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

29/02/2012

Marie Colvin, Syria and the ‘Sri Lankan model’

‘I watched a little baby die today. Absolutely horrific…This is happening over and over and over…It is shelling with impunity and merciless disregard for the civilians who simply cannot escape… No-one here can understand how the international community can let this happen.’

This was the foreign correspondent Marie Colvin’s last report, from the besieged Syrian city of Homs, heard just hours before her death last week. But the chilling description could also apply to the scenes she witnessed in Sri Lanka during her time covering the bloodiest episodes of the conflict there.

There are striking similarities between the two conflicts. The Syrian regime seems to be following the ‘Sri Lankan option’ of dealing with internal conflict: ‘unrestrained military action, refusal to negotiate, disregard for humanitarian issues’ attempting to block all media reporting, cutting off civilians from the outside world and then shelling them remorselessly as the international community looks on – or looks away.

Colvin, when accepting her 2010 Foreign Reporter of Year award which partly stemmed from her reporting of Sri Lanka, said of her vocation:

‘I have been a war correspondent for most of my professional life. It has always been a hard calling. But the need for frontline, objective reporting has never been more compelling.

Covering a war means going to places torn by chaos, destruction and death, and trying to bear witness. It means trying to find the truth in a sandstorm of propaganda when armies, tribes or terrorists clash...

Despite all the videos you see from the Ministry of Defence or the Pentagon, and all the sanitised language describing smart bombs and pinpoint strikes, the scene on the ground has remained remarkably the same for hundreds of years. Craters. Burned houses. Mutilated bodies. Women weeping for children and husbands. Men for their wives, mothers children.’

Bearing witness meant that she was one of a few journalists who gained access to the northern Tamil area of the country in 2001, to investigate reports that the government was blocking food and medical supplies to half a million civilians. At this point, journalists had been banned from the Tamil area for six years.

Here Colvin was shelled by government troops, came close to death and lost her eye. She had screamed out that she was a journalist but to no avail:

‘I lost my eye in an ambush in the Sri Lankan civil war. I had gone to the northern Tamil area from which journalists were banned and found an unreported humanitarian disaster. As I was smuggled back across the internal border, a soldier launched a grenade at me and the shrapnel sliced into my face and chest. He knew what he was doing.’

From then on her distinctive eyepatch became familiar in war zones around the world.

Sri Lanka’s crisis in 2009 became known as the ‘War Without Witness’, as the government tried numerous tactics to intimidate journalists and block press coverage of what was going in the conflict zone. This press repression continues today, as journalists are regularly threatened and disappeared.

But Marie Colvin was one journalist who did try to bear witness and communicate what was happening in Sri Lanka, especially what was happening to civilians. Her legacy in Sri Lanka is apparent from the actions of people who she interviewed and worked with- “She was so moved after she received dozens of letters from Tamils asking if they could donate her their eye.”

She is in the company of a small but committed group who have tried to push past the lies and propaganda peddled by the Sri Lankan government. This group includes professional journalists - Sri Lankan and foreign - but also brave civilians and citizen journalists such as those who recorded some of the footage in Channel 4’s ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ documentary as they ran for their lives.

They too do so at great risk, the Black January campaign last month, organised by an alliance of media organizations, has highlighted the fact that three years after the end of the civil war, journalists are still operating in fear. Several, such as Prageeth Ekneligoda, Lalith Kumara Weeraraju and Kugan Muruganandan are missing and presumed dead.

Regimes like those in Syria and Sri Lanka will try their best to silence these voices and to make it as difficult as possible for the violent realities to reach the outside world. As Colvin continued in her 2010 speech:

‘Journalists covering combat shoulder great responsibilities and face difficult choices. Sometimes they pay the ultimate price…It has never been more dangerous to be a war correspondent, because the journalist in the combat zone has become a prime target.

…Today we must also remember how important it is that news organisations continue to invest in sending us [journalists] out at great cost, both financial and emotional, to cover stories.’


Sri Lanka is also an illustration that the story doesn’t end after the guns fall silent. Despite the continuing dangers for journalists, there is still a pressing need to expose the dire human rights situation in Sri Lanka, and to keep up the pressure on the international community to properly investigate war crimes that took place during the 2009 conflict.

Find out more about press freedom in Sri Lanka.

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23/02/2012

Tweet the truth

The 19th Session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) is just round the corner, starting next Monday. On its first day, the delegate for Sri Lanka will be addressing the HRC during the High Level Segment, and will be due to speak at 3:30pm (2:30 pm GMT).

The Government of Sri Lanka will use its speech to paint Sri Lanka as a land without major issues that need to be addressed and where domestic accountability mechanisms are working in containing ongoing human rights violations.

We must use this opportunity to counter this propaganda, and present the real facts on the critical situation in Sri Lanka to the HRC, and the public, through a high-speed Twitter campaign.

If you are on twitter, join us to tell the world about the real Sri Lanka

Our plan is to bombard the Twitter hashtag the Human Rights Council will be using, #HRC19 with factual evidence sent to us by anonymous members of Sri Lankan civil society and shortened into tweets. This will directly co-incide with the Sri Lankan delegate’s speech in Geneva, from 3-3:30pm GMT on Monday 27th Feb.

The Sri Lanka campaign on twitter @slcampaign will be releasing a series of factual tweets, of instances of extrajudicial killings, abductions, torture, violence against women and the repressions of expression of freedom. We will be joined by @AmnestyOnline, @Aiindia, @freefromtorture and many others.

Please join us by retweeting and commenting on our tweets during the Sri Lankan delegates’ speech!

21/02/2012

Land rights and wrongs

Access to land in the North and the East has been one of the most controversial and politically sensitive post-conflict issues in Sri Lanka. In November 2011, the Government of Sri Lanka (more precisely the Ministry of Land and Land Development) published a “land circular” (titled “Regulating the Activities Regarding Management of Lands in the Northern and Eastern Provinces’ Circular No: 2011/04). A land circular is a legal order enacted to resolve the many land disputes, which have arisen in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

The North and East of Sri Lanka is facing a significant refugee problem three decades of civil war ending with the bloody defeat of the LTTE by the Government of Sri Lanka in May 2009.

According to UNR statistics, at the end of 2010 there are some 141,063 Sri Lanka refugees living in 65 countries, while the current situation in Sri Lanka is that there are 17,000 people living in military run camps, while over 200,000 more remain "informally displaced": living in temporary accommodation, living with friends or homeless .

Both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE share responsibility for this crisis. During the time when the LTTE controlled the North and East, they forcibly removed the Muslim community, and many ethnically Sinhalese residents fled in terror. Then during the terrible last days of the war many civilians tried to escape fearing for their lives. Virtually the entire population of the north were forced out of their homes by the conflict and forced marched by the advancing army and retreating LTTE onto Mullativu beach in the far north-east. Many of the survivors are still trying to make it back home.

It is only right that displaced people of all ethnicities be allowed to return.

Given the upheaval, and the number of legal documents that had been lost in the conflict, the situation was chaotic and there was a dire need for the government to restore legal order to the land ownership issue. The “land circular” was an attempt to do just that. However, the Government appears to be using this process as a cover to move significant numbers of new settlers with no prior claim to the land into the north – not to mention seizing swathes of land for the military. Ragarding the circular some provisions are problematic and unclear and seem to be favouring particular communities. Land management is a very important political issue and should not be taken by the Government of Sri Lanka as an opportunity to control Tamils areas, trying to effect unnatural changes in the demographic pattern for electoral advantage and implementing a “Sinhalisation” process.

The first element of the process to cause resentment was that prior to the land circular’s introduction all land ownership was suspended except for the land acquired for national security and special development project of the State (to learn more about it, click here). This effectively gave the military carte blanche to seize land that wasn’t theirs – something it appears they did with abandon

Then, under the circular, all landowners of the North and East, including private land owners are required to furnish details to the relevant Divisional Secretary or Assistant Government Agent, within two months with the purpose of “resolving land disputes in the Northern and Eastern Provinces consequent to the conflict.”

After 30 years of war many people are enable to prove their ownership because they have lost the documents, because the documents were damaged or destroyed by the war events or as they have fled the area and new people have encroached. Those who do not have documents to support their claims are required to complete ownership application forms that also must be submitted to the central government officials. Private landowners may lose title to their lands if they fail to furnish details within two months.

In case of competing claims, two Committees of Inquires and special mediation boards will be in charge of decided who has best claim over the land.

While Sri Lanka has well-established laws on the management of State lands and clear principles on ownership and entitlement to private lands, this process introduces a new system of land distribution with strong military involvement. The involvement of the army in an aspect of civil governance is a serious matter of concern, but sadly not of surprise. Nor is the fact these mediation boards tended to side with the army on the many issues of land ownership in which the military were directly involved. The requirement of an independent and effective administration, as required through the 17 Amendment to the Constitution, is absolutely necessary to ensure a a proper process.

Now a judicial proceedings has been initiated against the Circular. The petitioner argued “that the actions of the respondents are unreasonable, capricious, irrational, unfair, arbitrary and ultra vires” and also that “the Land Circular is merely an administrative circular issued by the Land Commissioner General, who has no apparent authority in law to issue such a circular”. A few weeks ago, facing defeat in court (the actions under the circular being so egregious not even the heavily compromised Sri Lankan judiciary could let them slide the government gave up and withdrew the Land Circular.

But with the Government of Sri Lanka seemingly set on the militarisation and Sinhalisation of the north and east it remains to be seen what the next attempt at land ownership rationalisation will look like. This victory is a credit to those brave civil society organisations willing to stand up to the government and shows that, despite the government’s attitude, they can sometimes win. But while we should be pleased for this victory, sadly the story is far from over.

18/02/2012

Toothlessness

The National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (NHRCSL) aims to protect and uphold human rights standards in Sri Lanka. However it is not fit for purpose, either by design (Sri Lanka’s draconian 18th amendment taking away any notion of its independence) or by its actions (seemingly only the meek and unquestioning achieve high office within the organisation).

This was demonstrated in a recent formal exchange between democracy activist Ruki Fernando (the Head of the Human Rights in Conflict Programme of the Law and Society Trust) and the Chairman of the NHRCSL Rt. Hon. Justice Priyantha Perera.

Mr. Fernando wrote to Mr. Perera detailing a number of criticisms levelled against the administration of the NHRCSL. One allegation indicates that NHRCSL officers refused to accept sensitive complaints from victims in 2010 and 2011. More alarmingly, on the occasion that such complaints were received, they resulted in frequent harassment of the victims. Therefore it seems reasonable to assume that the NHRCSL is seemingly biased towards alleged perpetrators of violations at the expense of victims.

Alongside such discriminatory practice towards victims, Mr. Fernando also alleged that the NHRCSL operates behind a “veil of secrecy” in which it has failed to engage with civil society in light of human rights. In order to address this issue he outlined a number of useful mechanisms on how to do so, such as through education, complaint forms, annual reports and most importantly to publicly state whether the NHRCSL agrees with an independent international enquiry.

However, the response received by Mr Fernando from Mr. Perera displayed the toothlessness of the NHRCSL by failing to address Mr. Fernando’s criticisms. Instead generalist statements which emphasised the inefficiency and effectiveness of the NHRCSL were manifold, such as “your letter contains many aspects that go beyond our capacity to entertain or attend to” alongside a list of matters concerning engagement with civil society which went over the “purview of the NHRCSL.”

As an example Mr. Perera stated that informing civil society of the position of the HRC in response to the ratification of the Optional Protocol to Convention against Torture and Convention against Disappearances” was beyond the scope of his mandate. Yet a look at the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Act, No.21 1996 shows otherwise. Indeed under Artice 10 (f) the Commission has the mandate “to promote awareness of, and provide education in relation to, human rights” alongside Article 11(h) which states that it may “do all such other things as are necessary or conducive to the discharge of its functions.” The latter provision indicates that should the NHRCSL wish to act or inform civil society of its position on a matter, then it may. Thus the refusal to do so by Mr. Perera indicates unwillingness rather than inability. The letter ended with an escapist statement which identified human rights as a principle which is subject to the evolving standards of change within society:

“The NHRCSL too has come into existence as a result of the same unchangeable phenomenon of change. Developments and improvements in the sphere of human rights will follow suit, inevitably and eventually. It will be so even in the case of internationally accepted human rights.”

Having a body which is designed to uphold and promote human rights as intrinsic and universal principles instead release a statement which denies that this is a case and uses “cultural relativism,” as an excuse to avoid investigating the credible allegations of victims is beyond worrying.

Something must be done. Adoption of the Convention Against Torture and the Convention Againt Disappearances must be encouraged if Sri Lanka's efforts towards addressing human rights violations are to be taken seriously. Furthermore, it is evident that is is most certainly the place of the NHRCSL to publicly state whether it agrees with an independent, international inquiry addressing both war crimes and human rights violations, particularly in light of the wealth of information and evidence available, regarding such matters. The NHRCSL must surely encourage and promote such active steps in order to prevent its existence from being labelled as futile.

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11/02/2012

Sri Lanka's National Action Plan

Late last year Sri Lanka launched a "national action plan". We weren't impressed and so we wrote a report about it.

You can read it here

To quote our conclusion:

".... all these measures’ effectiveness is undoubtedly limited when one considers the likely membership of the Committees and Commissions that will implement them. Sri Lanka has a long and sordid history in which such commissions have been frequently little more than whitewashing devices. Root and branch reform is required – instead what we have is a band aid placed over a system damaged beyond repair.

"Thus even on its own terms the promise of the National Action Plan is minimal at best. Without significant erosion of the extensive powers of the President, it is unlikely that most of the suggestions and objectives outlined will ever see the light of day.

"Sadly it seems that was never the objective. The real problems in Sri Lanka – the culture of impunity, the political elite and paramilitary thugs who feel they are above the law, the uncontrolled excesses of the police and army – are not to be found in this plan at all. Sri Lanka is under pressure from the international community to do something about its appalling rights record. It hoped that the promises contained in this document will serve to bamboozle readers into thinking there will be progress – much as they have done over the last thirty years. It is time to insist that enough is enough, and to demand real progress."

03/02/2012

An open letter to Ban ki-Moon

SECRETARY-GENERAL
UNITED NATIONS
NEW YORK,
NY 10017

Dear Secretary-General,

I write to follow up my letter of 2 June 2011 on the subject of the United Nations Panel of Experts' reporton accountability issues in Sri Lanka.

Since I wrote, you have shared the report with the President of the United Nations Human Rights Council, a move we were very pleased to commend you for. But sadly the President has not brought it formally to the Council's attention, and it appears that very little has yet been done to implement the report's actual recommendations . Furthermore, we understand that not only the report itself, but also its individual authors, have come under sustained attack from people claiming that it is "not an official UN document."

It would be of great value to those on all sides who are working for a more robust culture of accountability in Sri Lanka if you were to correct these misinterpretations and explain publicly that the Panel of Experts report, as a report commissioned by yourself, does have an established place within the UN system - and is indeed "an official UN document".

The report's recommendations fall into three groups - those concerning the United Nations, those for international accountability, and those addressed to the Government of Sri Lanka. None of them have yet been implemented.

The failure of the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations addressed to it means that it is clearly in breach of both the spirit and the letter of the joint statement made by you and President Rajapaksa on 26th May 2009.

As for the UN, we were very disappointed to hear that Ms Thoraya Obaid, whom you had appointed to conduct the internal review recommended by the Panel, has not been able to start work, and in fact has now relinquished the task. We would be very keen to learn of the new timetable and arrangements for completing this much needed review.

But the most important recommendation is the one that calls on you to "immediately proceed to establish an independent international mechanism, whose mandate should include the following concurrent functions

  1. Monitor and assess the extent to which the Government of Sri Lanka is carrying out an effective domestic accountability process, including genuine investigations of the alleged violations, and periodically advise the Secretary-General on its findings;
  2. Conduct investigations independently into the alleged violations, having regard to genuine and effective domestic investigations; and
  3. Collect and safeguard for appropriate future use information provided to it, which is relevant to accountability for the final stages of the war, including the information gathered by the Panel and other bodies in the United Nations system."

Over 12,000 concerned citizens, in 133 countries, have sent requests through our website to your public email address, asking that this be done. But so far we see no signs of progress towards it.

Since you (to your eternal credit) commissioned this excellent report, we are anxious to learn how you plan to ensure that its recommendations are implemented. We very much hope that you will continue to show leadership by rejecting impunity and pursuing accountability - in Sri Lanka and in all other cases crying out for truth, justice and sustainable reconciliation.

Kind regards,

Edward


Edward Mortimer CMG
Chair, the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice
28 Charles Square,
London,
N1 6HT