Continuous bonhomie by the Colombo based diplomats in the UN and Western missions have raised questions about a serious fear factor for foreign envoys under the Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration in Sri Lanka.
Following the Government’s treatment of the Embassy of Switzerland in Colombo after a staff member of the embassy was illegally detained by an armed group and sensitive information sought about the Swiss Government’s asylum program, diplomatic missions in Colombo are overly cautious and refusing to raise major human rights abuses and threats to democracy and freedom of expression in the country concerned observers told Colombo Telegraph. The silence has left human rights advocates, journalists and opposition activists isolated in their criticism of the increasingly militarized Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration. Diplomats have instead adopted a series of platitudes in their public communications with the Government of Sri Lanka that ignored the plight of victims and investigators who have fought for justice for human rights violations and crimes and are finding themselves on the wrong side of the regime for their efforts now, activists said.
On Friday, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in collaboration with the European Union is currently hosting a workshop for lawyers from the Attorney General’s department on counter terrorism training, drawing sharp responses from human rights activists and observers as well-known attorney Hejaaz Hizbullah spends his 9th month in detention under the dreaded Prevention of Terrorism Act.
For months, the Government has ignored calls for Hizbullah’s release from international agencies including the International Bar Association, the International Commission of Jurists, UN special rapporteurs. A nine-month investigation has resulted in no charges filed against Hizbullah and during his detention, the reputed lawyer has been denied access to his lawyers, contracted corona virus and missed the birth of his daughter.
Activists and lawyers criticized the ‘tone-deafness’ of a celebratory tweet by the Troels Vester the head of office of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime for Sri Lanka and the Maldives, advertising its training for AG Dappula De Livera and prosecutors from his Department on counter-terror and securing convictions against terror suspects.
“This is in terrible taste,” tweeted Human Rights Lawyer Gehan Gunetillake quoting Vester’s own posting. “How do you think families of those who have suffered immensely under the PTA will feel when they read this kind of tone-deaf tweet?” Gunetillake queried.
UN resident coordinator Hana Singer and officials from the EU mission in Sri Lanka also joined in the workshop.
Singer has also been previously criticized for heaping praise on the Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration which has presided over a stunning deterioration of human rights and freedom of expression in the year it has been in power.
In September 2020 the UN Resident Coordinator publicly lauded Sri Lanka’s parliamentary democracy standing with the Speaker of Parliament as the Nandasena Rajapaksa Government was in the process of enacting the draconian 20th Amendment to erode the independence of the legislature. Days later she congratulated Mohan Peiris on his appointment as Permanent Representative to the UN in New York. Peiris, a former AG was illegitimately appointed Chief Justice of Sri Lanka following a controversial and illegal impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake in January 2013 under President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Peiris has also gone down in the history books as the Sri Lankan official who lied to the UN Committee on Torture about the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda. Peiris told UNCAT that he had information that Eknaligoda was living overseas but when he was questioned on the claim by a court in Sri Lanka, he walked the statement back saying “Only God knows” where Prageeth Eknaligoda could be.
It was this official that Singer decided to heap congratulations on for his appointment as the Sri Lankan Government representative to the UN.
I wish to extend my congratulations to H. E. Dr. Mohan Peiris on his appointment as the new Permanent Representative of #SriLanka to the UN in New York and reiterate @UNSriLanka’s commitment to continue working with #LKA to advance the #sustainabledevelopment goals. @MFA_SriLanka pic.twitter.com/CcpAV3G2CM, UN Resident Coordinator Hana Singer tweeted on September 25, in a post that has since been deleted from her account following an outcry.
Also on Friday the High Commissioner to the UK in Sri Lanka Sarah Hulton posted a cute little video clip that featured her playing virtual cricket with Sri Lankan High Commissioner to the UK Saroja Sirisena. Sirisena is an ardent Sinhala nationalist and Rajapaksa loyalist who Colombo Telegraph has previously revealed is responsible for a major fraud of state funds for cosmetic upliftment. In light of the UK in Colombo maintaining a stony silence on grave rights abuses committed by the Nandasena Government the tweet drew sharp responses from Sri Lankan activists. Hulton responded in a subsequent tweet that Ministers in the UK were raising serious issues with the Government of Sri Lanka including on forced cremations of corona virus patients indicating that diplomats who were based in Sri Lanka were being more cautious in their dealings with the tough-talking President and his Government.
After a lengthy silence about the excesses of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration and hours before President Joe Biden was inaugurated the US Embassy in Colombo issued a vague and unspecific statement that appeared to allude to religious rights with regard to those who died from the corona virus amidst continuing outrage over the mandatory cremation of Muslims who die of the virus. Referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ratified by Sri Lanka in 1955, the US Embassy statement said that COVID-19 had created global challenges but it should not “cost us our compassion and respect for one another’s beliefs. “We stand with all families who’ve lost loved ones to this pandemic. Their rights and dignity should be respected by permitting the observance of their faith in accordance with international public health guidelines.”
Sources told Colombo Telegraph that the Swiss Embassy incident in November 2019 had “spooked” all other diplomatic missions in Colombo. Following the incident the Embassy was effectively shut down for months with diplomatic officers virtually denied permission to leave their residences. The Embassy also indefinitely suspended its asylum programme after the controversy was seen to have endangered its nationals in Colombo. The assault on the Embassy has had a chilling effect sources in the diplomatic community told Colombo Telegraph.
The Government of Gotabaya Rajapaksa had showed that they were not interested in the Vienna Convention or maintaining diplomatic norms and traditions when they felt slighted.
“Officials in this administration have openly told the diplomatic community that their advocacy for certain causes especially those seen as “NGO causes” would only serve to entrench the Government in its hardline positions further because it will help them to whip up their nationalist base” the sources with knowledge of these discussions said. “They are being told to put up and shut up, or the consequences could be significant – naturally none of the capitals want to compromise the security of their representatives in Colombo” the source told Colombo Telegraph. “They think the safest thing to do is to post about cricket and the great Sri Lankan cuisine” the source adds. (By Janakie Mediwake)