By Rev. M. Sathivel –
Formal Complain Against Honouring Rajapaksa At The UN Day And The Conduct Of The UN Resident Coordinator, Sri Lanka
Dear Ms. Hanna Singer, UN Resident Coordinator, Sri Lanka
We write to you as Human Rights activists, victims and concerned Tamils, to express our concerns about your conduct as the UN Resident Coordinator in your engagement with the Sri Lankan Government in apparent disregard to the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka.
On 23rd October 2020, the United Nations in Sri Lanka held a special virtual event to commemorate the world body’s 75th birthday. Sadly, it was a slap in the face for many of the country’s victims of human rights abuses and war crimes. Instead of focusing on them, the UN chose to honour one of the people implicated in their suffering, the country’s prime minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa. Honouring Rajapaksa at the UN Day event makes a mockery of two important UN human rights initiatives – Human Rights up Front and the secretary-general’s Call to Action on Human Rights. The UN shouldn’t be in the business of helping those suspected of war crimes launder their public image. Unfortunately, that’s what the UN Country Team did last month in Sri Lanka and we find this very offensive and adding insult to our injuries.
We are not naïve and recognize the need for you to engage given your current function. However, the photographs taken with corrupt officials and ministers who have been indicted or who are being investigated, as well as the tweets which follow, do not contain any reference to your having raised any human rights or corruption issue in your engagement.
As you know, the recent landslide victory of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa resulted in him interpreting that electoral victory as a mandate to establish an ethno-majoritarian Sinhala Buddhist state rejecting the notion of religious and ethnic pluralism and the representation of minorities as provided for under the 13th constitutional amendment. In fact, his constitutional agenda for the future, excludes any notion of devolution or the recognition of the rights of the Tamil and Muslim minority or any other marginalized group. The President has also been unambiguous and unequivocal in stating that he opposes any initiative that seeks to hold accountable those military officials implicated in war crimes. He has also established a Presidential Commission whose task is to exonerate those who have been charged with economic crimes and corruption in Sri Lanka. The establishment of a number of Task Forces which also establish a parallel system of governance in which all power resides in him. This together with the passing by Parliament of recent controversial 20th amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution and which provides for more expansive powers and greater immunity for the Executive President should give you cause for great concern. Ironically, the passing of the amendment triggered concern and resistance from not just the political opposition, but also the influential Southern Buddhist clergy.
The human rights situation is extremely grave in Sri Lanka with many afraid to speak out for fear of retaliation by the security forces who have arresting those who dissent including Muslim lawyers. Relatives of survivors abroad are deeply concerned at how in the last few months, their families in Sri Lanka are visited, intimidated and threatened with retaliation if they do not disclose the contact details of their family members abroad. Many have had family members abroad contacted by the Sri Lankan security threatening that they should be willing to inform if their families are to remain safe in Sri Lanka. Human Rights activists in the country are the subject of intense surveillance, threats and intimidation by the security forces. Fundamental freedoms are being trampled upon and the judiciary and criminal justice system are compromised.
It is for this reason that we are deeply concerned at your silence as the UN representative at the head of the country team in Sri Lanka to speak out on the human rights situation in the country. As stated before, we understand the political necessity for engagement with the government of Sri Lanka, but that engagement must be tempered and conditioned with statements around the human rights issues plaguing the country. We are deeply concerned at how you are normalizing the current human rights situation by playing down the abuses which are taking place and reflecting your meetings with government officials through tweets and photographs. We have examined your tweets and photographs and have been unable to find any instance in which you noted your concern on human rights issues or that many of the individuals you are meeting while deeply implicated in corruption have nevertheless been appointed to government. The photographs and tweets are insidious and provide a veneer of respectability to a government that is perceived as having gone rogue.
On 14/10/2020 you tweeted about meeting Prasanna Ranatunga the Minister of Industrial Export, Investment Promotion, Tourism and Aviation (with IOM) and discussed partnerships, environmental sustainability and “decent” work and electronic visas and airport arrivals. I am sure that you are aware of the fact that a criminal case was filed against Prasanna Ranatunga in the Colombo High Court following a Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) police investigation which recommended that 15 charges be brought against him. Media reports indicate that a court date was last set for 3 September 2020.
On 02/10/2020 you met the Minister of Health, and had the opportunity to address a number of human rights issues regarding the rights of Muslims including Muslim victims of COVID being cremated against their will and religious traditions. Not only did you fail to raise the issues but you also failed to tweet about the issue. In your public statement you have not raised the militarisation of Sri Lanka’s COVID response, and the fact that the army runs quarantine camps, and the State Intelligence Service is in charge of trace and tracking.
On 08/09/2020 you tweeted about meeting Namal Rajapaksa and posed for photos with him. He also highlighted the meeting on his feed. In posing for photographs with him, you deepen support for impunity in the country. I am sure that you are aware of the fact that Namal is has been identified by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry as being implicated in two cases of corruption and abuse of power. The Presidential Commission of Inquiry is mandated to Investigate and Inquire into Serious Acts of Fraud, Corruption and Abuse of Power, State Resources and Privileges. The PRECIFAC report recommended Namal in one case be referred to the Bribery and Corruption commission and the Attorney General for action and the other required further investigation.
On 30/09/2020 you tweeted meeting the Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to discuss development, peace and security, human rights and advancing the 2030 Agenda.
On 21/09/2020 you tweeted twice to focus on partnership to counter the menace of terrorism and violent extremism, convening a joint steering committee.
We draw your attention to the Internal Review Panel on UN Action in Sri Lanka which articulated the dilemma faced by the RC in Sri Lanka in 2008 who behaved as you are doing in not ensuring that the grave human rights issues were raised both domestically and internationally. The Review noted that “[t]he UN can face significant challenges in retaining the essential support of a Government to help in delivering assistance while at the same time responding to serious violations of international law that may require the UN to issue criticism of the same Government.” The report also concluded that the RC Neil Buhne and UNCT members failed to stand up for the rights of the people they were mandated to assist, and the RC failed to convincingly leverage his senior development position to secure Government commitment on the protection of civilians.
In dealing with the findings in the report, the Secretary General at the time not only established the Rights UP Front Programme but also revised the job description for RCs in 2014, to include core human rights responsibilities, also requiring that RCs in the future receive human rights training. In addition, an inter-agency exercise carried out at senior level at UNHQ, known as the Regional Quarterly Review, was established to support RCs and UNCTs by jointly scanning all countries for early warning signs. These initiatives were designed to ensure that RCs continue to advocate for human rights in their engagement with government.
Its notable that the OHCHR report which criticized the role of the RC in Myanmar drew parallels with the situation in Sri Lanka in 2009. It noted that during the bloody final months of Sri Lanka’s long civil war, as the army closed in on the rebel Tamil Tigers, there were 300,000 civilians trapped between the front lines. Tens of thousands of them were killed. But the UN declined to publish mounting casualty numbers and staff members who brought up threats to civilians were punished. An internal probe commissioned afterwards by Ban, then UN secretary-general, found a “continued reluctance” among UN staff “to stand up for the rights of people they were mandated to assist”. “The situation bears a striking resemblance to the humanitarian community’s systematic failure in the final stages of the war in Sri Lanka, during which hundreds of thousands of Tamils were held against their will in internment camps that were fully paid for and serviced by international humanitarian institutions,” said the report.
While Sri Lanka is not at this point engaged in an internal armed conflict, it’s worth noting that the Government of Sri Lanka continues to persecute ethnic minorities and has reneged on its obligations to the international community to promote healing and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
In this context we are ask you to review your conduct to date and to condition your engagement with the government referencing not only human rights and corruption issues but also the question of the need for accountability .
Rev. M. Sathivel, Coordinator of the National Movement For Release Political Prisoners (NMRPP)