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Sri Lanka’s former human rights commissioner decries ‘dangerous’ smear against her

Sri Lanka’s former human rights commissioner, Ambika Satkunanathan, rebukes a defamatory statement released by Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry which attacked her submission to the European Parliament claiming it “reminiscent of LTTE propaganda”.

“Efforts to bring lasting peace to Sri Lanka are undermined by denials of the root causes of the armed conflict, i.e. discrimination. Instead, the MFA statement labels discussion of the root causes as LTTE propaganda. This is ominous given the decades-long strategy of weaponizing the PTA against Tamils. Implying such discussion is a danger to communal harmony, as the Ministry does in its statement, can be used to weaponize the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act to stifle dissent. The government’s use of these phrases will create fear amongst civic activists, especially in the North and East, and shrink civic space further. The very space the government denies is shrinking” she notes.   

Satkunanathan further raises concerns over the Ministry’s statement noting the proliferation of false articles on “her supposed links to the LTTE”; she notes her concern that “persons with racist ideologies to harass and perpetrate violence, including cyber violence against me”.

Address the Prevention of Terrorism Act

Satkunanathan also takes aim at the government’s criticism over her appeal that the EU advocate that Sri Lanka meets its “its international human rights obligations using GSP Plus trade privileges as a conduit”.

“It is regrettable the government refuses to acknowledge that any adverse outcome of the GSP Plus review process would only be due to its failure to fulfil the GSP Plus scheme’s requirements. Hence, it is the government that has to take responsibility for any adverse outcomes. Instead, the government implies that those who advocate for the protection of the marginalized, such as Free Trade Zone workers, are responsible for a possible adverse outcome because they highlight the government’s failures. This is an attempt to deflect blame. To ensure there is no adverse impact on vulnerable communities, the government needs to acknowledge that the crisis is the result of its poor policy decisions, taken without bearing the best interests of citizens in mind” she writes.

 

Cracking down on civil society

Responding to the situation in Sri Lanka, the EU delegation in Sri Lanka has maintained that “civil society’s critical engagement on PTA reforms and human rights issues should be welcomed rather than met with hostility”.

Satkunanathan remarks that the ministry’s singling out of her statement is “the perfect example of the government’s intolerance of dissent” and details that “several civil society organisations and activists, particularly from the North and East, have been questioned by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) during the last year”.

“That they are being subject to these ‘routine security checks’ when there is no prima facie evidence of wrongdoing, casts doubt on the government’s assertion of partnership with civil society” she adds.

She further stresses:

“As a Sri Lankan citizen, it is my right and civic duty to question the actions of elected representatives of this country when such actions lead to the suffering and marginalisation of vulnerable communities, and demand accountability.  Only a country that respects this right can be considered truly independent and democratic”.

In June, EU parliament passed a new resolution on Sri Lanka expressing “serious concern at the rapid deterioration of human rights” on the island and urging the Council to consider targeted sanctions against senior Sri Lanka officials accused of war crimes.

 

Culture of impunity

Commenting on Sri Lanka’s climate of impunity, she notes that this is well documented by Sri Lanka’s own Supreme Court and Human Rights Commission. She adds that “since 2020 several incidents of violence by state officials have been publicly recorded. Yet, to date, the number of persons held accountable is negligible.

She further notes that Sri Lanka’s “war on drugs” “is being used to justify arbitrary arrests and detention as well suspected extra-judicial killings by police in Sri Lanka”.

 

Sinhala Buddhist nationalism

Whilst the Sri Lankan foreign ministry denies concerns that they are motivated by Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and claims that all minorities are represented on the Presidential Task Force on Archaeology; Satkunanathan rebukes these claims noting the President’s numerous appeals to Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and the appointment of notorious extremist monk Gnanasara as the head of the Archaeological Task Force.

Gnanasra “has publicly made inflammatory and discriminatory statements and incited violence against Muslim community. Such an appointment begs the question whether the government is concerned about the preservation of social harmony” she writes.

 

Militarisation

Her statement also takes aim at the increasing militarisation of the state as she notes:

“The Ministry has conflated the process of militarization, with the military occupation of land. The former includes the military undertaking tasks that were and should be within the purview of civilian entities. The phenomenon of militarization has been meticulously recorded by civil society, including myself, and is publicly available for reference”.

Satkunanathan further stresses that her submission to the EU parliament was made in her capacity as a human rights advocate and not as Chairperson of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust.

Read her full statement here.

Read the Foreign Ministry’s statement here.

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