Op-ed written for South Africa's Mail & Guardian , by Yasmin Sooka, who in 2010 was appointed by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon to a panel of experts to advise him on the conflict in Sri Lanka. The arrest on terrorism charges this week of two well-known human rights activists in Sri Lanka has sent ripples of fear through those who work for justice on the island, even though the two men were subsequently released. It was the timing, happening just days before the United Nations Human Rights Council votes on whether or not to hold Sri Lanka accountable for grave violations of international law during the final phase of the conflict in 2008-2009. An investigative mechanism under the office of the High Commissioner is envisaged in the current draft of the Resolution, which was tabled for voting on March 26.
Today’s resolution is a turning point in the battle for the human rights of the Tamil people. It opens up the possibility to obtain justice via international mechanisms for all those who lost their loved ones in the course of the mass atrocities of 2009 and in the seven years prior.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated that an international inquiry on Sri Lanka is "warranted" and "essential", as she presented her report on Sri Lanka at the 25th session UN Human Rights Council earlier today. Addressing the council Pillay stated "there has been little progress in other critical areas" and that " Sri Lanka has not responded positively to OHCHR’s repeated offers of technical assistance". Speaking on the final stages of the armed conflict, Pillay told the council " it is important for the Human Rights Council to recall the magnitude and gravity of the violations alleged to have been committed". She went on to add that whilst the government has claimed to initiate various investigations, "none have had the independence to be effective or inspire confidence among victims and witnesses."
The Australian director at Human Rights Watch has called upon the government to “show leadership” on human rights in Sri Lanka, by co-sponsoring a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council, which is due to be voted on this week. Writing in the Guardian, Elaine Pearson said Australia, which is bidding for a seat on the council in 2018, has been “shamefully non committal” and urged it to use “public and private pressure” on Sri Lanka, including co-sponsoring a resolution.
The below is compiled from comments by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam to the Geneva Press Club on March 21, 2014 during a panel discussion, ‘Is the Sri Lanka resolution at the UNHRC part of the problem?’ Mr. Ponnambalam is President of the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF). The purpose of my intervention is to outline the Tamil people’s expectations of international processes and institutions, such as the UN Human Rights Council, given the prevailing situation in the Tamil areas of the North-East. Fundamentally, any international action with regards to Sri Lanka needs to effect distinctive change on the ground. As far as the Tamil people are concerned, this is the only criteria by which one should judge whether any act on our behalf is a positive step, a negative step or, quite simply, irrelevant to us.
The below is compiled from comments by Krisna Saravanamuttu to the Geneva Press Club on March 21, 2014 during a panel discussion, ‘Is the Sri Lanka resolution at the UNHRC part of the problem?’ Mr. Saravanamuttu is elected representative of the National Council of Canadian Tamils (NCCT) and spokesperson of the International Council of Eelam Tamils (ICET). Today we hear a lot about the process of violence that continues five years after the war. We hear about military occupation, rape, the appropriation of land, the imprisonment of political prisoners, the denial of civil liberties under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the deterioration of health, food and social security.
Writing in the Asian Correspondent today on the heightened militarisation in the North-East, and the spate of recent arrests of activists, the Tamil journalist in exile J.S. Tissainayagam, warned that the international community's deletion of 'demilitarisation' from the draft UNHRC resolution text " signals to Colombo that there will be no serious opposition to it ruling northern Sri Lanka through the military ." See full article here . Extracts reproduced below: "As the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva was discussing the clauses of its resolution on Sri Lanka, the Colombo government used troops and special laws to arrest human rights defenders (HRDs) in the northern part of the country last week. It is ironic that while the Sri Lanka Government decided to beef-up militarisation in the former warzones and arrest activists, the UNHRC agreed to delete the word “demilitarisation” from its draft resolution."
The South Asia Director of Human Rights Meenakshi Ganguly has called on the United Nations Human Rights Council to demand the release of detained human rights activists in Sri Lanka in a piece written earlier today. Extracts from her piece entitled ‘Silencing Sri Lanka’s Rights Advocates’ have been reproduced below. See the full piece here . “There’s a grim irony in the timing of the arrests that come just as a resolution on Sri Lanka’s failure to address accountability is under discussion and will be voted on soon at the ongoing United Nations Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva. In spite of council resolutions in 2012 and 2013, Sri Lanka has taken no meaningful steps towards ensuring justice for the victims of abuses during its civil war, and has instead launched an aggressive campaign against those Sri Lankans who advocate for accountability. Human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and civil society members who are critical of the government have regularly been threatened and harassed. Those who have an international profile, such as Fernando, face particular government hostility.”
Acclaimed journalist J. S. Tissainayagam, wrote in Asian Correspondent on Wednesday, calling for a strengthening of a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution on accountability in Sri Lanka, stating one that does is not “will only enhance turmoil and violence”. Tissainayagam was detained by Sri Lanka's Terrorism Investigation Division in 2008 and sentenced to 20 years of "rigorous punishment" for inciting "communal feelings". Following international pressure, including a mention from US President Barack Obama, Tissainayagam was eventually pardoned and is currently living in exile. See his full piece in the Asian Correspondent here . Extracts have been reproduced below. Language in the draft resolution now before the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for an investigation into past and ongoing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka lacks teeth say critics. A resolution that establishes a weak investigating body will only render ineffectual what the international community says it is working for – strengthening human rights to promote reconciliation in a country recovering from war. Adding to this, post-war militarisation in the former warzone of northern and eastern Sri Lanka, continues to spawn grave human rights abuses – disappearance, torture and sexual violence. In the face of Colombo’s stonewalling, the only option for justice and accountability for past and ongoing violations was an international investigation.
Northern Province Councillor, Ananthi Sasitharan's address at the side event on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council on March 11th, organised by IMADR (International Movement Against all forms of Discrimination and Racism), reproduced in full below: My name is Ananthi Sasitharan, I am an elected Member of Northern Provincial Council in Sri Lanka. I am here today in front of you as a voice of the oppressed Tamil people in Sri Lanka, and I speak on behalf of thousands of Tamil people that surrendered as individuals and as families to the Sri Lankan government. Myself and others have filed cases habeas-corpus and continue to receive no justice for the thousands of people that were put in Sri Lankan custody. Our homeland is completely occupied by the military, that are almost entirely Sinhalese. At any event, the army is there and people are afraid by the army presence - too afraid to talk or do anything. All our native lands are in their hands, as they have occupied everything. In the North-East, there are a huge number of relatives of missing people; not just of those that disappeared during the war, because even today people are disappearing.