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Sri Lanka: Report of the Secretary General on Reprisals against persons cooperating with United Nations human rights mechanisms 2012

Sri Lanka
38. My previous reports have referred to the climate of fear human rights defenders face in Sri Lanka.8 The negotiation and adoption of resolution 19/2 on Sri Lanka at the nineteenth session of the Human Rights Council in March 2012 resulted in significant escalation of hostile and defamatory media reporting in Sri Lanka, which primarily focused on human rights defenders in Geneva.

39. Human rights defenders described an environment of intimidation and hostility at the nineteenth session of the Council. Human rights defenders Sunila Abeysekera (affiliated with INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre, Global Campaign for Women‟s Human Rights) and Nimalka Fernando (President of the International Movement against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism) reported that they were approached in the Palais des Nations by a Sri Lankan embassy staff member who told them that “they should not be in Geneva” and that “they were letting their country down”. 8

40. At a Human Rights Council side event which took place on 19 March 2012, Sandya Ekneligoda, a human rights defender and the wife of missing Sri Lankan political cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda, was reportedly harassed by members of the Sri Lankan delegation who attempted to prevent the continuation of the event. A day after returning to Colombo, Ms. Ekneligoda appeared in the Homagama Magistrate‟s Court in relation to her disappeared husband‟s habeas corpus case and her request for the former Attorney General to be summoned for questioning regarding a statement made by him to the Committee against Torture on 9 November 2011, indicating that the Government had information on the whereabouts of Mr. Ekneligoda. Ms. Ekneligoda was reportedly questioned by the Deputy Solicitor General regarding her participation in the March 2012 session of the Council. In response to the defence counsel‟s objection to the relevance of this, the Deputy A/HRC/21/18  Solicitor General reportedly said: “I am entitled to ask any question to find out whether international organizations and NGOs are provoking something against the State.” 

41. Between 14 and 17 March 2012, several articles appeared in the Sri Lankan press relating to human rights defenders, accusing them of working with the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Eelam (LTTE) including: the Daily Mirror, Lanka C News, Dinamina, Lakbima, Silumina and the Nation. Some of these articles were reproduced on official Government web pages.9

42. A number of programmes depicting the Human Rights Council session were broadcast on national television in Sri Lanka during the same period, reportedly portraying the human rights defenders in a negative light.10

43. On 23 March 2012, the Sri Lankan Minister for Public Relations, Mervyn Silva, reportedly addressed a public demonstration in Kiribathgoda outside of Colombo on the Human Rights Council resolution, and named Dr. Saravanamuttu, Dr. Fernando, Ms. Abeysekera and Mr. Deshapriya as “traitors” and threatened to break the limbs of any exiled journalists who had gone abroad and made statements against the country, and dared them to set foot in Sri Lanka again. A video of the speech has been disseminated on the Internet through a social networking site. It was reported a few days later that the Minister of External Affairs, G.L. Peiris, had condemned the Minister involved for making public threats of violence and stated that such remarks could neither be condoned nor justified.

44. The High Commissioner for Human Rights specifically addressed these issues in a press briefing by her spokesperson on 23 March 2012 and warned that “there must be no reprisals against Sri Lankan human rights defenders in the aftermath of yesterday‟s adoption by the Human Rights Council of a resolution on Sri Lanka”. She also observed that “during this Human Rights Council session, there has been an unprecedented and totally unacceptable level of threats, harassment and intimidation directed at Sri Lankan activists who had travelled to Geneva to engage in the debate, including by members of the 71-member official Sri Lankan Government delegation. … In Sri Lanka itself, newspapers, news websites and TV and radio stations have since January been running a continuous campaign of vilification, including naming and in many cases picturing activists, describing them as an „NGO gang‟ and repeatedly accusing them of treason, mercenary activities and association with terrorism. Some of these reports have contained barely veiled incitement and threats of retaliation.” The High Commissioner also noted that “some of the attacks on human rights defenders were carried in Sri Lankan state media and Government websites or were filed by journalists who had been officially accredited to the Human Rights Council session by the Sri Lankan Permanent Mission”. She called on the Government “to ensure the protection of human rights defenders, to publicly disassociate itself from such statements, and to clearly uphold the right of Sri Lankan citizens to freely engage in international debate of this kind”.11

45. The President of the Human Rights Council, on behalf of the Bureau, met with the Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka in Geneva on 6 March 2012 in order to share information on defamatory media articles and express serious concern at reported incidents and intimidation measures by the Sri Lankan delegation in Geneva targeting Sri Lankan human rights defenders attending the nineteenth Council session. The Permanent Representative committed to investigate all allegations.

46. It is noted that Sri Lanka, in comments made on 23 March 2012 to the Human Rights Council, at its nineteenth session, asked for clarification on allegations that there had been threats to and intimidation of human rights defenders by members of its delegation, indicating that it treated such allegations with the utmost seriousness and did not condone such violations. In its comments, Sri Lanka denied allegations of intimidation or harassment of human rights activities in its reply under agenda item 4 of the twentieth session of the Council. In that statement, Sri Lanka also noted that “any individual expression of opinion as to the conduct of civil society activists in the local media and elsewhere cannot be interpreted as intimidation and the Government cannot be expected to assume responsibility for the free expression of opinion of third parties”.
8 A/HRC/18/19, para. 69; A/HRC/14/19, paras. 40-43. 
9 On 14 March 2012, an article in the Daily Mirror entitled “Pakiasothy, Sunila and Nimalka working with LTTE rump” accused Ms. Abeysekera, Mr. Saravanamuttu (Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives) and Ms. Fernando of supporting the LTTE and betraying Sri Lanka. On 15 March 2012, the article was reproduced on the website of the Ministry of Defence (defence.lk) and on 17 March 2012, the news website of the Government (news.lk) posted a similar article.
10 On 15, 16 and 17 March 2012, the channel ITN reportedly broadcast visuals of Mr. Saravanamuttu, Ms. Fernando, Ms. Abeysekera and Sunanda Deshapriya (a journalist mentioned in my 2010 report), alleging that an “NGO gang” in Geneva had joined with the LTTE.
11 See w.ww.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=12008&LangID=E, www.un.org/apps/news/printnewsAr.asp?nid=41617.

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