CHOGM and human rights in Sri Lanka

By Lucy Swinnen | 13 Aug 13

This article is part of our July theme Australia in the World. Click here for more articles on the same theme.

By Lucy Swinnen

The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, known as CHOGM for short, is scheduled to take place in Sri Lanka in November of this year despite ongoing criticism of the human rights situation in the country. In Amnesty International’s view, Sri Lanka is not a suitable host of the 2013 CHOGM until it takes significant steps to redress its human rights situation. An Amnesty report released in April, Dissent, identifies credible allegations of war crimes committed in the final stages of the country’s civil war and ongoing human rights violations in a country that equates dissent with treason.  Canada’s President Stephen Harper has said his country will boycott the upcoming CHOGM, but so far his is the only country to do so. Ming Yu is the Amnesty International spokesperson on Sri Lanka.

Right Now: The report Sri Lanka’s Assault on Dissent states: “One of the holdovers from Sri Lanka’s armed conflict is a security regime that criminalises freedom of expression, and an official attitude that equates dissent with treason.” Could you talk about the current human rights situation in Sri Lanka and the restriction on citizens’ rights to freedom of expression?

Ming Yu: The current Sri Lankan government is systematically cracking down on any of its critics and anyone who dares to openly challenge its authority.

So whether it’s journalists who are reporting on or doing quite critical analyses of government behaviour or government policies, through to judges who are passing judgments in favour of human rights victims, through to lawyers and academics, business people, aid workers, opposition politicians – so really anyone who is daring to criticise the government – is basically seen as being a traitor to the state. And that wording of “treason” or “traitor to Sri Lanka” is being used more and more in Sri Lankan Government statements to the media or just public statements.

So in a nutshell we see systematic violations of human rights, systematic silencing of its critics, that’s what’s happening.

When the civil war ended in 2009, particularly in the last four months of 2009, there were allegedly war crimes committed by both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan security forces. Amnesty International has been calling and continues to call for independent and impartial investigations into these alleged war crimes, because it’s really critical to bring the perpetrators to account.

During the civil war there was the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). That Act criminalises freedom of expression and the Sri Lankan government has allowed the PTA to be carried over and continues to implement it today. That Act gives Sri Lankan security forces wide ranging powers For example, there are a lot of websites, their offices have been broken into, lots of journalists have been intimidated. In fact since 2006, 15 journalists have been killed and dozens and dozens have fled the country. About nine of those deaths, there is evidence that shows it directly correlates to the articles they published criticising the government. So really there are very clear patterns, and that in a nutshell is how there is systematic silencing.

So would you say that human rights abuses stretch across freedom of expression, freedom to criticise the Government, the right to gather information?

The PTA criminalises freedom of expression, so that’s why websites have been hacked into and journalists threatened or intimidated.

There is one case, of a man called Poddala Jayantha. He was the head of the Sri Lankan Working Journalists’ Association, and he was very well-known to be openly critical about how the Sri Lankan government was treating its journalists. In 2009 he was abducted by a group of armed men and basically they tied him down and took his right hand, because he’s right handed, and they broke every finger in his right hand and they said to him, “This will stop you from writing”.

Now that correlates to the fact that he was critical of the government, although the armed men did not necessarily identify themselves. As a result Mr Jayantha has since fled Sri Lanka but, as I mentioned, dozens more have left the country and at least 15 have been killed since 2006.

Unless the Sri Lankan government clearly demonstrates that it has, one, stopped the systematic violations of human rights that are occurring and, two, starts to properly investigate the alleged war crimes, then Sri Lanka is not a suitable host for CHOGM.

You mentioned that certain approaches have been carried on from the war that occurred, and the Amnesty report describes “credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity having been committed by government forces and the LTTE”. Could you elaborate?

One of the most well-known examples is around the treatment of civilians, particularly the Tamil civilians who are up in the north and east, who were trapped between the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers and there are allegations that the civilians were used as human shields, how even though there were meant to be no-fire zones, that fighting continued and that things like hospitals were targeted.

And is it correct that Amnesty called on the United Nations to pursue these allegations of war crimes? And has there been any process after the war?

Amnesty International and many other organisations have definitely been pushing the United Nations and it’s key member states to have an independent and impartial investigation. So it’s something that we continue calling for– to also ensure that these alleged war crimes are properly investigated and those perpetrators are brought to account.

That is why with the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting that is going to be held in Colombo in Sri Lanka in mid-November, Amnesty’s position is that unless the Sri Lankan government clearly demonstrates that it has, one, stopped the systematic violations of human rights that are occurring and, two, starts to properly investigate the alleged war crimes, then Sri Lanka is not a suitable host for CHOGM.

Could you elaborate on how this would help promote and redress these human rights abuses?

The reason we are saying Sri Lanka is not a suitable host, as it stands, for CHOGM is because the Commonwealth is founded on values such as human rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law. For us the host of CHOGM is a key leadership role, it is very representative of what the Commonwealth is meant to stand for. And due to its very poor human rights record, we don’t believe that Sri Lanka should be holding such a leadership position.

The host of CHOGM will also be accorded the chairmanship of the Commonwealth from 2013-2015. So again, if you are being the leader of the Commonwealth, if you are leading an institution that is purportedly based on these core values of human rights, freedom of expression, the rule of law, then how can Sri Lanka possibly reflect and embody those kind of values when they have such an appalling human rights record.

And as far as Amnesty is concerned, no action has been taken by the Sri Lankan government to address allegations of war crimes.

They have set up their own process, called the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. And the Sri Lankan Government has set up several national commissions, it has drafted several national action plans all to address human rights concerns that were particularly raised by the international community. However from what we’ve seen, whilst all these commissions and action plans have occurred, very little action has actually been taken. So for us, we see it as empty promises.

The Sri Lankan government has also said that it will review, and make the necessary legal changes, but none of that legal reform has occurred to improve human rights standards. It said that it would stop detaining people unfairly without trial. Yet there are hundreds and hundreds of prisoners who are still in prison unfairly. So whilst the Sri Lankan government has said it will do and make these improvements, we have observed very little actual change on the ground and very little improvement in the human rights situation. And, in fact, in the systematic crackdowns that we are seeing, in some cases it looks like it is intensifying.

Intelligence officers started taking photos of parents who were seeking assistance and these parents were being threatened because the government did not want any negative criticism to come out about the government’s behaviour during the war.

The Amnesty report suggests “Human rights defenders …report heavy police surveillance and repeated interrogation about their activities”, whether prominent activists or local community members. Could you speak about the challenges and risks that human rights defenders in Sri Lanka face?

As you mentioned there are two levels to the discrimination that is occurring. The first is the more visible layer of national high profile individuals, like the Chief Justice, opposition politicians, high profile journalists or high profile human rights defenders. Now these people are being silenced for sure. But on the second layer it is more grass roots and community-based discrimination and threats that we are seeing.

These are the people that won’t be known outside their neighbourhood or community, they are your teachers, your aid workers, and your students. It even includes parents of children who have disappeared during the last stages of the civil war. So up in the north and east we spoke to hundreds of parents who were talking to the government to get some assistance to locate where their children are. However, intelligence officers started taking photos of parents who were seeking assistance and these parents were being threatened because the government did not want any negative criticism to come out about the government’s behaviour during the war. So even to that level, intimidation is occurring.

How would you describe the situation for the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka at the moment?

When I talk about systematic violations, a lot of the critics that are being silenced and intimidated are speaking out about how the government conducted the last stages of the war, in which mostly Tamil civilians were killed. In those final stages, the UN reports up to 40,000 died. So, of course, a lot of Tamil populations are more involved and they are the ones pursuing justice and accountability.

In terms of how Tamil people are being treated now, for us the report was more assessing that there are these patterns happening, so whether you are a Sinhala, or Muslim or Tamil, if you are openly criticising and challenging the government then the government is going to try to stop you and shut you up.

Is it fair to say that the government is continuing wartime practices and it hasn’t really ended its wartime mentality? 

I think there are two things. I would agree with you that the government is still using wartime tools like the Prevention of Terrorism Act. They are using wartime tools in a way that I think is not useful to achieving reconciliation or achieving sustainable and genuine peace. And the second thing is that the post-war patterns are about equating dissent with treason. So that is a newer development.

As you noted, the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has opted not to attend CHOGM. Australia’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Senator Bob Carr recently claimed that not attending the meeting would be counterproductive, arguing that Australia’s concern with human rights in the country would best be met with engagement. How would you respond to that?

Amnesty International definitely encourages engagement with all governments. Amnesty International has for many years done so, and continues to communicate with the Sri Lankan government, although they may not respond. They may not wish to engage, but our approach is always to have open communication and regular engagement because that is how change can occur. So certainly we would agree with Minister Carr that engagement should occur; however, engagement can take many different forms. As I mentioned before, being a host of CHOGM is not an appropriate role for Sri Lanka given its current track record, unless it demonstrates significant improvement prior to November.

Do you think, in a way, that having CHOGM in Sri Lanka is a good opportunity to shed light and bring attention to its ongoing issues?

Yes I think so. I hope more people in Australia will start having a better understanding of the real situation in Sri Lanka. I know politicians from a range of Australian parties have said that there is not a grave human rights situation in Sri Lanka. Amnesty’s research concludes otherwise.

It is a grave human rights situation, there are systematic violations, and they are being entrenched in government attitudes and government behaviours. There is a culture of impunity and people continue getting killed, injured, abducted and threatened. So, until that improves, we need to really take this on-the-ground reality into account when we are forming our refugee policies and forming our foreign policies as well.

Ming Yu has 15 years experience in a range of not-for-profit organisations, and has lived in Sri Lanka, Burma, and the Maldives, working with the United Nations and local NGOs.