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These blog postings do not necessarily represent the views of all members of the Advisory Council.

19/01/2015

A Yardstick for change

Triumphalist memorials like this do not help build a lasting peace

Sri Lanka has a new President, Maithripala Sirisena. He was elected, in significant part, by a population appalled by the racism, the slide into authoritarianism, the systematic violation of human rights, and the war crimes committed by the previous regime (as well as its increasingly flagrant nepotism and corruption).

He, and his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe, have promised constitutional reform, and have made some positive noises about restoring the rule of law, ending attacks on freedom of speech, and rowing back on the abuse of executive power. But until three months ago Sirisena himself was a senior minister in the old regime (having been defence minister in the closing months of the civil war), and so far he has said little about the issues that matter most to Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority, such as the constant abuses to which the civilian population are subjected in the north, which remains to all intents and purposes a conquered territory under military occupation. He has also expressed opposition to the idea of an international investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka, which is the only way to break Sri Lanka’s culture of impunity and secure a lasting peace.

So is Sri Lanka now on the road to recovery, or do its deeper underlying problems mean that any change is likely to be superficial?

It is simply too early to know the answer, but we should soon have some clues. Below is a list of tests which can be used to measure how much Sri Lanka has really changed.
NB These tests should not be confused with Mathripala Sirisena’s own 100 day programme which can be seen, and is being monitored, here. Nor are these demands that we, as an externally-based Campaign, are presenting to Sri Lanka’s newly elected government. It is not for us to tell Sri Lankans how they should run their country - and many of these items were not in the manifesto of any candidate. But in a situation such as Sri Lanka’s, which is recovering from violent conflict, politicians have a duty not just to their electorate, but also to the victims of the war. If their demands are not met then there can be no hope for reconciliation, and without reconciliation change will pass Sri Lanka’s war affected communities by.
The following are demands which have been voiced by victims and civil society activists with Sri Lanka – particularly but by no means exclusively within the Tamil community – the community most affected. We believe they may be useful as a yardstick with which those who follow Sri Lanka’s affairs can measure its progress.

The list consists of things that Maithripala Sirisena and Ranil Wickremasinghe could do today. If in the coming weeks and months they manage to enact many of these measures, then we can start to have confidence that Sri Lanka is on the right track. By the same token, if these things do not happen the inference will be that little of substance has changed in Sri Lanka, and the same issues remain even if different people are in power.

It is pleasing that in the course of drafting this document two of our tests were half completed, and the President has made some positive noises about land rights. However our concern is that other items on this list may prove a tougher test of political will. We know it is unrealistic to expect perfection, but we will judge this government’s ability to bring lasting peace by the extent of its actions in these areas – as will the survivors of 2009.

Tests of the direction of travel of the new Sri Lankan Government:

The release of political prisoners
“We are extremely concerned about the increased incidents of arbitrary arrest and detention. We reiterate our call to repeal the repressive Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which facilitates the State to carry out such arbitrary and illegal arrests and detentions. Such treatment of HRDs and victims, only serve to perpetuate the climate of fear and insecurity of conflict affected communities.” – Letter from 311 civil society activists 19/3/2014
  • Has Jeyakumary Balendaran, a mother of one of the disappeared against whom no evidence has been produced, been released after over 300 days in detention?
  • Is the government moving to abolish the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), a draconian piece of legislation which allows people to be imprisoned without trial for up to 18 months?
  • Has it withdrawn regulations promulgated under the PTA which keep in place the effects of the lapsed Emergency Regulations?
  • Has the government released all prisoners held under the PTA, or otherwise brought them into open court for trial on specific charges?
  • Is Boosa Detention Centre, Sri Lanka’s most notorious torture site, still open? If it is, are civil society and international inspectors allowed to visit it and are lawyers provided unrestricted access to their clients?
  • Has the government disclosed how many LTTE cadres are being held in secret “rehabilitation camps”?
A return to a normal way of life in the north and east
Community members have been unable to return to their day-to-day lives. Under the administration of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s militarization has continued unabated. The Sri Lanka Army (SLA) has established numerous checkpoints and camps near peoples’ homes. Military personnel frequently patrol these areas – day and night. Sadly, the military’s intrusion into practically all aspects of civilian affairs remains a way of life in the conflict-affected North and East.” –The Social Architects, an anonymous Tamil civil society collective, 9/5/2013
  • When a meeting is called in a predominantly Tamil area, do military personnel attend and keep a note of what is said? Do they attempt to break up the meeting?
  • Have any abductions or assaults being reported in the Northern or Eastern Province?
  • Do former LTTE cadres still receive regular night time visits from the police and army?
  • Have the ex-military personnel appointed as Government Agents to districts in the Northern and Eastern Province been replaced by civilian officials proficient in the Tamil language? How many Government workers in Tamil areas speak Tamil?
  • How much Tamil and Muslim land does the Sri Lankan army, and paramilitary groups such as the EPDP and TMVP, continue to illegally occupy? Do they continue to use it commercially? Is there a plan for return of the land and provide compensation?
  • How many Tamil families remain internally displaced and in temporary accommodation? How much effort is the Government putting into resettlement, into allowing Tamil families to return to their own lands, and into restoring fishing rights?
  • Is there a plan to reduce troop numbers in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province and to move towards demilitarising Sri Lanka’s north and east?
  • Have checkpoints in the Northern Province preventing free movement to travellers, such as in Omanthai, been removed? And can foreigners travel to Sri Lanka’s Northern Province without having to get permission from the Ministry of Defence? (NB the second half of this has already happened)
  • Has the Government implemented a “Certificate of Absence” scheme, in lieu of a death certificate, for those who have been missing for a long time? Is this granted the same degree of legal recognition as a death certificate?
  • Has any compensation been given to war affected families and the families of the disappeared?
A political solution to Tamil grievances
“There seems to be no attempts made by the Executive to work towards a lasting political solution except to blame the TNA. It is my view that there is no interest in finding a bilateral or multilateral solution. The only interest is in a unilateral solution facilitated by the military.” - C.V. Wigneswaran, Chief Minister of the Northern Province, 31/3/2104
  • Has there been any progress on a negotiated political solution which would allow Tamil people more autonomy and meaningful devolution?
  • Are the provisions relating to land powers and police powers for the Northern Provincial Council NPC being implemented, or does the NPC continue to be blocked from performing its functions as envisaged under the constitution?
  • Has the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council been allowed to do his job without central interference? 
  • Are draft statutes presented to the Governor by the Northern Provincial Council being held up by the Governor?
  • Have the Governor of the Northern Province and Chief Secretary of the Northern Province been replaced by a civilian and by a choice of the Chief Minister respectively? (NB: the first half of this has already happened)
Promoting peace and friendship between ethnicities
It is possible that vested interests may subvert the amicable resolution of the fisher communities’ problems for their benefit. In the past we have seen that resource-distribution conflicts have been exacerbated into inter ethnic conflicts, we urge that the leadership of both communities learn from past experiences, and approach this with a deeper understanding and sensitivity towards the peaceful co-existence.” - Citizens’ Commission on the Expulsion of Muslims from the Northern Province, 31/8/2012
  • Has the government presented any concrete plans to promote peace and friendship between Sri Lanka's different communities, for instance through implementing the recommendations in the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report on reconciliation (9.167-9.285) and through expanding the National Plan of Action to include all the LLRC recommendations?
  • Has there been more anti-Muslim rhetoric and acts of violence from the Buddhist extremist Bodu Bala Sena (BBS)? If so, how has the government responded?
  • Do the sanctions on 16 Tamil Diaspora organisations and 424 individuals remain in place?
Ending the culture of impunity
Sri Lanka will never have reconciliation or lasting peace, until and unless we know what’s happened to our disappeared brothers and sisters and those responsible are held accountable. This is not a task that should be left to families of disappeared and few of their supporters. Rather, it’s a task all Sri Lankans and all people who care about Sri Lanka should become involved and support.” –Ruki Fernando, 30/8/2014
  • Is there now an investigation into the hitherto uninvestigated deaths and disappearances of 36 journalists and media workers during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s term in office?
  • What is the status of the investigation of the Matale mass grave, Lalith Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganandan’s disappearance, and the Trinco 5 and Muttur 17 killings?
  • Has the report of the “Presidential Commission of Inquiry into 16 serious violations” been released to the public?
  • Is there a plan to investigate the 19,471 cases of disappearances registered before the Presidential Commission on missing persons in a timely manner?
  • What is the new Government’s attitude to the United Nations’ procedures on human rights? Are they continuing to disrespect the office of the High Commission for Human Rights and block investigations? Have any of the eight UN Special Procedures mandate holders with outstanding requests to visit been allowed to do so?
Over the coming weeks and months we will report back on the status of all these tests. Together they should help us understand Sri Lanka’s current direction of travel.

However even if Sri Lanka is moving in the right direction, we still feel that an international investigation into war crimes committed by both sides is needed, and that it must be followed by prosecution of those against whom there is clear prima facie evidence. That is the clear demand of those who survived the brutal final stages of the war. It is also required for a lasting peace. The main barrier to a lasting peace is the culture of impunity, which a lengthy series of domestic processes has failed to break.

In the long term Sri Lanka can only put the war behind it once that culture of impunity has been brought to an end. Until then, these tests will give us some idea which way the country is headed.

09/01/2015

Rajapaksa has lost, the transfer of power must be peaceful

Multiple credible news sources are reporting that President Mahinda Rajapaska has conceded defeat in Sri Lanka's presidential elections. At the time of going to press provisional results had common opposition candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, in the lead by 52% to 47%. This ends the authoritarian reign of South Asia’s longest-serving ruler.


The bitterly contested election was marred by violence, abuses of state power and fraud – hallmarks of the Rajapaksa regime. In the lead-up to the vote, the Campaign for Free and Fair Election received over 1,200 complaints of election law violations. The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence documented over 400 incidents - including armed attacks. The Commonwealth Observer Group reported concerns about military intimidation, particularly in the north of the country. Opposition supporters were harassed and human rights activists threatened. The severed heads of dogs were nailed to the homes of two campaigners.

Now that the elections are over there is a very real risk of reprisals against journalists, human rights activists, and Sirisena supporters. The result has done nothing to reduce this risk. The international community must make it very clear to Rajapaksa and his supporters that any such reprisals will have severe consequences for Sri Lanka’s foreign relations – and for them personally if they have assets abroad or wish to travel there.

Above all, the will of the people must be respected. Thankfully initial reports suggest President Rajapaksa has acceded to the will of the people, but he and his Brother Gotabaya have dug their claws deep into the apparatus of the Sri Lankan state, co-opting the judiciary, the civil service and, above all, the army. Gotabaya in particular has created a comprehensive state-within-a-state with the backing of large sections of the military and extremist groups such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS).

Gotabaya may well be tempted to somehow attempt to cling on to power. But he must understand that doing so would be disastrous for both Sri Lanka’s interests and his own. It would mean immediate expulsion from the Commonwealth, which Sri Lanka currently chairs and which represents all its largest trading partners, as well as probable sanctions from some of Sri Lanka’s most influential partners, both within the Commonwealth and beyond. (It would also, surely, oblige the Pope to cancel his visit next week.)

Rajapaksa may have drawn comforting conclusions from the international community’s mixed response to allegations of war crimes. But the suspension of democracy would be viewed very differently throughout the world, and even thus far largely supportive actors such as India, Japan and the world’s major financial institutions would be forced to react. If the Rajapaksa family does not go peacefully, and immediately, Sri Lanka will become a pariah state with few international friends or trading partners. That story could have no happy ending for Mahinda or Gotabaya, or any of their many relatives currently enjoying positions of power and profit.

Meanwhile Sirisena has promised to lead a “compassionate” and inclusive government. He has pledged to crack down on corruption and nepotism, abolish the executive presidency, restore the independence of the judiciary, respect human rights and democracy and safeguard the media.

Many are rightly sceptical. In some ways, he is a more authentic version of Rajapaksa’s populist nationalist persona. He was Defence Minister during the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war, and thus must bear at least some share of responsibility for the war crimes committed then. He has ruled out more autonomy for Tamils and said that “no international power will be allowed to ill-treat or touch a single citizen of this country on account of the campaign to defeat terrorism”.

Yet a democratic mandate for him cannot be any more a mandate for impunity than was the previous election victory of Rajapaksa. Only if he makes a firm commitment to dealing with war crimes allegations – with the support of the international community – can he hope to secure a just and lasting peace in Sri Lanka. He would do well to look at the example of the Cote D’Ivoire, among other places, and realise that working with the international community on the question of accountability is the only way to achieve this – perhaps even the only way to ensure that the Rajapaksas do not somehow orchestrate an undemocratic return to power.

The Sri Lanka Campaign calls on world leaders to help Sri Lanka correct its course. This must include strong action at the UN this March, as well as bilateral policies geared towards accountability and human rights.

We must do our utmost to support Sri Lankan activists who have worked tirelessly, and at great risk, in pursuit of truth and justice. We must stand with the people of Sri Lanka who have voted and now must be heard.

Sirisena has been given a mandate to build a sustainable peace. He must recognise that this depends on justice and accountability.

Full results will be available via the electoral commission website: http://www.slelections.gov.lk/

08/01/2015

Sri Lanka election violence: the world is watching

Sri Lanka votes today in a highly competitive presidential election. The election has been marred by widespread violence and threats against politicians, voters and monitors.

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence has documented over 400 incidents - including armed attacks - since the election was announced in November 2014. The Campaign for Free and Fair Election has reportedly received over 150 complaints of violence and over 1,200 complaints of election law violations. International monitors, including from the Commonwealth Observer Group, report concerns about military intimidation, particularly in the northern areas of the country. Fears of post-election violence are mounting.

The Sri Lanka Campaign is especially concerned by the appalling treatment of human rights activists and journalists, several of whom have received death threats, including threats against their children, and the placing of severed dogs heads outside their homes.

We urge all political parties to condemn these despicable threats and to call on their supporters to refrain from violence and intimidation. We also urge the authorities to do their utmost to ensure the safety of all citizens, before and after the election, and to facilitate their secure access to the polling stations. Whatever the outcome, there must not be reprisals.

The world is watching this election. The United Nations, Commonwealth and several governments have called for a free and fair contest in which all Sri Lankans can choose their leader without violence or fear. The Vatican too, will be watching closely, given the Pope's scheduled visit to the country days after the election. Given Sri Lanka's poor human rights record, which is already under international scrutiny and cost the country its GSP+ status in 2010, any attacks on activists are bound to have consequences.

We stand in solidarity with Sri Lankan activists for peace, justice, and human rights of all political persuasions and none, and express our hopes for a peaceful polling day.

Provisional results are expected around 9am Sri Lanka time (0330 GMT) on Friday and will be available via the electoral commission website. The Sri Lanka Campaign will be manning our twitter feed throughout the night and will release a further statement, and an email to supporters, once the result is known. The campaign remains neutral on the question of the election itself but our campaign director is available for comment with respect to the wider situation and the risk of electoral violence.

Incident maps from CMEV

 

27/12/2014

UN Women UK Event in Partnership with Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice

UN Women UK and the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice held a joint event hosted by Winckworth Sherwood to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and kick-start 16 days of activism which came to a close with International Human Rights Day.

The works of an artist currently in Sri Lanka were presented. They included her pictures from Mullaitivu, family photo albums recovered whilst shooting in Mullivaikkal, and a series of images of hands belonging to one family of survivors from the Northern district of Mullaitivu – coupled with hand written texts inscribed directly onto the surfaces of the images by the survivors themselves.

As the artist said, “I hope to evoke a crystallization of the themes surrounding the unseen, the hidden, and the unrepresentable in the context of post war Sri Lanka and to engage with the threshold lying between fact and fiction, politics and poetics.”

Three speakers then addressed the issue of the challenges faced by Tamil women and girls in Sri Lanka.

Frances Harrison, the journalist and author of “Still Counting the Dead: Survivors of Sri Lanka’s Hidden War”, spoke about sexual violence in Sri Lanka. She offered a harrowing account of the personal stories of many people she had met – many of whom had chosen to share their stories with her precisely because they wanted to make sure this never happened to anybody else.

Natalie Samarasinghe, Executive Director of the United Nations Association, then discussed the role of the UN in ending violence against Women and Girls, the successes and failures of the UN system, and how much more work is needed, particularly given the incredible scale of the problem around the world, as well as in Sri Lanka specifically.

Shivani Jegarajah, a Human Rights barrister from Michael Mansfield’s Chambers, then discussed whether women in occupied war zones and post conflict zones should be considered a protected group with respect to their refugee status in the United Kingdom, and made the argument that Tamil Women in the Northern Province most certainly should.

A Q& A then followed which primarily focussed on how best we could help the survivors of sexual violence in Sri Lanka. It was suggested that participants should lobby their members of parliament to demand fairer treatment for Sri Lankan asylum seekers, and that they should support charities founded with the purpose of supporting the survivors of sexual violence and torture.

Singer Maya Arulpragasam (M.I.A.) attended the event to show her support.

After the event Frances Harrison sold copies of her books. Proceeds and donations were split 50/50 between UN Women and Support a Survivor of Torture – a new charity established by Frances Harrison to support survivors of sexual torture in Sri Lanka.

For more information about our work please visit unwomenuk.org and srilankacampaign.org

23/12/2014

A year without justice

Today marks the 285th day of Jeyakumary Balendran’s detention. A prominent member of the movement for the families of the disappeared – her own son having been abducted shortly after the war – she was arrested in March 2014 amid a broad government crackdown on civil society in the run up to the UN Human Rights Council Session. You may remember our solidarity letter writing campaign.

Held under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act on the spurious allegation of conspiring to revive the LTTE, she has since been detained at the Boosa Army Camp, a place notorious for torture. During that time she has had extremely limited access to her lawyers and family. Despite repeated challenges, until yesterday no Detention Order had been formally filed against her in court, raising serious questions about whether due process has been followed and raising serious doubts about the lawfulness of her incarceration.

At yesterday’s hearing - her seventh - for the very first time the Attorney General handed over a summary of the evidence against her. However, according to her lawyers, the summary was not accompanied with the usual annexures that would give substance to the document, nor had it been sent officially through the court registry, thereby continuing to fuel doubts about the credibility of the evidence against her.

In a minor breakthrough, it was agreed that she would be transferred from TID (Terrorism Investigation Division) custody into judicial custody. However, it will not be until the 13th March 2015 until she receives another hearing, at which point she will have been held for an entire year. On the date of the Sri Lankan elections, she will mark her 300th day in custody.

No evidence has ever been produced against Jeyakumary and it will be more than a year before any legal proceedings regarding her detention even start in earnest. This is a disgrace. Please click here and sign the petition to protest this injustice.

19/12/2014

Designing Justice, Advising the Accused: The Strange Case of Sri Lanka's 'International Advisers'

The 6 advisors
in order of
appointment:
De Silva,
Crane,
Nice,
Kaushal,
Soofi,
Motoo.
In March of this year, the Human Rights Council passed a resolution mandating the Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) to undertake a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights in Sri Lanka between 2002 and 2011. But despite hopes that the inquiry might begin to pave the way for the Government of Sri Lanka to move towards genuine accountability and reconciliation, it quickly became clear that the government –fearful that the inquiry might recommend prosecuting some of its own members – would seek to obstruct it.

To that end, the Sri Lankan government has deployed a three-pronged strategy: ensuring that government departments and other state-controlled entities do not cooperate with the inquiry; criminalizing and obstructing the flow of information between witnesses and the investigation team through a renewed crackdown on civil society; and undercutting support for the international inquiry by beefing up – if only in appearance – its own (discredited) domestic accountability mechanisms.

The Presidential Commission on Disappearances (and other Failed Domestic Mechanisms)

In August this year the third element of this strategy received a boost when President Rajapaksa announced that he had appointed a panel of international legal experts to advise his Commission on Disappearances, whose mandate (it was declared at the same time) was to be radically expanded to investigate abuses committed during the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war, including violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. Given the strong evidence presented by the UN in support of allegations that between 40,000-70,000 civilians were killed during the final stages of the war, mostly by government shelling, it was a mandate that was pointedly phrased:

“[To investigate] Whether such loss of civilian life is capable of constituting collateral damage of the kind that occurs in the prosecution of proportionate attacks against targeted military objectives in armed conflicts and is expressly recognized under the laws of armed conflict and international humanitarian law.”

Originally established in August 2013, the Commission is the latest in a string of domestic accountability mechanisms with a severe credibility deficit. As the 2009 Amnesty International report “20 years of make believe” highlights, no less than nine presidential commissions have been established between 1993 and 2009, none of which resulted in significant change and many of which did not even produce published reports. The Centre for Policy Alternatives has listed eleven further bodies that have been established since then.

During its first year, the low expectations surrounding the launch of the latest Disappearances Commission have largely been confirmed. Not only has it been mired in allegations of witness intimidation, evidence tampering, outrageous mistranslations of testimony and procedural partiality – overseen as it is by a government with a track record for eliminating witnesses to war crimes – but it has proceeded so slowly that it has been estimated that it would take the Commission 13 years to hear all the complaints that have been lodged before it. [1]

In this context, the appointment of three international legal experts, David Crane, Geoffrey Nice, and Desmond de Silva, to oversee this process, was greeted by many human rights observers with surprise.

Why had a group of seemingly distinguished lawyers, with a wealth of experience in prosecuting war criminals across the world, chosen to act as a convenient political cover for a government itself accused of the gravest war crimes? And why had they agreed to associate themselves with a process so obviously flawed, and so clearly designed and timed to undermine a credible and independent international inquiry? On what specific basis had they been hired by the Sri Lankan government, and how, given the seeming conflict of interest between providing legal counsel to the Sri Lankan government and advising a domestic accountability mechanism, was their role to be defined?

Advisors on Accountability or Counsellors to the Accused?

Several of these questions were recently posed by the Sri Lanka Campaign to the group of advisors – now recently expanded to include the Indian development activist Professor Avdhash Kaushal, the Pakistani lawyer Ahmer B Soofi, and former international judge Motoo Noguchi.

Only two of the experts replied, and while the Sri Lanka Campaign agreed to keep the correspondence private, we can reveal that Professor Kaushal’s response was brief and evasive, and Professor De Silva’s response was in line with his public utterances – that he sees his role as analogous to that of a barrister representing a client. This was a view echoed by Sir Geoffrey Nice, who, in response to a questions at a public event in October, invoked his professional obligation under the ‘cab rank rule’ to offer legal counsel to clients irrespective of his personal views about them. This is a defence that does not stand up to scrutiny.

To begin with, the Code of Conduct of the UK Bar Standards Board (of which Sir Geoffrey was formerly vice-Chair) clearly states that foreign work – i.e. services relating to legal proceedings taking place outside of England and Wales – is not subject to the cab rank rule. The suggestion that the advisors are therefore compelled by professional duty to provide legal services to the Rajapaksa government is therefore spurious.

Second, by invoking the cab rank rule the legal advisors give the impression that there is some sort of credible prosecution mechanism underway against the Rajapasksa which would cause them to require legal advice. There is not, and indeed this appointment seems to be an attempt by the Sri Lankan government to influence the politics of the case to ensure that there never is.

Lastly and most importantly, by outlining their engagement in terms of a lawyer-client relationship with the Sri Lankan government, the advisers reveal the fundamentally flawed nature of their dual appointment. For while they have been eager to present themselves as legal counsellors to the Sri Lankan regime, their stated official role, as specified the revised mandate of the Commission, is: “to advise the Chairman and Members of the [domestic] Commission of Inquiry, at their request, on matters pertaining to the work of the Commission”.

It is our view that there is a fundamental incompatibility between these two tasks – and moreover, that there is a direct conflict of interest between advising a Commission designed to investigate serious violations of human rights and the task of providing legal advice and representation to the individuals and agencies who stand accused of them.

Outstanding Questions

In certain circumstances, international lawyers can play an important and valuable role in the design of domestic transitional justice mechanisms – providing as they often do, the impartial and non-political expert legal advice that their credibility requires. However, it is clear that in the case of Sri Lanka, where the repeated failure of such mechanisms to achieve justice prompted the creation of an international accountability process in March of this year - and where such mechanisms continue to be used to undercut support for that very process - no such useful role is possible.

This international mechanism must be allowed to do its work and the eminent international lawyers should take great care to avoid being complicit in undermining it. While they may claim that they are bound by ‘client confidentiality’, the controversial dual nature of their role, the possibility that their work is being used by perpetrators to evade international justice, and the very serious allegations that the proceedings of the Commission are now being used as a vehicle for witness intimidation by Sri Lankan security forces, all place a strong moral and professional obligation on the advisers to clarify their precise mandate - the lack of clarity over which has been noted by both the Sri Lankan think-tank the Centre for Policy Alternatives (p. 7-8) as well the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in his recent oral update (para 34).

In failing to do so, they will continue to fuel the suspicion that they have been hired by the Sri Lankan government to support its goal of undermining the international investigation. And while it may seem absurd to suggest that the addition of individuals who regard the Government of Sri Lanka as their client to an accountability process can in any way give added credibility to that process itself, that appears to be precisely what the Sri Lankan government is hoping to achieve.

Footnote

[1] For a comprehensive and up to date critique of the work of the Presidential Commission on Disappearances, see: ‘The Presidential Commission to Investigate into Complaints Regarding Missing Persons: Trends, Practices and Implications’, Centre for Policy Alternatives (17 December 2014)

Richard Gowing is the Deputy Campaigns Director of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice. He holds an MSc in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies from the London School of Economics where he graduated with Distinction. He currently also works at the Chatham House US Project.

17/12/2014

The pope's visit

The Pope is due to visit Sri Lanka on January the 13th. A presidential election will be held there only five days before he arrives – something the Vatican had indicated it would consider “inappropriate”.


Already the Pope’s visit is being used politically: his picture appears alongside that of the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa in posters stuck on lampposts all over Sri Lanka. The local Catholic church has objected to the use of the Pope’s image in this way, but many in Sri Lanka feel there is something disingenuous about that call: this visit was the brainchild of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo and a close ally of President Rajapaksa, and there had always been a feeling that it would be used to bolster support for the regime. The timing of the election has now made this exploitation of the visit more flagrant, and perhaps too transparent for the Vatican’s liking.


Even at this late hour, the Pope should reconsider whether a visit to Sri Lanka at that time would really be in the best interests of Sri Lanka’s people. His visit is being abused for political purposes, and will continue to be so unless it is deferred. Furthermore, given the traditionally high levels of electoral and post electoral violence in Sri Lanka, four days after a presidential election might not be the most safe or stable time to visit the island.

Sri Lanka’s catholic community is small, only around 6% of the population. But it has generally punched above its weight in the island’s affairs . The current President’s wife is a catholic, as are many senior figures in the government. Catholicism is also the only religion that spans, to a significant extent, the ethnic divide between Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority in the North – the latter being the primary victims of the civil war that has dominated Sri Lanka’s last three decades.

This places Sri Lanka’s catholic community in a unique position to build bridges across the nation’s ethnic faultlines. Sadly, however, few members of the Church hierarchy have shown a willingness to do so; most have been disappointingly silent about the many appalling violations of human rights committed by both sides. By contrast, many lay catholics and parish priests have, despite this lack of leadership, fought ceaselessly for the rights of the oppressed. Often they have paid a very high price for this: Fr Jim Brown, Fr Francis Joseph, Fr “Kili” Karunaratnam and Fr. Pakiaranjith all lost their lives as while working to protect civilians during the war.

More recently, two more prominent Catholics – Fr Praveen Mahesan, a Catholic priest and Oblate of Mary Immaculate, and Ruki Fernando, the former Asian coordinator of the International Young Christian Students Movement and former coordinator of the National Peace Program of Caritas Sri Lanka – were arrested and briefly detained as a result of their work on disappearances.

Many Tamils disappeared, and were almost certainly murdered, after surrendering to the authorities at the end of the civil war in 2009. Two years later a report by the “Watchdog” human rights group suggested that one person was still disappearing every five days, and that is probably still true. Invariably the disappearances are political, and the government or its agents are the prime suspects. Such disappearances in Sri Lanka are nothing new. Nowadays they mostly affect the war-torn Tamil north, but there are enough unresolved historical cases dating from Sri Lanka’s “JVP” Marxist insurrection in the south in the 1980s to make Sri Lanka second only to Iraq when it comes to outstanding cases before the United Nations’ Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

One of those who disappeared when he surrendered to the Sri Lankan army in 2009 was Balendaran Mahinthan. Since then his face has only been seen once, in a photograph in a Government brochure regarding their rehabilitation programme. Yet despite this clear indication that he was - at one point - alive and well and in Governmental custody, there is now no trace of him.

On March the 13th this year Mahinthan’s mother, Jeyakumary Balendaran, was detained. It was her detention that Fr Praveen and Ruki Fernando were trying to investigate when they were themselves detained two days later. But while their detention provoked a major international outcry, and they were released after two days, Jeyakumary herself is still interned, more than 250 days later, in Boossa detention centre, a place where torture is known to be used systemically against detainees – and the authorities have yet to produce even a shred of evidence to implicate her in any wrongdoing. Her continued detention is a stain not only on Sri Lanka’s reputation, but also on that of the Catholic Church – for while many brave local catholic activists have spoken out for her, the senior hierarchy of the church has not. And once the two prominent catholic activists were released the international outcry quickly subsided: apparently the fate of a Hindu woman does not cause the same concern.

If the Pope’s visit goes ahead, he can redress this failing by speaking out strongly, on this issue and on the many others where Sri Lanka needs a strong moral voice. His challenge will be to show in words and symbolic deeds that he sides with Sri Lanka’s victims – Tamil mothers of missing children and murdered relatives, Muslims who have had their homes burned down by nationalist mobs, and the families of Sinhalese journalists critical of the regime who have also disappeared.

Sri Lanka is rapidly starting to resemble a time and a place that the Pope will find very familiar: Argentina during Operation Condor. Those within the church who emerged from that time and place with credit were those who were willing to speak out for the victims, whether Catholic or not. That much will not change.

Edward Mortimer, a Distinguished Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, chairs the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice. From 1998 to 2006 he served as Chief Speechwriter and Director of Communications to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

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04/12/2014

Support our work? Make a donation to our 2014 Christmas Appeal.

With the festive season now upon us, we would once again like to call on the immense generosity of our supporters as we launch our 2014 Christmas Appeal.


The work of the Sri Lanka Campaign relies heavily on individual donations – donations from people like you. Without them, we simply could not do what we do. And with 2015 looking to be a crucial year for peace and accountability in Sri Lanka – with both upcoming elections and the impending publication of the international investigation into war-time violations at the Human Rights Council in March - we need your help more than ever.

The money you give enables us to campaign even more effectively – to shed light on the war-time and ongoing violations in Sri Lanka, counter the lies and disinformation peddled by the regime, and support Sri Lankan civil society in its struggle for peace and justice.

The generosity of our supporters has meant that we are able to claim some major achievements in 2014. This year alone we:
The suggested donation for this year’s Christmas Appeal is £10, but please feel free to give as much or as little as you can afford. You can make this donation as a one-off, or alternately, you can help us campaign even more effectively by setting up a regular monthly donation. We accept PayPal, so it’s easy, quick, safe, and anonymous. Just click here to see all the options for giving. And because we are small, the money you give really does make the difference.

Finally, we are today launching the official Sri Lanka Campaign shop featuring a variety of cool new campaign clothing items and accessories – ideal Christmas gifts for that friend or family member who is passionate about human rights in Sri Lanka. 30% of the total cost of all products sold go directly to the campaign, so please have a browse today and support us while you shop.

100297851-125276143

Thank you so much again for your continued support. You make our work possible.

03/12/2014

The Sri Lankan elections

Sri Lanka will have a Presidential election on the 8th January 2015. The candidates announced to date include the serving President, Mahinda Rajapaska, and Maithripala Sirisena, a former senior member of the President's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) who has left the Government in order to challenge the incumbent and who has the backing of several other opposition parties.

The Sri Lanka Campaign is a non-partisan organisation - we feel that, no matter who wins these elections, a lasting peace will only come once Sri Lanka's culture of impunity is brought to an end, and that this can only be achieved when there is accountability for the serious war crimes that took place in 2009 and the serious violations of international law that have taken place since.

For this reason we will be limiting our comments on the election and the statements made by the parties and candidates. But there will be a wealth of good coverage from within Sri Lanka - provided the Government continues to allow it. The citizen journalism site Groundviews contains an abundance of news, analysis and comment on the elections.

We will however be watching the elections closely in the hope of dissuading the wave of violence which is often an accompaniment to elections in Sri Lanka, and in the hope that this will help efforts to ensure the result is fair and that it is respected - especially if things do not go the way of the military establishment. Sri Lankan and, hopefully, international monitors will also be active. You can follow the work of the primary monitoring groups - the CMEV, Paffrel and CaFFE - here.

If you are able to help support our work at this time please click here.

25/11/2014

Investing in Sri Lanka: why human rights matters

“This week is the 30th anniversary of the start of the Sri Lankan civil war, and is also the week that Cordiant, the world's biggest fund manager specialising in private loans to emerging markets, has signed its first loan from CELF IV, its new emerging markets private loan fund. The loan is to LOMC, Sri Lanka's leading micro-credit group, which is using microleasing and small loans as a way to rebuild Sri Lanka's economy."
There is a buzz about Sri Lanka among investors and analysts. The pitch above, aside from being offensive and insensitive to the more than 100,000 people who have died in Sri Lanka's civil war, shows how the attractiveness of Sri Lanka as an investment proposition can trump the taint surrounding Sri Lanka and its pitiful human rights record.

Deemed as one of Asia’s fastest growing economies with a year on year growth rate of 6.6 per cent, for the past few years journalists and analysts have been hailing Sri Lanka’s ‘success story’ and calling on investors to park their cash there, as opposed to some of the more conventional emerging markets options. As a way of quelling any investor unease over human rights, the government has repeatedly asserted that its ‘development program’ benefits the entire country, including Tamil and Sinhalese populations. Many would dispute that, seeing development as going hand in glove with a process of cultural assimilation or "Sinhalisation" of the north and east of Sri Lanka.

Many of these analysts or journalists cite Sri Lanka’s “improved governance” and “government stability”, as proof that the quasi-dictatorship is stable, especially now that the Tamil Tigers have been eradicated.

However, the government has been anything but stable, and the events of the past few weeks is proof that Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is now facing the consequences for years of ruling as a dictator. In the past few weeks Rajapaksa has called for elections to be brought forward to the beginning of January, as his support wanes in the country.

These recent events indicate that contrary to what some fund managers think, by ignoring the country's human rights record, investors and analysts are taking a big risk, which can detriment their own assets as well as stifle the needs of the Sri Lankan public.

Poor governance

The government's focus on economic growth has been at the expense of a loss of civil liberties and freedom of speech, but it has not resulted in any great standards of law and order. While a lack of human rights or civil liberties may not concern investors, protected thousands of miles away in their air-conditioned offices in the West - corruption, nepotism and lack of transparency should be a cause for concern.

From impeaching the chief justice in January 2013, to inciting religious violence against Muslims, to the mysterious resignation of Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Chris Nonis, after allegedly being assaulted by a government MP in New York, Mahinda Rajapaksa has proved that his power is only being maintained by ruling Sri Lanka in the manner of a mafia don: quashing dissent with an iron fist, and allowing a  mixture of nepotism and thuggery to maintain dicipline within his governmen.

Along with controlling politics in Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa's dynasty also has a tight grip on the economy. The British Government states one of the country’s economic weaknesses is the “arbitrary political interventions in the market” and it encourages companies preparing to do business in Sri Lanka to “consider their strategy for dealing with bribery and corruption”.

According to the Heritage Foundation, “substantial challenges remain, however, in the struggle to promote sustainable economic development” in Sri Lanka, and “institutional weaknesses cannot be addressed without a firmer political commitment to reform.”

All talk

For all the talk about Sri Lanka’s economic potential among investors and analysts, much of this hype has been generated by Sri Lanka itself, keen to deflect attention away from its human rights record.

Sri Lanka’s Governor of the Central Bank, Ajith Nivard Cabraal, has embarked on a number of investor roadshows around the world in 2014, stopping off in Singapore, Hong Kong, London, New York and Los Angeles to try and promote Sri Lanka as a place to do business in. According to Cabraal, international investor interest has been high.

In reality, much of Cabraal’s time abroad has been spent fending off questions about the county’s human rights violations. Furthermore, foreign direct investment to the country is low compared with Sri Lanka’s emerging and frontier-market peers, indicating that much of the investor interest generated at these events have not translated into action.

Most of Sri Lanka’s ‘development’ has been funded by debt such as expensive commercial loans from foreign markets. The public debt burden was more than 78 per cent of GDP in 2013. While the government has claimed its development programme has helped citizens, most Sri Lankans feel like they have not benefited in the last few years. According to the Center for Policy Alternatives, the state of the economy and cost of living is adversely affecting Sri Lankan households, with people having to compromise on food quality and medical care. Recent provincial election results revealed a decline in support for the government’s United People’s Freedom Alliance,with many stating that this was due to dissatisfaction with rapidly rising prices and concerns about Rajapaksa’s “nepotistic management style”.

“Peace dividend”

In a speech in October 2013, Ajith Cabraal, described Sri Lanka’s acquisition of a ‘peace dividend’ in the years following the end of the war, and this term has been utilised by financial journalists to promote the country.

However, the public has seen evidence of this peace dividend and in reality Sri Lanka’s military expenditure has increased since the end of the war. In 2014, the government raised defence spending to record levels for a second consecutive year, up 12.25 per cent to 285 billion ($2.22billion) rupees. And according to official sources, the government envisages even more increases in national security spending to over 370 billion rupees ($2.89 billion) by 2017.

Much of this increase in defence expenditure is being spent on the army’s military occupation in the north. At the end of the war there were 200,000 Sri Lankan military personnel, by 2013 this had increased to 300,000 and 400,000 are expected in 2015. Meanwhile 16 of the 19 divisions of the Sri Lankan army are stationed in the northern province and in Vavuniya, for every three civilians, there is one soldier. Yet this increase in military spending is completely unnecessary- there is no separatist movement emerging again in the north and east, with most people simply wanting to rebuild their lives following the bitter civil war.

This lack of credible peace dividend is now manifesting itself in the widespread discontent at the high cost of living for many citizens in the country, and support for the ousting of the president.

White elephants

Much of Sri Lanka’s ‘development’ can be attributed to flashy infrastructure projects financed by China- a country notorious for its disregard for human rights. Since the end of the civl war, China has become Sri Lanka’s largest loan provider, lending the government around $5bn for projects including roads, railways, international airports, ports and even a $1.2bn coal power plant.

The country’s second international airport, named after none other than the president, was built in Hambantota district in the Southern province at a cost of around $200 million, and was financed with Chinese money. However, it has had few passengers since opening in March 2013. Similarly, some of the new highways, including one built in Hambantota, and another built in Mullaithivu have proved to be worthless to the inhabitants of the areas, many of whom do not own vehicles. Although maybe that was never the aim? Studies suggest sinister reasons for why these highways have ended up costing many dozens of times more than they should.

Much of this foreign money would be better spent improving infrastructure destroyed during the war, such as schools and hospitals or aiding the livelihoods of people in these areas. In Mullaithivu district, cattle and wildlife population outnumber human population, yet there is not a single significant dairy development project in the district.

For some investors, joining the likes of China in Sri Lanka may be tempting .But even for those with scant disregard for human rights or democratic rule, Sri Lanka’s corruption, poor governance and “white elephant” infrastructure projects are a red light. Until Sri Lanka undergoes democratic reforms and tackles its rule of law and human rights issues, it remains an extremely risky investment proposition.

19/11/2014

Know someone going on holiday to Sri Lanka? Tell them to #ThinkAgain



Today sees the re-launch of our Ethical Tourism Campaign, #ThinkAgain.

Please have a look and then share it with your friends.

This is an initiative we first unveiled in late 2012 to help tourists better understand the ethical risks involved in travelling to Sri Lanka and to offer advice on how to manage them. As you may know, that campaign featured a lengthy list of companies to avoid – that is, airlines, hotels, restaurants, and cafes that were owned, or linked to, known human rights abusers in the country.

Our latest research adds 15 new companies of concern to the list, bringing it to a total of 41. We believe that we have only captured the tip of the iceberg, but the findings are consistent with our view of a Sri Lanka that is both increasingly militarized and run by a regime that is abusing its power for profit.

To help you navigate this picture, and to ensure that the money you spend in Sri Lanka does not end up financially benefiting war criminals, we have now put together a handy interactive map featuring the companies of concern:


... and an infographic explaining the relationship:


We have also added some new tips on ethical alternatives as well as a page of advice on visiting the North.

Our key message to those planning a trip to Sri Lanka is to know the risks and to make an informed choice. Given the very disturbing human rights situation there, we don't think anyone should make the decision to visit lightly. The aim of this site is therefore to help prospective travelers understand the potential negative and positive impacts, and how with careful thought and planning, they can be better managed. So if you know someone planning a holiday to Sri Lanka, share it with them today.

On social media? Please tweet and facebook the link. And please consider donating to help us meet the costs of running the campaign.

19/09/2014

Black cabs advertise for white vans


The Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau has launched a major advertising campaign across the UK’s major cities. The ongoing 12-week long campaign, launched at the request of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Economic Development and paid for by the Sri Lankan taxpayer, has seen a fleet of 450 cabs, adorned with colourful advertising materials, rolled out across London, Manchester and Birmingham.

This recent drive is the latest part of what the Bureau calls its ‘Global Mega Promotional Campaign’ which has so far targeted major cities in France, Germany, Korea and Japan and which has already been credited with significantly boosting demand for Sri Lankan travel packages. Tourism has more than doubled to a million visits per year since the war ended and the Sri Lankan Government is looking to make it double again by 2015.

Behind the Façade

Yet while the booming tourism industry continues to bring many benefits to the Sri Lankan economy, the vibrant billboards belie the often much darker reality in which many ordinary Sri Lankans live – one in which torture, sexual violence, disappearances, extra-judicial murder and government intimidation are the norm.

Without a clear understanding and appreciation of this reality, prospective travelers risk unwittingly supporting the Sri Lankan Government’s lie: that Sri Lanka is a country now at peace with itself. Worse still, by visiting Sri Lanka without knowing the facts, they face the very real danger that the money they spend there will inadvertently line the pockets of known human rights abusers who own, or are linked to, individuals implicated in war crimes, crimes against humanity and other grave human rights abuses.

A short survey that we have carried out has revealed that many such businesses are being actively promoted by the very Sri Lankan Tourism Board website which this latest black cab campaign endorses.

These include, but are not limited to:
  • Sri Lankan Helitours - owned by the commercial arm of the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) who stand accused of numerous military actions against civilian targets, including the cluster bombing of Ponnampalam Memorial hospital in Puthukkudiyiruppu in 2009.
  • Whale Watching tours – a sector increasingly dominated by the Sri Lankan Navy who stand accused of numerous military actions against civilian targets, including firing on unarmed civilians as they fled the conflict in 2009.
  • Sri Lanka Airlines and Sri Lankan Air Taxi – owned by the Government of Sri Lanka and run by several members of the President’s extended family..
  • Dutch Bay Resorts, Dutch Bay Island, Kalpitiya – a major development in which large tracts of land have been acquired without proper consultation with local residents. The erection of high-barbed wire fences around these coastal areas by the navy has had a huge impact on local residents, whose livelihoods depend on access to the surrounding fishing waters.
  • Jaffna – billed as the ‘lesser known, must visit attraction’, this majority Tamil area (like much of the North and East) continues to be marked by a significant, and overwhelmingly Sinhalese, military presence. Under this ‘virtual occupation’ the Sri Lankan army now own a number of hotels, cafes and restaurants which they run for private gain. It is an area where a large portion of ongoing abuses against Tamils – including land rights violations, torture and rape - continue to take place with impunity.
What can you do?

As illustrated by the full list featured as part of our online Ethical Tourism Campaign, such cases represent merely a few of the many businesses to be avoided in a trip to Sri Lanka. Yet with careful thought and planning, a visit to Sri Lanka can reduce the benefits to the regime, and increase the extent to which tourism can support the local population. If you are intending to travel to Sri Lanka, the key thing is to make an informed choice – by understanding the current situation, finding out what businesses to avoid, and identifying the many ethical alternatives available.

And in the meantime, it is vital that those with an interest in Sri Lanka’s future continue to question and challenge the false picture presented by the Government of Sri Lanka through advertising campaigns such as this. So we need your help.

We want you to keep an eye out for these cabs in UK cities, to photograph them, and to share your images with us by email or through social media, using the hashtag #WarCrimesHolidays with a link to our Ethical Tourism Campaign. And you can voice your disapproval at the UK companies who help support the Sri Lankan government’s tourism whitewash by contacting the advertising firm, Media Agency Group, who supported the recent black cab campaign, here.

By doing so, you will help spread the message that there is more to a Sri Lankan holiday than meets eye.

NB: If you choose to photograph these latest advertisements, please be polite and do not impede the taxi drivers who do not have a say in what is put on the outside of their vehicles.

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15/09/2014

Human rights lawyers threatened in Sri Lanka - at serious risk

Two human rights lawyers Manjula Pathiraja and Namal Rajapakse (a namesake but no relation of the President's notorious son) have received credible death threats from individuals and groups linked to the Government-backed Buddhist extremist group the BBS.

According to one early report Namal Rajapakse was followed on Saturday the 13th of September by a man wearing a helmet which covered his face. The man the approached him and said "you and Manjula (Pathiraja) are too much and they are noted for various activities against the Monk".

The Lawyers Collective subsequently released a statement in which they clarified the nature of the incident and added further details:

"Around 6.20pm on 13th September 2014, two unidentified men with full faced covering helmets and jackets, had rushed to the legal office of Mr. Rajapakshe, situated near the Thorana junction, Kelaniya, in the Colombo district. One of them had been armed, and he had taken Mr. Rajapakshe to a corner, and threatened that he and Mr. Manjula Pathiraja would be killed, if they appear in “unnecessary cases”. They particularly mentioned several cases where Mr. Rajapakshe and Mr. Pathiraja had appeared against a controversial Buddhist monk. The two individuals had then fled on an unidentified motorcycle. Mr. Rajapakshe had made a complaint at the Peliyagoda Police Station bearing number CIB/III - 230/123."

This follows another incident a month ago, as the Lawyers Collective statement goes on to say:

"On 4th August 2014, Attorneys Mr. Rajapakshe, Mr. Pathiraja and Mr. Lakshan Dias were intimidated by a group of thugs inside the Maradana Police station, in front of the Head Quarters Inspector. The three of them were making representations on behalf of their clients, on the breaking up of a peaceful private meeting and criminal trespass. Mr Rajapakshe had made a complaint regarding this incident on 5th August 2014. No actions have been taken by the Police in respect of this intimidation."

Among the victims of human rights violations Manjula Pathiraja and Namal Rajapakse have represented in the recent past is a Buddhist Monk who has been attacked and threatened by the BBS.

We will update this blog if there are further actions that can be taken to keep these two activists safe, in the meantime additional publicity will hopefully ensure that the authorities take the threats against these individuals seriously, and let the attackers know that their actions are being monitored. So please do share this story far and wide.

12/09/2014

An open letter to participants of the 'Enhancing Human Rights and Security in the Asia Pacific' conference

Here is the text of an open letter we are sending to all participants of the 'Enhancing Human Rights and Security in the Asia Pacific' conference in response to the decision by the University of Sydney to uninvite two Sri Lankan human rights organisations at the request of the Sri Lankan military.

Dear colleague,

I am writing to you about next week’s conference in Bangkok on 'Enhancing Human Rights and Security in the Asia Pacific', organised jointly by the University of Sydney, the Kathmandu School of Law and the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at the University of Colombo.

Having previously invited representatives of two Sri Lankan human rights NGOs to take part, the University of Sydney has now formally disinvited them after being told by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence that no official representatives from the Sri Lankan Government would attend if the two NGOs were also involved.

We have been in correspondence with colleagues at the University of Sydney, which sent out and subsequently withdrew the invitations. We know they feel that their work on torture prevention is having a significant positive impact, and that therefore they have no choice but to accede to this ultimatum, for the sake of the greater good of the conference.

We do understand the value of the form of constructive engagement with security authorities which the University of Sydney is attempting. But there is a balance to be struck between this work and the equally important work of challenging the abuse of power. It seems to us that, by insisting on having human rights organisations thrown out of the conference as a precondition for their attendance, Sri Lankan state agencies are showing all too clearly where, in this instance, the balance lies.

We also believe there is a distinction to be drawn between the admittedly valuable work of critical engagement, which is at its most effective in small groups where participants have more freedom to be candid, and this kind of international high-profile conference, where the limelight often prevents such constructive discussions.

We therefore do not consider it proven that this conference is an integral part of the University of Sydney’s work on the issue; and in any case we feel that, having given a platform to members of the Sri Lankan military, there is a moral obligation to accord that same platform to voices that might be critical. Such a principle seems, indeed, to be implied by the Intellectual Freedom provisions of the Enterprise Agreement setting out the rights of academic staff at the University of Sydney.

Several well-respected sources continue to raise the alarm over conditions in Sri Lanka and the continuing dismal outlook for human rights. Our recent report, Crimes Against Humanity in Sri Lanka's northern province, makes the legal argument that these conditions amount to an ongoing crime against humanity by Sri Lanka's security forces against the Tamil population in the north. Elsewhere, our Campaigns Director has outlined the chilling surge in government intimidation of civil society that has taken place over the last year. We can only speculate that the reason the Sri Lankan army wishes to attend this conference and have critical voices excluded is to present a counter narrative which will ignore these inconvenient facts.

By allowing the Sri Lankan Army to dictate who can or cannot attend, the organisers of this conference are, in effect, acceding to that wish, thereby potentially making themselves complicit in the Sri Lankan government’s systematic attempts to suppress dissent and intimidate critical voices within civil society, and to legitimize that policy internationally. We consider this wholly unacceptable, and believe that the conference, in its current form, will do damage to human rights in Sri Lanka – damage that will outweigh any good it might achieve.

For this reason we are urging all participants in the conference to write to the organisers protesting against the decision to exclude the Sri Lankan human rights organisations. If these organisations are not re-invited we would urge other participants not to attend, so as to avoid colluding with a process which is silencing Sri Lankan human rights defenders. If some participants none the less feel compelled to attend, we urge them to challenge, robustly and publicly, both the decision to exclude the two organizations and the narrative that the Sri Lankan Government will doubtless present.

Should you wish for any further clarification or advice, please do not hesitate to get in touch.

Yours sincerely,

Edward Mortimer
Chair
The Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice

06/09/2014

Questioned for writing a poem

A Catholic priest who narrowly survived the final phase of the war in Sri Lanka has been questioned by the Terrorism Investigation Division over a book of Tamil poetry he wrote called 'Uyirpathivu' which literally translates as, “Life Records”.

The priest was allowed to be accompanied by a colleague and was questioned on Wednesday by three officers from TID in the Jaffna Bishop’s house. The interrogation focused on aerial bomb attacks on churches and schools that the priest witnessed during the last months of the war in 2009 and wrote about in his poems. The significance of an aerial bombing is that it can only have been carried out by the Sri Lankan government forces as they were the only ones with supersonic Kfir jets, whereas the direction of artillery shelling can be more difficult to prove. TID also questioned the priest about poetry that mentioned the erection of new Buddha Statutes along the main highway, the A9, through the former conflict zone. This is part of a post-war Sinhalisation and militarisation of traditionally Tamil areas.

Three school principals in Kilinochchi have also been questioned by TID over the book and others in the region are being summoned for questioning.

02/09/2014

2014 Summer Appeal

The Sri Lanka Campaign needs your help. We need to raise money this month to continue our work. 

Why now? For three years your donations have kept our organisation afloat. In that time we have changed beyond all recognition from a tiny band of volunteers and well-wishers into the organisation you see today. Within the next few months we hope to achieve financial sustainability, but in the meantime, we need your help to survive.

We provide ridiculously good value for money. Against the millions spent by the Sri Lankan government on lobbying firms and on flying their diplomats around the world, we require only a few thousand pounds to carry out our work. In the past 9 months alone we have:
  • Helped secure a UN Human Rights Council mandated international investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka [1].
  • Published a major opinion-forming report establishing allegations of ongoing crimes against humanity in the North of the Sri Lanka [2].
  • Commissioned a report using cutting-edge satellite image analysis to challenge the Sri Lankan army’s lies about how stolen land in the North is being used [3].
  • Helped secure the release of detained human rights activist Ruki Fernando and Fr Praveen, and launched an international solidarity campaign with jailed mother of the disappeared Jeyakumari Balendran [4].
  • Launched a major campaign [5] around the Sexual Violence Conference forcing the Foreign Secretary to commit to taking action on Sri Lankan asylum seekers [6].
Without your generous support, we would simply not be able to claim these achievements. Each pound you contribute helps us to bring Sri Lankans closer to a future where human rights are respected. And because we run on such a small budget, each pound really does make the world of difference.

Click here to give £10 - and keep our website online for another month

Click here to give £50 - the cost of launching the letter writing campaign for Jeyakumari Balendran

Click here to give £250 - and make a major contribution to one of our larger campaigns (such as our work on sexual violence)

The suggested donations for the Summer Appeal are £10, £50, and £250, but please feel free to give as much or as little as you can afford. You can make this donation as a one-off, or alternately, you can help us campaign even more effectively by setting up a regular monthly donation. Giving is easy, quick, safe, and anonymous. Just click here to see all the options for giving.

Thank you so much again for your continued support. You make our work possible.

The Sri Lanka Campaign
(Please share this link with five friends today).

1 http://blog.srilankacampaign.org/2014/03/a-step-closer-to-peace-and-justice.html

2 http://blog.srilankacampaign.org/2014/05/our-crimes-against-humanity-report-now.html

3 http://blog.srilankacampaign.org/2014/08/arial-photographs-show-that-high.html

4 http://blog.srilankacampaign.org/2014/03/ruki-fernando-and-fr-praveen-released.html, also see http://www.internationalpolicydigest.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/1407532883544.pdf and http://www.srilankacampaign.org/takeaction.htm

5 http://blog.srilankacampaign.org/2014/06/the-sexual-violence-conference-and-sri.html

6 http://blog.srilankacampaign.org/2014/06/thank-you.html

21/08/2014

Satellite images show that the High Security Zone is not being used as intended

Last year we ran a campaign around the Government of Sri Lanka's seizure of land belonging to Tamil families forced from their homes by the civil war. Over 7,000 acres of land - potentially up to $2 billion worth at current prices - was seized in the Northern and Eastern provinces using land acquisition notices which gave little justification for the seizures. The vast majority of this land, 6,381 acres of it, is contained within the Valikamam High Security Zone in the northern Jaffna peninsula.

Over 2,000 displaced people complained through the Sri Lankan courts but their cases are yet to be heard. They continue to be denied access to their land - indeed no one can enter the ring of checkpoints surrounding the zone without the army's permission. Meanwhile, research continued to cast doubt on the validity of the Sri Lankan Government's seizure. In particular, while the Government claims it needed the land for a "public purpose" all the evidence appeared to point to the land being put to commercial use. The Government openly touted a hotel they opened on the land, while local reports suggested that a yogurt factory had been built and that the abandoned cement factory was to be brought back into use. All of these ventures, built on judicially stolen land, were to be run by and for the army.

Questions were also asked as to what possible public purpose could require such a large amount of land. Even with the Sri Lankan Government's incredibly high level of militarisation in the north of the country it seemed inconceivable that they would need a base of this size. Many thousands of Tamil families were seemingly being kept from their homes just so the Sri Lankan Army could have a few extra thousand acres to play with.

It was for this reason that we asked the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project of the American Association for the Advancement of  Science to acquire and analyse high resolution satellite images of the Valikamam High Security Zone to determine precisely what use the land was being put to. You can access their report here and the map below summarises their main findings.


Stolen land

The analysis found that that the majority of the land does not seem to be used for public facilities, with much of it devoted to farming or commercial use. They generously estimated that 7.77 square kilometres (around 30% of the total 25.8 square kilometre site) was being put to "institutional use" and therefore could potentially have some sort of public purpose. The remaining area, covering 18 square kilometres and the former homes of thousands of displaced people, would thus appear to have simply been stolen for private gain.

Figure 11 from the report. The High Security Zone with areas put to a potentially institutional use outlined in green

Commercial use

Other uses the land had been put to seemed to be commercial in nature with much of the land seemingly used for farming. In addition, there were indications of a number of new building developments being completed or underway:
  • Around 2,150 new buildings were built across 6.5 square kilometres in the western portion of the zone up to and obscuring the zone's border. These buildings were seemingly small houses (with an average size of around 35-81 square meters) and don't seem to be part of a military base.
  • New buildings associated with the Thalsevana holiday resort are visible, as are a number of developments around the site.
  • Three other new developments, seemingly commercial (or at least non-institutional), are visible. They are pictured below. One appears to be associated with the redevelopment of the Keerimalai temple, while the other two - one in a quarry - are of unknown purpose.
  • Many of the original houses in the High Security Zone have fallen into disrepair or been reclaimed by the vegetation. However, due to the significant number of new buildings being built in the western part of the zone, the total number of buildings has gone up from 3,200 to around 4,700 - the vast majority of them (76%) seemingly non-institutional in nature.
Three new seemingly commercial developments, the middle one appears to be associated with Keerimalai temple

Militarisation: but still no excuse for a base of this size

The evidence would also seem to suggest that the Sri Lankan army’s troops are far more geographically dispersed across the Northern Province than the Sri Lankan Government have been leading the wider world to believe. Contrary to the line that troops are increasingly being moved out of the civilian areas and consolidated into the HSZ, the images are consistent with evidence elsewhere that the army continues to have a pervasive presence in civilian life in the north.

Even if we take the government’s claim that there are only 13,200 soldiers in the Northern Province at face value - and civil society sources have pointed out that the figure is in reality probably far higher – the images appear to show that there is simply not the housing capacity within the HSZ to accommodate this number, thereby corroborating previous arguments that a base of this size cannot be justified.

Although 374 new institutional buildings have been constructed, 310 have been destroyed. And while most of the buildings built have been larger than the ones they have replaced, very few look like barracks or indeed residential buildings of any sort. With a total number of buildings in institutional areas of 1137 it appears the total residential capacity of the Valikamam High Security Zone as a military base is in the low thousands at most.

Even if we were to take the generous position of assuming that every structure within the High Security Zone is used to house soldiers there are only 4,700 buildings in total and most are small houses of between 30 and 80 square meters. It seems unlikely that the total residential capacity of the area is close to 10,000 - let alone in excess of it.

It would therefore appear that the Sri Lankan Army has at least several thousand troops, and in all probability tens of thousands of troops, deployed in the Northern Province but based outside of the HSZ. Indeed it would appear that much of the Sri Lankan Army’s military presence in the Northern Province is based outside of the HSZ. This would explain why the Sri Lankan Army has been simultaneously attempting to formalise its occupation of 18 other plots of land within the Northern Province.

This geographic spread suggests a desire for the Sri Lankan Army’s militarisation of the Northern Province to be visible to the local population, and not hidden away within the High Security Zone. It suggests that the Army is still keen to ensure that it's military are an obvious and active presence within the day to day life of Sri Lanka's northern Tamils across the Northern Province - a form of military occupation which, combined as it is with systemic human rights abuses, we believe constitutes an ongoing crime against humanity.

Take action

Because of the lack of information many more people may well not be aware that the Government is plotting to take their land. Many people who left Sri Lanka still own land there, and that too could well be seized by the Government without their knowledge. For this reason we have created this map, to share information about the land which is to be seized:
  • If you own land in the north of Sri Lanka, or know anybody that does, please take a moment to look at this map and forward it on, the more people who are aware of what is taking place the better.
  • If you think you might be affected by any of these land seizures, or if you have any more precise information about the location of the land, photographs of the land, or who might own it then please get in touch.
  • More land notices are being issued all the time and we will update the map as we get them. If you know of any more land seizures please do get in touch and pass on the details. If you can send us a copy of the notice (in any language) so much the better.
Note: When using the map please be aware that the location of the items on the map are approximate in many instances. We have indicated if and how accurate we believe the location to be, but please use the land notice itself only to determine the true location of any piece of land.

The map can be accessed here, and is embedded below. Please share the link far and wide.


Click here to see AAAS' full report

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