By Daya Gamage –
Broad expansion of executive authority undermines the independence of the judiciary and independent state institutions, such as Human Rights Commission; unlawful killings by the government, torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government agents; restrictions on free expression and the press, including unjustified arrests of journalists, were some of the abuses Washington saw that took place in the year 2020 in Sri Lanka.
The Country Report on Human Rights Practices: Sri Lanka report released last week by the U.S. Department of State did not see Sri Lanka under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa consolidating a democratic rule, and preventing abuses and violations under his rule.
Washington announces in its report that human rights groups reported that two journalists had fled the country since the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The annual report also highlights that a person – Chandrakanthan aks Pillayan – who has been in pretrial remand custody since 2015 for the 2005 murder of Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP Joreph Pararajasingham and faces allegations of human rights violations including child soldier recruitment, despite the objection of the Attorney General, was granted permission to attend the August 20 swearing in of parliament (as he was elected to parliament while in remand), and says that President Rajapaksa himself elevating him to the position of Co-Chairperson Batticaloa District Coordinating Committee charged with coordinating, implementing, and monitoring all development activities of state institutions and NGOs in the district.
For the readers understand it should be stated that the Annual Country Report on Human Rights Practices on Sri Lanka is prepared and written each year within the portals of the American Embassy in Colombo with instructions and guidance from the South Asia Bureau of the U.S. State Department in Washington. It is then released as an official document by the Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Division of the State Department.
Those who prepare the report have the habit of attributing certain remarks to outsiders yet those remarks and statement are in fact the beliefs of the preparers attached to the Embassy staff.
The Human Rights Report for the year 2020 noted: “Impunity remained a significant problem characterized by a lack of accountability for conflict-era abuses, particularly by military, paramilitary, police, and other security-sector officials implicated and, in some cases, convicted of killing political opponents, journalists, and private citizens. Civil society organizations asserted the government, including the courts, were reluctant to act against security forces alleged to be responsible for past abuses, citing high-level appointments of military officials alleged to have been involved in such abuses. During the year there was no progress on cases against officials accused of arbitrary, unlawful, or politically motivated killings”.
Under Freedom of Expression the report notes: (Quote) Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Some journalists, however, reported harassment, threats, intimidation, and interference from members of state security services, especially when reporting on issues related to the civil war or its aftermath, including missing persons. Tamil journalists reported military officers requested copies of photographs, lists of attendees at events, and names of sources for articles. They also reported that the military directly requested that journalists refrain from reporting on sensitive events, such as Tamil war commemorations or land occupation protests, and that they feared repercussions if they did not cooperate.
In a July 13 letter, a group of five UN special rapporteurs expressed serious concerns to the government regarding the continued harassment of journalist Dharisha Bastians, the former editor of the newspaper Sunday Observer and reporter for the New York Times newspaper in Colombo, as well as her family. The special rapporteurs stated Bastians was being targeted for her writing and her work defending human rights in the country. The rapporteurs were concerned that the continued harassment of Bastians and the seizure of her computer and exposure of her telephone records could endanger and compromise her sources and deter other journalists from reporting on issues of public interest and human rights.
Violence and Harassment: There were reports of harassment and intimidation of journalists when covering sensitive issues. Reporters alleged that authorities, sometimes in government vehicles, surveilled journalists, especially those covering protests.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: On several occasions print and electronic media journalists noted they self-censored stories that criticized the president or his family. The journalists said they had received direct calls from supporters of the government asking them to refrain from reporting anything that reflected negatively on the ruling party or opposition politicians.
Some journalists reportedly self-censored because of increased harassment, threats, and intimidation. Human rights groups also reported that two journalists had fled the country since the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa. (End Quote)
On government’s indifference to international and local human rights investigations, the report says “Several domestic and international human rights groups investigated and published findings on human rights cases. Government officials, however, were unreceptive to findings and employed bureaucratic obfuscation to inhibit the work of such organizations.
“On September 30, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated that the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) continued to receive allegations of surveillance and harassment of civil society organizations, human rights defenders, and families of victims of rights violations, including repeated visits by police and intelligence services, questioning organizations about their staff and activities related to the United Nations. In its report to the 45th session of the UN Human Rights Council, the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances expressed concern regarding the deteriorating space for civil society, stressed the need to protect witnesses from intimidation, harassment, or mistreatment, and called on the government to protect the right of victims to associate in an effort to establish the fate of disappeared persons”.
The report further notes: Significant human rights issues included: “unlawful killings by the government; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by government agents; arbitrary arrest and detention by government entities; arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression and the press, including unjustified arrests of journalists and authors; widespread corruption; overly restrictive nongovernmental organization laws; interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of violence against women; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence targeting members of ethnic minority groups; crimes involving violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; and existence or use of laws criminalizing same-sex sexual conduct.
“Impunity remained a significant problem characterized by a lack of accountability for conflict-era abuses, particularly by military, paramilitary, police, and other security-sector officials implicated and, in some cases, convicted of killing political opponents, journalists, and private citizens. Civil society organizations asserted the government, including the courts, was reluctant to act against security forces alleged to be responsible for past abuses, citing high-level appointments of military officials alleged to have been involved in such abuses. During the year there was no progress on cases against officials accused of arbitrary, unlawful, or politically motivated killings”.
The Annual Human Rights Report on Sri Lanka, monitored, investigated, analized and written by a few U.S. Foreign Service Offiocers stationed in the U.S. diplomatic mission in Colombo, is the judgement that Washington policymakers in the State Department and the Office of National Security Council which is a vital division within the White House use when dealing with human rights and rule of law issues with the Sri Lankan authorities. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva take note of this report as a serious document to execute its operation connected with Sri Lankan issues. The United States wich released this report is now an observer of the UNHRC, and expected to enter the main body in 2022.