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Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2007 - Sri Lanka

Publisher International Federation for Human Rights
Author Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Publication Date 19 June 2008
Cite as International Federation for Human Rights, Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2007 - Sri Lanka, 19 June 2008, available at: [accessed 24 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Political context

Since the resumption of hostilities in 2006 between the Government of President Mahinda Rajapakse and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group that has been fighting the army for more than 30 years for the creation of a State for the Tamil minority, the human rights situation in Sri Lanka has deteriorated dramatically, especially in the Jaffna peninsula. Enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, recruitment of child soldiers, torture, threats, and, in general, massive violations of human rights and war crimes have increased, resulting in a real climate of fear and insecurity throughout the country. The civilian population therefore found itself trapped in the crossfire between LTTE fighters – especially in the north and east of the country – and the security forces, assisted by the Tamil militia of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP). Additionally, it is feared that the official end of the cease-fire on January 2, 2008 will lead to a further escalation of violence.

Reprisals against defenders fighting impunity and corruption

In 2007, the safety of defenders considerably worsened, especially following denunciations of abuses committed by the parties in conflict, corruption and impunity, in a context where the number of attacks and threats from all parties to the conflict against them increased dramatically. Journalists have been particularly affected by acts of retaliation and intimidation because of their role in these denunciations. For instance, on February 26, 2007, Mr. Dushantha Basnayake, Spokesman and Chief Financial Officer of the Standard Newspapers Private Limited, which publishes the weekly Mawbima, was arrested and detained for more than two months. The weekly Mawbima is known for criticising the Government and denouncing human rights violations and corruption in Sri Lanka.1 On April 29, 2007, Mr. Rajivarnam Selvarajah, a reporter for Uthayan who regularly denounced enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, was killed by a man passing on a motorcycle in Jaffna.2

The Government has also contributed to the degradation of the environment in which defenders work, in particular by reducing the number of security personnel assigned to defenders at risk. In August 2007, the Government reduced the number of security staff working for Sunday Times journalist Iqbal Athas after he denounced the rampant corruption within the Government, particularly involving purchases linked to defence.3 Similarly, on December 18, 2007, the Department of Defence withdrew the security assigned to Mr. Mano Ganesan, a Parliamentarian and the founder of the Civil Monitoring Commission on Extra-Judicial Killings and Disappearances (CMC), one week after he was awarded the runner up position for the United States Government's Freedom Defenders Award 2007.

Humanitarian workers on the frontline

In 2007, the increase in violence against humanitarian workers was accompanied by growing constraints and security restrictions imposed by the parties to the conflict: their vehicles and offices were raided, their visas and work permits were regularly issued late, and it became increasingly difficult to gain access to areas where the conflict continues. As a result, humanitarian agencies have decreased or suspended their activities, and some have withdrawn from areas at risk.

Many Sri Lankan aid workers have paid with their lives for their commitment. On June 1, 2007, Mr. Karthakesu Chandramohan and Mr. Sinnarasa Shanmugalingam, two Sri Lankan Red Cross volunteers in Batticaloa, were arrested by two men in civilian clothes claiming to belong to the Criminal Investigation Department (IDC). The next day, the bodies of the two men were found riddled with bullets in Kiriella, more than 40 km south of Colombo.4 On July 23, 2007, an employee of the Danish Refugee Council, Mr. Arumainayagam Aloysius, was assassinated in Anaikkoaddai (Jaffna). He had previously worked for Halo Trust, an international demining organisation.5 On September 26, 2007, Rev. Nicholaspillai Packiaranjith, who had worked to assist internally displaced persons, and who served as Regional Coordinator of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), was killed by a mine explosion in Mallavi while transporting humanitarian supplies to a camp and an orphanage in Vidathalvu for those affected by the war. Finally, on December 14, 2007, Mr. Sooriyakanthy Thavarajah, an employee in the Jaffna section of the Sri Lankan Red Cross for many years, was abducted from his home in Jaffna by gunmen. His body was found two days later in Kaithady.6

The Government has also instituted more stringent regulations for international NGOs working in Sri Lanka.7 While most of these NGOs were able to renew work permits for their employees, many delays in obtaining them were observed. In 2007, they also had to obtain permits from the police for their local staff. In late July 2007, the Commander of the security forces in the east, Mr. Parakrama Pannipitiya, summoned local and international NGOs in Vakarai, a region where many displaced persons settled in March 2007 at the initiative of the military, asking them not to undertake development activities without the permission of the Secretary of the District. He also called on security forces in the region to ensure that NGOs would not begin projects without due permission from governmental agencies.8

Stigmatisation of defenders, who are accused of being terrorists or supporters of the LTTE

In 2007, the Government established a policy to discredit, almost systematically, human rights activities, particularly by accusing defenders of being "supporters of the LTTE", "traitors" or "enemies of the State". On several occasions, the Government challenged the "allegations" of human rights defenders who dared to question its policy on human rights, saying they were "unfounded" and influenced by LTTE propaganda. Given the December 2006 Emergency (Prevention and Prohibition of Terrorism and Specified Terrorist Activities) Regulations,9 which criminalise "any act of complicity with the LTTE", the assimilation of defenders with the LTTE could be extremely dangerous and can only seek to silence defenders.

For example, on October 2, 2007, a text published on the website of the Ministry of Defence and reprinted by a pro-Government newspaper accused journalist Iqbal Athas of being a "traitor" and of supporting the "psychological operations of the LTTE terrorists". The article added that "anyone who tries to hinder public support for the security forces or attempts to undermine the loyalty of soldiers to their officers can only be seen as serving the terrorists' cause." As early as September 30, 2007, the Spokesman of the army, Brigadier Udaya Nanayakakara, had already accused Mr. Athas of "supporting terrorism" through some of his articles.10 Similarly, following the session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2007, the Government denigrated reports submitted by Sri Lankan and international civil society on attacks against religious leaders and places of worship, describing them as "isolated incidents" and "desperate attempts by a small number of NGOs to portray Sri Lanka as a country where religious leaders and places of worship are subject to constant attack". Further, on October 31, 2007, the Sri Lankan organisation Law & Society Trust, in collaboration with four other organisations, published a report documenting cases of extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances between January 1 and August 31, 2007. Following its publication, Minister for Human Rights Mahinda Samarasinghe referred, in an article published in the Daily Mirror, "to three NGOs that have compiled a list of people who they say have been kidnapped". After the veracity of the report was discredited, the authors of the report were accused of "working for unknown parties – perhaps the LTTE".11

UN agencies and experts are not spared by these governmental policies of denial and stigma. Thus, following the official visit of Mr. John Holmes, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, in August 2007, Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake reported to Parliament that "the Government of Sri Lanka [...] reject[ed] the statement by Mr. John Holmes that Sri Lanka wasn't safe for aid workers" and "[could] not help but get the impression that Mr. John [sought] to discredit the Government and tarnish its international image". Similarly, the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Defence have sought to challenge the UN expert's statement, in a letter to the press and during a press conference on August 11 and 14, 2007, respectively.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders is a joint programme of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH).

1 See Press Release of the Free Media Movement (FMM) and the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX), February 28, 2007.

2 See FMM Press Release, December 24, 2007.

3 See FMM E-Bulletin October 2007, November 1, 2007.

4 On June 4, 2007, the UN Secretary General "strongly condemn[ed] the abduction and murder of two workers of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society" and reminded the parties to the conflict that "aid workers have a right to protection at all times". Similarly, on June 7, 2007, Ms. Hina Jilani, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the situation of human rights defenders, and Mr. Philip Alston, Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, "strongly condemn[ed] the abduction and murder of two workers of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society that occurred in Colombo on 1 June 2007 [...]", underscoring that it reflected a "trend of deliberate targeting of aid workers [...]". They also voiced concern that "the killings of humanitarian workers, including the 17 workers of Action contre la Faim, in August 2006, remain[ed] unsolved".

5 See Press Release of the Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), April 25, 2007.

6 See Press Release of the Red Cross, December 17, 2007.

7 In late August 2006, a circular was issued by the Ministry of Defence asking for all humanitarian workers to register with the Ministry of Defence in addition to their registration with the Ministry of Social Protection (See Annual Report 2006 of the Observatory).

8 See Press Release of the FMM, July 27, 2007.

9 In particular, these regulations introduce broad and vague definitions for terrorist offences, which could criminalise human rights, particularly regarding freedoms of expression, association and assembly. It is feared that those seeking a peaceful solution to the conflict, humanitarian workers, human rights defenders, protesters or journalists could be prosecuted on the basis of these regulations (See Annual Report 2006 of the Observatory).

10 See FMM E-Bulletin October 2007, November 1, 2007.

11 See Law & Society Trust, Civil Monitoring Commission and the FMM, Second submission to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry and public on human rights violations in Sri Lanka: January – August 2007, August 31, 2007.

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