Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, expressed concerns at the end of her week–long visit on August 31, 2013, that victims of abuses and their family members, activists, and journalists had received visits and other harassment and threats from the authorities after meeting with her and other UN officials. She said that reprisals against people who talk to the UN were an extremely serious matter and that she would report it to the UN Human Rights Council.
“It’s outrageous for a government that is hosting the UN human rights chief to have their security forces harass the people who met with her,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The Sri Lankan government should announce that ‘visits’ or other forms of harassment of those who spoke to the high commissioner will be punished. And the government should make sure they punish officials who’ve already done so.”
When in Sri Lanka, Pillay held extensive meetings with people in the formerly embattled north and east of the country, as well as with government officials, politicians, and activists. The Centre for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, based in Trincomalee in eastern Sri Lanka, reported being harassed by military personnel a few hours after its staff met with Pillay. Father Yogeswaran, who runs the center, said that they had been visited at midnight and in the early morning, and was aware that others who had met with Pillay were similarly approached. Several other victims, witnesses, and rights activists told a leading Colombo–based organization that they were visited by military personnel following meetings with Pillay.
Pillay herself, in her statement, said that she had received disturbing reports about “the harassment and intimidation of a number of human rights defenders, at least two priests, journalists, and many ordinary citizens who met with me, or planned to meet with me. I have received reports that people in villages and settlements in the Mullaitivu area were visited by police or military officers both before and after I arrived there in Trincomalee, several people I met were subsequently questioned about the content of our conversation.”
Human Rights Watch called on the authorities to take all necessary measures to end the harassment of all those who met with Pillay and ensure their security. Human Rights Watch reiterated its call, also made by Pillay, for a strong and effective victim and witness protection program in Sri Lanka.
Pillay is due to deliver an oral report on her trip to the UN Human Rights Council later in September.
Sri Lanka has a long history of silencing critics of the government. Members of activist, religious, and human rights groups as well as media workers have faced reprisals for reporting critically on government abuses. Risks are greatest for those working in former contested areas in the north and east or away from major urban areas such as Colombo.
“Despite promises to Pillay of unfettered access, Sri Lankan authorities have gone about business as usual in harassing those courageous enough to come forward to talk about the country’s many human rights problems,” Adams said. “A government that doesn’t care enough to call off its security forces for a few days while the UN’s rights chief is visiting is a government that plainly doesn’t care about respecting basic human rights.”