Deep concerns raised over recent attempts to silence dissent

A group of individuals and organisations committed to human rights and democratic freedoms, and the rights of freedom of expression and dissent, have expressed deep concerns over recent attempts to stifle voices of human rights activists and silence dissent.

A statement signed by nearly 100 individuals and organisations noted that on 17th June, Minister for Justice and Buddha Sasana, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, publicly threatened to remove Lakshan Dias, Attorney-at-Law, and a well-known human rights activist, from the legal profession, in response to Mr. Dias raising the issues of attacks on Christian places of worship since 2015. The Minister prefaced this by virtually condemning human rights NGOs in general. He said, “In our country there are organisations who claim to be protecting human rights, who are dependent on NGO funds, who are trying to destroy the peace between the peoples of our country and turn this country back into a heap of fire; there are a few individuals like that.”

Minister Rajapakshehas since been reported reiterating his comments in an interview to a newspaper, claiming that “NGO funded traitors” are fermenting unrest in the country. He also claimed that the NGOs misled the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, who, in her latest report, highlighted some serious shortcomings in Sri Lanka’s justice system.

“It is as much a matter of great concern as it is revealing, that a senior cabinet minister presiding over the Ministry of Justice in the so-called Yahapalanaya government, resorts to vilifying, demonizing and threatening human rights activists and human rights NGOs. While hardly the first such instance, it is especially ironic that his comments come as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has launched a consultation process with human rights activists and NGOs on its draft report to the UN Human Rights Council as part of its Universal Period Review (UPR). Human rights activists and NGOs have been issued an open invitation to participate in the meetings as part of this UPR process. Under the circumstances the question arises to whether and how we can expect a principled engagement given the failure of the government to officially distance itself from Minister Rajapakshe’s disturbing comments,” the statement said.

The statement notes that the Minister’s rhetoric, troublingly reminiscent of the rhetoric of the previous regime, is indicative of the continued legacy in Sri Lanka of Governments attacking those speaking inconvenient truths.

“Indeed, this also echoes in the recent decision of President Sirisena to sack Sajeeva Samaranayake as Deputy Chairman of the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), and the NCPA’s decision to interdict its own Attorney, Preethika Sakalasooriya. It is widely reported that Mr. Samaranayake’s affidavit, which was attested by Ms. Sakalasooriya, to an Australian court listing shortcomings in the country’s child protection system, was what prompted action against them,” the statement added.

According to newspaper reports, the President has ordered an investigation into“how and why the affidavit was issued, whether such actions had been done before, and whether NCPA officials had received any ‘benefits’ from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for engaging in such activities.”

These are but the most recent in a series of incidents that point to a disturbing tendency of shrinking space for critique within and outside government, and signs of intolerance for expressions of dissent. It was not long ago that that the President himself called on Field Marshall Fonseka to discipline the country and restore order in the face of strikes.

“But this has already been the practice. Beginning with the brutal police attack on Higher National Diploma in Accountancy students in October 2015, there have been many instances of police attacking peaceful protests by students. The brutal attack on the student protest over SAITM last week, and the subsequent arrests, is only the latest manifestation of the repressive face of the Yahapalanaya state. Protesting workers have also been targeted, with the Navy being deployed to suppress protesting port workers in Hambantota in December 2016 while contract workers from the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) were arrested for a peaceful protest in January 2017,” the statement added.

Human rights activists in the North and East continue to remain under surveillance and subject to restraints and threats. The blocking of a remembrance event in Mullivaikal on May 18, and police harassment of the organizers and activists involved, also underlines disturbing continuities of policies from the previous regime.  These concerns are further amplified by certain significant legal reforms and measures proposed recently, especially the new counter terrorism law, the media standards council bill, and the recently withdrawn amendment to the code of criminal procedure, all of which encroach in different ways upon fundamental rights and freedoms.

The signatories to the statement called on the President and the Prime Minister to:

  1. Formally distance the government from the threats made by Minister Rajapaksheand publicly reaffirm respect for human rights activists and NGOs;
  2. Cease actions against conscientious public officials who do not hesitate to point out shortcomings in the working of state agencies, and instead, encourage them to do so, and take their concerns seriously;
  3. Create an environment both within government and in society at large that is conducive to expressions of human rights concerns, dissent and criticism.

They also called on individuals and organisations committed to democratic freedoms and human rights, to seriously re-consider the terms of engagement with the present government. The outcomes of the processes of public consultation and engagement with civil society with respect to constitutional reform and transitional justice have been ignored or instrumentalised in forums like the UN Human Rights Council.

In the meantime, the democratic space and freedoms that this Government promised to protect are facing serious threats as a result of its own actions or inaction. With the space for principled engagement with the Government continuing to narrow, those who signed the statement said they are bound by their principles to challenge and question the Government. (Colombo Gazette)

 

Signatories;

Individuals

 

  1. Ainslie Joseph
  2. AnurathaRajarathnam
  3. AsmaEdris
  4. Balachandran Gowthaman
  5. BhavaniFonseka
  6. Bishop Kumara Illangasinghe
  7. ChintakaRajapakse
  8. B.S.Jeyaraj – Journalist
  9. Deanne Uyangoda
  10. DinushikaDissanayale – Attorney-at-Law
  11. Lionel Weerakoon
  12. Maureen Ernest
  13. Emil van der Poorten
  14. ErmizaTegal- Attorney-at-Law
  15. FarzanaHaniffa
  16. GaminiAkmeemana
  17. GehanGunatilleke – Attorney-at-Law
  18. Godfrey Yogarajah – Deputy Secretary General,World Evangelical Alliance
  19. Herman Kumara
  20. Ian Ferdinands
  21. Jake Oorloff
  22. JayadevaUyangoda
  23. Jayantha Dhanapala
  24. JayanthiKuru-Utumpala
  25. Aingkaran – Attorney-at-Law
  26. Linus Jayatilake
  27. Lucille Abeykoon
  28. K. Jayatissa
  29. Mahinda Gunarathne
  30. Mala Liyanage
  31. Marisa de Silva
  32. Mirak Raheem
  33. Mujeebur Rahman P.M.
  34. Najah Mohamed
  35. Neil Priyantha Fernando
  36. Nigel Nugawela
  37. NilshanFonseka
  38. Selvaratnam
  39. N. Singham – Activist
  40. Padma Pushpakanthi
  41. PeriyasamyMuthulingam
  42. Prabath Kumara
  43. PremaGamage
  44. PriyadarshanieAriyaratne
  45. Jayantha Seneviratne
  46. Raja Senanayake
  47. RenukaSampath
  48. Fr. SarathIddamalgoda
  49. Sr. Nichola Emmanuel
  50. Sr. Noel Christine Fernando – SramabimaniKendraya
  51. RizaYehiya
  52. RohiniWeerasinghe
  53. RuhaniePerera
  54. Ruki Fernando
  55. C.C.Elankovan
  56. SajeewaChamikara
  57. SampathPushpakumara
  58. SampathSamarakoon
  59. SandunThudugala
  60. Sarah Arumugam – Attorney-at-Law
  61. Sarala Emmanuel
  62. ShamilaRathnasooriya
  63. Sheila Richards
  64. Shenali de Silva
  65. ShivanthaRathnayake
  66. Shreen Abdul Saroor
  67. SubhaWijesiriwardena
  68. SunandaDeshapriya
  69. TehaniAriyaratne
  70. ThilakKariyawasam
  71. UdayaKalupathirana
  72. VisakhaTillekeratne

Organizations

 

  1. Ceylon Industrial Workers’ Union
  2. Citizens for a Secure Sri Lanka
  3. Environmental Conservation Trust
  4. EQUAL GROUND
  5. Floating Space Theatre Co.
  6. Future in Our Hands – Badulla
  7. INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre
  8. Institute for Social Development (ISD)
  9. Lanka Farmer Forum
  10. Mannar Women’s Development Federation (MWDF)
  11. Movement for Land and Agriculture Reforms
  12. National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO)
  13. People to People Dialogue on Peace and Sustainable Development.
  14. People’s Alliance for Right to Land (PARL)
  15. Plantation Community Development Centre
  16. PrajaAbilasha Land Rights Network
  17. Progressive Farmer Congress
  18. Puttlam District Fisheries Solidarity Organization
  19. Rural Workers Organization
  20. Savistri Women’s Movement
  21. Sri Lanka Nature Group
  22. Sri Vimukthi Fisher Women Organization
  23. United Federation of Labour
  24. UwaWellassa Women Organization
  25. Women’s Action Network (WAN)

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.