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Geneva controversy: Ambika hits back hard at Foreign Ministry

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Human Rights Advocate Ambika Satkunanathan has alleged that the culture of impunity is well documented, not only by civil society organisations, human rights defenders and the UN, but most importantly the Supreme Court and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. Since 2020 several incidents of violence by state officials have been publicly recorded. Yet, to date, the number of persons held accountable is negligible.

The former member of the Human Rights Commission said so in a statement issued in response to a statement titled ‘Human Rights: FM challenges Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust over its representations to Geneva ‘ in Feb 5, 2022 edition of The Island. The following is the text of her statement issued in response to the Foreign Ministry statement that dealt with Satkunanathan’s representations before the European Parliament Sub-Committee on Human Rights:”The FM statement contains numerous misrepresentations and insinuations, and appears to be aimed at silencing critique of government policies and actions.

In my statement to the Sub-Committee, I spoke of a number of issues, many of which I have previously written about with supporting evidence. This is available in the public domain. These are issues that other civil society organisations and activists have raised and documented over the years. In this context, the government labelling my statement “misleading”, appears to be an effort to downplay the issues raised and deceive the public.

It is disturbing the government has taken umbrage at my appeal to the European Union (EU) to advocate with the government to fulfil its international human rights obligations using GSP Plus trade privileges as a conduit. The GSP Plus privileges are dependent on the recipient fulfilling human rights obligations. The said human rights obligations are obligations the government has a duty to fulfill as a member of the United Nations and signatory to several UN conventions. These are obligations that provide protections to the citizens of Sri Lanka.

It is regrettable the government refuses to acknowledge that any adverse outcome of the GSP Plus review process would only be due to its failure to fulfill the GSP Plus scheme’s requirements. Hence, it is the government that has to take responsibility for any adverse outcomes. Instead, the government implies that those who advocate for the protection of the marginalised, such as Free Trade Zone workers, are responsible for a possible adverse outcome because they highlight the government’s failures. This is an attempt to deflect blame. To ensure there is no adverse impact on vulnerable communities, the government needs to acknowledge that the crisis is the result of its poor policy decisions, taken without bearing the best interests of citizens in mind.

Efforts to bring lasting peace to Sri Lanka are undermined by denials of the root causes of the armed conflict, i.e. discrimination. Instead, the MFA statement labels discussion of the root causes as LTTE propaganda. This is ominous given the decades long strategy of weaponising the PTA against Tamils. Implying such discussion is a danger to communal harmony, as the Ministry does in its statement, can be used to weaponise the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act to stifle dissent. The government’s use of these phrases will create fear amongst civic activists, especially in the North and East, and shrink civic space further. The very space the government denies is shrinking.

In this regard, the insinuations made in the Ministry’s statement are dangerous. My attention has been drawn to articles peddling false information about my supposed links to the LTTE being circulated on social media in the wake of the statement. The statement therefore could cause persons with racist ideologies to harass and perpetrate violence, including cyber violence against me.

The culture of impunity is well documented, not only by civil society organisations, human rights defenders and the UN, but most importantly the Supreme Court and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. Since 2020 several incidents of violence by state officials have been publicly recorded. Yet, to date, the number of persons held accountable is negligible.

The “war on drugs” (erroneously referred to as war and drugs in the statement) is being used to justify arbitrary arrests and detention as well suspected extra-judicial killings by police in Sri Lanka. The Bar Association of Sri Lanka too has raised concerns about this. It is important to curb the supply of drugs and international drug trafficking. However, such policies need to adhere to human rights standards.

Although the MFA claims Sri Lanka is a secular country, several statements have been made by the President in which he mentions inter alia, that ‘’protection of Sinhala Buddhists is his foremost responsibility’’ and that “all others who would love to live in unity have to be assimilated into this main socio-cultural basis of this country, based on rich Buddhist values”. This is illustrative of the Sinhala Buddhist nationalism to which I referred in my statement. Another example is the Presidential Task Force on Archeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province, which has the membership of Buddhist clergy and is headed by a Buddhist monk. The ‘One Country One Law’ Task Force is chaired by Gnanasara Thera, who has publicly made inflammatory and discriminatory statements and incited violence against Muslim community. Such an appointment begs the question whether the government is concerned about the preservation of social harmony.

The Ministry has conflated the process of militarisation, with the military occupation of land. The former includes the military undertaking tasks that were and should be within the purview of civilian entities. The phenomenon of militarization has been meticulously recorded by civil society, including myself, and is publicly available for reference.

Despite the Ministry’s claim the government views civil society as partners and not adversaries, regrettably, its statement singling out my statement to the EU, is the perfect example of the government’s intolerance of dissent. Furthermore, several civil society organisations and activists, particularly from the North and East, have been questioned by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) during the last year. That they are being subject to these “routine security checks” when there is no prima facie evidence of wrongdoing, casts doubt on the government’s assertion of partnership with civil society.

As a Sri Lankan citizen, it is my right and civic duty to question the actions of elected representatives of this country when such actions lead to the suffering and marginalisation of vulnerable communities, and demand accountability. Only a country that respects this right can be considered truly independent and democratic.

Finally, the Ministry has referred to my position as Chairperson of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust in the statement. However, I did not make the statement to the Sub Committee as Chairperson nor represent the Trust at the hearing. I delivered the statement in my capacity as a human rights advocate, and it in no way has any relationship to the Trust.”



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SC: Anti-Terrorism Bill needs approval at referendum and 2/3 majority to become law

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Certain sections inconsistent with Constitution

By Saman Indrajith

Deputy Speaker Ajith Rajapaksa informed Parliament yesterday that the Supreme Court (SC) has determined that some sections of the Anti-Terrorism Bill were inconsistent with the Constitution and, therefore, the Bill had to be passed by Parliament with a two-thirds majority and approved by the people at a referendum.

Rajapaksa said that the Supreme Court had determined that the Sections 3, 4, 40, 53, 70, 72 (1), 72 (2), 75 (3) and 83 (7) of the draft Bill were inconsistent with the Constitution.

The SC has determined that sections 3, 40, 53, 70, 72 (1), 75 (3) should be passed by Parliament with a two-thirds majority and approved by the people at a referendum if they are to become law.

Sections 4 and 72 (2) of the Bill have to be amended as per the SC determination.

Section 83 (7) requires passage by a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

However, the SC had stated that it could be passed by a simple majority if the recommended amendments are accommodated, Rajapaksa said.

Opposition MPs say the Anti-Terrorism Bill is being introduced in an election year to repress Opposition parties.They said the proposed law is a threat to democracy itself.

“This Bill is being presented not at a time of terrorism prevailing in the country but during an election period. The Bill has not defined nor analysed what a terrorist is. Anyone can be arrested,” SJB General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara said.

The MP said both the Anti-Terrorism Bill and the controversial Online Safety law were meant to quell democracy.

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Harin’s claim that SL is part of India: Govt. says it is his personal opinion

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Manusha accuses Wimal of having taken parts of Fernando’s speech out of context

By Saman Indrajith

Labour and Foreign Employment Minister Manusha Nanayakkara told NFF leader Wimal Weerawansa in Parliament to refrain from taking chunks of others’ speeches out of context and misinterpreting them for political mileage.

The Minister said so following concerns raised by Weerawansa over a recent statement by Tourism Minister Harin Fernando on India-Sri Lanka relationships.

Weerawansa said that Minister Fernando had recently stated that Sri Lanka was a part of India. “Was it Minister Fernando’s personal opinion or the government’s official standpoint? Was it the opinion of the Cabinet?”

Chief Government Whip Minister Prasanna Ranatunga said what Minister Fernando had stated was the latter’s personal opinion.

Minister Nanayakkara: “If anyone has read the entire statement made by Minister Fernando this type of question would not have arisen. The Tourism Minister was referring to historical relationships between India and Sri Lanka to ask Indians to visit Sri Lanka.

A distorted version of the speech by Minister Fernando is being circulated on social media. Certain parts have been removed while some words have been introduced to this edited version. Ones should read the statement in its entirety to understand it. We have not discussed this in the Cabinet meeting” Minister Nanayakkara said.

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US backs Lankan journalists vis-a-vis Online Safety law

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Kumar Nadesan, Chairman Board of Directors of the Sri Lanka Press Institute (left) Elizabeth Allen ( Centre) and US Ambassador Chung (pic courtesy US embassy)

Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Elizabeth Allen on Monday (19) declared US support for journalists here against the backdrop of enactment of ‘Online Safety Bill’

She spokes about press freedom and related issues at the Sri Lanka Press Institute Press Club.

A statement issued by the US Embassy quoted Allen as having said the U.S. Embassy is all in on supporting your incredible work. Sure, we might bump heads over a story now and then, but above all, we’re your biggest fans. We’re all in on programmes that hone your skills because we believe in your right to pursue journalism freely and fearlessly.

I want to thank you for protecting the rights and freedoms of journalists here in Sri Lanka and around the world, ensuring all citizens enjoy the right to express their ideas and opinions openly and freely. Even in difficult times, you continue to press forward and ask difficult questions. Your commitment to seeking out the truth and shouting it from the rooftops remains a democratic staple, and I truly appreciate what you do.

It’s only fitting that I begin my remarks this afternoon by telling a story that I think is relevant in light of today’s topic about the media’s role in a democracy.

Over a century ago, American media coined the term “muckraker” for journalists who delved into societal issues, exposing corruption.

Although the term carried a somewhat negative connotation, labeling these journalists as mere “gossip mongers,” today, we honor them as the pioneers of investigative journalism.

These muckrakers played a pivotal role in ushering in the Progressive Era, a time of significant social and political reform in American history.

Even President Theodore Roosevelt referred to them as “muckrakers,” criticizing their focus on society’s flaws through figures like Lincoln Steffens, whose work shed light on corruption and spurred a nationwide call for accountability and reform.

Steffens’ book ‘The Shame of the Cities,’ published in 1904, made him renowned for uncovering corruption within American cities, highlighting the nefarious links between political leaders, businesses, and organized crime.

His fearless journalism raised critical awareness about the urgent need for governmental and corporate accountability. Steffens wasn’t acting as a public relations officer for the government; his role was to uncover the truth; however unpleasant it might be.

Faced with the stark realities Steffens presented, American officials and the public were compelled to confront a pivotal question: ‘Is this the kind of country we aspire to be?’ The resounding answer was no.

Steffens’ work didn’t just expose wrongdoing; it sparked a nationwide demand for reform and played a crucial role in fostering a dialogue about the essential role of investigative journalism in ensuring power remains accountable.

This story showcases how freedom of the press and freedom of expression are not just fundamental human rights, they are also vital contributors to a country’s development and growth.

This brings me to my main point: how the global media space supports democracy and fosters peaceful, just, and inclusive societies.

In my mind, the correlation is obvious: When a government constricts the rights and freedoms of its citizens, the future and the development of the country will naturally suffer.

Globally, we’re witnessing serious and escalating challenges to media freedom. The United States stands firmly for the freedom of expression, advocating for press freedom both online and offline, and ensuring the safety of journalists and media workers worldwide. Unfortunately, these essential freedoms are under threat globally, including concerns raised here in Sri Lanka.

When governments intensify efforts to withhold information from the public by restricting internet access and censoring content, we must speak up. Notably, when Sri Lanka’s Parliament passed the Online Safety Bill in January, the United States voiced concerns over its potential effects on freedom of expression, innovation, and privacy.

It’s common to hear arguments against unfettered freedom of expression. Critics claim the media is biased, aiming to embarrass governments and undermine public trust. Others worry that without checks, freedom of expression may fuel the spread of misinformation. Some argue that an unchecked press can incite tension and compromise security. And there’s concern that continuous reports on corruption, violence, and political strife can tarnish a nation’s image, deterring investment and hampering development.

However, the media’s bias should lean towards the public’s interest, acting as a guardian to ensure that leaders fulfill their duties. This principle holds in Sri Lanka, the United States, and globally.

The challenge of negative press, often labeled as “fake news” or “biased journalism,” is not new. For generations, governments and the media have navigated a complex, sometimes adversarial relationship. This dynamic isn’t unique to any one nation; in the United States, for instance, presidents from both major political parties have experienced their share of friction with the press. This tension, a hallmark of democratic societies, plays a crucial role in fostering transparency and encouraging effective governance. It’s a familiar scene: politicians and journalists engage in heated exchanges, especially when leaders feel their actions are misrepresented, leading to accusations of inaccuracies and biased reporting.

The press’s duty is to deliver facts as they stand, shedding light on the government’s achievements as well as spotlighting areas where policies or programs fall short. This transparency not only informs the public but also strengthens the nation as it encourages constructive action and improvement.

And suppressing voices only complicates matters further. Attempting to conceal issues rather than addressing them is akin to hiding a broken tool rather than fixing it. True progress comes from collaborative dialogue, even if it means embracing the messiness of public discourse.”

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