for the UN Human Rights Council to step up its efforts in Sri Lanka,” said David Griffiths, Director of the Office of the Secretary General at Amnesty International.  

“For more than a decade, domestic processes have manifestly failed thousands of victims and their families. Given the government’s decision to walk away from resolution 30/1, and regression on the limited progress that had been made, the Human Rights Council must send a clear message that accountability will be pursued with or without the cooperation of the government.” 

Amnesty International is calling on the UN Human Rights Council to implement the report’s key recommendations to put in place more stringent oversight on Sri Lanka, including more robust monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation, and the collection and preservation of evidence for future prosecutions. 

The report, which accuses Sri Lanka of being in a ‘state of denial about the past’, details how the failure of domestic mechanisms has further entrenched impunity, exacerbating victims’ distrust in the system. Among a litany of failures, the report addresses the rollback of 2015 reforms that offered more checks and balances on executive power, the erosion of judicial and institutional independence, and the failure to reform the security sector and remove and hold to account those responsible for alleged grave crimes and human rights violations. 

The report also offers a withering assessment of regression in other human rights areas, including the increasing marginalisation of Tamil and Muslim minorities, fuelled by divisive and discriminatory rhetoric from state officials, and a shrinking space for civil society, including independent media. 

Canada is among a group of states – including Germany, Montenegro, North Macedonia and the UK – expected to present a resolution on Sri Lanka to the UN Human Rights Council when it meets next month. Amnesty International urges the Canadian government to follow through on its commitment as a member of the core group, and work with partners to present a strong resolution calling for more robust monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. To do otherwise would be a serious abdication of responsibility in the face of this damning new report, and clear recommendations for preventative action in the face of worrying early warning indicators.  

“The onus is now on these countries, with the support of other UNHRC member states, to present a meaningful proposal that responds credibly to the damning findings and concrete recommendations of this UN report, by putting the Sri Lankan government under proper scrutiny and once again working towards an accountability process agreed at the international level,” said David Griffiths.   

“UN member states should learn from past experience, and this time heed the early warning indicators identified by the UN’s top human rights official.” 


The OHCHR report, published on 27 January 2021, is available to download here.  The Human Rights Council will meet for its 46th session from 22 February to 23 March, during which Canada, Germany, Montenegro, North Macedonia and the UK – the current core group of states leading on Sri Lanka – are expected to present a resolution in follow-up to the OHCHR report.  

Amnesty International published an assessment of the situation in Sri Lanka, setting out clear expectations for HRC action, earlier this month. The High Commissioner’s report supports the call for more robust monitoring and reporting on the situation, as well as the collection and preservation of evidence for future prosecutions. 

Sri Lanka has a long history of domestic Commissions of Inquiry that have repeatedly failed to deliver justice and reconciliation for victims of human rights violations. Findings of past commissions have not led to any prosecutions of those responsible for atrocities. Amnesty International has documented these processes in the past.