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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Sri Lanka Civil Society Platform contradicts Rights Commissioner on Missing Persons Office

Image: Present chairperson of the OMP Justice Abeyrathna, as chairperson of the CoI on political victimisation  unilaterally recommended that the suspects of two ongoing emblematic judicial inquiries related to disappearances should be absolved of all charges and released.

Issuing a statement on the day Human Rights High Commissioner presented her oral update on human rights and accountability situation in Sri Lanka, SRI LANKA CIVIL SOCIETY PLATFORM contradicts  very thing  she said on the Office of the Missing Persons Office.

In her oral update Hight Commissioner provided a positive picture of the OMP and its activities saying that ” A National Policy for Reparations was approved in August, and reparation payments and reconciliation programs have continued. The Office of Missing Persons has also continued to operate – with a sixth regional office opened in Kilinochchi – but it needs to inspire confidence among victims.”

But the statement issued by the Civil Society Platform says that “The 20th amendment to the Constitution undermined the independence of the Office of Missing Persons. Confidence in the OMP was further undermined by the appointment of the person who served in the capacity of the Chairperson of the Presidential Commission to Inquire into Political Victimization. With reference to two ongoing emblematic judicial inquiries related to disappearances, this Commission of Inquiry unilaterally recommended that the suspects should be absolved of all charges. This has further eroded trust and confidence in the OMP.

“Despite government rhetoric, since the new members were appointed by the President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in 2020 , the Office has not engaged with the families of the disappeared, nor taken any action to find out the truth about the disappeared and missing. For instance, families have been requested to provide further information despite their complaints being based on existing information. It is also regrettable that while the list of the Three Forces remain displayed on the OMP website, the complaint list of civilians has been removed creating grave concern and suspicion amongst the families about the OMP’s commitment to find the truth about the disappeared and missing.

Illustrative of its failure to address the needs and concerns of the families of the disappeared is government failure to pay the Rs.6000 allowance to families, an interim monthly allowance pending grant of reparations, which was approved by cabinet in October 2019.”

Thus raised the question weather the UN-Sri Lanka office consulted the Sri Lanka Civil Society before providing information to the OHCHR office in Geneva.

STATEMENT FROM THE SRI LANKA CIVIL SOCIETY PLATFORM

We have come together as a Civil Society Platform to set out our positions on the progress made by Sri Lanka on the promotion and protection of human rights and transitional justice issues, including those set out in Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 and 46/1.

We are civil society groups that base our work on principles of non-discrimination, human rights and justice for all Sri Lankans as guaranteed in the Constitution of Sri Lanka and international conventions ratified by the Government of Sri Lanka. We are committed to promote truth, justice and reconciliation; the rule of law and the independence of judiciary which is a sine quo non for the promotion of equality, democracy and harmony among all citizens of our country.

Since March 2020, like people all over the world, Sri Lankans too have been confronted by unprecedented health and economic challenges as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic, which has highlighted deeply entrenched systemic and structural inequalities. This has reiterated the importance of safeguarding human rights to preserve the social fabric that binds us together as a humane civilization. Within such a context, we recognize the efforts made by the Government of Sri Lanka to provide medical care and relief to the people of Sri Lanka during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020. However, government action and inaction since has only exacerbated the challenges faced by the people. At the same time, increasing authoritarianism and militarization, including of the COVID-19 response and the culture of impunity have eroded civic space and undermined the protection of human rights. The re-imposition of a state of emergency on the pretext of addressing food distribution is an additional concern. Resorting to promulgation of Emergency Regulations in an arbitrary manner further concentrates unrestrained power in the hands of the executive and is not conducive to democratic, inclusive and transparent decision making regarding the public good. It creates an environment in which the human rights of citizens can be further curtailed and even violated.

We seek an enabling environment for civil society to function without intimidation or harassment, particularly in the North and East, and to be able to continue to advocate on human rights and transitional justice issues. Over the years, civil society has contributed immensely to addressing both macro and micro challenges related to civil, economic, political and social rights and we wish to recognize the contributions made by all organizations and individuals representing all communities in Sri Lanka.

Since November 2019, the Government of Sri Lanka has failed to engage in a constructive and collegial manner with civil society on the aforementioned issues. In the absence of such engagement, on the eve of the forthcoming 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and in reference to the reports of the Government of Sri Lanka in connection to the 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council and the Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence on the visit to Sri Lanka (ref. A/HRC/48/60/Add.6), we wish to highlight the following issues:

1. Conducive Environment for the Functioning of Civil Society

In recent months we have witnessed an alarming shrinking of civic space in Sri Lanka. This is in a context of heightened surveillance and threats to, and harassment of human rights defenders, survivors and families of victims, such as the families of the disappeared, who advocate for protection of human rights and truth and justice. The government and its affiliates have also demonized the work of non-governmental organisations through multiple means and presented them as potential threats to national security.

This is against the backdrop of the National Secretariat for Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO Secretariat), being brought once again within the purview of the Ministry of Defence in December 2019, and steps being taken to draft legislation to reportedly curb the activities of civil society organisations. In addition, since December 2019 state officials at the district and divisional level have brought into effect cumbersome informal and arbitrary rules by which civil society organisations have to abide to obtain approval and implement their projects. Furthermore, during meetings with NGOs at the district level, officers of the NGO Secretariat have been abusive and used disrespectful language when addressing personnel from civil society organisations. Cabinet ministers continue to use the term NGOs in a hostile manner, perpetuating the anti-NGO culture reminiscent of the repressive era when NGOs faced intimidation and threats both from the State and unidentified entities.

We note with concern the cabinet decision to replace the Voluntary Social Service Organizations (Registration and Supervision) Act No. 31 of 1980 as amended (VSSO Act). Civil society concerns in this regard which the NGO coalition working on this issue shared with the NGO Secretariat have gone unaddressed. The government’s engagement with civil society on the proposed law should not be cosmetic but meaningful and take into account the legitimate concerns of civil society. Furthermore, any new law must not restrict the rights of civil society organisations to work freely on issues of human rights and transitional justice or place undue impediments to their functioning.

2. Independence of Public Institutions

The 20th amendment to the Constitution has undermined the independence of a number of public institutions such as the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, the National Police Commission, the judiciary, the Attorney-General and the Elections Commission. This has eroded public trust in these institutions which should play a critical role in facilitating victims of human rights violations to access remedies. Undermining the independence of institutions such as the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, which has a monitoring and oversight function of government action, calls into question government rhetoric on its commitment to accountable and transparent governance and respect for the rule of law.

3. Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA)

We reiterate our call for repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act No. 48 of 1979 (PTA), which for decades has enabled grave human rights violations and has been disproportionately used against Tamils, and after the Easter attacks of 2019 against Muslims. We note that the government has appointed the Advisory Board according to section 13 of the PTA. However, this is a severely inadequate response that cannot mitigate the inherently abusive nature of the PTA, and will not prevent long administrative detention, or the use of torture to extract confessions.

We also express our concern about the ‘Deradicalisation from Holding Violent Extremist Ideology’ regulations issued under the PTA as they enable arbitrary arrest, detention and a finding of guilt by the executive without a judicial process, which violates a person’s right to fair trial. The Regulations further appear to facilitate racial/religious profiling, which is discriminatory.

The government recently released 16 Tamil PTA prisoners on presidential pardon, while dropping criminal charges brought against a member of parliament. However, there are a number of Tamil political detainees who have not been charged or convicted.

The repeal of the PTA would give effect to international human rights standards in the safeguard of rights and would demonstrate the commitment of the GOSL to promote the rule of law including core human rights principles.

4. Freedom of Expression

Social justice activists and journalists reporting on human rights issues as well as government corruption, inaction and inefficiency have been requested to report for inquiry at various security agencies. Some have been arrested and detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act No. 56 of 2007 (ICCPR Act.)

We express grave concern that the law is being weaponized to stifle dissent and curtail the activities of journalists and civic activists who are committed to raising awareness of public interest issues.

Critiquing and questioning public policy decisions, which is integral to a functioning democracy, is being criminalised, including in the guise of COVID-19 responses. In addition, Ministers have continued to call for regulating the use of social media, which would gravely impact freedom of speech and expression.

5. Transitional Justice

The government by disengaging in March 2020 from the UNHRC Resolution, 30/1 titled Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka, which was cosponsored by the Sri Lankan Government, cast doubt on its commitment to deal with the past and ensure truth, justice and reparations for victim-survivors of grave human rights violations. Its continuing action to even prevent memorialisation by surviving families is evidence of its intention to bury the past rather than deal with it. Victims of rights violations, especially those from the North and East, hence have no trust in the ability of the government to address their needs and concerns and ensure truth and justice. Moreover, the lack of progress in investigations and prosecutions in several emblematic cases of grave human rights violations holds little hope for the families of victims.

 Enforced Disappearances & Missing Persons
The 20th amendment to the Constitution undermined the independence of the Office of Missing Persons. Confidence in the OMP was further undermined by the appointment of the person who served in the capacity of the Chairperson of the Presidential Commission to Inquire into Political Victimization. With reference to two ongoing emblematic judicial inquiries related to disappearances, this Commission of Inquiry unilaterally recommended that the suspects should be absolved of all charges. This has further eroded trust and confidence in the OMP. Despite government rhetoric, since the new members were appointed by the President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in 2020 , the Office has not engaged with the families of the disappeared, nor taken any action to find out the truth about the disappeared and missing. For instance, families have been requested to provide further information despite their complaints being based on existing information. It is also regrettable that while the list of the Three Forces remain displayed on the OMP website, the complaint list of civilians has been removed creating grave concern and suspicion amongst the families about the OMP’s commitment to find the truth about the disappeared and missing.

Illustrative of its failure to address the needs and concerns of the families of the disappeared is government failure to pay the Rs.6000 allowance to families, an interim monthly allowance pending grant of reparations, which was approved by cabinet in October 2019. Applications have been forwarded by families to the Ministry of Justice which is the line Ministry in charge of the above payments. Repeated reminders forwarded regarding the non-payment of this interim relief, made by the Families of the Disappeared to the Ministry and the Prime Minister, have not been answered.

There is lack of progress in on-going judicial action in cases of enforced disappearances, such as in the case of the eleven men who were allegedly disappeared by the navy. Rather, state action is aimed at preventing their progress, including through protecting alleged perpetrators. Government rhetoric, such as Justice Minister’s statements at the webinar organised by the OMP illustrate government intention to avoid and prevent any judicial measures that seek to hold those responsible accountable, and instead “bring the issue to an end” through reparations.

Family members who are involved in advocacy for truth and justice for disappearances living in the North and East continue to face surveillance, intimidation and visits from security agencies to inquire into their activities, and attempts to curtail their advocacy on this issue.

6. Arbitrary Use of Quarantine Regulations

We respect the need for health guidelines to contain the pandemic. Yet, despite the archaic quarantine laws, which are inadequate to deal with a public health emergency of this magnitude, we note no effort has been made to enact new legislation to deal with a public health emergency or to engage parliament effectively in the response to the pandemic.
Instead, the government has used the pandemic as justification to arbitrarily use the law to curtail freedom of assembly and expression. For example, there have also been instances where the police have misused the Quarantine Regulations issued under the Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Ordinance.to force activists and trade union leaders, who were exercising their legitimate rights of demonstration while following health guidelines, into buses and dispatched to quarantine centres maintained by the Sri Lanka Army, hundreds of miles away from their place of residence. As a result, a few persons have become infected at the centres, placing their health and well-being in jeopardy. The purpose of such government action is to instil fear and prevent dissent and criticism of the government.

7. Failure to build Confidence among the minorities

 A political solution to the ethnic conflict

We reiterate the need for a political solution to the ethnic conflict. Continued denial of an ethnic conflict resulted in a protracted war and devastating loss of life. The first step of such a process should be the acknowledgment of the existence of an ethnic conflict. As a consequence, the government has failed to take seriously any of the past constitutional reform processes or the recommendations made through extensive consultation. Instead, the government has again embarked on some aspects of constitutional reform through the newly appointed Parliamentary Select Committee to ‘Identify Appropriate Reforms to Election Laws and the Electoral System’.

There is little information available about this process and its lack of consultation and inclusiveness does not inspire any confidence that the government is committed to finding a meaningful solution to the historical grievances of the Tamil community. Pending an inclusive and consultative constitutional reform process, we call on the government to hold the much-delayed Provincial Council elections and fully implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

 Delay in Relation to Investigation of Easter Sunday Attack of 2019

The long delays in investigations despite the numerous ad-hoc committees established to inquire into the failures that led to the Easter attacks, has resulted in the Roman Catholic community, led by His Eminence Cardinal Malcolm Ranjit, to express dissatisfaction with government inaction to hold those responsible accountable. The delays related to investigation further contributes to negative profiling of the Muslim community and continued xenophobic discrimination against them.

 Delay related to introducing reforms to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act

Muslim women have continued to struggle urging to introduce reforms to the Muslim Marriages and Divorce Act. It is important that the long-overdue legal reforms are introduced expeditiously.

 Burial Rights of Those Who Die from COVID

We regret that the government has used the pandemic to politicise existing anti-Muslim sentiments. Nearly a quarter of total deaths is from the Muslim community and to date burying the deceased due to COVID remains complex and painstaking. The only place (Ottamavadi in the Eastern Province) where burial is allowed is now full. Initial forcible cremation and, now only one designated burial place for the entire country in the East, continue to deter many Muslims from approaching treatment centres. Instead, they prefer to suffer and die at home. In the circumstance deep burial could be permitted in every province to alleviate the undue suffering of the Muslims and others who wish to be buried.

The above statement has been prepared in consultation with representatives of the civil society who have shared their experiences at the national and local level and based on facts.

The present crisis in Sri Lanka requires consensus building involving all communities, civil society including trade unions and professional bodies and political parties in Sri Lanka.

Endorsing Organisations
1. Families of the Disappeared
2. Centre for Policy Alternatives
3. IMADR- Asia Committee
4. Right to Life Human Rights Centre
5. Women and Media Collective
6. Rights Now for Collective Democracy
7. Centre for Society and Religion
8. Women’s Action Network
9. Mothers and Daughters of Lanka
10. Centre for Women and Development – Jaffna
11. Law and Society Trust
12. AHAM Humanitarian Resource Center(AHRC), Trincomalee
13 Rural Development Foundation
14. Institute for Social Development
15. Janawabodha Kendraya
16. Web Journalist Association of Sri Lanka
17. Eastern Social Development Foundation
18. Human Elevation Organisation
19. National Fisheries Solidarity Movement
20. National Fisher Women’s Federation
21. Mannar Women’s Development Federation
22. Malarum Mottukal Women’s Collective
23. Alliance for Minorities
24. Rule of Law Forum
25. Food First Information and Action Network – Sri Lanka
26. International Centre for Ethnic Studies
27. Mannar Social and Economic Development Organization
28. Citizens Committee Human Rights Centre –Gampaha
29. Sri Vimukthi Fisher Women Organization
30. Centre for Human Rights and Development

Individuals
1. Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu
2. Dr. Gehan Gunatilleke
3. Dr Nimalka Fernando
4. Dr Mario Gomez
5. Dr Sakunthala Kadirgamar
6. Rev Rohan De SIlva
7. Mr Britto Fernando
8. Mr. K. S. Ratnavale
9. Ms Shreen Saroor
10. Ms Ambika Sathkunanathan
11. Mr Philip Dissanayake
12. Ms Kumudhini Samuel
13. Mr. Godfrey Yogarajah
14. Mr Prabodha Ratnayake
15. Mr Ameer Faaiz
16. Mr. Thilak Kariyawasam
17. Ms Saroja Sivachandran
18. Mr Aruna Shantha Nonis
19. Ms Bhavani Fonseka
20. Mr Ruki Fernando
21. Mr Periyasami.Muthulingam
22. Mr Gowthaman Balachandran
23. Mr Sudarshana Gunawardana
24. Mr Freddy Gamage
25. Mr Abdul Ramees
26. Ms Sumika Perera
27. Ms Marreen Srinika Nilasini
28. Mr Asanka Abeyrathna.
29. Ms Mahaluxmy Kurushanthan
30. Mr Herman Kumara
31. Mr Jehan Jegatheesan
32. Mr.Yartan Figurado
33. Mr Shantha Pathirana
34. Ms A.D. Rajani
35. Ms M.Kusum Silva
36. Mr Vinoth Anthony

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