Speaking to DW News’ journalist, Tim Sebastian, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Secretary, Jayanath Colombage, who himself stands accused of running torture camps, attacked human rights defenders in Sri Lanka as “being funded by the West”.
The wide-reaching interview addressed issues of military impunity; Sri Lanka’s draconian counter-terrorism legislation; the President’s racist rhetoric; continued intimidation and harassment of victim communities and human rights defenders; efforts by the Sri Lankan government to block further investigations; and the country’s dwindling international support.
Reflecting on the passage of the UN Human Rights Council’s resolution, which mandates the collection of evidence for a future war crimes tribunal, and Sri Lanka’s repeated denials of such allegations. Sebastian asked the Foreign Minister;
“Is the rest of the world so stupid that they’re going to immediately accept those denials in the face of overwhelming documented human rights abuses”.
Colombage denied have received documented evidence and alleged that the resolution was the result of Western interests.
“35 white countries got together and made unsubstantiated claims. This is nothing to do with human rights in Sri Lanka”, he stated.
Sebastian highlighted the historic loss of support at the UN Human Rights Council with 22 countries voting in favour of the resolution, 14 abstaining, and 11 votings against.
“Your rapidly losing international support and credibility and the votes prove it”, he stated.
Colombage went on to claimed that “no one cares more about human rights than us” but also that “no one can force reconciliation”. He further alleged that a domestic inquiry would be established to investigate claims of human rights abuses and missing persons.
The proposal for yet another domestic commission has been internationally condemned by human rights organisations, as well as former and current UN officials. In a joint statement, these officials described the establishment as almost laughable if it were not for the seriousness of the subject matter. In the UN High Commissioner’s report, she details the entrench impunity in Sri Lanka and the lack of political will to deliver on transitional justice.
When questioned on how Sri Lanka would respond to countries acting upon the UN High Commissioner’s recommendations for targeted sanctions, asset freezes, and travel bans. Colombage claimed countries had a separate agenda and were using human rights as a weapon.
Whilst avoiding comment on the President’s Commission on Political Victimisation, and its call to pardon senior officials implicated in human rights abuses, insisted that more time was needed for Sri Lanka to fulfil its own inquiries.
This came as Sebastian questioned the government’s conduct in halting prosecutions and intervening in cases involved military officials accused of grievous human rights violations. Sebastian further highlighted the continued use of state agents to harass and intimidate human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, and families of the disappeared.
Colombage responded claiming that they should file a police complaint isn’t of addressing their complaints to the international community. He further alleged that “most of the human rights defenders are receiving money from the West” and asserted that “they are not bona fide human rights defenders”.
The International Truth and Justice Project has reported that Tamil activists have been "abducted, tortured and raped because of their involvement in the search for the truth about the disappeared in Sri Lanka,". They further document 178 documented credible cases of torture from 2015-2018 in Sri Lanka. Their report notes, that this figure “likely represents the tip of the iceberg".
When questioned on why police investigators such as Nishantha de Silva were forced to flee the country following the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Colombage claimed that;
“He was not threatened, it was part of a conspiracy, all these things were planned they were probably given lots of money to do these things”.
Commenting on the pardon of Sunil Rathnayake, who was arrested for the murder of 8 Tamil civilians which included 3 children, Sebastian asked:
“You’ve pardoned child killers, is there no depths to which you won’t sink?
A convicted child killer gets a presidential pardon. What kind of country are you living in?”
Colombage responded claiming; “we will never pardon someone who has something wrong” and asserting that many former LTTE cadres were also pardoned.
Sebastian then highlighted the issue of military impunity.
“You are not holding your armed forces accountability you are telling them you can’t get away with anything”.
Prevention of Terrorism
When questioned on repeated calls by human rights organisations to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows for arbitrary detention without charge, Colombage admitted that this was an issue and claimed that the government was working on it.
However, Sebastian highlighted that on 12 March the Sri Lankan government proposed legislation that would actually expand on it, in the name of “deradicalization”. Last month 8 Muslims were detained under the PTA under allegations of spreading “extremist ideology” and 7 Tamils have been detained since last November.
Colombage stated that without the measure the government would not be able to go after the perpetrators of crimes such as the Easter bombing. Since the 1980s human rights organisations have been calling for a repeal of the draconian measure.
When addressing the divisive rhetoric of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sebastian drew on Rajapaksa’s claim on the 18 November that “the Sinhala race was threatened with destruction”. This was Rajapaksa “blatantly pressing the fear button and promoting disharmony” Sebastian noted.
Whilst initially defending the comments made by Rajapaksa, Colombage went on to claim that the threat was credible, “it’s been threatened for the last 500-600 years”.
Addressing the issue of forced cremations, Colombage attempt to claim that this was “never a political decision” and was based on science despite numerous World Health Organisation officials and UN experts instructing Sri Lanka that cremations were safe and to abide by the religious rites of Muslims.
In a joint statement, UN official decried the decision as being “based on discrimination, aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism amounting to the persecution of Muslims and other minorities in the country”.
Whilst Colombage has claimed “it's behind us”, cremations have been restricted to only certain locations in the North-East and the government have gone on to propose further legislation that infringes on the rights of Muslims. These include a ban on the burqa and the close of 1,000 (madrasas) Islamic schools.