By Nicolas Beger –
The recent impeachment of Sri Lanka’s Chief Justice, Shirani Bandaranayake, has re-focused international attention on the country. Catherine Ashton, head of the EU’s External Action Service, has expressed “considerable concern”. However, the problem with Sri Lanka runs deeper than any single case. Despite the Sri Lankan Government’s claims of progress on human rights since the conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), also known as the ‘Tamil Tigers’, ended in 2009, the reality is very different.
For 30 years Sri Lanka was ravaged by civil war between the government and the LTTE, during which tens of thousands of civilians may have been killed. The war is over, but human rights violations persist. In 2011, the government lifted its state of emergency, but retained the repressive Prevention of Terrorism Act. The authorities also introduced new regulations, which maintain detention of LTTE suspects without charge or trial. And political activists, journalists, human rights defenders and others who criticise the government still face intimidation and smear campaigns, and some have been subjected to enforced disappearance.
The Sri Lankan Government has also failed to ensure accountability for alleged crimes under international law committed by its armed forces during the conflict. Allegations include indiscriminate attacks, some with heavy weapons, which resulted in civilian deaths, enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial executions. The LTTE, too, allegedly committed crimes under international law, including forcibly recruiting adults and children as combatants and using civilians as human shields. This goes beyond war crimes: in 2011, the report of the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, stated that credible allegations supported a finding that various crimes against humanity had been committed by both sides during and after the conflict’s final stages. The country’s Lessons Learnt & Reconciliation Commission recommended independent investigation and prosecution of these violations. The government responded with a National Plan of Action, but its proposed actions often mention existing mechanisms or procedures that we consider ineffective. It also asks agencies associated with violations to investigate and police themselves. This fails to meet international legal standards. How can anyone expect perpetrators of human rights violations to investigate themselves properly?
Here in Brussels, certain MEPs seem strangely determined to ignore the truth. At a hearing of Parliament’s human rights sub-committee last November, the ‘Friends of Sri Lanka’ group said the EU should offer a message of “sympathy and good will” to the Sri Lankan Government, and casually dismissed abuses as “mistakes”. Yet these MEPs have been confronted with evidence of arbitrary detention, torture, enforced disappearance, extrajudicial execution and other human rights violations. The Friends of Sri Lanka consistently deflects any criticism of the country’s human rights record, effectively acting as the Sri Lankan Government’s mouthpiece in Brussels. Why do they continue to defend the indefensible?
Fortunately, this group is heavily outnumbered by other MEPs who aren’t willing to ignore ample evidence of alleged violations. But overall the EU must be more vocal about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. With the Sri Lankan Government continuing to commit grave human rights violations and refusing to ensure accountability for past crimes, the country is heading in diametrically the wrong direction.
The EU must extend its scrutiny and criticism of Sri Lanka beyond individual cases like the Chief Justice’s and focus on widespread violations of human rights. It must use all its influence with Sri Lanka to ensure justice for past violations and an end to the many present ones so that the people of Sri Lanka can enjoy the future that they deserve.
*Nicolas Beger, Head of the EU office, Amnesty International