AI Takes Sri Lanka To Task… Again
Amnesty International (AI) has once again taken Sri Lanka to task in its latest “State of the World’s Human Rights” report. According to the report, Sri Lanka last year “continued to rely on security laws and a military apparatus that perpetuated human rights violations.”
The report has also claimed that “the failure to provide justice helped foster a climate of impunity that saw new cases of enforced disappearances in the north and east of the island, as well as threats and attacks on journalists, critics and activists.”
In an interview with The Sunday Leader, AI’s Researcher on Sri Lanka, Yolanda Foster, said that among the key issues were the government’s failure to acknowledge, and investigate, such violations. She also spoke on the importance of a credible domestic process in this regard, and why, despite this, AI has been pushing for an international inquiry.
By Maryam Azwer
Excerpts from the interview:
Q: Several of the human rights issues highlighted in this year’s report are the same as those Amnesty International highlighted last year. Has there been any change in the human rights situation in Sri Lanka since then?
A: Sadly there has been little change. The obstacle to seeing any improvement in the human rights culture in Sri Lanka is the culture impunity. The vast majority of human rights violations are rarely investigated, let alone heard in court.
What we see in Sri Lanka is also a denial that there is actually a very serious crisis on human rights. Instead of taking stock of what the issues are, Sri Lankan authorities have a long history of attempting to evade accountability, by simply appointing commissions of inquiry or other bureaucratic bodies, which gives the impression to the outside world that action is being taken to investigate these. But in each case, these bodies have lacked sufficient political and financial independence to make the changes real. There has been much discussion about the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), and you often find in these commissions that the actual legal professionals, or the commissions themselves, do come up with very useful recommendations… but the real key to the improvement of human rights is actually an issue of political will, whether any of the recommendations will actually be implemented.
Q: Do you see any progress in the implementation of these recommendations this year?
A: I really hope that it does happen, because for Sri Lanka to move forward, what people need is a credible domestic process. Amnesty International is only calling for international inquiry because we don’t feel that currently there are credible domestic solutions. But the LLRC recommendations are extremely comprehensive and cover a whole range of issues, which could be very important for Sri Lanka. The Government has put in place a number of initiatives which it claims will deal with [for example] the issue of detention. What I think really crucial, is to look at what are cosmetic initiatives, and what are initiatives that would deliver real change.
A fundamental obstacle to change is ongoing militarisation in Sri Lanka. At the end of a war, there would normally be a process of demobilisation, yet we see in Sri Lanka that militarisation remains very heavy in the North and East of the country.
Q: Did Amnesty International representatives visit Sri Lanka last year?
A: There were no research missions to Sri Lanka last year. The international secretariat in London actually sent a special letter to the President’s office inquiring about the possibility of a mission, and we tried to follow this up on a number of occasions with the Sri Lankan embassy in London but we received no reply. That’s been a major challenge for us really, lack of access to the country. We’ve been told at a number of sittings, including the Human Rights Council, that Amnesty International is not welcome in the country, which is very disappointing. It gives a lack of confidence to the world that the Sri Lankan authorities are serious about human rights, because when you are blocking a major international human rights group from entering the country, you are also sending a signal out to the world that there must be something to hide.
Q: When was the last time Amnesty International delegates visited Sri Lanka?
A: I think the last official research mission was actually in 2007.
Q: You have, even previously, noted that one of the challenges you face in documenting human rights related issues in Sri Lanka, is in accessing information itself. How do you get about this?
A: We’ve actually had to improve our research methodology, in the sense that the lack of access has challenged us to make sure that our information is coming from a range of sources, and that we are able to cross check it in a number of ways. Our primary source is actually testimonies taken from victims themselves. This can be in the context of an interview with a victim. We also get case material from lawyers inside Sri Lanka…[and] from a range of other organisations working on this issue. We try our best to gain public data from official bodies, such as the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission. It’s been very important for us to try to access much official sources of information as possible, because that is one way we can cross check some of our data. It’s very unfortunate that we rarely receive any reply from official bodies.
Q: Your report has raised some very strong, and controversial matters, such as illegal detention and torture. How reliable are your sources in this regard?
A: I think for Amnesty International, one of the most reliable sources of information is direct testimony. In our [previous] report on detention, we’ve interviewed former detainees as well as family members of people who are in detention inside Sri Lanka itself. We often try and get hold of medical records, for example, to confirm the allegations of torture. So that puts in place a series of research safeguards to back up the testimony. The issue of information, repeatedly comes up because we have to cite anonymous sources, and that leads the media and the general public to wonder how reliable that information is. But Amnesty specifically often makes its source anonymous simply to reduce the risk of retaliation against relatives in Sri Lanka. In no way does it dilute the credibility of the information, it is done with a protection purpose. We’ve been very clear to the government that we’d like the opportunity to verify allegations such as reports we receive of secret detention centres.
Q: AI has been raising the issue of human rights violations in Sri Lanka for a long period of time. Do you see this making any impact on the actual situation here?
A: For me personally, change on the ground will come alternatively from Sri Lankan citizens pushing for promises of reform to be actually implemented. What Amnesty International can do, is to remind governments and other key stake holders about their obligations to citizens, which are enshrined in a number of key international treaties as well as domestic laws of the land. The Sri Lankan constitution contains a number of important promises to its citizens. We also remind the international community of their obligations.
I think in the Sri Lankan case, Amnesty did not feel that the United Nations itself had done enough for ordinary citizens affected by the conflict. That’s why we supported a number of initiatives at the human rights council, including the most recent resolution which was passed in March, which calls on Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations of the LLRC and most importantly, overturn this longstanding impunity. We see that resolution as a vital step for the country, and for international justice. Our role is to remain hopeful that progressive voices on the ground will find courage and the space to stand up for a better future.