UN SG proceeding with Sri Lanka rights panel

[JURIST] UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said on 16 March that he would not delay his plan to set up a UN panel to investigate allegations of human rights violations during the Sri Lankan civil war. Ban made the statement during a press conference in response to a question about a letter from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to the Secretary-General last week. Ban responded that the letter, which challenged the UN’s authority to form the panel, was a misunderstanding, and he made clear his intention to form the panel:

This panel will report to me directly and not to any other body. It is well within my power, I believe. I am convinced that it is well within my power as Secretary-General of the United Nations to ask such a body to furnish me with their advice of this nature. This does not in any way infringe on the sovereignty of Sri Lanka.

Ban added that there would be, “no delay in the establishment of the panel.”

Earlier this month, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa rejected Ban’s plan to appoint a panel of experts to look into alleged rights abuses in the island nation’s civil war, saying it “is totally uncalled for and unwarranted.” Just prior to Rajapaksa’s statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay criticized the state of human rights in Sri Lanka, while presenting her annual report to the 13th Session of the Human Rights Council. Sri Lanka has faced numerous allegations of human rights violations originating from incidents that took place during the final months of the civil war by both the government and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Coercion of prominent human rights advocates in Sri Lanka

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) is alarmed at reports of intimidation and the possibility of criminal charges being brought against prominent human rights lawyer and Executive Director of Transparency International, Sri Lanka (TISL), Mr J C Weliamuna, and Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA).

According to reports from Sri Lanka, both Mr J C Weliamuna and Dr Saravanamuttu are understood to have been placed at the top of a list ranking 35 human rights activists, lawyers and journalists, according to their ‘levels of dissent’. The list is said to have been created by the Sri Lankan State Intelligence Services. While the purpose of this list remains unclear, the IBAHRI is deeply concerned for the physical safety and liberty of the named individuals, in particular for Mr J C Weliamuna and Dr Saravanamuttu who have previously been subject to serious coercion, including physical attacks and death threats.

‘We consider this current campaign against those who are perceived as being critical of the Government or its policies to be extremely serious’ said Alex Wilks, IBAHRI Programme Lawyer. ‘Not only does it compromise the physical safety of those named on the list, it exacerbates the climate of fear within which civil society is currently operating. Credit must be given to those who are still working in such difficult circumstances.’

Juan Mendez, IBAHRI Co-Chair, said,

 ‘It is deeply disappointing that in this critical period in Sri Lanka’s history that those who advocate on rule of law and human rights issues continue to face such insidious threats. The IBAHRI strongly urges the Sri Lankan Government to demonstrate its commitment to democratic principles by ensuring that freedom of expression and accountability are made a reality for all its citizens.’

The IBAHRI reports that in recent weeks, a media campaign led by several pro-government media outlets has accused TISL and other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) of misusing funds to ‘destabilize’ the country.  However, no evidence has been provided in support of this claim.

The report of the IBAHRI fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka, Justice In Retreat, concluded that there was a pattern of intimidation routinely expressed against lawyers, academics and NGO workers. Further, the brazen nature of some of the attacks and threats, the lack of prompt or effective investigation or prosecution, and the consequential sense of impunity surrounding these incidents, have created a climate of fear amongst members of civil society.

Click here for the full report ‘Justice in retreat: A report on the independence of the legal profession and the rule of law in Sri Lanka’.

Sri Lanka: emergency laws extended

On 9 March 2010, Sri Lanka’s Parliament, which had been dissolved, met for a short session to approve a one-month extension for the nation’s emergency laws. President Mahinda Rajapaksa had signed a proclamation to that effect on 1 March. With three opposition parties voting against the extension, it passed on a 93-24 vote.

Speaking against the extension, a Member of Parliament from the opposition Janatha Vimukthi Perumana Party, Sunil Handunneththi, denounced the government for using the emergency regulations against democratic rights. He also argued that since the civil war in the country had ended more than eight months ago, there is no need to continue emergency regulations. Handunneththi claimed that no actions have been taken on complaints that government agents attacked opposition supporters and that eight new detention centers have been opened.

The state of emergency was imposed in August 2005, following the assassination of then Foreign Minister Laksman Kardirgamar, which was attributed to the Tamil Tigers rebel group. The special regulations have been re-imposed monthly since that time; the Tamil Tigers were decisively beaten in military action in May 2009. Government officials have defended the extension, stating that “operational activities” were ongoing to prevent a resurgence of the rebellion and defeat terrorism.

The emergency regulations have been criticized outside of Sri Lanka. One organization denouncing their impact is the International Crisis Group (ICG). The ICG states, “Sri Lanka has two sets of emergency laws – regulations issued under the Public Security Ordinance, No. 25 of 1947, and the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) – which impose severe limits on courts’ jurisdiction and authority to prevent abusive detention and torture.”

Sri Lanka: End Indefinite Detention of Tamil Tiger Suspects

The Sri Lankan government should end its indefinite arbitrary detention of more than 11,000 people held in so-called rehabilitation centers and release those not being prosecuted, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 30-page report, “Legal Limbo: The Uncertain Fate of Detained LTTE Suspects in Sri Lanka,” is based on interviews with the detainees’ relatives, humanitarian workers, and human rights advocates, among others. The Sri Lankan government has routinely violated the fundamental rights of the detainees, Human Rights Watch found. The government contends that the 11,000 detainees are former fighters or supporters of the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

“The government has been keeping 11,000 people in a legal limbo for months,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s time to identify who presents a genuine security threat and to release the rest.”

The government has denied detainees the right to be informed of specific reasons for their arrest, to challenge the lawfulness of the detention before an independent judicial authority, and to have access to legal counsel and family members, Human Rights Watch said.  It is unclear whether any have been formally charged with crimes or what acts they are accused of committing that led the government to detain them.

Two Defendants Sentenced to 25 Years in Prison for Conspiring to Provide Material Support to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam

On 25 January 2010, at the federal courthouse in Brooklyn, defendants Thiruthanikan Thanigasalam and Sahilal Sabaratnam were sentenced to 25 years in prison and five years of supervised release in connection with their efforts to purchase almost $1 million worth of high-powered weaponry for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a designated foreign terrorist organization. The sentences were imposed by Chief United States District Judge Raymond J. Dearie. In January 2009, Thanigasalam and Sabaratnam pled guilty to conspiring and attempting to provide material support to the LTTE and conspiring and attempting to acquire guided surface-to-air missiles and missile launchers.
On August 19, 2006, Thanigasalam, Sabaratnam and two co-defendants were arrested on Long Island after engaging in negotiations with an undercover FBI agent to purchase and export 20 SA-18 heat-seeking missiles, ten missile launchers, 500 AK-47s, and other military equipment for the LTTE. The defendants were acting at the direction of senior LTTE leadership in Sri Lanka, including Pottu Amman, the LTTE’s chief of intelligence and procurement and the right-hand man to LTTE leader Velupillai Prabakharan. The LTTE intended to use the SA-18 missiles to shoot down Kfir aircraft used by the Sri Lankan military.

ICJ Releases Report Documenting the History of Impunity for Human Rights Violations in Sri Lanka

Read it here.

UN experts conclude major study into use of secret detention in the fight against terrorism

Despite the fact that international law clearly prohibits secret detention, the practice is widespread and “reinvigorated” by the so-called global war on terror, several independent United Nations experts stated, outlining a series of steps aimed at curbing this human rights violation. In a 222-page study which will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in March, the experts conclude that: “If resorted to in a widespread or systematic manner, secret detention might reach the threshold of a crime against humanity.” Read the unedited advance version here.

The study, which took almost a year to complete, involves responses from 44 States to a detailed questionnaire, as well as interviews with 30 individuals – or their family members or their legal counsel – who were victims of secret detention, and in many cases may also have been subjected to torture.

It provides an historical overview of the use of secret detention, noting that it is not a new phenomenon in the context of counter-terrorism. From the Nazi regime to the former USSR with its Gulag system of forced labour camps, States have often resorted to secret detention to silence opposition, according to the report.

The study goes on to address the use of secret detention in the context of the ‘global war on terror’ following the events of 11 September 2001, describing “the progressive and determined elaboration of a comprehensive and coordinated system of secret detention” of persons suspected of terrorism, involving not only United States authorities, but also other States in almost all regions of the world. The study says, inter alia,

143.Given the prevailing secrecy regarding the CIA’s rendition programme, exact figures regarding the numbers of prisoners transferred to the custody of other governments by the CIA without spending any time in CIA facilities are difficult to ascertain. Equally, little is known about the amount of detainees who have been held at the request of other States such as the United Kingdom and Canada.While several of these allegations cannot be backed up by other sources, the Experts wish to underscore that the consistency of many of the detailed allegations provided separately by the detainees adds weight to the inclusion of Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, the Syrian Arab Republic, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Djibouti as proxy detention facilities where detainees have been held on behalf of the CIA. Serious concerns also exist about the role of Uzbekistan as a proxy detention site.

It also highlights that secret detention in connection with counter-terrorism policies remains a serious problem on a global scale, either through the use of secret detention facilities; through declarations of a state of emergency, which allow prolonged secret detention; or through forms of “administrative detention,” which also allow prolonged secret detention.

The study was issued by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, Martin Scheinin; Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Manfred Nowak; the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (represented by its Vice-Chairperson, Shaheen Sardar Ali); and the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (represented by its Chairperson, Jeremy Sarkin).