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

25/10/2011

A Joint Open Letter produced by NGOs from around the world to the Commonwealth Heads of Governments

Dear Commonwealth Heads of Governments,

This letter follows an earlier letter on this subject that many of us jointly wrote to Commonwealth Foreign Ministers, prior to their meeting in New York on 22 September 2011. In the absence of any public pronouncement by Foreign Ministers on this issue we have to assume that no decision has yet been taken to put in place a process for assessing the suitability of Sri Lanka’s candidature for hosting the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). In this context, we recall your 2009 decision to defer Sri Lanka’s candidature as host and seriously urge you to consider a similar postponement at CHOGM 2011.

We reiterate that Sri Lanka continues to face allegations of human rights violations that are of an extremely serious nature. These allegations have been found credible by none less than a Panel of Experts appointed by the UN Secretary General. In addition to this, several other well grounded allegations exist about the lack of fundamental freedoms within Sri Lanka, which it is charged, has resulted in serious violations of freedom of expression, association and movement as well as entrenched impunity for past human rights violations. Together these make Sri Lanka one of the most acute human rights situations in the Commonwealth.

In a recent response to one of our organisations the Commonwealth Secretary-General stated that the decision for Sri Lanka to host the 2013 CHOGM was taken by CHOGM 2009 and that it needs no further confirmation from CHOGM 2011. He also informed that the Commonwealth is waiting for the report from Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to decide its policy on the country. The report is due in November 2011 after CHOGM 2011, when it will be too late for any further consideration of the CHOGM venue. On the other hand, though the Commission’s report may deserve a fair hearing, it is important to remember that the UN Panel of Experts and numerous civil society organisations have cast doubts on the impartiality and effectiveness of the LLRC. In other words waiting for the LLRC report would mean that, due to paucity of time and the complexities of procedures involved, Sri Lanka will be able to host CHOGM 2013 regardless of any outcome and without any scrutiny, at the cost of the Commonwealth condoning serious human rights violations.

We believe that the moment to re-consider Sri Lanka’s suitability as a host for Commonwealth’s most emblematic meeting must be at Perth. The Heads must take into account the consistent intransigence of the government of Sri Lanka and the lack of investigations or progress on impunity within the country since the 2009 decision to postpone CHOGM.

Providing space for Sri Lanka to be the host of CHOGM 2013 will only serve as a declaration of the Commonwealth’s indifference to human rights concerns. It will also allow a government in serious controversy over its role in egregious human rights violations to preside over the organisation from 2013 to 2015 without the necessity of having to conduct any serious or credible investigations into the allegations it faces.

If it is wished that Sri Lanka should host a future CHOGM after 2013, we urge you to direct the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to monitor the performance of Sri Lanka against specific benchmarks. We believe that before Sri Lanka is considered as the host of a future CHOGM it must meet the following minimum benchmarks that require it to:

  1. Ensure meaningful domestic implementation of the international human rights treaties to which the Government of Sri Lanka is party and bring all legislation in line with international human rights standards;
  2. Treat all people within Sri Lanka with dignity and respect as equals while allowing them to live in an environment in which they can enjoy all fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of Sri Lanka and international human rights law;
  3. Restore Constitutional provisions that guarantee separation of powers and re-instate the independence of the three wings of State;
  4. Restore the independence of key government institutions, such as the National Human Rights and Police Commissions;
  5. Institute effective mechanisms to protect journalists, civil society groups and human rights defenders who work for the promotion and protection of human rights;
  6. Support and cooperate with independent and credible domestic and international investigations into all allegations concerning violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in the country, especially relating to the conduct of the armed conflict which ended in 2009; and
  7. Commit to collaborate with the Office of the UN Secretary General and initiate the implementation of all recommendations set out in the report of the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts.

Sincerely,

Yap Swee Seng, Executive Director, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA)

Wong Kai Shing, Executive Director, Asian Legal Resource Centre

Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director, Centre for Policy Alternatives

Ingrid Srinath, Secretary General, CIVICUS World Alliance for Citizen Participation

Maja Daruwala, Director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

Hassan Shahriar, President, Commonwealth Journalists Association

Hassan Shire Sheikh, Executive Director, East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project

Phil Lynch, Executive Director, Human Rights Law Centre (Australia)

Brad Adams, Executive Director Asia Division, Human Rights Watch

Nick Gorno, Deputy President and Chief Operating Officer, International Crisis Group

Souhayr Belhassen, President, International Federation for Human Rights

Chris Chapman, Head of Conflict Prevention, Minority Rights Group International

Ruki Fernando, Rights Now Collective for Democracy

Edward Mortimer CMG, Chair, Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace & Justice

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24/10/2011

Registering households

In August, the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa decided not to renew the state of emergency regulations that had been in force for 28 years. The news garnered much international attention, with several countries including the United Kingdom, the United States and India, welcoming the announcement.

At the time, the British High Commission in Colombo issued a statement stating that it hoped the relaxing of laws would mark “an important move towards normalisation and the strengthening of civil and political rights”.

Supporters of scrapping the law felt that the move would see a diminishing role for the military and the restoration of civilian administration in control of areas. However, in recent months citizens in Jaffna have seen more curbs to their freedoms, by being forced to register their household information with the police.

The legal basis for seeking the information has been justified by section 76 of the Police Ordinance. This states that “Every householder within such town and limits shall furnish the officer of police of his division...with a list of all the inmates of his house, distinguishing the members of his family from the servants or others resident therein.”

However, this ordinance is more than a census, as it requires people to go to the “Inspector- General of Police or Magistrate [and] report any increase or diminution, or change in the same” in the number of people in the house. The clause goes on to state that no one should allow any “stranger” to stay in their household without giving notice to the principal officer of police, with a fine “not exceeding fifty rupees” for breaking the clause.

As with the Emergency regulation law, people have been asked to retain a copy of the registration form so that it can be shown when demanded. It is unclear whether the law is being enforced in the Vanni.

This quiet enactment of surveillance measures by the government, directed specifically at Tamil communities, and away from the international media spotlight, shows that little has changed in the two years since the end of the war, and that Tamil citizens are still being treated with suspicion, choked in red tape, and required to surrender their privacy to the state.

The draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) is still in place and allows arrests for unspecified “unlawful activities” without warrant and permits detention for up to 18 months without a trial. The act also provides immunity from prosecution for government officials who may have committed wrongful acts, such as torture, under the legislation.

In the light of these new laws being unrolled on a local level, the decision by Rajapaksa to scrap the emergency law a few months ago seems little more than an attempt to placate international criticism before the UN Human Rights Council convened to discuss the situation in Sri Lanka in September. In reality, the country has gone two steps back - paying lip-service to reconciliation, and alienating already traumatised Tamil communities.




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20/10/2011

Help human rights defender Sunanda Deshapriya

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (The Observatory) has asked for your help in defending a man who is coming under threat because he dared to tell the truth about Sri Lanka's human rights' record.

You can join the campaign here

Sunanda Deshapriya is a human rights defender, press freedom campaigner and a journalist from Sri Lanka who was the Head of the Free Media Movement before going into exile in 2009. He blogs in English, and in Sinhalese, and contributes to Sri Lanka Brief. He attended a side event organised by the Sri Lankan Government at the 18th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva where he had a cordial, balanced, and honest conversation about the state of human rights in Sri Lanka.

Since then he has been on the receiving end of inaccurate media stories, death threats, and smears from persons unknown. This is nothing new for him but the level and ferocity of the threats has lead the observatory to fear for the safety of those members of Sunanda Deshapriya's family who remain in Sri Lanka.

Please do join their campaign by clicking this link.

The Government of Sri Lanka enjoys creating a culture of fear to discourage anybody from speaking out about the true situation in Sri Lanka. It seems likely that those making the threats are linked to the Sri Lankan Government; but at very least the Sri Lankan Government are guilty of generating the levels of impunity which allows those who threaten people like Sunanda to continue to do so safe in the knowledge that no effort will be made to track them down and bring them to justice.

But by taking part in The Observatory's campaign we can show the Government of Sri Lanka, and those making the threats, that the world is watching. This will discourage them from any further actions against Sunanda and his family.

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17/10/2011

The Secret Chef's first batch

There are many different ways to help the Sri Lanka Campaign: giving money, signing a petition, sending an email, or telling your friends about what is going on. Now we can add cooking to the list, thanks to our latest initiative - the Great Sri Lankan Cook off.


The idea is simple: by encouraging people to make Sri Lankan food and sell them to their friends we celebrate both the diversity and similarities of Sri Lankan food, we help people come together from different communities over their shared love of food, and we raise funds for a valuable cause. Many people want to help the Sri Lanka campaign but have friends and family in Sri Lanka and so do not want to be publicly linked to us. For this reason we have made sure you can help entirely anonymously. So let "the Secret Chef" guide you through the process of learning to make delicious Sri Lankan food, and helping us help Sri Lankans along the way.

1 The first step, is to set up with a mini website. The Secret Chef went to http://www.everydayhero.co.uk/event/The-Great-Sri-Lankan-Cook-Off and clicked "get cooking". He then answered a series of questions which set up this.

Note: the Secret Chef cooks alone, but if one wanted to cook with friends you have the option to set up a "team page" and pool your resources
.

2 Telling your friends The mini website gives the option tell your friends what you are doing. The Secret Chef also got in touch with us and ask to be listed on our "community fundraising" site where you can see details of all the other things volunteers a
re doing to raise money for Sri Lanka.

3 Get cooking! Many of our supporters already have some treasured Sri Lankan recipes but others, like the Secret Chef, are new to it. Not to worry, we sent the secret chef, this recipe book when he signed up - containing lots of ideas for delicious Sri Lankan snack food.

Each one of Sri Lanka's many ethnic communities has its own distinctive types of food. In the north you will find the Tamil influence - red chili powder, gingelly (sesame) oil, and tamarind - whereas in the predominantly Sinhalese areas you will find more black pepper, coconut oil and goraka. Muslim Sri Lankan food is different again - and is famous for its rich deserts such as watalappan. It was watalappan that the Secret Chef decided to make.

The ingredients were simple enough to buy - none of them were particularly rare. Particularly as sugar can be substituted for the more traditional jagerry.

Beating them together was a great deal of fun as the colours slowly changed from white to a deep brown.

If you don't have a steamer you can improvise one using two pots and a wire frame.

Et voila! One watalappan.


4 Get selling! In the interests of full disclosure it has to be said that this particular watalappan did not survive the de-moulding process and, whilst delicious, the end result was not something that could really have been sold to the public. The Secret Chef's friends were however curious enough to throw a few pounds in for a taste.

Had it looked as good as it had tasted the Secret Chef could have taken them into work, to the neighbours, or given them to family. Had the Chef been at university he could have taken them there, or to his children's school. the Secret Chef got the best results by providing the food for free, and providing a bucket into which people can put what they think it is worth.

Almost as importantly by doing so you generate a lot of discussion about Sri Lanka and the issues it faces. The Secret Chef asked us for some promotional material about Sri Lanka and we sent him a handful of our leaflets. And so by selling Sri Lankan food, the Secret Chef was also able to raise awareness of Sri Lanka's problems, it's diversity, and the many positive things about Sri Lanka.

5 Helping Sri Lanka. The final step was to send the money to the Sri Lanka Campaign. The watalappan made £10 which he sent to us; in addition a generous soul heard about the initiative through our website and donated another £20. That made £30 in total - which may not sound like much, but is enough to pay for a mobile phone and credit for an independent Sri Lankan journalist for a year.

Are you inspired to follow in the steps of the secret chef? If so sign up at "the great Sri Lankan cook-off"

And here, once again, are our recipes. (link to pdf)

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14/10/2011

A chance to hold Sri Lanka to account

Antony Loewenstein, prominent Australian journalist and long time supporter of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice has written for Australia's ABC news on the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of government meething.

As he says,

"Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa will be attending ( the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), in Perth in late October) and Sri Lanka is scheduled to host CHOGM in 2013. Serious questions are now being asked by human rights groups in Australia and globally, Tamil organisations and some brave politicians; why is Sri Lanka being indulged at the expense of justice for its countless victims?"

You can read the rest of the article here.

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13/10/2011

Defence Secretary Fox: Where do his interests lie?

Liam Fox has a lot of questions to answer. Several of them now centre on the "Sri Lankan Development Trust", an organisation that paid for Liam Fox to fly to Sri Lanka on three occasions and yet:

Indeed it appears that paying for Liam Fox's travel expenses is the only thing they have ever done of which there is an easily accessible public record. Clearly Liam Fox has a lot of questions to answer. But let us suppose he does answer them and that everything has a rational explanation; then Liam Fox will not have done anything improper or illegal. But how about immoral?

We know that Liam Fox and Adam Werrity had meetings with Bell Pottinger on the subject of Sri Lanka. This was during a time when Bell Pottinger was spending millions of pounds of the Sri Lankan taxpayers money on whitewashing the reputation of the brutal Rajapaksa regime.

Persuading the international community to ignore credible evidence of war crimes is a murky business - and Fox and Werrity should not be surprised that becoming embroiled in it caused their integrity to be called into question. But even if everything was above board, then they still must explain why they felt it was acceptable to collude in the spinning of mass murder at the victims' expense.



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12/10/2011

Jageth Dias- War crime commander turned diplomat

One of the key members of the Sri Lankan army during the final stages of the civil war faces criminal investigation if he re-enters parts of Europe.

Jagath Dias, a senior office of the Gajaba Regiment, led the 57th offensive division, and is allegedly responsible for war crimes committed during the final phase of the civil war in 2009. These crimes include the deliberate bombing of religious buildings, the intentional shelling of hospitals and densely populated civilian areas, and the torture of LTTE commanders.

He served as the most senior general officer commanding in the last stages of the conflict. A few months after the war ended he was appointed Deputy Chief of Mission of the Sri Lankan Embassy in Berlin (on September 18 2009), accredited also to Switzerland and the Vatican.

A dossier by the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights, and submissions by two organisations, TRIAL and the Society for Threatened Peoples (SPM) prompted the Swiss Federal Prosecutor to announce the initiation of a formal criminal investigation against Dias if he returns to the country. Allegations of his complicity in crimes under international law during the Sri Lankan civil war are already under preliminary investigation in Germany.

Dias is one of a number of high-profile figures, who were intimately involved in the final stages of the Sri Lankan conflict and have since been promoted to diplomatic positions. Until his withdrawal as vice-ambassador, Dias enjoyed diplomatic immunity, which he had been granted with his diplomatic visa in Germany and Switzerland, protecting him from any criminal investigation or prosecution.

Dias was in charge of the 57 Division, composed of the 571, 572, 573 and 574 Brigades. The ECCHR’S damning report describes the case of Madhu, where the 57 Division was operating in April 2008, as a clear breach of international law by Dias.

In the area, a Christian church compound was systemically shelled by government forces, despite the presence of refugees seeking shelter within the church property. At the time, the Bishop of Mannar, Rev Rayappu Joseph said: “Shells are falling within the church premises several times and many of those staying there have been compelled to leave, while priests and the other church workers who are still remaining, live in fear and are being forced to seek shelter in bunkers.” Church officials described how the shelling only ceased for two hours from Wednesday to Thursday.

The Sri Lankan government responded by saying that the church was being used by members of the LTTE, but this was not verified by any independent source. Under Rule 40 of the Customary Humanitarian Law Study of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), all parties to a conflict have to respect religious institutions, and this rule applies in non-international armed conflicts. Even if rebels were present on the church ground, the government would not have been allowed to shell the church under international law.

The ECCHR report goes on to discuss the 57 Division’s operation in Kilinochchi, captured on January 2 2009. The capture of the area took place at the expense of the shelling of the General Hospital in Kilinochchi on December 22, December 25 and December 30, causing damage to the newborn nursing section, outpatient department and the reception.

The location of Kilinochchi Hospital was widely known and the intentional shelling of the hospital shows a common pattern of war crimes committed in Kilinochchi and in other areas towards Mullaitivu, during the last phase of the conflict. Rule 30 of ICRC Customary Humanitarian Law Study prohibits intentional attacks against medical personnel and objects, making Dias responsible for committing a war crime. The report also states that Dias was reponsible was the indiscriminate shelling of densely populated areas, killing civilians in the area between Kilinochchi and Ramanathpuram in early January 2009. According to websites, the 57 Division was also present in Puthukkudiyiruppu, an area notorious for the shelling of the Puthukkudiyiruppu hospital in February 2009.

The report concludes by stating that Dias was responsible for numerous war crimes with his units. It makes recommendations to the German and Swiss Government: revoking Dias’ diplomatic visa, declaring him a ‘persona non grata’, the most serious form of censure which a country can apply to foreign diplomats, and initiating criminal investigations.

The initial granting of diplomatic visas to alleged war criminals such as Dias, by many countries which voiced concern over Sri Lanka’s humans rights record, shows hypocrisy and a neglect of the plight of up to 40,000 civilians who were killed in the conflict. By granting Dias a diplomatic passport, the German Government breached international law and obligations outlined in the Geneva Conventions and its Additional Protocols.

Now that the Swiss and German governments have realised their obligation to human rights, the Jagath Dias case raises the hope that other countries will also tighten up their controls on war criminals-turned diplomats, who are evading the war crime prosecutions, and are effectively being given freedom to travel, with protection from having to answer for their crimes, by being granted diplomatic immunity. After the end of the conflict in 2009, the Sri Lankan Government sent Major General Shavendra Silva to the permanent mission to the UN in New York, Major General Prasanna Silva to London, Major General Udaya Perea to Malaysia, Major General Nanda Mallawarachchi to Indonesia and Major General Amal Karunasekara to Eritrea.

The recent decision by Germany and Switzerland is unlikely to lead to a criminal investigation, since Dias has stated that he is unlikely to return to those countries either as a diplomat or as a private individual. However, it does provide some hope that international law will be enforced on him and other military figures accused of war crimes who have hidden behind the cloak of diplomatic immunity.

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What was Liam Fox thinking?

The furore surrounding Liam Fox over the Werrity affair is not the first time the Defense Secretary’s conduct and judgment has been called into questioned in relation to Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is but one of a number of backdrops in the current political storm, but the media attention on Fox has also highlighted his attitude to the country, an attitude that seems to run counter to the prevailing government line.

Fox’s official visit with Adam Werrity in July this year, shortly after the airing of Channel 4’s ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ documentary, was condemned by many. It came at a time when the international community was waking up to the full horror of what had happened on the island during the 2009 conflict.

This official visit was in lieu of a trip planned in December 2010 which Fox was forced to call off. At the time there was speculation that the Foreign Office had applied pressure on him not to go. The planned visit was perceived by many to be an implicit or even explicit endorsement of the Sri Lankan government, and an unnecessary confusion of Britain’s approach to Sri Lanka.

Fox’s July 2011 visit saw these accusations leveled at him again, with the visit again being accused of muddying Britain’s approach to the Sri Lanka. This year Britain seems to be hardening toward Sri Lanka, with William Hague and David Cameron setting an end of year deadline for the Sri Lankan government to act and progress on investigating war crimes. It was also a British broadcaster, Channel 4, who sourced and made public the damning video evidence of war crimes. Yet Fox seems intent on cordiality with the Sri Lankan government. Now well-placed sources in Sri Lanka have told Channel 4 News that the government there asked Liam Fox's friend Adam Werritty to lobby the UK government for arms supplies.

The Guardian had an interesting piece over the weekend outline Fox’s involvement with Sri Lankan politics over the years,

Sri Lanka does seem to matter to Fox, and he has given the country special attention over his career. But as with much in this situation, his current attitude to Sri Lanka and seemingly wilfull ignorance of his government’s stance and the wider problems there begs the question of his visit: ‘What was Liam Fox thinking?’

02/10/2011

The Truth That Wasn’t There

The final stages of the Sri Lanka Civil war were fought without witness. The Government of Sri Lanka prevented the world’s media from reporting from the frontlines and withdrew international aid organizations from the conflict zones. This ensured that the only information coming out of the warzone was controlled by either the Government or the LTTE; both prolific propagandists.

Within a month of the end of the conflict three student journalists from the UK travelled to Sri Lanka. The group entered Sri Lanka with the hope of documenting the aftermath of the civil war and soon found themselves being given access to areas that were denied to the likes of CNN and the BBC. Gotabaya Rajapksa himself gave them access to the infamous Menik Farm IDP camp, Kilinochchi and the final battle grounds in Mullaitivu and Chalai.

THE TRUTH THAT WASN'T THERE: OFFICIAL TRAILER [HD] from CODOC on Vimeo.



The three young students set out on a journey to prove themselves as journalists whilst seeking to uncover the true nature of the conflict in Sri Lanka. They quickly realised however that being granted access to the warzone did not mean that they would be allowed to freely investigate and report on the issues that the rest of the world’s media were being kept away from. The three were provided with a member of the security forces as a ‘guide’, access to Menik Farm was limited to Zone 0: a "show" zone - the least populated and most developed. Soldiers where in accompaniment at all times and the three experienced what they described as ‘management’. It was obvious to them that what they were seeing and who they were able to talk to was entirely in the hands of the military.

This management of access is a microcosm of how the Government of Sri Lanka dealt with the conflict as a whole. It is easy to guard against criticism of policy when the media is only able to access what you allow them to access.

The documentary sets out to uncover the truths about the final stages of the war, but, finding this impossible, it instead describes the nature of media management through a very honest dissection of that failure. It therefore provides a telling account of the nature of the Sri Lankan nation. The documentary concludes that the ‘truth’ may in fact be forever lost and leaves the young journalists disillusioned with their chosen career paths. This is perhaps the most powerful element of the documentary.

The fact that ‘the truth’ remained elusive highlights the nature of the Sri Lankan state and the stifled freedom it provides. Whether it is the covering up of rights abuses in IDP camps or the failure to investigate the numerous murders and forced disappearances of journalists, the lack of 'truth' (or even the inability to attempt to seek the ‘truth’) is what defines the Rajapaksa
regime. The Government’s control over the commentary of its own policies is pushing Sri Lanka down a path towards tyranny and nationalist extremism. A democracy can only truly exist when those in power are open to independent criticism and investigation.

The current state of affairs in Sri Lanka may be breeding further misunderstanding, grievance and perhaps insurrection as citizens and members of the Sri Lankan diaspora grow ever impatient with the lack of justice and accountability for the ever mounting rights abuses and attacks on freedom. But the truth is not lost forever; it just requires the pressure of Sri Lankans, the international community, ordinary individuals, and organisations like ours to make sure that it is exposed.

You can find out more information about this interesting and relevant documentary at http://www.codoc.org/

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