Richard Hamer: Silence over Sri Lanka

Shona Robison kept quiet about the human rights record of the Sri Lankan regime headed by president Mahinda Rajapaksa while visiting Colombo. Picture: Michael Hughes
Shona Robison kept quiet about the human rights record of the Sri Lankan regime headed by president Mahinda Rajapaksa while visiting Colombo. Picture: Michael Hughes
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Scotland’s sports minister Shona Robison should have been as brave as David Cameron and spoken out against Sri Lanka’s appalling human rights record, writes Richard Hamer

THERE has been much talk of the legacy the 2014 Commonwealth Games will leave for the people of Glasgow and Scotland as a nation, but becoming a silent witness to war crimes was not the sort of thing we had in mind.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting last week confirmed Sri Lanka as the organisation’s chair for the next two years. Ironically, the country will also serve on the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, the body charged with monitoring human rights in member states. It rather beggars belief that a country with Sri Lanka’s appalling human rights record can be accorded this honour.

Sri Lanka has persistently failed to carry out effective investigations into past human rights abuses or to ensure that perpetrators are held accountable. Four years after the end of the civil war, its government still refuses to agree to the establishment of an independent enquiry into war crimes for which there are numerous credible allegations. 

Last week’s Commonwealth summit was Sri Lanka’s big chance to show the world how far it has come since the armed conflict with the Tamil Tigers ended in 2009. Its government reportedly said it hoped the summit would rake in $2 billion in foreign investment.

Sri Lanka is good at this – promoting a narrative of post-war peace and prosperity. It has spent millions on PR companies to convince the world that the horrors of the conflict are a thing of the past and that reports of ongoing human rights violations are nothing more than slander.

But the international community should not be fooled by the window dressing.

This is a country where the UN estimates that some 40,000 people may have been killed during the final phase of the armed conflict, the majority allegedly at the hands of the Sri Lankan army. The Colombo government has rejected the need to investigate or bring to justice those responsible for such alleged war crimes during the conflict.

Meanwhile, the government has dismantled institutions that protect human rights, concentrated power in the hands of itself and its cronies, and led a vicious assault on any critics standing in its way. Opposition politicians, human rights defenders, trade union activists and the judiciary are among those who have been threatened, harassed or even killed, with the government often relying on the security forces or their proxies to do its dirty work.

During his recent visit to the Commonwealth summit, David Cameron backed the call already made by United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay by saying if no credible domestic investigations are carried out by March next year, there should be an international inquiry. These strong words are welcome, but we need action if they are ignored.

Scotland’s Commonwealth Games and Sports Minister Shona Robison was also in Colombo for the summit and indeed was the first Scottish Government minister to be invited to address the meeting. It is hugely disappointing she did not take advantage of this opportunity to speak out on behalf of the people of Scotland about the disturbing incidences of rights violations endemic in Sri Lanka.

Instead, Ms Robison focused on the positive, saying: “We are already experiencing benefits from hosting the Games. But that is only the start of our legacy ambition.” Shouldn’t we also be aiming for Scotland to leave a positive international human rights legacy to the nations attending next year’s Games?

Soon after news of Cameron’s deadline was reported, the Sri Lankan president remained defiant, saying the country would “take its own time” in probing alleged abuses.         

Some Sri Lankan journalists were unable to report the news breaking on their own doorsteps. Members of the media continue to suffer intimidation, threats and attacks for reports that are critical of the government. At least 15 have been killed since 2006, and more than 80 journalists have fled Sri Lanka since 2005.

The media are not the only target: the independence of the judiciary is a fundamental Commonwealth value, but one for which the government of Sri Lanka has shown little respect. In January of this year, the government impeached chief justice Shirani Bandaranayake on charges of misconduct, despite the Supreme Court ruling the procedure unconstitutional; her real “offence” appears to have been her failure to side with the Presidency.

But the chief justice’s dismissal was just the culmination of months of government interference in the workings of the judiciary. Lawyers and judges had expressed public concern over other alleged government interference, with many complaining of receiving threats or being harassed if they were involved in cases dealing with human rights violations by the government.

In addition to the abject failure to address past crimes, there are continuing reports of appalling human rights violations in Sri Lanka. This year, Amnesty’s Edinburgh Festival Campaign focused on journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda who has been missing since 2010 – just days after he wrote an article critical of the regime. We believe he was abducted as part of the so-called “white van disappearances” three days before the last presidential election. Since then, two government officials have claimed he fled overseas but neither has been able to provide evidence. His location remains unknown.

The Sri Lankan government continues to insist that change is just around the corner. In July, president Rajapaksa announced a new commission to investigate enforced disappearances from the conflict years. But its mandate is too narrow and in any case it must be remembered that there have already been ten commissions on disappearances since the early 1990s, but their recommendations have largely been ignored, with few alleged perpetrators identified and brought to justice.

The past week has provided clear examples of the Sri Lankan government’s repressive tactics, with members of the media being intimidated or refused access to cover the Commonwealth summit proceedings for reporting “unfavourable” stories. We continue to receive news of arbitrary arrest and detention, enforced disappearance, extrajudicial execution, torture and other ill-treatment, and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

In its capacity as a member of the Commonwealth, Sri Lanka has reiterated its commitment to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. It has also promised to implement its obligations under human rights treaties to which it is a party, and affirmed its commitment to the Commonwealth’s principles and values including the protection and promotion of human rights. So far, we have yet to see much evidence of that. 

The upcoming UN Human Rights Council session in March can and must establish the international inquiry that is long overdue to ensure that the shadow of Sri Lanka’s horrific human rights record does not cast a pall over Glasgow 2014.

• Richard Hamer is programme director of Amnesty International in Scotland