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UN rights chief puts Sri Lanka abuses in spotlight

Member states urged to pay close attention to island nation’s rights record

UCA News reporter, Colombo

UCA News reporter, Colombo

Published: September 14, 2021 09:43 AM GMT

Updated: September 14, 2021 10:03 AM GMT

UN rights chief puts Sri Lanka abuses in spotlight

A truck carries a large sign depicting the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the 'Hitler of South Asia' during as thousands of Tamils protest in downtown Toronto, Canada, on March 16, 2009. Canadian Tamils have requested their government step in a stop the killing of Tamils in Sri Lanka by supporting the LTTE. (Photo by Creative Touch Imaging Ltd./ NurPhoto via AFP)

The UN rights chief has urged member states to pay close attention to human rights developments in Sri Lanka.

Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said she looks forward to concrete action from the Sri Lankan government on its promises while urging member states to continue paying close attention to the island nation’s rights record three decades after the civil war ended.

Bachelet said the current social, economic and governance challenges faced by Sri Lanka indicate the corrosive impact that militarization and the lack of accountability continue to have on fundamental rights, civic space, democratic institutions, social cohesion and sustainable development.

She encouraged UN members to continue paying close attention to developments in Sri Lanka, and to seek credible progress in advancing reconciliation, accountability and human rights.

Bachelet was referring to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa's remarks in June, when he told a domestic panel probing allegations of rights abuse that his government was committed to working with the UN to ensure accountability and would implement necessary institutional reforms.

"Regrettably, surveillance, intimidation and judicial harassment of human rights defenders, journalists and families of the disappeared have not only continued but have broadened to a wider spectrum of students, academics, medical professionals and religious leaders critical of government policies," Bachelet said at the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Sept. 13.

"Several peaceful protests and commemorations have been met with excessive use of force and the arrest or detention of demonstrators in quarantine centers," said Bachelet.

"New regulations on civil society groups are being drafted, and it is widely feared that they will further tighten restrictions on fundamental freedoms. I urge that the draft be made public to allow the broadest possible discussion."

Despite various inquiries, the victims of the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings and religious leaders continue to call for the truth and justice, and a full account of the circumstances that permitted those attacks.

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa's visit to Italy on Sept. 10 sparked controversy after Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith claimed the tour was an attempt to mislead the Vatican about the probe into the Easter Sunday attacks.

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Hundreds of Sri Lankans demonstrated in Italy and said they believe the real conspirators are still at large and have hinted at attempts to shield the masterminds.

Cardinal Ranjith has repeatedly said the investigation into the attack was not being conducted properly.

Bachelet said she is concerned by developments in judicial proceedings in a number of emblematic human rights cases. They include the Attorney-General’s decision not to proceed with charges against former navy commander Wasantha Karannagoda in the case of the enforced disappearances of 11 men in 2008 and 2009.

The rights chief said a new state of emergency was declared on Aug. 30, with the stated aim of ensuring food security and price controls, amid a deepening recession.

"The emergency regulations are very broad and may further expand the role of the military in civilian functions. The Office will be closely monitoring their application," she said.

Bachelet said she is deeply concerned about further deaths in police custody, and in the context of police encounters with alleged drug gangs, as well as continuing reports of torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officials.

She spoke of the country's draconian terrorism law, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which activists want to be repealed. She pointed out the prolonged detention of lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah for 16 months and of Ahnaf Jazeem, a teacher and poet, detained without charge since May 2020.

Bachelet urged an immediate moratorium on the use of the Act, and that a clear timeline be set for its comprehensive review or repeal.

The PTA was introduced in 1978 as a temporary measure to prepare for the war, which ended in 2009. It grants the police broad powers to search, arrest and detain civilian suspects which have led to accusations of sexual abuse, torture and forced confessions being committed by the authorities.

Former president Maithripala Sirisena promised the UN to replace the PTA and renewed the commitment between the Sri Lankan government and the UN.

A senior Catholic priest from Mannar Diocese said special attention must be paid to ensure justice for human rights defenders, journalists and political prisoners who have been detained for prolonged periods under the PTA, such as those convicted based on confessions obtained under duress, and those whose trials are yet to start or yet to be completed.

"Hundreds of Tamils have been detained for long periods under the PTA, in inhumane conditions and subjected to torture. Many Muslims were also reported to have been detained under the Act after the Easter Sunday attacks. The PTA must be repealed immediately, it has no place in a democracy," said the priest who wished to remain anonymous.

T.A. Arul Raj, a rights defender from Mannar who lost his only brother in battle, said 12 years after the end of the war, there is no justice and reconciliation has become an illusion.

"We, the citizens of the country, want to live with dignity as Tamils," said Arul.

On May 18, 2009, the government declared the end of the war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), after killing LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

The war began in 1983 when Tamil groups fought to carve out a separate Tamil homeland in the north and east.

The 26-year civil war caused significant hardships for the economy of the country, environment and population.

According to the UN, the war claimed the lives of at least 40,000 civilians in its final days alone while other independent reports estimated the number of civilian dead to exceed 100,000. At least 10 priests were killed and three went missing during the war.

Both sides were accused of serious human rights violations. The government has been criticized for alleged ongoing rights abuses against Tamils.

The Tamil National Alliance, the main Tamil political party, said they welcome the concerns of Bachelet and have appealed to UN member states to reflect that at the discussion and follow-up.

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