Thursday, September 26, 2013

Sri Lanka: UN human rights attack raises stakes before summit

By Jason Burke | The Guardian

The United Nations' most senior human rights official has strongly criticised the Sri Lankan government just months before a controversial Commonwealth summit in the south Asian island nation.

In an oral “update” to the UN human rights council in Geneva, Navi Pillay, the organisation's high commissioner on human rights, criticised the Sri Lankan government's failure to investigate allegations of war crimes against military officers and government officials. She said if significant steps were not taken before her full report was submitted in March, the international community would be forced to launch its own inquiry.

“Regrettably, the High Commissioner detected no new or comprehensive effort to independently or credibly investigate the allegations which have been of concern to the Human Rights Council,” her statement said.

The 47-nation council has repeatedly demanded a full, transparent investigation of the claims of war crimes.

Pillay also said she was worried by reports of intimidation of journalists, activists and opposition politicians, pressure on the judiciary and sectarian violence in Sri Lanka.

Campaigners say tens of thousands of civilians were killed in the bloody last days of the military campaign against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as soldiers closed in on the movement's leaders in May 2009.

Witnesses to the final battles told the Guardian last week they had seen civilians come under concentrated artillery fire from the Sri Lankan military. They also described seeing LTTE fighters, some armed, among the unarmed refugees. The LTTE has also been accused of human rights abuses.

The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly denied the allegations and has made little secret of its anger at what it sees as meddling by the UN and the west.

Ravinatha Aryasinha, Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, said Pillay had no mandate to issue an ultimatum to Sri Lanka, a country which “needed to be encouraged and not impeded”.

Earlier this week the president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, told the United Nations general assembly that “the growing trend in the international arena of interference ... in the internal matters of developing countries in the guise of ... guardians of human rights” was “disturbing”.

“Interested parties” were manipulating the United Nations against his country, he claimed.

The criticism of Sri Lanka from the United Nations will add to pressure on David Cameron and other leaders to boycott the Commonwealth heads of government meeting (CHOGM) in November. Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper has said he will not travel to Sri Lanka. British officials have said “tough messages” are best delivered personally.

Sri lanka will assume the leadership of the Commonwealth for two years following the summit, raising the prospect of further deep splits and controversy surrounding the organisation.

“Cameron is saying he will come and tell it like it is, but when and where?" said Paikiasothy Savaranamuttu, a respected analyst and activist in Colombo. "Even if he does, none of it will ever be made public.”

Pillay, who visited Sri Lanka last month on a fact-finding mission, also expressed concern at reports of abductions widely blamed on the authorities or local security agencies. She spoke of “disquiet ... as the rule of law and democratic institutions in Sri Lanka are being undermined and eroded” and referred to “continuing high levels of harassment and intimidation meted out to human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists”.

The 71-year-old South African-born former judge said she had been “particularly alarmed at the recent surge in incitement of hatred and violence against religious minorities, including attacks on churches and mosques, and the lack of swift action against the perpetrators”.

Commonwealth governments may be encouraged by the elections last weekend for a provincial council in the war-torn northern province, which is dominated by the Tamil minority. The first for 25 years, the polls have been seen as a key step towards reconciliation between Sri Lanka's Tamils, who make up 12-15% of the population of 21 million, and majority Sinhalese. An alliance of Tamil parties opposed to the government won a landslide victory in the poll.

Pillay welcomed the elections, which she said she hoped would “usher in an important new stage in the devolution of power” and praised what she called “the impressive achievements made by the government, with the help of the international community, in resettlement, reconstruction and rehabilitation in the [north of Sri Lanka] in the relatively short period since the armed conflict with the LTTE ended”.

These included the construction of new roads, bridges, train connections, medical facilities, schools and housing, as well as connecting electricity and water supplies.

Rajapaksa, who is in his eighth year in power, is banking on economic growth and development to quell separatist sentiments in the north.

A recent survey estimated that the Sri Lankan economy grew nearly 7% in the last quarter and tourist arrivals were up more than 14% on last year.

© The Guardian
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