The Sri Lankan government’s clampdown on domestic critics and its disdain for human rights deserves a far tougher response according to The Elders. While welcoming the end of the decades-long civil war, the Elders say that meaningful progress on reconciliation in Sri Lanka is still desperately needed. They describe the international response to Sri Lanka’s worrying approach to human rights, good governance and accountability as a ‘deafening global silence’ that may encourage other states to act in a similar way.
The Elders have been following events in Sri Lanka closely since the last months of the civil war between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009. They have contacted the government of Sri Lanka and officials around the world to express their concerns about alleged violations of international humanitarian law and the need for actions that promote sustainable peace and reconciliation in the country. The Elders have noted some positive change since the end of the war, including greater economic activity in the north, and the return of some 260,000 displaced people to their home districts.
However, these signs of progress are tainted by intolerance of debate or dissent and a culture of impunity that protects those close to the government. The Elders now believe that the Sri Lankan government’s domestic conduct, as well as its recent unacceptable treatment of the United Nations in Sri Lanka warrants a firm, public response from its most influential friends – particularly China, India, Japan and the United States as well as the non-aligned group of countries.
Only the European Union has taken any direct action by suspending Sri Lanka’s preferential trading access (GSP Plus scheme) for its failure to respect its international human rights obligations.
Among recent events that most concern the Elders are:
- The persecution, intimidation, assassination and disappearance of government critics, political opponents, journalists and human rights defenders.
- Ongoing detention of an estimated 8,000 suspected ex-combatants without charge or access to legal representation, their families or independent monitors.
- The government’s failure to withdraw wartime emergency laws more than a year after the end of the conflict with the LTTE.
- Lack of action by the government to address the political marginalisation of ethnic minorities that was at the root of Sri Lanka’s thirty years of war.
- Unacceptable behaviour towards the United Nations — including a siege by demonstrators of UN offices in Colombo, led by a Cabinet Minister — following the UN Secretary-General’s appointment of a panel of experts to advise him on accountability issues relating to alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed by both sides during the final stages of the conflict in Sri Lanka.
“The government of Sri Lanka needs to show a much greater commitment to achieving meaningful reconciliation. The ongoing persecution and disappearances of human rights activists, journalists and government opponents is truly terrifying.
“Unfortunately, previous internal commissions have done little to reveal the truth behind human rights abuses. It is doubtful that the President’s ‘Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission’ will help Sri Lankans to work towards lasting peace and reconciliation.”
Other members of The Elders say the weak international reaction to Sri Lanka’s actions may erode respect for the rule of law and human rights worldwide.
“There has been a deafening global silence in response to Sri Lanka’s actions, especially from its most influential friends. The international community cannot be selective in its approach to upholding the rule of law and respect for human rights. Impunity anywhere is a threat to international peace and security everywhere.”
“Countries operating outside international norms watch each other carefully. They will be taking courage from Sri Lanka’s apparent success at avoiding international reproach. This is a worry for all those who want to see more democracy, greater respect for human rights and less violence in the world.”
“Sri Lanka has played a key role among countries of the Third World in their common stand against colonial domination, violent repression and denial of human rights. All those friends of Sri Lanka are duty-bound today to help this country consolidate peace and ensure that the causes of its terrible 30-year civil war are not allowed to lay the foundations for another conflict.
“Speaking out is neither unfriendly to the people of Sri Lanka, nor an interference in the internal affairs of its government. Quite the opposite: it is a strong manifestation of support for justice, peace and progress for all the people of Sri Lanka.”
“The EU’s suspension of Sri Lanka’s GSP Plus scheme is the right approach, but it’s not enough. Sustained pressure is necessary, not only to protect human rights in Sri Lanka, but to protect the rights of people everywhere. It is not just governments who can help improve the situation – anyone doing business in Sri Lanka or going there on holiday should also try to make choices that will help all its citizens to a more equitable and prosperous future.”
The Elders urge the international community and especially China, India, Japan and the United States to insist that the government of Sri Lanka takes the following actions:
- Withdraw wartime emergency legislation and make a public commitment to uphold the human rights of all citizens of Sri Lanka, including minorities.
- Allow immediate ICRC access to the estimated 8,000 people detained on suspicion of being ex-combatants.
- Co-operate with the UN Secretary-General’s panel of experts on accountability, including granting visas if requested.
- Ensure that any prosecutions are based on evidence and not political expediency; cease political interference in the work of the judiciary.
- Allow domestic and international NGOs and media to carry out their work in Sri Lanka without harassment, intimidation or undue restrictions.
- Begin a meaningful process of consultation with people in the north and east of the country on land issues and economic development as well as constitutional reforms to address long-standing political marginalisation of ethnic minorities.
- Ensure the security of United Nations operations and personnel.
* About The Elders
The Elders are an independent group of global leaders, brought together by Nelson Mandela in 2007, who offer their collective influence and experience to support peace- building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.
The Elders are Martti Ahtisaari, Kofi Annan, Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi, Gro Brundtland, Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Jimmy Carter, Graça Machel, Mary Robinson and Desmond Tutu (Chair). Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi are honorary Elders.
More information at www.theElders.org.
See also: ‘Sri Lanka one year on from war’, Desmond Tutu and Lakdra Brahimi, The Guardian, May 2010