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


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

The 6 advisors
in order of
De Silva,
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.


[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.


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.



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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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
The Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice


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.


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


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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Don't forget Jeyakumari. Write to her today.

Five months ago, a mother of the disappeared - Jeyakumari Balendran - was arrested and jailed amid a renewed government crackdown on dissent in the run up to Human Rights Council session in March. You may remember our campaign and our director's recent report.

Since then Jeyakumari has remained behind bars. Held under draconian anti-terror legislation that allows individuals to be detained for up to 18 months without charge, to this very day not a shred of credible evidence has been produced by the government to substantiate the allegation against her - that she was involved aiding and abetting the purported LTTE revivalist ‘Gobi’, whose apparent death in April removed even the illusion of a reason to continue to detain her.

Whilst her ongoing detention by the government continues to send a chilling message to Sri Lankan human rights defenders that their activism may be punished with impunity, on a more personal level, we remain deeply concerned for Jeyakumari’s mental wellbeing and physical safety. Not only is the Boosa detention facility in which she is held notorious for its use torture, but there are eyewitness witness reports that she (and others) have been physically abused by officials.

So we need your help. We want you to send a message of hope to Jeyakumari, by sending her a physical letter with a few short words of solidarity. By doing this, we hope to do three key things:

1) Offer some small comfort to Jeyakumari who is being held away from her family (including her 13 year old daughter) and who lives in fear for her future safety and access to a fair process.

2) Protect Jeyakumari from coming to further physical harm in detention by alerting her prison guards to the fact that the world is watching.

3) Remind the government that it cannot lock up activists with impunity, and to show solidarity with other the human rights defenders that their actions are designed to intimidate.

Writing your Letter 

In writing your letter, which could be a card or postcard, we would advise that you keep your message as personal as possible and to avoid making political statements or comments relating to the specifics of her case which could risk putting her in further danger. The letter should be seen for what it is, as a personal message of support and not part of an organised campaign (for this reason we have not included a suggested text). Because English is not Jeyakumari’s first language, we would also recommend (unless you are writing in Tamil) keeping it as short and as visual as possible. For example:

We would also advise that you print and include this short note in Tamil which helps briefly explain what the letter is for[1]. You can download this as a PDF here:

அன்புள்ள திருமதி பாலேந்திரன்,

குற்றச்சாட்டு நிரூபிக்கப்படாமல் நீங்கள் தொடர்ச்சியாக தடுத்து வைக்கப்பட்டுள்ளமைக்கு எதிரான சர்வதேச ஒருமைப்பாட்டு பிரச்சாரத்தின் ஒரு பகுதியாக இந்த கடிதம் உங்களுக்கு அனுப்பி வைக்கப்பட்டுள்து.

இந்த மடல், நீங்கள் நலமாக இருக்க வேண்டும் என்பதை மனதிற்கொள்வதோடு, உங்களுக்கான ஆதரவையும் வெளிப்படுத்தி எழுதப்படுகிறது.

இத் தருணத்தில், நீங்கள் நம்பிக்கையுடனும், நலத்துடனும், பாதுகாப்புடனும் இருக்க பிரார்திக்கிறோம்.


இலங்கையில் சமாதானத்துக்கும் நீதிக்குமான நண்பர்கள்

Sending your Letter

Please address your letter to:

Mrs Jeyakumari Balendran,
Boossa Terrorist Investigation Unit, Racecourse Rd
Southern Province
Sri Lanka

An average sized greetings card or letter (under 60 grams) to Sri Lanka will cost £2.15 (or 3 x 2nd class + 1 x 1st class UK stamps) from the UK. But larger cards or folded A4 letters may cost slightly more. If in doubt, please consult the Royal Mail price finder or enquire with your nation’s post office.

Sharing your Letter

To get an idea of how many people have joined our campaign, and to encourage others to do the same, we would really appreciate it if you could Tweet us using the hashtag #FreeJeyakumari, message us on Facebook, or send us an email with a picture of your card or letter. Or if you would prefer to remain anonymous, just drop us a line and let us know that you have been part of it.

Writing a letter takes only a few minutes, costs little, and means a lot. Please send one today.

1 - English translation:

Dear Mrs Balendran,

This letter has been sent to you as a message of solidarity against your ongoing detention without charge. It contains a message wishing you well and expressing support for you. We wish you hope, comfort and safety during this time.

Best wishes,


Mob storms meeting of relatives of the disappeared - pt 3

This is the last part a three part series on the incidents surrounding the storming of a meeting in Colombo by a mob of Government supporters last Tuesday. In part one we provided a narrative of events with some photos and footage from the scene. In part two we analysed these events, and in this part we will talk about its aftermath and the reactions from both sides.

Several statements were issued in the wake of the incident. The US embassy statement accused the local police of supporting the mob and the protesters of being intent only on intimidating and silencing those in attendance. The embassies of Great Britain, France, Germany and Switzerland later followed suit with a fairly bland statement.

The Lawyers’ Collective in Sri Lanka’s statement and the Centre for Policy Alternatives’ condemnation the incident both lamented in particular the continued impunity enjoyed by government supporters.

Meanwhile at a press conference the following day, Ven. Angulugalle Siri Jinananda Thera of the DMPFF claimed full responsibility for the disruption of the meeting and then went on to make a series of unfounded allegations and outright lies. The press conference (in Sinhala) can be seen here:

And you can read a full translation in English here.

Here were some of his most outrageous statements, often made while pointing to a photograph of the activist in question.
  • That all the families from North were “Mahaveerar” (i.e. “Great heroes” - usually referring to the families of deceased LTTE members). This is false. Several of the families present claimed that their relatives were not part of the LTTE. Others said their relatives were in the LTTE, but had disappeared after surrendering.
  • That each family was paid two hundred thousand Rupees to give evidence. This is entirely false; unsurprisingly no evidence has been produced to substantiate this claim.
  • That Nimalka Fernando and Brito Fernando are seeking to undermine Sri Lanka’s sovereignty. The day before he had said that these people should be hanged. Nimalka Fernando and Brito Fernando have both been activists for the cause of human rights and peace for many years. Nimalka Fernando herself has provided the most articulate explanation of how this work is the exact opposite of treason.
  • That Ruki Fernando had recently given protection to LTTE cadres who were spearheading the re-emergence of the LTTE in the country. This is an entirely false rewriting of the story of how Ruki Fernando was arrested earlier in the year in relation to his human rights work. This is discussed at length in our campaign director’s recent paper.
  • That Fr. M. Sathivel is homeless and has been excommunicated, that he tried to assault some of the monks who came to CSR and that he was mainly responsible for the situation becoming heated. The video in part 1 of our blog series clearly shows this not to be the case. No evidence has been presented to substantiate the outlandish assertions against Fr Sathivel personally.
  • That the Peratugami political party (whose representative Pubudu Jagoda was at CSR), has, from its inception been pro-LTTE and pro-Tamil diaspora. The PSP is a largely Sinhalese leftist political party that has its origins in the Sinhalese Nationalist Marxist JVP.
  • That Bishop Rajappu Joseph (referred to as the Archbishop of Mannar) has supported the LTTE for decades, and that he and his assistant Fr. Sebamalei were involved in coordinating these events and sending people to attend them. No evidence has been produced to substantiate this claim. Bishop Joseph is one of the leaders of Tamil Civil Society, while Fr Sebemalei is a human rights activist and priest who has come under attack before.
  • That the lawyer J. C. Weliamuna is a traitor to his profession. J.C. Weiliamuna is a reputable human rights lawyer, the convener of Lawyers for Democracy, a member of the Sri Lankan Bar Association, and the Sri Lanka director of the respected international NGO Transparency International. Despite an attack on his home in 2010, in which a hand grenade was thrown into his house, he continues to fight for the rights of all Sri Lankans. In no way does this constitute treason.
  • That US Embassy money and vehicles were being used to transport these families from the North to Colombo. This is entirely false; unsurprisingly no evidence has been produced to substantiate this claim.
  • That the testimonies of families was immediately communicated to US and Geneva via Skype. Not only is this untrue but it is patently absurd. Anyone who has attempted to use Skype will know how technically unsuitable it is for large public meetings of this kind. Moreover, few would be reckless enough to use Skype as a means of transferring sensitive evidence to investigative procedures and it is doubtful if evidence submitted this way would be admissible.
  • That the mob didn’t break into or disrupt the meeting and that they approached the organizers peacefully to make an appeal to them before they responded angrily. Again video footage in part one clearly shows this not to be the case.
As discussed in part two of our blog, many of these lies are fairly dangerous, while the choice of those targeted demonstrates a concerted effort to target prominent and outspoken human rights activists, and in particular those looking to make links between Colombo and grassroots victims and relatives groups in the North.


Mob storms meeting of relatives of the disappeared - pt 2

This is part two of a three part series on the incidents surrounding the storming of a meeting in Colombo by a mob of Government supporters last Tuesday. In part one we provided a narrative of events and some photos and footage from the scene. In this part we analyse these events, and in part three we will talk about the aftermath of the event and reactions from both sides.

Our Campaigns Director has recently written at length about the Sri Lankan government’s growing campaign of intimidation against critics and human rights activists – and in particular its strategy of seeking to silence society in a manner which it can avoid the opprobrium of the international community. Two key elements of this strategy can be seen in these events.

The first is the targeting of prominent and outspoken human rights activists, and in particular those looking to make links between Colombo and grassroots victims and relatives groups in the North. This can be seen in the manner in which these events were used to spread false allegations about named senior human rights activists, and to erroneously suggest that they are giving information to the United Nations (giving information to the UN is not a crime, but in Sri Lanka it places you at significant risk of meeting a violent end).

The second is the way these events are used to intimidate and terrify grassroots Tamil activists. While many of the Colombo based activists who were mentioned by name have been put at greater risk as a result, by and large they have effective protection strategies and many people looking out for their welfare. Not so those who have to return to villages in the North, where they are out of sight and mind of the international community and almost entirely at the mercy of the local military commander.

Furthermore it is depressing to note that this incident only received the attention it did because it happened in Colombo and because western diplomats were present. The breaking up of such meetings is an entirely commonplace occurrence in the north and the coverage this event received, welcome though it is, will once again play to the understandable perception that the international community does not care if such things happen, provided they only happen in the north and the east.

There is a third element to the strategy which we have not previously discussed, and that is the extent to which, in order to avoid censure by the international community, the Government are increasingly not acting against the human rights community directly but through proxy groups – and the mob in question must be regarded as precisely that, if for no other reason than because they are doing the Government of Sri Lanka’s work for them while enjoying the benefits of the culture of impunity that the Government have engendered.

Moreover several aspects of this latest incident would appear to suggest that there is a more active collusion between these groups and the state:
  • The failures of the police. They arrived quickly, but appeared to then allow the mob to continue to disrupt the meeting. They would only say that ‘peace had been broken’ and closed the event rather than arresting the intruders. This was raised as a matter of concern by the USA but disappointingly not by the EU.
  • The identity of the intruding party. The self-described Dead and Missing Persons Parents Front (DMPPF) appeared to come together specifically for this meeting, but the presence of several extremely nationalistic Buddhist monks suggests they come from the same ideological space as the BBS, the far right group linked to both anti-Muslim pogroms and to the President’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
  • The filming of activists. The fact that the mob who broke in started to film activists was clearly an intimidatory tactic, but it only works as such if you assume collusion with the state. A civil society group such as the Dead and Missing Persons Parents Front presumably has no need for footage of human rights defenders - the intimation was that the footage would be shared with Sri Lankan intelligence.
  • The actions of state-sponsored and state-friendly media. State-sponsored and state-friendly outlets arrived quickly on the scene but many did not conduct responsible journalism. They colluded with the Government’s attempt to mischaracterize events as a simple spat between NGOs, they allowed dangerous lies (such as that the group were working with the UN) to go unchallenged, and they gave a platform for vicious hate speech – including the assertion that human rights activists should be hanged.
  • The Government’s response. In a highly inaccurate official statement the Minister of External Affairs mischaracterized the event and blamed the organisers, participants and the diplomatic community for the incident. The Sri Lankan Lawyers’ Collective wrote an articulate rebuttal.
  • The highly orchestrated nature of the intrusion. Many aspects of this attack appeared to be surprisingly well planned. For example it came to light that members of the media were invited to the meeting by a fake press release which was faxed from an unknown number to various media outlets at 2.29pm (i.e. after the event had started). The forged press release was constructed as an appeal from Brito Fernando for media coverage of an event being held to train those from Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka to give evidence to international investigations – yet again a lie, and a dangerous one.
Take these events together and what we have is a concerted attempt to warn civil society away from having any interaction with the UN investigation. But unwittingly in so doing the Government and its allies are making the need for the UN investigation ever clearer – by outlining how impossible it is to conduct these processes within Sri Lanka. Furthermore the new message the Government and its allies have been using (including in this confused piece by militant anti human rights journalist Shamindra Fernando) is a misstep. When demanding that the current international investigation must address rights violations committed by the LTTE they will find not the antagonism they expect but enthusiastic agreement from the international human rights community. It is precisely this all-encompassing approach that UN investigators will be seeking, and rightly so. The only difference is that while Shamindra Fernando and the DMPPF seem to think that one can only investigate war crimes by one side or by the other, we would argue that you can look at both.

In conclusion, this might seem like a lot of fuss to make over some shouting and shoving, a few dangerous lies, and half a punch – particularly when compared to the deaths of tens of thousands in 2009 and the ongoing oppression of Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka. But these events are important, because they form part of an ongoing and systematic attempt to control Sri Lankan civil society, the side effect of which is that it becomes virtually impossible to have meetings in which victims can mourn, reflect and above all, reconcile. Without the space in which these basic first steps of reconciliation can take place, the prospect of a return to conflict will remain.