Activists have fought tirelessly to keep Sri Lanka’s human rights crisis on the international agenda. Their courage and persistence could finally be paying off.
By Yolanda Foster from Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka team
People who have suffered human rights abuses in Sri Lanka have been feeling nervous lately. So have the activists supporting them. They’ve been preparing for a groundbreaking visit by Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, which began on 25 August.
This is the Commisioner’s first official visit since Sri Lanka’s armed conflict − between government forces and an armed separatist group known as the Tamil Tigers − ended in 2009. Activists have worked hard to get to this point, in very difficult circumstances.
One lawyer I spoke to described the current situation in Sri Lanka as “a climate of oppression”. Key activists are being followed and interrogated. Victims fear being punished for speaking out. They aren’t sure how to best share their stories with Navi Pillay and stay safe.
Exposing the truth
While Navi Pillay meets with government officials, judges and the National Human Rights Commission, activists say they will continue to expose the truth which the government is so keen to hide: the large scale human rights abuses committed during and after Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war.
Tens of thousands of people were killed, tortured and disappeared during the civil war from 1983 to 2009.
In June, we launched our Tell the Truth campaign, calling on Sri Lanka to come clean about its appalling record of torture, killings and other human rights abuses – and stop it. Because even though the civil war is over, criticizing the government can still put your life in danger.
The war ended, but the crisis didn’t
It’s been a long, hard journey to get to this point.
In the final months of the conflict in 2009, civilian casualties skyrocketed. Amnesty International appealed to the UN for an international investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Nevertheless, in May that year, 29 UN member states approved a UN Human Rights Council resolution drafted by the Sri Lankan government to congratulate itself on winning the war.
A Sri Lankan official lashed out at Amnesty International as “liars and apologists for terror”. At the same time, the government was cracking down on people defending human rights at home.
We kept on working with Sri Lankan human rights activists and victims’ families. They travelled to the Council to give testimony on the world stage. Together, we highlighted torture, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detentions.
We have worked to show that even though the war had officially ended, the country’s human rights crisis had not.
Many Sri Lankans, including Dr Manoharan, whose son was killed in 2006, and Sandya Eknaligoda, whose husband was disappeared in 2010, have campaigned relentlessly through the UN for justice.
In 2010, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon responded by commissioning a panel of experts to advise him on the best way to ensure those responsible for possible war crimes and crimes against humanity were brought to justice. It confirmed many of our findings and also recommended the setting up of an independent international investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Sri Lanka.
Navi Pillay also called for such an investigation. Her call was bolstered by Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields – a harrowing documentary screened at the UN Human Rights Council, which exposed new evidence of war crimes. Increasing numbers of UN member states realised they could no longer ignore the human rights crisis in Sri Lanka.
From resolutions to real solutions
In March 2012 the Council called on Sri Lanka to ensure accountability for alleged violations of international law. And in a follow-up resolution earlier this year, it noted Navi Pillay’s call for an international investigation and expressed concern about continuing human rights violations.
The outcome of Navi Pillay’s visit to Sri Lanka is eagerly awaited by everyone who wants to see the Council move from political resolutions to on-the-ground solutions. She will soon report back to the Council about her visit.
I will be travelling with Dr Manoharan to the Human Rights Council this September to deliver our Sri Lanka: Tell the Truth petition and advocate for action. We need your support right now: every signature counts.
Because by keeping up the pressure, activists have already shifted the focus from the government’s congratulatory spin in 2009 to the people whose lives have been brutally changed or taken away. The time has come to tell the truth.
Sign our petition asking Sri Lanka’s authorities to tell the truth about past and present abuses, and stop them from happening again.