ECONOMYNEXT –The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) should maintain its rigorous scrutiny of Sri Lanka’s worsening human rights situation and press for genuine improvements, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Friday (10) morning.
“No one should be in any doubt that Sri Lanka’s human rights situation is deeply alarming and getting worse,” HRW South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly was quoted as saying in a statement.
“UN member states should recognise that the government is sensitive to international pressure, and make the protection of human rights in Sri Lanka their priority,” she added.
HRW said that, at the Council’s upcoming session scheduled to begin next Monday (13), UN member countries should express their alarm about alleged abuses by the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the alleged weakening of independent governmental institutions, civilian governance, and the rule of law.
“These countries should demonstrate their willingness to press the Sri Lankan government to meet its international human rights obligations,” the statement said.
“Since Gotabaya Rajapaksa took office in 2019, the limited progress Sri Lanka had made in addressing past atrocities and ending abuses has been disastrously reversed,” the statement quoted Ganguly as saying.
“Continued international attention and pressure can help reduce the risks faced by minority communities, activists and journalists, who live in heightened fear of the authorities,” she said.
The HRW statement comes close on the heels of a statement by UN Special Rapporteur Mary Lawlor who claimed on Tuesday (07) detained Sri Lankan lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah’s human rights work and legal practice may have been conflated with terrorism and his detention may be used to prevent him from further engaging in ongoing human rights cases.
International pressure has been mounting on the island nation to address allegations of human rights abuses, particularly those alleged to have been committed during the final phase of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). Criticism has also been levelled at President Rajapaksa’s administration for its own record of human rights.
A UK report on human rights and democracy said in July that the overall human rights situation in Sri Lanka continued to deteriorate in 2020.
Titled ‘Human Rights and Democracy: 2020 Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office report‘, the document noted an alleged increase in surveillance and intimidation of civil society, limited or no progress with regard to accountability, militarisation and other issues.
Faced with the prospect of losing access to Europe’s GSP+ trade concession, Sri Lanka has announced its intention to address some of the concerns highlighted by the international community.
HRW, however, appears sceptical.
“Far from promoting reconciliation, the government has repeatedly adopted policies that alienate Sri Lanka’s beleaguered minority communities. Tamils and Muslims in the north and east have complained of a concerted government policy to seize land belonging to members of their communities on various pretexts, including by a presidential task force on archaeology composed of Buddhist monks and members of the security forces,” the statement said.
“Foreign governments should take firm and coordinated action to press the Sri Lankan government to reverse course,” it added.
HRW said the European Union should insist that Sri Lanka complies with its human rights obligations to maintain tariff free market access under GSP+, as should the United Kingdom under its similar programme. Donor governments and multilateral agencies, such as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, should immediately withhold support for Sri Lankan security forces until they take steps to halt and address violations, in compliance with UN due diligence standards, the international human rights watchdog said.
“Governments should also consider imposing targeted sanctions on senior figures implicated in grave abuses, and pursue prosecutions under universal jurisdiction, as recommended by the UN human rights chief, Michele Bachelet, earlier this year,” it added.
The organisation was also critical of a government move to pay compensation to families of victims.
“… the government’s approach has been to emphasise ‘compensation’ to victims over justice and accountability, as Justice Minister Ali Sabry said at an event organized by the Office of Missing Persons on August 31. The Foreign Ministry claims that these payments— about US$500 each in cases in which the victim died— will help bring ‘closure’ and ‘reconciliation’,” HRW said.
HRW also questioned the government’s commitment to reforming the Prevention of Terrorism ACT (PTA), a running theme in international pronouncements on Sri Lanka’s human rights record.
“These actions contradict the government’s claim to foreign diplomats that it was preparing to reform the PTA, which has been used to facilitate the arbitrary detention and torture of prisoners since its introduction in 1979.
“Under the PTA, a prisoner can be held for up to 18 months without being produced in court. A newly formed “advisory board” of three presidential appointees to review pre-trial detention orders under this law offers no credible legal protection against abuses,” HRW said.
The full statement can be accessed here. (Colombo/Sep10/2021)