Sri Lanka To Be A Base For Human Rights Monitoring

by  Easwaran Rutnam

Yolanda Foster and Biraj Patnaik

Sri Lanka has over the years been at the centre of the human rights debate, often being accused of violating human rights.

However now the country is set to be a base for human rights monitoring with one of the world’s leading human rights groups establishing its regional office in Colombo.

The Sunday Leader learns that Amnesty International’s South Asia team  will look to operate out of a regional office in Colombo.

It is also learnt that the Regional Director of Amnesty International is recruiting new staff to be part of the South Asia team.

Earlier this year Amnesty International appointed Biraj Patnaik as the new Regional Director for South Asia.

The appointment was seen as deepening Amnesty International’s commitment to the world’s most populous region, moving closer to the ground where human rights abuses are taking place in order to challenge them more effectively.

Amnesty International is a London-based non-governmental organisation focused on human rights. The organisation claims to have over seven million members and supporters around the world.

The stated objective of the organisation is to conduct research and generate action to prevent and end abuses of human rights, and to demand justice for those whose rights have been violated.

Amnesty International was founded in London in 1961, following the publication of the article “The Forgotten Prisoners” in The Observer on 28 May 1961, by the lawyer Peter Benenson.

Amnesty draws attention to human rights abuses and campaigns for compliance with international laws and standards.

It works to mobilise public opinion to put pressure on governments that let abuse take place.

In the field of international human rights organisations, Amnesty has the third longest history, after the International Federation for Human Rights and broadest name recognition, and is believed by many to set standards for the movement as a whole.

During the war Amnesty International had been refused entry to Sri Lanka, so had other international human rights groups.

However  following the 2015 election Amnesty International and other international human rights organisations were allowed into Sri Lanka.

Amnesty International is pushing for answers over the whereabouts of journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda.

Later this month Amnesty International USA and Acting Out Awareness will present “Out of the Dark:  Disappeared but not Forgotten” – an event concerning enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka.

It will take place at Cortelyou Commons, DePaul University, 2324 N. Fremont Street in Chicago, Illinois.  The event is free and open to the public.

On Oct. 28, Amnesty International USA will hold its Midwest Regional Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  The conference will include workshops on human rights abuses against South Asian migrant workers and on using the arts against enforced disappearances in Nepal, North Korea and Sri Lanka.

In July this year Amnesty International had said that findings of a United Nations Special Rapporteur lay bare the shocking extent to which the Sri Lankan authorities had abandoned their human rights responsibilities under the guise of counter-terrorism.

Responding to the findings of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism, Ben Emmerson, during his visit to Sri Lanka from 10-14 July 2017, David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s Senior Advisor on South Asia, said the authorities have hidden behind the Prevention of Terrorism Act to commit a litany of violations that make for very uncomfortable reading.

“From forgotten prisoners languishing behind bars for years without trial, to whole communities targeted for persecution and harassment, to endemic torture, this report must serve as a catalyst for wholesale changes. This must start with repealing the Act and replacing it with legislation that meets international human rights standards. And, if the country is ever to truly move forward, those responsible on all sides for serious violations must be brought to justice.”

The UN Special Rapporteur’s key findings were that people arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) have languished in detention without trial for years and many of those who have been tried were convicted based solely on a confession to a police officer that may have been extracted under torture.

He had also said that the use of torture was found to be so commonplace and widespread as to warrant a review of the validity of all past PTA convictions where a confession to the police was central to prosecution.

Emmerson had also said that counter-terrorism in Sri Lanka has targeted whole communities for persecution, including harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention, and in particular Tamils. At the same time he said the Government has done little to hold to account those who committed gross human rights violations during and since the conflict.

In April this year Amnesty International launched a report in Sri Lanka and said that Sri Lanka will not break with its violent past until it reckons with the cruel history of enforced disappearance and delivers justice to as many as 100,000 families who have spent years waiting for it.

Amnesty International’s report, “Only Justice can heal our wounds,” was launched by the organisation’s Secretary General Salil Shetty at a meeting with families of the disappeared in Mannar.

The report tells the story of relatives, many of them women, who have spent years searching for truth and justice. Obstructed at every turn, they have been misled about the whereabouts or fate of their disappeared relatives, subjected to threats, smears and intimidation, and suffered the indignity of delayed trials and a stalled truth and justice processes.

“There is no community in Sri Lanka that remains untouched by the trauma of enforced disappearance. Most people in the country suffer the absence of a loved one or know someone who does. They have waited years, and in some cases, decades, to learn of the fate of their relatives. Until justice is delivered to these victims, the country cannot begin to heal, let alone move towards a more promising future,” said Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.

Despite international commitments to end impunity for enforced disappearance, which may amount to crimes against humanity where they have been widespread and systematic, the authorities have failed to investigate these cases, identify the whereabouts or fate of the victim, or prosecute those suspected of the crimes.

A major driver of enforced disappearances has been like Sri Lanka’s notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Enabling incommunicado and secret detention, the PTA places people outside the law and leaves them vulnerable to human rights violations including torture and enforced disappearances.

“Sri Lanka needs to put the victims at the heart of any reconciliation process. The authorities must hear their demands and implement them. The current government has taken encouraging steps to acknowledge the need to end impunity, but it cannot leave the victims waiting any longer. They have waited too long already. If Sri Lanka wants to successfully pull away from its violent past, it must address victims’ demands for justice, truth, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence,” said Salil Shetty.

In Colombo later Amnesty International launched Silenced Shadows, the published collection of winning entries from the human rights organisation’s October 2015 poetry competition on the theme of enforced disappearances.

“Every community in Sri Lanka has been affected by enforced disappearances. We want this day to not only serve as memory of what happened, but to call on the Sri Lankan government to criminalise enforced disappearances and consign them to history once and for all,” said Yolanda Foster, Amnesty International’s outgoing Sri Lanka expert.

In October 2015, Amnesty International invited Sri Lankans in the country and across the world to submit poems around the theme of enforced disappearances.

Sri Lanka is the country with the second highest number of enforced disappearances, according to the United Nations. Some estimates have put the total number of people who have been subject to enforced disappearances at up to 100,000 people. “Disappearances have been a tragic fact of life for far too many Sri Lankans for far too long. Many families are still searching for lost loved ones, and many others have sadly given up hope of seeing them ever again,” said Yolanda Foster.

The Amnesty International poetry competition offered a creative space and an opportunity to share reflections to this national tragedy in English, Tamil and Sinhala.

The competition drew an impressive breadth of entries, from people of different backgrounds. The poems were then judged by distinguished international literary figures.

Also in April, Shetty said it was time for the government to act, after it got a two-year extension at the UN Human Rights Council to fulfill its commitments.

Drawing from a report that Amnesty released earlier on enforced disappearances, Shetty told The Hindu: “Families of the disappeared have spent years, sometimes decades, waiting for answers. The Government can delay no longer.” Urging the Government to swiftly operationalise the Office On Missing Persons and to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, Shetty emphasised that Sri Lanka would not be able to break away from its violent past until families of the disappeared “get the truth they demand and the justice they deserve.”

In addition to questions on accountability and militarisation, people in the north constantly underscored poverty and the loss of livelihoods, particularly among women-headed households, Shetty observed. “Often, this was closely linked to land… these are people whose land is their livelihood,” he said, even as hundreds in the island’s north and east are protesting for their land, currently held by the military, to be returned.

On the sidelines of a press conference, Shetty told The Hindu geopolitical dynamics had a direct bearing on the nature of engagement of international actors. The fact that there was now a UNHRC resolution co-sponsored by the U.S. and Sri Lanka was positive. “But once it comes into the domestic sphere, I am not sure how much influence the U.S. or anybody else has.”

4 Comments for “Sri Lanka To Be A Base For Human Rights Monitoring”

  1. Sangaralingham

    Leadership in the country are in a state of neglect in controlling violation of human rights across the country without taking any action as some of the leaders can be considered violators of human rights. People in uniform has ample opportunity to do sp assault abuse bribery assault lack of respect for individualsrespect sexual interference sll randomly reported in random in all media all the times daily. The results charges etc often not known

  2. Sangaralingham

    Truth from government for missing disappeared individuals isnot guaranteed as some in government was in various government in the past often violated gross human and social abuse now feel ashamed if they are real human
    With moral ethics but still someone of moral sense and guilt of the past must found what happened who is responsible answer may be in their heads and souls

    • Kumarathasan Rasingam

      The inaction of the successive governments to prosecute, charge, punish any one in Uniform for the crimes committed. The Governments overlooked all these crimes against humanity if committed against the Tamils. It is like giving freedom and impunity to the Armed forces to commit any crimes against the minorities.
      Buddhist extremists and extremist monks instead of preaching Lord Buddha’s noble teachings these people preached racism and hated for which now the country is under UN radar and internationally noted for war crimes, crimes against humanity & genocide; The link below will give full details of incidents since 1956
      GENOCIDE OF TAMILS IN SRI LANKA
      https://www.academia.edu/29486541/Importance_of_an_Independent_Homeland_for_Tamils_in_Sri_Lanka_Genocide_of_Tamils_in_Sri_Lanka

  3. Lanka

    Amnesty International the London-based non-governmental organisation is focused on human rights of minority groups only. They are vociferous in conducting campaigns against African, Asian and underdeveloped countries!
    They print and circulate reams and reams of paper on allegations made by any Tom, Dick or Harry. Where is their voice against USA, UK, France, Germany and other EU nations who have committed gross violations against sovereign nations like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya etc! These are the same jokers made history with cricket balls!!!! Hope Sri Lanka does not give an inch to these LTTE supporting vagabonds.

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