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Human Rights Committee: Call on Sri Lanka to End Attacks and Reprisals Against Human Rights Defenders

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Human rights defenders and others working to promote truth, justice and accountability in relation to a UN estimated 40,000 civilian deaths in Sri Lanka in 2009 alone face a systematic pattern of threats, harassment, intimidation and violence, according to a new report submitted to the UN by ISHR and FORUM-ASIA.

The report, which is being considered by the UN Human Rights Committee in the context of its review of Sri Lanka next week, has found that threats and attacks against human rights defenders who submit information to the UN are particularly acute and are overwhelmingly perpetrated with impunity.

‘Human rights defenders working in Sri Lanka face an increasingly hostile climate, with threats ranging from legislative restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, through to enforced disappearances, torture and even murder,’ said Ms Pooja Patel of ISHR.

The report documents over 20 cases where human rights defenders have been attacked by State and non-State actors in connection with their work to promote human rights and pursue investigations and accountability for gross and systematic human rights abuses perpetrated by both the government of Sri Lanka and the former Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE). Among those cases documented include:

  • The arbitrary arrest and detention of Ms Balendran Jayakumari, a human rights defender who works on cases of enforced disappearances, and her 13 year old daughter under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
  • The murder of investigative journalist Mr Lasantha Wickramatunge and the abduction and serious beating of senior journalist and media rights activist Mr Poddala Jayantha, with lack of adequate investigation, prosecution or accountability in both cases.
  • A crackdown on the rights to freedom of expression and association, with a recent government directive prohibiting certain non-governmental organisations from conducting press conferences or issuing media releases.
  • Intimidation, threats and reprisals against human rights defenders, including Mr Sunanda Deshapriya and Ms Nimalka Fernando, who work to expose and seek accountability for human rights violations in Sri Lanka through the UN Human Rights Council.
  • The smearing and defamation of such human rights defenders as ‘traitors’ by government officials and government-affiliated news agencies, with one newspaper calling for such people to be ‘shot and thrown to the forest for the foxes to eat’.

‘Sri Lankan officials are both perpetrating and failing to protect human rights defenders from attacks, threats and reprisals,’ said FORUM-ASIA’S Executive Director, Ms Evelyn Balais-Serrano. ‘We are particularly concerned at the trend of impunity in relation to the overwhelming majority of such attacks.’

ISHR’s Pooja Patel said, ‘In line with its obligations under both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, Sri Lankan officials should refrain from all attacks and restrictions on civil society actors and investigate and pursue accountability where they occur’.

The joint report submitted by ISHR and FORUM-ASIA sets out a series of recommendations which the UN Human Rights Committee should make to the government of Sri Lanka to ensure compliance with its international human rights obligations, including:

  • Removing military oversight from the National Secretariat of NGOs and ensuring that NGOs can operate freely, independently and without government interference;
  • Respecting and upholding the right of all persons to access and communicate with UN human rights mechanisms, including the Human Rights Council-mandated international inquiry into Sri Lanka, without hindrance or fear of retaliation or reprisal; and
  • Ceasing the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act against human rights defenders and journalists and repealing or amending the law so that it complies with international human rights law, including the ICCPR.

In addition to submitting a report, ISHR has also produced a video which documents cases of reprisals against human rights defenders (this link will become active on 8 October), including Mr Sunanda Deshapriya of Sri Lanka.

The Human Rights Committee will review Sri Lanka on 7 and 8 October 2014 in Geneva and is excepted to issue its findings and recommendations around 31 October.


Click here to download the briefing paper