Thursday, May 27, 2010

Amnesty's report condemns 'politicisation of justice'

By Caroline Hawley - Amnesty International has criticised the "politicisation of international justice" in its annual report, which documents torture in 111 countries.

The human rights group accuses powerful governments of subordinating justice to political self-interest and of shielding allies from scrutiny.

It expresses particular concern over possible war crimes committed during fighting in Sri Lanka last year.

The report also criticises the UN for its failure to intervene.

Thousands of people were killed during the war, and a UN spokesman described the situation in northern Sri Lanka at the time as a "bloodbath".

But Amnesty says that "power plays" at the UN Human Rights Council led to member states approving a resolution drafted by the Sri Lankan government, complimenting itself on its success against the Tamil Tigers.

"By the end of the year, despite further evidence of war crimes and other abuses, no-one had been brought to justice," Amnesty's Secretary General Claudio Cordone says. "One would be hard pressed to imagine a more complete failure to hold to account those who abuse human rights."

'Landmark event'

In its report, Amnesty also cites the United States and European Union for using their position with the UN Security Council "to continue to shield Israel from strong measures of accountability for its actions in Gaza".

But it says that there have been positive developments over the past year as well.

In Latin America, it notes the conviction of former President Alberto Fujimori of Peru for crimes against humanity, and Argentina's last military President Reynaldo Bignone for kidnapping and torture.

And it hails the arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, on war crimes charges as a "landmark event".

However, it is disappointed by the African Union's failure to co-operate with the ICC, despite a "nightmare of violence" in Darfur affecting hundreds of thousands of people. This, it says, is a "stark example of government failure to put justice before politics".

And it calls on all G20 countries - including the US, China and Russia - to sign up to sign up fully to the ICC.

Pressure on Britain

Amnesty is also highly critical of the previous British government for "stonewalling" on repeated calls for an independent investigation into allegations that UK intelligence officials were complicit in torture, "rendition" and secret detention.

The organisation is also concerned about the UK relying on "diplomatic assurances" when carrying out deportations to countries such as Algeria and Jordan.

Last week, new Foreign Secretary William Hague promised that an inquiry would be held into allegations of complicity in torture. But few details were released, and the Foreign Office says the issue is still being discussed by ministers in the National Security Council.

Amnesty has welcomed Mr Hague's pledge.

"We look forward to an inquiry that is truly independent and looks not only at potential criminal responsibility but also at Britain's co-operation agreements with the United States and other countries," says Mr Cordone. "It should leave no stone unturned."

© BBC News

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sri Lanka Army occupies 80% of agricultural land in North

Sri Lanka Army (SLA) occupies around eighty percentage of agricultural land in Vanni and Jaffna peninsula in the name of High Security Zones (HSZs) and releasing this land back to the owners is the prerequisite to any attempt to explore possibilities of agricultural development in the North, representatives of agricultural organizations in Jaffna peninsula told the Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Jegath Pushpakumara, Wednesday in Jaffna Secretariat where he participated in a meeting related to the development activities in the peninsula, sources in Jaffna said.

Deputy Minister Pushpakumara, who is on a two-day official visit to North, had announced in Ki’lonochchi Tuesday that the government is taking steps to reopen the Agricultural Research Centres in Murungkan and Paranthan.

When Pushpakumara spoke on government’s plans for agricultural development in Jaffna district in the above meeting the representatives of agricultural organizations appealed to him to first hand over the agricultural lands in the North occupied by SLA to the owners.

Heated arguments and discussion followed the request but the minister did not assure the release of the occupied agricultural lands back to its owners.

© Tamil Net

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

As Sri Lanka spins, UN silent on why stopped counting the dead

By Matthew Russell Lee - Eighteen hours after UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met with Sri Lankan minister G.L. Peiris, Inner City Press asked him how the meeting had gone and what he had said. His associate spokesperson Choi Soung-ah cut in, "We'll get you a read out... We have a read out for today."

But Sri Lanka's Mission to the UN put out their spin on the meeting before eight pm on Monday, four hours after it ended. Why would the UN delay twelve hours and counting?

Perhaps in the nature of a read out, Ban advisor Nicholas Haysom went on the record to say "there are times when, on grounds of safety, you have to make tough calls about whether and when to remove international staff, or even national staff, and yet how to continue to deliver humanitarian aid, and we've had to do this in Afghanistan."

But the question is not only the UN pulling out of Kilinochchi, it is also the UN stopping preparing estimates of civilians being killed, after the government expressed anger at the leak of one such report (to Inner City Press). By contrast in Afghanistan, the UN provides estimates of and statements on the killing of civilians.

If Haysom is going to be providing the UN's response to the International Crisis Group's call for an international -- and independent -- investigation of the UN's role in war crimes, he should come and do a briefing and take questions. More importantly, Ban's chief of staff Vijay Nambiar should at last answer questions about his role. We will await the UN's belated read out.

Update of 2:20 p.m. -- even at Tuesday's noon briefing, no UN read out of the meeting with Sri Lanka was given. Nor, even after eight days, was any response ready to the International Crisis Group report. A question about Mr. Nambiar, however, was asked, and was strangely referred out by the UN.

© Inner City Press

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

War-Affected Women Bewail Their Plight

By IPS Correspondent - Rajini Padamaraj, 32, is burdened with the responsibility of looking after the needs of her entire household, composed of her mother and two younger siblings.

The slightly built woman, who remains unmarried, is of Tamil ethnic origin and originally from the Jaffna peninsula in northern Sri Lanka. She found a job last October as a sewing instructor in a training centre for women funded by a Japanese women’s group.

The salary with which she supports her family – equivalent to around 120 U.S. dollars monthly – is augmented by a small state allowance that her widowed mother receives and occasional extra income that she and her younger sister manage to make sewing for new clients.

Their home just before their current one was located in Kuchaweli, a scenic town on the East that was the site of the heavy fighting between the now defunct Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan government forces. Today, they live on the east coast, where Padamaraj said they want to restart their lives as a family. Never mind that home is a tin shack in Trincomalee, a major town on the east side of Sri Lanka.

"With the war over in Sri Lanka, there are suggestions from various people that we go back to our old home. But we will never do that. Whatever hardships we face, we must start our lives together here, because we need to be safe," said Padamaraj.

Indeed, a year since the bloody ethnic conflict ended in May 2009, research conducted by local women’s groups on the plight of the South Asian island state’s war-affected women shows employment and security are their top priorities as they struggle to rebuild their lives. Many of them lost their husbands to the war, because they were either killed or went missing during the almost 30-year conflict with the Tamil secessionists.

A report compiled by the Association of War-Affected Women (AWAW) in August 2009 following a visit to the Jaffna peninsula and the east coast showed women continued to feel vulnerable and feared the heavy military presence in their areas.

AWAW represents some 2,000 women across Sri Lanka whose sons or husbands were either disabled or killed during the war against the LTTE rebels, who were fighting for a separate homeland for the Tamil minority.

The women surveyed by AWAW also voiced their desperate need for economic stability so they could provide for their young children and elderly parents. Many of them had neither high school nor college education while others were younger women who had gone into computer training but still lacked jobs.

"Providing better conditions for women to rebuild their lives as well as giving them a voice in postwar development must take priority as the Sri Lankan government moves into a large-scale resettlement and reconciliation process," said Visakha Dharmadasa, head of AWAW.

Government estimates some 50,000 war widows are living on the east coast, including Trincomalee in the north and Batticoloa and Ampare districts farther south.

Widows usually receive around 250 dollars as a one-time settlement and an extra 100 dollars from the state when they can produce their husbands’ death certificates. On a monthly basis, they also get food rations that barely cover their basic needs.

A majority of the widows are Tamils, followed by Muslim and Sinhalese ethnic groups, and belong to rural farming or fishing communities, where poverty and malnutrition are major problems.

Grassroots groups lobbying support for widows have expressed concern that the 19-member Presidential Task Force on Northern Development appointed by the government in May does not include a single woman.

The task force is mandated to prepare plans and programmes to resettle internally displaced persons, including women, rehabilitate and develop the economic and social infrastructure of the war-torn northern province.

Shanthi Dharmaratnam, the director of the sewing training centre where Padamaraj works, said the slow progress in efforts to empower conflict- affected womenfolk – whether by the state, the private sector or even women’s activist groups whose movements, according to her, are being hampered by stringent security measures on the ground – has made the women feel that they have no one else to depend on but themselves.

"Widows and single women find a cruel word out there," said Dharmaratnam, because they are not getting "financial and psychological" support while looking after their families.

Padamaraj’s mother, Savitri, is scared of losing her daughter. "I am terrified of losing Rajini not only because she is my daughter but because my family would loose our leader who has helped us keep our heads above water."

Padamaraj and co-worker Jothi, a widow with two children, are not pinning their hopes on marriage as a way to escape their difficult situations, saying they are determined to fend for themselves, which they say is the "only way."

"Remarriage is out of the question because a stepfather will not look after my children," said Jothi, 36, whose husband, a farmer, mysteriously disappeared five years ago. The widow suspects he was taken in for questioning by the armed forces and died in custody.

Just when all hope seems lost, women have been encouraged by the election of the Jaffna peninsula’s female mayor – Vijayalkala Meheshwaran – a landmark in a traditionally conservative society, where women are expected to be homemakers and men to engage in politics.

Dharmadasa said Meheshwaran’s election is a reflection of how Tamil women are moving to the frontlines and finding a place in development.

"The road is long for war-affected widows," she said. Yet "the fight for their rights must go on."

© Inter Press Service

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sri Lanka urges US to focus on business, not just rights

Sri Lanka's new Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris on Tuesday urged Washington to seize business and other opportunities in post-war Sri Lanka rather than focus only on alleged human rights abuses there.

Visiting Washington after Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse won a resounding reelection victory in April, Peiris parried criticism from human rights activists and others as he began a week-long visit to push for closer ties.

A year after the end of the civil war, "the circumstances are propitious for a certain strengthening and deepening of the relationship between Sri Lanka and the United States," Sri Lanka's chief diplomat said.

"We are not in anyway resentful of the focus on human rights. That is understandable. We are not complaining about it," Peiris told a gathering hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

"But we are making the point that the relationship should not be one dimensional. There are many other things that Sri Lanka and the United States can do together," he said.

Rajapakse has come under fire at home and abroad for allegedly violating human rights in the final military campaign against Tamil Tiger rebels and has been accused of suppressing dissent since his reelection.

Representatives from the International Crisis Group and Amnesty International aired some of the alleged abuses in a question-and-answer session with Peiris following his speech about post-election and post-war developments.

Business opportunities abound, according to Peiris, who was minister for international trade in the previous government.

"In particular, as we open up the country, as we rebuild the infrastructure, I think there is a great deal of scope for American companies to come in and participate fully in that exercise," he said.

Peiris talked of a new "mood of optimism" in Sri Lanka, adding the "whole country was coming alive" as foreign tourists begin arriving in large numbers and foreign investors eyed hotel construction.

Peiris said he met earlier Tuesday with US senators and congressmen and planned to hold more meetings with them over the next two days.

He is also to meet with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Friday after she returns from east Asia.

Clinton's spokesman Philip Crowley last month urged Sri Lanka's new government to use its mandate to pursue a "healing process" as the Indian Ocean island recovers from decades of war.

Crowley said the government appeared to enjoy a "significant mandate" from the election.


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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sri Lanka, no Indian Ocean paradise

Robert Mahoney - Britons are again flocking to Sri Lanka. Tourist arrivals surged 47% last month from a year earlier and sun-seekers from the UK form the largest single group. That's an astounding turnaround for a country that for more than a quarter of a century had been a case study in ethnic warfare, terrorism and brutal repression.

This week the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, buoyed by recent wins in presidential and parliamentary elections, marks the first anniversary of its military victory over the separatist Tamil Tigers.

In the past few months Sri Lanka has been trying to burnish its image as an Indian Ocean paradise. And with some success. In January, the influential travel section of the New York Times slapped a picture of Colombo's colonial-era Galle Face hotel on its front page and put Sri Lanka at the top of its 31 Places to Go in 2010 list.

And a western tourist sipping palm wine on a white sand beach or Ceylon tea in a plantation hill station may agree. The weather's balmy, the people smile, and the price is oh-so right.

What visitors may not notice is that broad swaths of the mainly Tamil north and east of the country are still effectively closed military zones, and tens of thousands of Tamil civilians displaced by last year's army onslaught are still held in camps. Visitors would have a hard time finding independent reporting on these stories in the Sri Lankan media. But not to worry. So would Sri Lankans.

Peace may be bringing a dividend for tourism and other business, but not for free speech. The Tamil press has long been intimidated and is extremely wary of being the first to break news critical of the government or the military. But now the Sinhala and English language press based in Colombo is also under fire. The writing on the wall for those who report critically on Rajapaksa or his extended family, which occupies positions of power and influence throughout the island, came in January last year with the brutal beating to death in broad daylight of Lasantha Wickramatunga, editor in chief of the popular Sunday Leader newspaper.

That still unsolved murder sent a chill throughout the media. More attacks and harassment of reporters followed. Journalists, who already toned down or spiked critical stories, began to censor themselves even more. Several slipped out of the country fearing for their safety. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), in its latest report on Sri Lankan media, estimates that a total of 10 journalists have been killed for their work in the past decade, and that more than 25 have fled into exile. The authorities have not secured a single conviction in any of those 10 murders. This has earned Sri Lanka the dishonour of fourth place on the CPJ's Global Impunity Index, which ranks countries that fail to bring the killers of journalists to justice.

Troublesome journalists sometimes just disappear. One such is Prageeth Ekneligoda, a columnist and cartoonist whose wife and two sons have not seen him since he left to cover the presidential election campaign on 24 January. Police seem uninterested in investigating his disappearance. His editor at the online news site Lanka eNews, Sandaruwan Senadheera, has already fled the country.

Sri Lanka is used to having its poor human rights record under the spotlight. Western democracies have lost some of their leverage to effect change as the government in Colombo has turned to Asian countries for arms, aid and investment. China and Pakistan provided much of the weaponry for the final push against Tamil insurgents; Iran is financing the construction of a power station and supplying oil; and China is providing loans and labour for air, sea and rail transport projects.

But in addition to tourism, Sri Lanka still relies on Europe and the United States as export markets, particularly for apparel. Sri Lankan textiles entering the European Union enjoy low tariffs under the generalised system of preferences known as GSP+. Brussels has said it could suspend that privilege in August as part of a review of the island's human rights performance. Colombo has sought to play down the importance of the GSP+ but the EU accounts for 35% of Sri Lanka textile exports. The loss of that market could jeopardise 200,000 jobs.

Those who care about freedom of expression and the safety of journalists in Sri Lanka have few opportunities to influence the new government in Sri Lanka. The prospect of suspending preferential tariffs gives the EU a powerful tool to extract human rights improvements from Sri Lanka. Brussels should use it.

© Guardian

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