No progress four years on says HRW

Respect for basic rights and liberties has declined in Sri Lanka in the four years since the government defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Human Rights Watch said today. This week marks the fourth anniversary of the brutal civil war’s end.

HRW says since the end of the 26-year-long civil war, the Sri Lankan government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has resisted taking meaningful steps to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes by government forces and the LTTE, end the crackdown against the independent media and human rights activists, and stop ongoing abuses against suspected LTTE supporters. Government pledges to address the concerns of the ethnic Tamil population have gone unfulfilled.

“Four years after Sri Lanka’s horrific civil war ended, many Sri Lankans await justice for the victims of abuses, news of the ‘disappeared,’ and respect for their basic rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, the Rajapaksa government has rejected investigations, clamped down harder on the media, and persisted in wartime abuses such as torture.”

Since 2009 the government has increasingly restricted fundamental liberties, imperiling Sri Lanka’s democratic system, Human Rights Watch said. Government officials have threatened, and unknown assailants have attacked, members of the media, civil society, and the political opposition. Activists who advocated for the 2012 Human Rights Council resolution were publicly denounced and threatened by officials. The Rajapaksa government orchestrated parliament’s impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake in December 2012 after she had ruled against the government in a major case.

Publications − including electronic media − that are critical of the government have been subject to government censorship, and some have been forced to close down. The leading Tamil opposition newspaper, Uthayan, has faced repeated physical attacks against its journalists and property.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) continues to be used to detain individuals for long periods without charge or trial. In May, the authorities detained Muslim opposition politician Azad Salley under the PTA for warning about the dangers of fanning ethnic hatred.

“The Rajapaksa government seems to be hoping that broad-based repression will dampen the exercise of fundamental freedoms,” Adams said. “But Sri Lankan activists and journalists who showed incredible resilience during wartime to bring forth the truth, will undoubtedly find a way to do so when the country is at peace.”

Human Rights Watch urged governments to demonstrate their concerns for Sri Lanka’s deteriorating human rights situation at the United Nations and other international venues. This includes continuing to press for an independent international investigation into wartime abuses, speaking out against ongoing abuses, and providing support for Sri Lankan civil society.

“History has shown time and again, most recently with the conviction of Guatemala’s former president, that hiding the truth is an impossible exercise,” Adams said. “Concerned governments should not let the poor human rights environment in Sri Lanka deter them from promoting accountability and greater rights protections.” (Colombo Gazette)