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Monday, July 22, 2024

No Accountability for Human Rights Violations in Sri Lanka, then and now !

As the 19th session of the UN Human Rights Council is about to commence, the government of Sri Lanka has unleashed a public campaign of disinformation and attacks on human rights defenders, political actors and civil society groups working for a sustainable peace, and respect for human rights and democracy in Sri Lanka.

From January 10, 2012 onwards, the state owned and controlled press, radio and television have targeted civil society groups known to be associated with human rights advocacy at the international level, labelling them terrorists, anti-national elements and in the pay of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). They have in particular targeted those who participated in the session of the Council in September 2011. The impact of the campaign has been such that many human rights defenders who had intended to participate in the March session have now withdrawn, due to fear of reprisals. The safety of those few who will dare to participate in this session is a paramount concern.

We most urgently call on the members of the Human Rights Council to affirm the right of human rights defenders to engage in the work of human rights protection, including monitoring, documenting and drawing public attention to human rights abuses and violations, and to call on the government of Sri Lanka to honour its international obligations in this respect. The lack of accountability of the government to its international obligations is a matter of grave concern, particularly in light of the many credible reports of on-going violations of human rights in the country, as well as violations of international human rights and humanitarian law in the closing months of the military offensive in northern Sri Lanka in 2009.

In the5 months from October 2011 to February 2012, 28 abductions have been reported and documented. One of those abducted had filed a fundamental rights petition against the Police, alleging illegal detention and torture; his abduction took place 2 days before the Supreme Court would have considered his case. Of the 28 persons abducted, 5 bodies have been found, 3 bearing marks of execution; the fate of the other 23 remains unknown. Two unidentified dead bodies, one of them charred beyond recognition, have been found in Colombo in February. Most of the abductions took place in broad daylight, in the capital, Colombo, including near the Courts Complex. Sri Lankan human rights defenders have also documented 96 cases of torture in 2011. This situation generates most concern not only because it bears stark witness to the collapse of the rule of law and the reign of impunity in Sri Lanka, but because it is a grim reminder of the past, when the rate of disappearances warranted 2 consecutive visits by the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances to Sri Lanka. 

The government has used the military and the Police to subdue protest campaigns organized by students, media persons, workers and fishermen in a manner that displays no concern for civilian casualties and no respect for the freedom of association and expression. Ironically, in an environment in which the rule of law does not prevail, in January, the Colombo Police sought an injunction to prevent the 5 Media Alliance from holding a demonstration to commemorate killings and abductions of media persons during the month of January in previous years. When this was denied, government supporters organized a counter-demonstration. The Police also obtained Magistrate’s orders regarding the conduct of the funeral of the fisherman Anthony Fernando who was killed by Police firing during a demonstration against increased fuel prices on February 15. 

The infringement of the freedom of expression and media freedom takes place on a daily basis. According to the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters without Borders (RSF), Sri Lanka ranks 136 in the world in terms of lack of media freedom. The state media is not held accountable for its flagrant misrepresentation of facts and vilification of public figures in civil society. Former Attorney General Mohan Peiris has not yet been called to account for his statement to the Committee against Torture that disappeared cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda was alive and well in a foreign country; Mrs. Ekneligoda has made innumerable attempts to ask Mr. Peiris to reveal her husband’s whereabouts to her. Censorship is carried out directly and indirectly. Reforms have been recently proposed to the Public Performances Act, arousing fears of intensified censorship of plays, films and videos. Almost 30 websites have been blocked by the Ministry of Media and Information, and new requirements have been put in place for the registration of websites.  

Companions of a Journey (COJ), an organization working for the decriminalization of homosexuality in Sri Lanka, was subject to intense attack by some private media organizations in October 2011; this led to their offices being  visited by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and computers with sensitive information being removed. The organization has since had to shut down its offices.

There are no national mechanisms that can protect the human rights of Sri Lankan citizens and provide credible access to justice. Arbitrary appointments to the National Human Rights Commission by the President have undermined its credibility and its capacity to act independently. In February, a member of the Commission, Dr. Ananda Mendis, resigned on the grounds that the independence of the institution was being compromised. The NHRC also has yet failed to make public the report of its investigation into the killing of FTZ worker Roshen Chanaka in Police firing at a group of demonstrating workers in May 2011.

The allegations of systematic and gross violations of human rights and humanitarian law committed by both the security forces of the government of Sri Lanka and the fighters of the LTTE during the final offensive of the war in northern Sri Lanka in the first quarter of 2009 have not been investigated by any independent body. This is in spite of the growing body of testimonies, including to the government’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), from eye witnesses to abductions and extra-judicial killings. The numbers of those who remain in detention remains unknown, although the release of this information was one of the recommendations of the Interim report of the LLRC. Although women remain particularly vulnerable to various forms of abuse and violence, including sexual exploitation and rape, this area remains a particularly difficult one in terms of obtaining documentation and testimony. Of the tens of thousands who were displaced by the fighting, most of them continue to live in conditions of utter deprivation. The economy of the north is increasingly dominated by southerners from the majority community. In addition, their safety and security is at constant risk, with a large military presence and control of their daily lives by the military.

Most important of all, the government of Sri Lanka has not made any efforts towards reconciliation. In a country that has been destroyed by a protracted and brutal conflict, three years after the end of the war, Sri Lanka remains in an early post-conflict phase. The government has been incapable of engaging in a process of reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation with communities that were affected by the conflict, in a participatory and respectful manner. Whatever processes of infrastructure rebuilding and economic development have been put in place benefit the majority community. The Tamil people, especially those of the north and east of the island, and the Muslim community that constitutes a part of the population of the north and east, remain without any tangible guarantees of their rights to live in Sri Lanka and full and equal citizens. The issue of power-sharing, which was one of the main flashpoints of the conflict, is not an integral part of the government’s agenda. The Prevention of Terrorism Act, which enables flagrant violations of human rights to take place, remains in place.

We are well aware that the government of Sri Lanka will come to this session of the Human Rights Council with many empty promises. We urge the members of the Council to consider the record of the government in keeping its promises, including to this Council. Many recommendations by various Treaty Body Committees and Special Rapporteurs and by the Working Group on Disappearances have been ignored; the voluntary commitments made by the government during elections to the Council and the commitments undertaken during the Universal Periodic Review have not been implemented. Even the recommendations of the Interim report of the LLRC, which was handed over to the President in November 2011, have not been implemented. So when the government once again seeks time to implement the recommendations of the Final Report of the LLRC, we appeal to you to hold them accountable for previous commitments. 

In the past 2 months, in preparation for this session of the Council, the President has appointed a National Police Commission. The manner of appointment confirms that it is not an independent Commission, as recommended by the LLRC. Its members include a Buddhist monk who is on record as inciting hatred against minorities. The final draft of the National Human Rights Action Plan has been made available. The content of the NHRAP has ignored most of the contributions made to the process by civil society actors and human rights defenders, acting in good faith on the invitation of the government. The timelines are unrealistic and, most importantly, there is no clarity regarding the mechanism or state machinery responsible for implementation. A Cabinet Sub-Committee comprising six Cabinet Ministers was appointed in February 2012 to monitor implementation of the NHRAP. There is still no clarity as to which government line Ministry or agency will be in charge of implementing the NHRAP. The Leader of Opposition in Parliament has gone on record asking for the NHRAP to be table in Parliament; this has not been done.
In addition a military court was appointed by the Army Commander to conduct an inquiry into the authenticity of the Channel 4 videos that raised allegations of war crimes during the last weeks of the war in 2009. This is in response to the LLRC recommendation that an independent investigation into this matter be held.

In light of the obviously deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka, we feel that the UN Human Rights Council should not delay in placing consideration of Sri Lanka on its formal agenda. In particular, the Council should call on the government of Sri Lanka to comply with its obligations with regard to the promotion and protection of human rights in Sri Lanka, taking into consideration the recommendations set out by the UPR, the Concluding observations of the 4 treaty body Committees that reviewed Sri Lanka in 2010 and 2011, the recommendations of the Panel of Experts Report commissioned by the Secretary General of the UN and the recommendations of the LLRC. The Sri Lankan government should be prevailed upon to confirm pending invitations to special procedures of the Council, including the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances.

As members of Sri Lankan civil society and as human rights defenders who face constant frustration and disappointment as we continue to seek justice and accountability at the national level, we appeal to the members of the UN Human Rights Council to take strong and concerted action to secure time-bound commitments from the government of Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations of the LLRC in keeping with its obligations under international human rights law. We also urge the Council to ensure an independent process of monitoring such implementation.



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