Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan government unmoved by UN report on human rights abuses


With backing from powerful friends, Sri Lanka remains immune to international concern over its human rights record. Damien Kingsbury reports.

A certain predictability has developed in the public exchange on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. In keeping with this predictability, the recent UN Human Rights Commission report on Sri Lanka’s continuing serious human rights abuses is yet another expression of deep international concern which, almost certainly, will end up gathering dust.

The Human Rights Commission report lists a litany of egregious human rights violations perpetrated by the government of Sri Lanka or its agents dating back to the end of that country’s ethnic war in 2009. In response, the government continues to deny all such accusations, claiming there is an international conspiracy against it and that the evidence is manufactured, falling back on the argument that its actions were predicated on crushing terrorism.

With the backing of states less sympathetic to human rights issues, Sri Lanka has, since 2008, been immune to expressions of international concern. Attempts to impose an internationally driven solution to its human rights situation or the fate of its ethnic Tamil minority have been blocked in the UN Security Council by Sri Lanka’s main international guarantor, China.

China’s interest in Sri Lanka is part of its so-called ‘string of pearls’ strategic push into the Indian Ocean. However, with China making inroads into India’s strategic sphere of influence, India has also been keen to try to keep Sri Lanka on side following its troubled relationship.

As an initial gesture towards the West, Sri Lanka did allow a circumscribed ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ investigation into the vast scale of atrocities that occurred in the period to May 2009. It was at that time that some 40 000 people were killed by intense government army attacks against civilians sheltering on a sliver of land in Sri Lanka’s north-east coast.

Yet even the innocuous report that came from this tame commission was effectively ignored, reflecting the government’s distaste for anything that does not accord with its brutally hard line on Sri Lanka’s ‘Tamil question’. So it was with the just released UN Human Rights Commission report on Promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka.

UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay (pictured) found that, despite previous recommendations, there had been no action by the government on issues of enforced disappearances, hate speech, witness protection or improved truth seeking processes. She noted that there remained several outstanding human rights problems to be addressed by the Sri Lanka government.

N Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay.

Among continuing human rights problems identified by Ms Pillay were continued limitations on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, freedom of opinion and expression, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and enforced or involuntary disappearances. In this, she expressed concern over the role and security of human rights defenders, the independence of judges and lawyers and discrimination against women both in law and in practice.

Overall, Ms Pillay said, there had been little movement towards addressing issues of truth about human rights abuses, issues of justice and reparation for victims, and guarantees of non-recurrence of human rights violations. All of these issues have also been highlighted by civil society organisations in Sri Lanka such as the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

In response to the report, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Envoy in Geneva, Ravinatha Aryasinha, ran the government’s usual line, claiming that the details of Ms Pillay’s report ‘reflect the preconceived, politicised and prejudicial agenda which she has relentlessly pursued with regard to Sri Lanka’. He accused Ms Pillay of double standards and paying ‘scant or no regard to the domestic processes ongoing in Sri Lanka’.

He also criticised Ms Pillay’s report for arriving at conclusions in a ‘selective and arbitrary manner’ while ignoring requests from the Sri Lankan government to provide factual evidence to substantiate allegations and to otherwise not make general comments.

Underpinning the culture of impunity which informs Sri Lanka’s poor human rights record is a heightened sense of ethnic chauvinism and religious intolerance that has increasingly characterised Sri Lankan politics.

Yet Ms Pillay is not alone in the concerns expressed in her report. A petition signed by leading international figures, headed by South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has called for an independent international investigation in the form of a Commission of Inquiry. ‘Only this will help to put the country on the path to justice and reconciliation’, the petition says. Similar comments have been expressed by the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch.

Culture of impunity

Underpinning the culture of impunity which informs Sri Lanka’s poor human rights record is a heightened sense of ethnic chauvinism and religious intolerance that has increasingly characterised Sri Lankan politics. This is now institutionalised under the Rajapaksa government, which has enjoyed massive ethnic Sinhalese support following the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers.

Since coming to office, President Rajapaksa’s government has been intolerant of dissent or opposition and has fostered a climate of fear. This initially focused on the country’s ethnic Tamil population, but has since spread to ethnic Sinhalese uncomfortable with the direction of Sri Lanka’s politics.

Sinhalese journalists are now regularly intimidated, occasionally abducted and sometimes murdered. Reporters Without Borders has consequently ranked Sri Lanka at 165thof 180 countries assessed. This shift away from plural politics towards a closed chauvinist ethnopolitics has increasingly closed the distinction between the individual and the state, giving Sri Lanka a distinctly authoritarian hue.

For Tamils, despite the war’s formal end, they remain second-class citizens in their country of birth. The north and east of the country, where most Tamils live, continue to function under military occupation, in which Tamil civilians do not know from day to day whether they will be subject to an arbitrary search, rape, torture or disappearance.

Despite concerns expressed by more liberal sections of the international community, and Ms Pillay’s report and others like it, the Sri Lanka government refuses to budge. With the backing of China, Russia and Pakistan, it is under little real pressure to do so.

Once relatively free, Sri Lanka has now firmly joined that list of authoritarian states that primarily acknowledges basic human rights in the breech. Despite the Human Rights Commission report, and others like it, there appears little the West can now do.

President Rajapaksa: since coming to office, his government has been intolerant of dissent or opposition and has fostered a climate of fear (Wikimedia Commons).

About Damien Kingsbury

Damien Kingsbury is Professor of International Politics at Deakin University and Coordinator of the Australia Timor-Leste Election Observer Mission.

20th June, 2014