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Sri Lanka heading in an authoritarian direction: U.N. rights chief



Updated On - Monday, 02 September 2013

1 September 2013

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, here on a seven-day fact finding mission, has said she is “deeply concerned that Sri Lanka, despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant, all-embracing state, is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction”.

Addressing a press conference at the offices of the United Nations here on Saturday, Ms. Pillay made what came across as a hard-hitting statement covering a gamut of issues — from the need for a credible investigation into allegations of civilian causalities and summary execution; to the question of disappearances and the extent of militarisation; to the vulnerability of women, particularly those in the north, heading households.

She also made references to recent reports of attacks on religious minorities and to the controversial impeachment of the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka which, she said, shook the confidence in the independence of the judiciary.

During the week that Ms. Pillay spent in Sri Lanka, travelling across the country, different sections in Sri Lanka and among Sri Lankan Diaspora attributed controversial motives to her visit — some even going to the extent of branding her a “Tamil Tigress in the U.N”. Ms. Pillay said it was not only widely incorrect but also deeply offensive. The LTTE, she said, was a “murderous organisation” and there should be no place for its glorification.

‘De-militarise’

Ms. Pillay said she was concerned about “the degree to which the military appears to be putting down roots and becoming involved in what should be civilian activities”. She said she heard complaints about the acquisition of private land to build military camps and installations, including a holiday resort, and urged the government to speed up its efforts to demilitarise the war-affected provinces . The continuing high level of surveillance of former combatants and returnees was at times verging on harassment, she added.

Ms. Pillay seemed to have pressured the government on making its recently-appointed inquiry commission –— which is to look into cases of disappearances during and after the war — more effective than previous commissions. “I met many relatives of missing or disappeared civilians and soldiers [during the trip] who are still hoping to discover the whereabouts of their loved ones, and they emphasised the urgent need to resolve this issue.”

She also expressed disappointment that the commission would cover only disappearances in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. She referred to the “many white van disappearances” reported in Colombo and other parts of the country in recent years that would not fall within the commission’s scope.

She said reconstruction work in the north and east — in terms of new roads, bridges, houses, medical facilities, schools and improved electricity and water was impressive. “However, physical reconstruction alone will not bring reconciliation, dignity or lasting peace. Clearly, a more holistic approach is needed to provide truth, justice and reparations for people’s suffering during the war.”

She said she hoped Sri Lanka would hold a proper, credible national process, as per the commitment made by the President in 2009 to the U.N. Secretary-General. Referring to a “disturbing aspect” of her visit, Ms. Pillay said she received reports that human rights activists, priests, journalists and citizens who met her were harassed and intimidated. Police or military officers visited people in Mullaitivu before and after her visit, she said.

On attacks on journalists and human rights activists, she said: “Freedom of expression is under a sustained assault in Sri Lanka. I have called for the right to Information Act to be adopted like many of its neighbours in SAARC.”

Published by: The Hindu

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