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Addressing Sri Lanka’s Complex Human Rights Issues

May 21, 2024

Credits @FFHR.CZ

Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard made an impassioned plea to the Sri Lankan authorities to meet its national and international obligations and find answers as to what happened to the thousands of missing and forcibly disappeared people. Having witnessed firsthand the anguish and suffering of mothers, fathers, wives, brothers, sisters and children after her visit to the end of war commemoration at Mullavaikkal and meeting relatives still looking for their loved ones 15 years after the war ended, Ms Callamard lamented the lack of political will by successive governments that has prolonged an agony without end.

“It is on a stain on Sri Lanka’s reputation that so many of its people have been disappeared and it is something that every Sri Lankan should be concerned with wherever they are, whoever they are and whichever part of the country they are from,” she said at a media conference at the conclusion of her five day visit.

She said that one of worst cases was when people surrendered willingly to the military at the end of the war never to be seen again. “Men who may have been soldiers for the LTTE often surrendered with their entire families and the entire family has disappeared. That means young children and babies. I think the Sri Lankans need to ask where are the babies, where are the children? I have seen photos of four month old, ten month old babies…To me it is unforgivable not to have an answer for those children and babies who were caught at the end of the war who surrendered willingly. They were not arrested in the formal way of the word. They went to the army and said we are surrendering and these are the ones who disappeared.”

Sri Lanka, she pointed out, had one of the highest number of disappearances in the world – 60,000 to 100,000. Disappearances were considered as one of the worst possible violations of human rights, even worse than death, because there was no closure. “You don’t know, you simply don’t know and you live for years and years with a gaping wound in your heart; you simply don’t know what happened to them.”

During her visit she met representatives of civil society, human rights defenders, activists, journalists, protesters and victims of human rights violations. She met families of the disappeared. “I have been deeply moved by their courage and resilience and their determination to continue to seek truth and justice for their loved ones,” Ms Callamard said.

She hoped that future memorialisations would be supported by the police in a positive manner. “Memorialisation must be respected by all actors of the state. There was no evidence as far as we could see of those events being used for anything else than to remember the dead.”

On the bill to establish a Truth Commission, she said that the bill presented many similarities with other domestic commissions that had failed over the past 15 years. “I was told repeatedly that domestic mechanisms such as the Office of Reparations and the Office on Missing Persons were mere window dressing while cases were piled up in a clear illustration of what is seen as an absence of political will to resolve those crimes.”

She said mothers had told their stories and given their evidence many times for nothing. There was a lack of an enabling environment to establish a truth commission. “We feel that right now the circumstances are not there to allow for a truth commission to deliver anything meaningful because of a lack of an enabling environment reflected by the stakeholders’ and victims’ lack of trust. That lack of trust came through loud and clear in all our meetings.”

“It is not just successive governments that are failing the people of Sri Lanka. It is a failure of all leadership of the country for the last 15 years. The political leadership, the religious leadership, the moral leadership, the cultural leadership. Truth and reconciliation is not just a government issue even though they have a particularly important obligation to deliver that. But it is a duty for all those with influence over society.”

In order to establish a trust building environment, she suggested the following:

  • A moratorium over the use of the PTA, particularly in the context of right to assembly and right to freedom of expression

  • No obstruction to memorialisation

  • An end to the widespread use of surveillance and harassment

  • An investigation into state authorities claiming lands historically held by Tamils including for archaeological purposes

  • Legislative changes, including constitutional changes, to ensure the effective and independent functioning of the Office of Missing Person, the Office for Reparation and the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crimes

  • Delivering some kind of meaningful outcome to one or two cases of the disappeared

  • Any truth mechanism should be in line with the past consultations that have been done with stakeholders

  • The government should make a declaration under Article 31 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance as it has not recognised that the International Committee on Enforced Disappearance has any competence to review what’s happening in Sri Lanka

  • Exploring the idea of a hybrid court

  • Working with the International Accountability Project to address existing gaps and provide expertise.

  • Acceding to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court

Ms Callamard said Amnesty was recommending that UN Member state adopted a resolution at the upcoming Human Rights Council session to promote the delivery of truth and reconciliation. “We have made a very clear call to the international community not to forget the people of Sri Lanka and to work with the government to address the victims’ feelings of alienation and distrust…and support the people and the authorities to achieve this reconciliation, truth and justice.”

Ms Callamard also expressed alarm at the shrinking of civic space by the misuse of existing legislation and proposed legislation to stamp out freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly and dissent.

“We are very alarmed with the proposal of an NGO law. This NGO law is something that we should all fight against, including the media. There is sufficient legal framework to regulate NGOs; it will create enormous disruption to civil society organisations that are providing essential services to the population. So we are calling on the government not to proceed with that law and to rely on the existing legal framework that is sufficient for the purpose of regulating NGOs,” she said.

She condemned the crackdown on the right to protest since 2022, with the authorities responding to largely peaceful demonstration with arbitrary detention, excessive force, surveillance and intimidation tactics. Some of the protesters were being arrested under multiple accusations under multiple laws, often without any credible evidence. “It also cannot be stressed enough that the military should never be involved in the policing of protests. That’s a fundamental principle, but that is always important to reiterate,” she said.

On the question of taking Sri Lanka to the UN Security Council with a view to being brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC), Ms Callamard said it was very unlikely that the Security Council would demand that the ICC intervened in the context of Sri Lanka, given the use of veto by any members.

“What we would prefer would be for the authorities of Sri Lanka to ratify the Statute of the International Criminal Court and if they don’t want to do that immediately because it’s a big step, they could give consent for an ICC investigation limited to that 30 year old war.”

Addressing the situation in Gaza, Ms Callamard said there was a breakdown of the system that was established in 1948 for the protection of human rights. “What is new is the fact that those violating international law justify their violations…And many of the actors that are driving the process are those that championed the 1948 international system such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia and China. All of those actors are driving the collapse of the international rule based order.”

A sign of hope was that people around the world were taking to the streets because they believed in upholding international law. “So the people in the Middle East, the people in Asia and the people in Europe, often against the wishes of their governments, have marched and protested, demanding an end to the war and also calling for the release of all hostages.

“So when we are about to lose something that is so important, I think we are prepared to fight for it. So that’s my hope. At least this is our role at Amnesty International. This is why we are denouncing the role of particularly powerful countries such as the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom, who are deliberately violating the rule based order that they established in 1948 because it no longer served their interest. We are denouncing that and we are calling on other countries and on the people to take on that vacuum and remind the powerful countries that we still believe in a rule based order and in human rights,” Ms Callamard said.


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