For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
Jan 24, (New York) – The Sri Lankan government refuses to investigate alleged war crimes despite growing evidence of widespread atrocities during the civil war that ended in 2009, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2011. The government has threatened and intimidated journalists, opposition politicians, and civil society activists, and has consolidated President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s grip on power by extending executive power over previously independent government commissions, Human Rights Watch said.
The 649-page World Report 2011, the organization’s 21st annual review of human rights practices around the globe, summarizes major human rights trends in more than 90 nations and territories worldwide. In Sri Lanka, the report says, the government rejected domestic and international calls for an independent international investigation into allegations of war crimes by government forces and the defeated rebel Tamil Tigers.
“Sri Lanka’s aggressive rejection of accountability for war crimes is an affront to the victims’ of the country’s long civil war,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government undermines its claims of clean hands in the fighting with its repressive measures against the media and civil society.”
The Sri Lankan government established a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in May 2010 to counter calls for accountability. However, the commission has severe shortcomings, including members who have not demonstrated impartiality or independence, the absence of a witness protection program for those who testify, and wide reliance on testimony from government officials and military personnel to the exclusion of outside participants.
In June, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon established a three-member panel to advise him on possible accountability mechanisms for Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government immediately denounced the panel, and a senior government minister led protests outside the UN headquarters in Colombo. The government has not approved the panel’s request to visit Sri Lanka.
“The government commission includes senior officials who publicly defended the government’s conduct of the war,” Pearson said. “How can a panel tainted from the beginning with such pro-government bias be reasonably expected to be independent and impartial. This panel should be seen for what it is: a cynical attempt to whitewash the truth.”
The government has also sought to silence the media, civil society, and the political opposition. The media is extremely reluctant to publish articles critical of the Rajapaksa government, and many journalists who fled the country remain in exile. Shortly after the presidential elections in January 2010, the government raided the offices of opposition presidential candidate Gen. Sarath Fonseka. Fonseka was arrested and court martialed on charges of fraud, and sentenced to 30 months in prison.
In 2010, after considerable international pressure, the government released most of the 280,000 ethnic Tamil civilians displaced by the war who were being held in military-controlled detention camps, euphemistically called “welfare centers.” But many face serious livelihood, housing and security problems. Several thousand people suspected of involvement with the Tamil Tigers are in detention without charge, and are denied access to lawyers and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In a clear signal that Rajapaksa had no intention of changing his governance style, the parliament in September passed the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which effectively strips the police, judiciary, electoral commission, public service commission, and the National Human Rights Commission of their independence, Human Rights Watch said.
“There is no reason to believe that Sri Lanka will return to a rights-respecting government any time in the near future,” Pearson said. “Until wartime abuses are prosecuted, minority grievances are addressed, and repression against the press and civil society ends, only the president and his family members in power have reason to feel secure in Sri Lanka.”