The UN Human Rights Committee, which is currently meeting in Geneva, reviewed the situation in Sri Lanka last week. The Committee raised several concerns during the review, including issues related to impunity, torture and freedom of expression for which the Government delegation gave its responses. Amnesty International was among the human rights groups and organisations which made submissions to the Committee. Sri Lanka researcher at Amnesty International, Yolanda Foster told The Sunday Leader the review had raised some pertinent questions on Sri Lanka.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
Q: Did the UN human Rights Committee session on Sri Lanka have the expected outcome as far as human rights groups like Amnesty International are concerned?
A: On October 7th and 8th the Human Rights Committee in Geneva reviewed Sri Lanka’s fifth Periodic report. The Committee is composed of independent experts who review each state report, ask questions and make recommendations called “concluding observations,” aimed at improving respect for human rights.
The final ‘concluding observations’ of the Committee will only be available on the 30th of October when they have reflected on Sri Lanka’s response to the questions asked and reviewed other information including reports submitted by civil society organisations and individuals. It is too early for Amnesty International to comment on the outcome of the Review until we have read the concluding observations but the questions independent experts asked Sri Lanka spoke to some of our concerns about the current human rights situation in Sri Lanka. The Review team picked up on a number of important issues including problems with the way the 18th Amendment has stripped Public Service Commissions of their independence; lack of safeguards in the criminal justice system etc.
Q: It was noted that Dr. Manoharan, the father of one of the five youth killed in Trincomalee in 2006 and Mrs. Eknaligoda, the wife of missing cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda, were among those seeking justice from the Human Rights Committee?
A: Amnesty International included Dr Manoharan and Sandya Eknaligoda in our delegation as it is victims’ families who are best placed to speak to the alleged culture of impunity in Sri Lanka. When someone has lost a loved one they expect answers and the state has a responsibility to provide access to justice and redress. In both the Trinco 5 case and Prageeth’s disappearance case the investigations have proceeded at a glacial pace. Sandya Eknaligoda has been to the courts over 50 times simply seeking the right to truth while Dr Manoharan has been campaigning for justice for more. Why, the Committee asked has the Trinco 5 case in which 5 students were allegedly killed by the security forces dragged on so long. Flaws in access to justice such as lack of witness protection were also highlighted. Both Sandya and Dr Manoharan appreciated the professionalism of the Committee in seeking specific clarifications in their cases. They know that their struggle for justice will be a long journey but we hope that their practical experiences in seeking the truth helped the Committee understand the need for reform.
Q: The government had argued at this session that the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) needs to continue as there is still a threat from the LTTE. Is that not a fair argument?
A: The government trades on fear when it tries to justify keeping the Prevention of Terrorism Act but the fact is this repressive legislation is in violation of Article 9 of the ICCPR. The main problem with the PTA is that it allows authorities to ignore protections built into the ordinary criminal justice system. Many families have shared experiences of relatives held under the PTA and alleged that there’s no transparency and that detainees are often denied a lawyer. 5 years after the end of the war citizens should not be unlawfully detained or held for long periods – sometimes years – without charges.
Q: Amnesty International is clearly very active on the Sri Lankan issue. What does your organisation hope to achieve through this at the end of the day?
A: Amnesty international highlights human rights issues in many countries around the world. In the first week of October we had criticised the brutal isolation chambers the US uses for solitary confinement; we’ve spoken out on media freedom in Russia and raised concerns about the death penalty in Afghanistan. What we want citizens to experience in Sri Lanka is what what we want global citizens to enjoy-the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s the duty of an organisation like Amnesty which is a global movement of more than 3 million members to speak out on grave abuses. It’s true that some governments like to claim they are being picked on but a healthy country would encourage debate on human rights. It’s a sign of weakness if a government just defends itself against any criticism.
Q: But the Government feels Sri Lanka is being unfairly picked on and this view was echoed at the Geneva session last week. Sri Lanka’s allies in the international arena have in the past supported this view?
A: It’s strange if the Government of Sri Lanka claims it’s being unfairly picked on. After all the government has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Countries that have signed the ICCPR promise to uphold and protect basic rights and freedoms. The Human Rights Committee is simply evaluating Sri Lanka’s compliance to a Covenant Sri Lanka chose to sign up to. The Covenant is a promise for safety and dignity in the present. What Amnesty’s briefing explores is the gap between this promise and the reality of many victims’ families in their search for justice. We believe that many citizens in Sri Lanka want a better future in which fundamental rights and freedoms can be enjoyed by all.