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UK notes abuses during CHOGM

2014 Jan 23

The British Foreign Office noted that there were incidents of human rights abuses reported in Sri Lanka while the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) was taking place.

In an update to its Human Rights and Democracy report covering the months of October, November and December, the UK Foreign Office said that the human rights situation in Sri Lanka did not improve during that period.

It noted that during CHOGM family members of the disappeared from the north were prevented by security forces from travelling to Colombo to attend a human rights festival. The festival itself was attacked on 14 November, allegedly by pro-government protestors who previously attacked the Sri Lankan Opposition Leader’s vehicle. A Tamil youth at the event was temporarily detained and allegedly attacked by the police. The police obtained a court order preventing protests and processions in Colombo during the 15 and 16 November, resulting in the cancellation of a candlelight vigil by human rights defenders.

The report also noted that part of the British Channel 4 team in Sri Lanka for CHOGM decided to cut short their visit, citing extensive intimidation and surveillance, including an apparently government-orchestrated protest which prevented the train they were travelling on from reaching the North.

During his CHOGM visit, British Prime Minister David Cameron said that Britain would be forced to use its position in the UN Human Rights Council to support the call by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to establish an independent international investigation, if Sri Lanka failed to set up a credible, transparent and independent domestic process by March 2014.

The British report further notes that concerns continued over the culture of impunity in Sri Lanka. It said that on 14 October a Sri Lankan court released on bail 12 Special Task Force personnel accused of killing five Tamil students in the eastern town of Trincomalee in 2006 (the ‘Trinco 5’). The case had been re-opened for investigation in July this year. On 3 December French NGO, Action Against Hunger (ACF), in a report on the assassination of 17 ACF humanitarian aid workers in Sri Lanka, alleged that the aid workers were assassinated by members of the Sri Lankan security forces and the crime was covered up by “top Sri Lankan authorities”. In December, newspapers reported that the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission had postponed the National Inquiry on Torture that was due to be set up with assistance from the Commonwealth Secretariat, on a request from civil society. Prominent civil society actors have disassociated themselves from the request.

There were also a number of custodial deaths of suspects under questionable circumstances during the period, in addition to two reported abductions, the British human rights report said. One of the alleged victims returned days later while the other remains missing. There were also a number of attacks on Christian churches and mosques during the period, including three on Christmas Eve.

Positively, the report says the Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister told diplomats in December that a proposed Witness Protection Bill was nearly at the end of the parliamentary process. The Commission investigating wartime disappearances extended its deadline to receive complaints. The Commission’s mandate was also extended by six months. Dr. Chaloka Beyani, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), visited Sri Lanka from 2-6 December. He noted Sri Lanka’s “impressive strides in rebuilding infrastructure” and highlighted the need for more durable housing, access to social services, and the creation of livelihood opportunities. He also noted that of equal importance is an environment allowing the resettled and remaining IDPs to exercise their property rights, receive information on missing family members and access legal services. (Colombo Gazette)

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