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Sri Lanka

No hiding place: UN seeks sanctions against Sri Lanka's war accused

Global body decries deteriorating human rights situation and significantly heightened risk of future violations

UCA News reporter, Colombo

UCA News reporter, Colombo

Updated: January 29, 2021 10:23 AM GMT
No hiding place: UN seeks sanctions against Sri Lanka's war accused

Sandya Eknaligoda, the wife of cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda, speaks at a meeting in Colombo on Jan. 26 marking the 11th anniversary of his disappearance. (Photo: AFP)

The UN human rights chief has called for member states to consider asset freezes and travel bans on Sri Lankan officials accused of rights abuses.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has urged strong action against Sri Lanka due to its deteriorating human rights situation and a significantly heightened risk of future violations.

"The states can consider targeted sanctions, such as asset freezes and travel bans, against credibly alleged perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses," Bachelet said in a report prepared by the UN Human Rights Office on Jan. 27.

The report highlighted worrying trends over the past year, such as increasing militarization of governmental functions, deepening impunity, ethno-nationalist rhetoric and intimidation of civil society.

She noted accelerating militarization of civilian governmental functions, reversal of important constitutional safeguards, political obstruction of accountability, exclusionary rhetoric, intimidation of civil society and the use of anti-terrorism laws.

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Since 2020, the president has appointed at least 28 serving or former military and intelligence personnel to key administrative posts.

“End all forms of surveillance, including intimidating visits by state agents and harassment against human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, social actors and victims of human rights violations and their families, and to refrain from imposing further restrictive legal measures on legitimate civil society activity," said Bachelet.

Government spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella, the media minister, said it is a challenge for them. "Now there is a battle between our honesty and their lies. We are ready to face it," he said.

Thousands were killed and disappeared during Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war that ended in 2009 when the army defeated Tamil rebels. Both sides were accused of serious human rights violations.

Many priests were among those who were killed or went missing during the war.

According to rights activists, paramilitary groups, government security forces and the Tamil Tigers were responsible for enforced disappearances and killings during the conflict.

A Catholic priest who asked to remain anonymous said that no justice has been served for priests and others who were killed or disappeared.

"It has been 12 years since the end of the war but no government has come up with a just solution," said the priest, who is also a rights activist.

"The army and police are still seen everywhere in the north. People in the north are still not allowed to remember even those who died freely," he said.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, younger brother of Mahinda Rajapaksa, was elected president and made his brother prime minister. Gotabaya served as defense secretary during his elder brother's presidency and rights activists have linked him to human rights abuses.

A monument erected at Jaffna University to commemorate the tens of thousands of Tamils who died in the civil war was demolished on Jan. 9 and later the government promised to rebuild it.

R. Subash, a Tamil student, said they are still not free after nearly three decades of war.

"Tamil people ask to be allowed to live freely and they want to protect their identity and live in the country as one family," said Subash.

Rajapaksa appointed three members of the Commission of Inquiry to investigate or take necessary action on alleged rights violations on Jan. 22.

Amnesty International (AI) said in February 2020 that 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.

David Griffiths, director of the office of the secretary general at AI, said the report, which accuses Sri Lanka of being in denial about the past, details how the failure of domestic mechanisms has further entrenched impunity, exacerbating victims’ distrust of 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," said Griffiths.

The International Crisis Group said the government has made no meaningful progress in investigating or prosecuting any of the high-profile cases.

"There have been no arrests for the 2006 massacre of 17 ACF aid workers and there have been no indictments in the ‘Trinco 5’ students’ murder: 12 police officers arrested at the magistrate's court level in 2013 remain free on bail," said the independent agency.

"There have been no successful investigations or prosecutions into any of the many murders and violent attacks on journalists under the current government." 

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