Sri Lanka: Reprisals against supporters of Human Rights Council Resolution

Re: Reprisals against supporters of Human Rights Council Resolution A/HRC/19/L.2,

“Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka”

To: President Mahinda Rajapakse

From: Gail Davidson, Executive Director, LRWC

Date: 2012-03-28

Lawyers Rights Watch Canada (LRWC) is deeply concerned about the intimidation, harassment and threats directed by Sri Lanka government officials at human rights defenders, including lawyers, journalists, and human rights activists, advocating for adherence to the law and the rule of law in Sri Lanka. In particular, we are concerned for the safety and security of Ms. Sunila Abeysekara, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Dr. Nimalka Fernando and Mr. Sunanda Deshapriya who were subjected to harassment, intimidation, threats and a smear campaign because of their support for the resolution, “Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka” (Resolution), adopted by the Human Rights Council (Council) on 22 March 2012.

The Resolution, in the mildest terms, simply calls on the Government of Sri Lanka to comply with the recommendations of its own Commission of Inquiry and to comply with international and domestic law obligations. The resolution further calls upon the Government to ensure accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims of crimes carried out during the civil war period. The Resolution was passed by majority vote (24 approved, 15 opposed and 8 abstentions) rejecting objections advanced by your government that the Resolution was an infringement of sovereignty.

Representatives of the Sri Lankan government first engaged in intimidating members of non-government organizations supporting the Resolution, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva. During the first week of the session two LRWC representatives, Gary Anandasangaree and Vani Selvarajah, complained to UN officials that agents of the Sri Lanka Government were conducting surveillance and taking photos. On March 5, Council President, Laura Dupuy reminded all that the Palais de Nations was a place where debate was protected and warned against any further intimidation.

After the Resolution was passed, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Ms Navi Pillay made a strong statement condemning the surveillance as an,

“unprecedented and totally unacceptable level of threats, harassment and intimidation directed at Sri Lankan activists who had travelled to Geneva to engage in the debate, including by members of the 71-member official Sri Lankan government delegation”,

Ms Pillay warned that,

“there must be no reprisals against Sri Lankan human rights defenders in the aftermath of yesterday’s adoption by the Human Rights Council of a resolution on Sri Lanka”.

In spite of these warnings, more serious threats were made against the above noted Sri Lankan nationals, all of whom are well respected internationally as human rights advocates. On March 23, 2012, Sri Lanka’s Minister of Public Relations Mervyn Silva publicly called Ms. Sunila Abeysekara, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Dr. Nimalka Fernando and Mr. Sunanda Deshapriya, “traitors” and threatened to “break their limbs” if they were to dare to set foot in the Sri Lanka. The state-run newspaper, Dinamina reported Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella as stating that human rights defenders present in Geneva had “betrayed the motherland for dollars after enjoying free education and health services,” and that “they are worse than the foreign elements”. The state television station ran photos of Sunila Abeysekara, Dr. Nimalka Fernando, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu and Mr. Sunanda Deshapriya calling them members of the banned LTTE.

LRWC is aware of the reputation of Ms. Sunila Abeysekara, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Dr. Nimalka Fernando and Mr. Sunanda Deshapriya in Geneva and Canada. For example, LRWC and Amnesty International co-hosted a panel on the rule of law in Sri Lanka in November 2009 in Toronto where Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu was one of the guest panellists. Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu was a speaker at a side event held March 9, 2011 in Geneva on the Convention to Protect all Persons from Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances. Other speakers at that event were Professor Manfred Nowak, then Special Rapporteur on Torture and Prof. Jeremy Sarkin, Chair of the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances.

LRWC reminds you that the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations states that “everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels”. The Declaration requires that Sri Lanka and other states,

“shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually or in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present Declaration”

As you are aware the Declaration was developed and adopted specifically to protect the right and responsibilities of individuals like Ms. Sunila Abeysekara, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Dr. Nimalka Fernando and Mr. Sunanda Deshapriya to advocate for the elimination and remediation of human rights violations, to engage in public debate on issues of concern and to disseminate information regarding those issues. These duties and responsibilities protected by the Declaration, include expressing criticisms of the Government of Sri Lanka’s human rights record during the armed conflict and post-conflict periods.

The intimidation carried out in Geneva by Sri Lankan government officials and the threats and defamatory statements made by members of your cabinet pose a serious threat to the safety and security of Ms. Sunila Abeysekara, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Dr. Nimalka Fernando, Mr. Sunanda Deshapriya and other human rights defenders. These actions also constitute a serious violation of your government’s duty to protect freedom of expression and the right and duty of human rights defenders to engage in public debate.

LRWC calls on you to:

1. Issue a statement retracting the above threats and defamatory statements of Ministers Silva and Rambukwella and unambiguously supporting the right and responsibility of all the named individuals to advocate for the prevention and punishment of human rights violations including those committed by government officials, free from intimidation, harassment or reprisals;

2. Ensure a through independent investigation into the surveillance carried out in Geneva and the threats reported to have been made by Ministers Silva and Rambukwella;

3. Take such disciplinary action against the Ministers and others as is necessary to prevent further threats and authorized by law;

4. Communicate the actions taken by the government to ensure the safety of Ms. Sunila Abeysekara, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Dr. Nimalka Fernando, Mr. Sunanda Deshapriya to the public the named people and LRWC;

5. Take all other legal steps necessary to ensure the freedom and safety of the human rights defenders named and all others advocating for accountability and justice in Sri Lanka.