Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Fears for human rights in Sri Lanka

By Joe Leahy - The UN sent a senior envoy to Sri Lanka on Tuesday amid international concern over alleged human rights violations on the island in spite of the end of its 26-year civil war.

Lynn Pascoe, the UN’s senior political official and head of its political affairs department, was sent to Colombo after a telephone conversation this week between Ban Ki-moon, UN secretary-general, and Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan president.

Mr Pascoe said the pair discussed resettling civilians displaced in the fighting and government promises to investigate any rights abuses and launch a dialogue with the Tamils, made during Mr Ban’s visit to the country in May.

“We are very concerned about the pace of progress,” Mr Pascoe said. “We’re particularly concerned about the [refugees].”

Mr Rajapaksa staged a 34-month military campaign to eradicate the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which had fought for an independent Tamil homeland in the island’s north and east. Velupillai Prabhakaran, the group’s leader, was killed in the fighting, leading the government to announce an end to the war on May 18.

The victory won the president enormous popularity among Sri Lanka’s ethnic Sinhalese majority but claims of human rights violations have sparked opprobrium overseas.

Alleged atrocities include the shelling of thousands of civilians in the final stages of the war; the execution of prisoners, as shown on a video: and the detention of nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians in inhumane conditions in camps in the north.

The government vigorously denies all the charges, saying it did not shell civilians, the video is fake and the camps are necessary to protect civilians from remaining Tamil Tiger operatives and mines. Critics also accuse the government of a brutal crackdown on critics. It jailed JS Tissainayagam, a senior Tamil journalist, for 20 years and expelled James Elder, spokesman for the UN Children’s Fund, for allegedly spreading Tamil Tiger propaganda.It has also detained two local UN workers.

The concern over human rights in Sri Lanka has prompted speculation that the European Union might cancel the country’s duty-free access to its markets. This would hurt Sri Lanka’s $3.2bn (€2.2bn, £1.9bn) textile and garment export industry. Sri Lanka’s economy has staged a recovery since the end of hostilities, aided by a $2.6bn International Monetary Fund loan. The Colombo stock exchange has soared nearly 50 per cent since May and tourist numbers in August were the highest for eight months.

Mr Pascoe plans to spend several days in Sri Lanka, visiting refugee camps and meeting Mr Rajapaksa.

© Financial Times

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