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Human Rights Forums in Sri Lanka: Building a Movement

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FORUM-ASIA, in collaboration with local members, organised two human rights forums in Sri Lanka.  Preceded by the Sri Lankan Human Rights Defenders Forum (4-6 August), the  South Asian Human Rights Forum (6-9 August) brought together FORUM-ASIA members and partners to deliberate upon impunity and the rule of law.
Among all the South Asian countries, Sri Lanka is in a particularly dire crisis. In order to bring more attention to the spiralling human rights violations occurring at an alarming rate, FORUM-ASIA (FA) held its 2nd South Asia Human Rights Forum outside the capital of Colombo, 6-9 August 2007. Local human rights defenders from across the country gathered in Kandy prior to this forum at a workshop organised by FA in cooperation with FA members; Community Trust Fund (CTF), Law and Society Trust (LST) and INFORM, 4-6 August 2007. Both meetings were supported by FORUM-ASIA.

Holding these events in Sri Lanka is especially relevant and was intended to bring support to the human rights defenders working under life threatening conditions. 6 August marked the one year anniversary of the Action Contre la Faim massacre, where 17 aid workers were assassinated near their office in the east. August of last year also witnessed the disappearance of Father Jim Brown, an active leader of those affected by the resurgence of war. As discussions were held on how to protect human rights and humanitarian workers, the visit of John Holmes, UN Under-Secretary General on Humanitarian affairs, to Jaffna was restricted by the Sri Lankan military, preventing civil society from freely expressing their concerns and putting their future safety at risk.

For the first meeting, the Sri Lanka Human Rights Defenders Forum, participants from all over the country were in attendance, especially from conflict zones in the north and east. The aim of the workshop was to share experiences, generate discussion, receive training and strategize. Discussions on international standards, state obligations, the concept of human rights defenders and international mechanisms were given priority. It was a cross-ethnic, linguistic and religious forum intended to transcend boundaries and collaborate on common human rights goals.

The South Asia Human Rights Forum was a follow-up to the First South Asia Human Rights Defenders Forum entitled “Promoting People’s Solidarity for Democracy and Peace” held in Nepal in June 2006. Now an annual event, the forum is intended to address emerging challenges and issues in South Asia facing human rights defenders and organisations amongst FA members and partners. This year’s forum was organised under the theme “Combating Impunity for the Promotion of Rule of Law in South Asia,” addressing the issue in the context of transitional justice and armed conflicts in South Asia. Implementation of the action agenda and tactics that were adopted during previous forums were discussed. In addition, common strategies were developed for the promotion of the rule of law in South Asia, in particular, the P4R – Popularize, Ratify, Report, Remove Reservations and Remedy – campaign for the ratification of international human rights treaties.

Both forums were successful and demonstrated the growing strength of the human rights movement in the South Asian region. They proved especially beneficial to members and partners in Sri Lanka that were able to share their experience with others in the sub-region in order to garner support and provide guidance.