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Sri Lanka seeking friends

President Sirisena of Sri Lanka has been keeping the international community up to date with his plans. In a UN Human Rights Council resolution in October 2015 Sri Lanka committed to putting its house in order on the matter of human rights abuses. In September 2016 the president told the UN that his government was “totally committed to reconciliation.”

Sri Lanka’s is nows on a charm offensive to regain the preferential trading status which the EU suspended in 2009 because of their appalling human rights record. On January 10th 2017 their Foreign Minister, Mr Samaraweera, addressed Chatham House on ‘Sri Lanka’s Reconciliation Process’, insisting that human rights abuses are a thing of the past in Colombo. Evidence suggests otherwise. Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in 2009 with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, but thousands were murdered after surrender, and 65000 Sri Lankans remain unaccounted for. Those suspected of past or present links with the Tigers continue to be detained and interrogated under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, using methods not compatible with any commitment to human rights.

Now, though, the President hopes he has found an ally across the pond and his song has changed In timbre. “I sent a special message to Donald Trump asking him to support us at the (UN council),” he told the Asian press in January. “I am asking him to help completely clear my country (of war crimes allegations) and allow us to start afresh.”

The Sri Lankan government continues to try to avoid accountability for abuses including torture, both during and after the long civil conflict, yet even whilst they do so torture has continued on the President’s watch, survivors presenting themselves to NGOs around the world. There is nothing quite like the pattern made by pouring corrosive substances onto naked people, or the enduring marks of hundreds of cigarette burns.

Sri Lanka is a full signatory to the UN convention against torture, which obliges it to proceed to a prompt and impartial investigation wherever there is reasonable ground to believe that an act of torture has been committed under its jurisdiction.’ It is, however, not a signatory to OPCAT, the Optional Protocol of the Committee Against Torture which would commit to independent international inspections of its detention centres. Dr Grim has few doubts as to why.

The UN’s Committee Against Torture considered the case of Sri Lanka at its 59th meeting in Geneva in November. In the filed papers Sri Lanka’s responses to allegations, made and substantiated by numerous NGOs, of torture in its detention centres is to say that without names they cannot look into it, that they have abandoned torture, modified antiterrorism laws and begun a Justice and Reconciliation process. Human rights organisations presented a different picture: the UK NGO Freedom from Torture submitted evidence of 279 Sri Lankans in the UK alleging torture since the war ended, 22 since the current government won power in 2015. Back in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission has received 628 complaints of torture since President Sirisena won power.

The UN found one member of Sri Lanka’s delegation particularly surprising: Sisira Mendis, answered no questions. Why was he there? In 2008-9 he headed Sri Lankan Criminal Intelligence and Terrorism Intelligence Divisions. these organisations stand accused by the UN of routine torture and sexual violence, most particularly in the famous fourth floor of their Colombo headquarters, a place many torture survivors can describe in detail. Who would select a known torturer to uphold his country’s claim to progress on human rights? It seems it was Mr Samaraweera, who apologised to Chatham House members for his unfortunate choice of delegate, claiming that he had omitted to do a thorough background check on the notorious torture-master.

Sri Lanka was sent away to try harder. Sadly, back at the ranch the opposition parties were even less keen on justice and accountability, complained to the Sri Lankan press in January that that cooperating with the UN risks “making war heroes vulnerable to prosecution before international criminal courts.” One imagines, then, that they think there is something worth prosecuting.


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