Ms. Julie de Rivero, Human Rights Watch, Item 2: General Debate – Thematic reports of the Secretary-General and High Commissioner for Human Rights, 15th meeting 19th Session of the Human Rights Council.
Thank you Madame President,
In her statement, the High Commissioner noted that the report of the Sri Lanka Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission falls short of the comprehensive accountability process recommended by the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts and encouraged the Council to consider the matter.
Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, addressing the 19th session of the HRC on February 27, recited a laundry list of steps the government of Sri Lanka says it is taking to address accountability and reconciliation.
What he failed to mention was that many of these measures were set up in haste on the eve of a possible resolution on Sri Lanka at the Council. As such, they represent little more than cosmetic gestures intended to avoid international action to promote accountability in the country. The recently announced army court of inquiry, for instance, had its members picked by Gen. Jagath Jayasuriya, head of security forces in the conflict’s main battle zone. An inquiry appointed by the commander who oversaw and was a colleague of senior officers who might themselves have been implicated in serious abuses cannot possibly be expected to be an independent and impartial finder of fact.
As Human Rights Watch and others have frequently pointed out, the Sri Lankan government has a long history of failed promises to provide accountability for serious human rights abuses. Instead of investigating credible claims, the government has consistently rejected them out of hand and questioned the motives of those who make them, whether it is the UN Secretary General, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, concerned governments, the media, or human rights organizations.
There is thus little reason to believe that these most recent government gestures will be any more meaningful than previous ones.
Human Rights Watch notes that the Sri Lankan government’s claims of progress on human rights flies in the face of realities on the ground. Civil society, human rights defenders and journalists critical of the government continue to operate in a climate of fear and repression.
On December 9, 2011, two political activists, Lalith Weeraraj and Kugan Murugunandan, were abducted in Jaffna while preparing to participate in Human Rights Day celebrations. On February 11, 2012, a complainant in a fundamental rights case, Ramasamy Prabhaharan, was abducted in Colombo two days before his case against the police was due to be heard. Human rights defenders and journalists who have alleged international contacts are often accused of being Tamil Tiger supporters – a very dangerous accusation in Sri Lanka.
Fears felt by civil society groups extend beyond Sri Lanka. In September 2011, activist Sunanda Deshapriya was sharply criticized in the state media for his attendance at an informal meeting during the HRC sessions in Geneva. In such a climate, several Sri Lankan human rights groups and victims of abuses who had planned to travel to Geneva for the HRC sessions have decided not to attend out of fear.
Human Rights Watch recently documented the torture of several ethnic Tamil asylum seekers who had been returned to Sri Lanka. Contrary to the hopes of many, the end of the long armed conflict has not brought an end to abuses against ethnic minorities. Human Rights Watch has also received credible information that Tamil communities in Jaffna and elsewhere were forced to participate in the government-staged protests over the possible HRC resolution.
Human Rights Watch maintains its belief that real progress on accountability and justice for victims of abuses by all sides in Sri Lanka can only come through an independent international investigation mechanism.