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Continued UNHRC scrutiny of Sri Lanka’s human rights record crucial: HRW

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The United Nations Human Rights Council should maintain its rigorous scrutiny of Sri Lanka’s worsening human rights situation and press for genuine improvements, Human Rights Watch said on Friday.

They further said: “At the Council’s upcoming session, which begins on September 13, 2021, UN member countries should express their alarm about the ongoing abuses by the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the weakening of independent governmental institutions, civilian governance, and the rule of law. These countries should demonstrate their willingness to press the Sri Lankan government to meet its international human rights obligations,” they said.

“Since Gotabaya Rajapaksa took office in 2019, the limited progress Sri Lanka had made in addressing past atrocities and ending abuses has been disastrously reversed,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Continued international attention and pressure can help reduce the risks faced by minority communities, activists, and journalists, who live in heightened fear of the authorities”.

“Earlier in 2021, the Human Rights Council adopted an important resolution, 46/1, to advance accountability for past rights violations and war crimes committed in Sri Lanka. The resolution also mandated regular reporting by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. In 2020, the Rajapaksa administration had renounced the previous administration’s commitments to the Human Rights Council to provide justice and end abuses.”

“The administration is using its security and intelligence agencies to check and intimidate the families of abuse victims and others who are seeking to uphold human rights. When we talk to the families of the ‘disappeared,’they say they can be arrested at any time,” a human rights defender in northern Sri Lanka told Human Rights Watch. “That they can arrest you for anything.”

“The authorities are using arrests and threats issued under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to silence calls for justice in the Tamil majority North and East, and to arbitrarily detain Muslims in counter-terrorism operations. In August, Inspector General of Police C.D. Wickramaratne said that 311 people were in custody for the deadly 2019 Easter bombings, many of them for over two years. However, no one has yet been brought to trial in connection with the attacks,” Human Rights Watch said.

“President Rajapaksa issued an ordinance under the PTA this year that allows for two years in detention without trial for the “rehabilitation” of people accused of causing “disharmony,” and another that creates a new PTA detention center at a notorious police facility in Colombo that would permit even more abuse under the terrorism law. These actions contradict the government’s claim to foreign diplomats that it was preparing to reform the PTA, which has been used to facilitate the arbitrary detention and torture of prisoners since its introduction in 1979.

Under the PTA, a prisoner can be held for up to 18 months without being produced in court. A newly formed “advisory board” of three presidential appointees to review pretrial detention orders under this law offers no credible legal protection against abuses”, Human Rights Watch said.

“The police Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) has been used to stifle civil society. They regularly visit the NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and talk about the financial reports and staff lists and phone numbers,” an activist in the east, who described the visits as a method of surveillance and intimidation, told Human Rights Watch. “The TID visits NGOs regularly. It’s kind of routine.”

“An amendment to the constitution in 2020 undermined the independence of the judiciary by empowering the president to appoint senior judges. The amendment also undercut the independence of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, the status of which is now under review by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions. Recent appointments to the Office of Missing Persons, which is supposed to discover what happened to thousands of victims of enforced disappearance over several decades, have further undermined its credibility. The appointees include a former Inspector General of Police accused of destroying evidence in the murder of a journalist.

A presidential commission established in January 2020 to examine supposed cases of “political victimization” has recommended halting investigations or prosecutions in the few cases of serious abuses where there had been limited progress, and instead opening investigations against police investigators for allegedly falsifying evidence.” Human Rights Watch said.

“In August 2021, the Attorney General dropped charges against a former commander of the Navy implicated in the enforced disappearance of 11 men and boys between 2008 and 2009. Senior Superintendent of Police Shani Abeysekera, who led that and other major human rights investigations, received death threats and was imprisoned for a year and half, until the Court of Appeal found that the case against him was “fabricated.” Meanwhile, the government has sought to persuade diplomats at the Human Rights Council that an accountability process still exists, by referring to a separate presidential commission established by President Rajapaksa in January with a mandate to reexamine the reports of the numerous previous domestic commissions “to ascertain whether there have been violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law,” and whether previous recommendations had been implemented, ” Human Rights Watch said.

“On August 31, the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry circulated a document to foreign diplomats in which the government claims, without basis, to have made “continued and tangible progress … in addressing issues related to achieving peace, reconciliation, and development, including accountability, within the domestic legal framework of Sri Lanka.”

They further said: “In fact, the government’s approach has been to emphasize “compensation” to victims over justice and accountability, as Justice Minister Ali Sabry said at an event organized by the Office of Missing Persons on August 31. The Foreign Ministry claims that these payments – about US$500 each in cases in which the victim died – will help bring “closure” and “reconciliation.”

“Far from promoting reconciliation, the government has repeatedly adopted policies that alienate Sri Lanka’s beleaguered minority communities. Tamils and Muslims in the North and East have complained of a concerted government policy to seize land belonging to members of their communities on various pretexts, including by a presidential task force on archaeology composed of Buddhist monks and members of the security forces.

Foreign governments should take firm and coordinated action to press the Sri Lankan government to reverse course”, Human Rights Watch said.

“The European Union should insist that Sri Lanka complies with its human rights obligations to maintain tariff free market access under GSP+, as should the United Kingdom under its similar program. Donor governments and multilateral agencies, such as the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, should immediately withhold support for Sri Lankan security forces until they take steps to halt and address violations, in compliance with UN due diligence standards.”

“Governments should also consider imposing targeted sanctions on senior figures implicated in grave abuses, and pursue prosecutions under universal jurisdiction, as recommended by the UN human rights chief, Michele Bachelet, earlier this year.”

“No one should be in any doubt that Sri Lanka’s human rights situation is deeply alarming and getting worse,” said. “UN member states should recognize that the government is sensitive to international pressure, and make the protection of human rights in Sri Lanka their priority,” Ganguly said.



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President instructs officials to vaccinate kids with Pfizer

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Health Ministry still deliberating pros and cons

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had instructed health officers to inoculate children between the age 15 to 19 with Pfizer vaccine, Army Commander General Shavendra Silva said yesterday.

General Silva added that the President had also instructed officials to inoculate children with special needs above the age of 12, with the Pfizer vaccines. He there are around 50,000 children with special needs.

General Silva said Sri Lanka would receive adequate Pfizer vaccine doses in the coming weeks. During the Presidential Task Force meeting, on Covid-19, it was decided to allow the Department of Motor Traffic, and the Land Registry to operate during the lockdown, which was extended until 01 October. However, a few hours before this statement was made, Deputy Director General of Health Services, Dr. Hemantha Herath told the media that no decision had been taken on vaccinating children.

He, however, said that discussions were ongoing about vaccinating children.

“There are a number of discussions on this because this is a serious matter. We have also decided that when we vaccinate the priority will be given to children with comorbidities. Then the rest will be vaccinated based on age groups. But we have not decided on anything else,” he said.

The dates, the brand and other details would be announced once the Health Ministry was done with consultations with experts. Once the decisions were taken the Ministry would prepare guidelines which would then be made available to the public, he said.

“So, I urge the parents not to worry or panic. They can vaccinate their children once we issue guidelines. We will ensure that this will be done safely and with virtually no side-effects or shortages,” Dr. Herath said.

The Deputy Director General of Health Services also urged people not to be misled by claims that those who had been double jabbed and being treated at home were dying in increasing numbers. Some people with serious underlying issues could die even if they were double jabbed, he said.

“However, as we vaccinate an increasing number of Sri Lankans, the deaths and those who need ICU treatment will decline rapidly. Don’t be fooled by various unscientific claims. We are a nation that has universal vaccine rates and we should maintain that tradition with COVID,” he said.

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Sumanthiran demands immediate due process against Lohan

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Immediate legal action including arrest and prosecution must be taken against Lohan Ratwatte and others who were involved in the incidents at Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons, TNA Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran said on Thursday. He said Ratwatte’s mere resignation from one portfolio would not do.

“The Presidential Secretariat has issued a statement that Lohan Ratwatte has taken responsibility for the incidents that transpired at Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons. Although Ratwatte is said to have resigned from his post as Minister for Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation, he continues to be a minister in charge of other subjects. This is not something we can accept,” he said.

The TNA MP said that the State Minister should be removed from all his positions immediately and the pistol he carried with him should be taken away from him.

“Otherwise, it’s a grave threat to the public at large,” Sumanthiran said. There had been other incidents where Ratwatte brandished his weapon in public spaces, he added.

The TNA MP said that an independent investigation should be held with regard to those incidents and Ratwatte and others involved in entering the Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons should be arrested and charged.

“The police have still not taken any action in this regard. The question that must be posed is how he was able to carry his personal firearm inside the prison premises. Prison officials must answer these questions,” he said.

MP Sumanthiran said that given that the prisoners were wards of the state, their security was in the hands of the state.

“Therefore, this is a very serious incident. Action must be taken accordingly,” he said.

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Taking contradictory stand on 2015 Geneva Resolution

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‘Govt. seeking credit for accountability mechanisms set up by previous administration

UNHRC 48th sessions:

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Attorney-at-law Sudarshana Gunawardena has alleged that the government’s stand on accountability issues at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council is contradictory to its much publicised opposition to the Geneva Resolution 30/1 co-sponsored by the previous administration.

Sri Lanka co-sponsored 30/1, on Oct 1, 2015. The then Foreign Minister the late Mangala Samaraweera is on record as having said that the UNP-led government had President Maithripala Sirisena’s consent to go ahead with the co-sponsorship.

Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s media spokesperson Gunawardena yesterday (17) pointed out that the government, at the ongoing 48th sessions of the UNHRC, has reiterated its commitment to key accountability mechanisms set up in terms of the Geneva Resolution.

Civil society activist Gunawardena, who also functioned as the Director General, Information Department during the previous administration said that the assurance given by Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris last Tuesday (14) should be examined against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from 30/1 resolution.

Prof. Peiris’ predecessor, Dinesh Gunawardena announced Sri Lanka’s withdrawal at the Feb-March 2020 sessions.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) owed an explanation, Gunawardena stressed, urging the government to take the public into confidence. “Stop playing politics at the expense of our international relations,” Gunawardena said, underscoring the need for what he called a national consensus on the post-war reconciliation process.

Responding to another query, Gunawardena said that FM Prof. Peiris in his address to the Geneva sessions discussed the progress in what he described as a domestic process in respect of accountability issues. Reference was made to the Office on Missing Persons (OMP), the Office for Reparations (OR) and the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR). However, the FM conveniently failed to acknowledge that the OMP, OR and ONUR had been established in keeping with the 2015 Geneva Resolution that covered broader understanding of transitional justice.

The SLPP, while taking credit for the ongoing transitional justice process, continued to publicly reject 30/1, the very basis of the solution, Gunawardena said. “In other words, the SLPP’s actions are very different from their pledges before the electorate in the run-up to presidential and parliamentary polls in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Referring to the assurance given by Prof. Peiris at the UNHRC that Sri Lanka Human Rights Council was carrying on its mandate, Gunawardena challenged the government to prove its sincerity by allowing no holds barred investigation into SLPP lawmaker Lohan Ratwatte’s raids on Welikada and Anuradhapura prisons on Sept 6 and 12, respectively.

The announcement made by the HRCSL regarding its decision to initiate an inquiry of its own in the absence of police investigation received public attention and appreciation, Gunawardena said.

Commenting on the declaration that Sri Lanka was engaged in an integrated process to bring the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in line with international norms and best practices, lawyer Gunawardena urged the government to study the work done by the previous government in that regard. Referring to statements made by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in that regard, Gunawardena said that the then Joint

Opposition quite maliciously rejected the move. “They should be ashamed of theirconduct,” relevant ministers and the Attorney General Department couldn’t be unaware of the agreement on new anti-terrorism law.

Gunawardena said that the SLPP administration shouldn’t hesitate to appreciate the previous government’s achievements. “We are quite pleased that mechanisms accepted by the previous government continue to be in operation even though the progress seems slow. However, the SLPP cannot deprive the UNP-led administration of the credit it deserved,” lawyer Gunawardena said.

Gunawardena urged the government to examine the report of the Committee appointed by then Premier Wickremesinghe to develop what he called the policy and legal framework of the proposed Counter Terrorism Act of Sri Lanka. He said that a politically motivated campaign derailed that effort whereas the Opposition propagated the lie the yahapalana government intended to deprive Sri Lanka of anti-terrorism law.

Asked to comment on the revelation of the SLPP government having talks with a group of civil society activists to explore ways and means to strengthening the reconciliation process, Gunawardena said that a 13-page Foreign Ministry note dated Aug. 31, 2021 addressed to Colombo-based diplomatic missions acknowledged the pivotal role played by the civil society. Having always accused the civil society of being part of a Western strategy, the same lot exposed their duplicity by meeting a group of civil society activists.

Gunawardena was referring to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ministers, Basil Rakapaksa, Prof. Peiris, Dinesh Gunawardena, Ali Sabry, PC, and Namal Rajapaksa having separate meetings with SLCC (Sri Lanka Collective for Consensus) in the run-up to the Geneva confab. SLCC comprises 16 individuals.

Gunawardena noted the Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, too, in her hard-hitting Sept 13 statement on Sri Lanka referred to President Rajapaksa’s meeting with the SLCC.

Gunawardena said that in addition to the SLCC, another group styled itself as the Civil Society Platform (CSP) in a statement issued on Sept. 13 made its position clear on a range of accountability issues as well as stepped up pressure on the civil society. CSP consists of 30 organizations and 36 individuals.

Responding to declarations by FM Prof Peiris and Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanath Colombage that external investigations wouldn’t be acceptable, lawyer Gunawardena said that instead of rejecting the investigation the government should furbish whatever information in its hands or had access to the new investigative mechanism. The government couldn’t ignore the fact that the UNHRC authorized the fresh investigative mechanism at the 46th session with an overwhelming majority with 22 countries voting for the resolution, 11 against and 14 missing the vote.

Gunawardena urged the government to take a realistic view as Sri Lanka didn’t have time and space to engage in silly maneuvers. The bottom line was that the March 2020 announcement that Sri Lanka withdrew from 30/1 was nothing but a farce, Gunawardena said.

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