Month: September 2016

UN Chief’s Visit to Sri Lanka Does Little to Address Struggles of Those Awaiting Justice

First published at on 13th September 2016

Ban Ki-Moon acknowledged the “big mistakes” the UN made in relation to Sri Lanka under his leadership, but is yet to lay out a concrete rights-based strategy for the country.


UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera in Colombo. Credit: Reuters

Madushka De Silva disappeared on September 2, 2013 in Anuradhapura – Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese-Buddhist heartland in the North Central Province. The third anniversary of his disappearance coincided with Ban Ki-Moon’s visit to the country. On that day, the UN secretary general was so close, and yet so far from De Silva’s wife, Mauri Inoka.

While Inoka, along with about 12 activists, was confronting a hostile police on the streets of Colombo, who claimed to be concerned about the security of the secretary general, Moon was at the nearby Hilton Hotel with his delegation, politicians, government officials and some of Colombo’s diplomats and civil society activists. The secretary general, or even a member of his delegation, had no time to drop by and spend a few minutes with Inoka, who had submitted a formal complaint about the disappearance of her husband to the UN. When she went to the hotel to attend the secretary general’s “public” lecture, she was turned away, as she was not on the list of “public” who were invited to this “public lecture”.

Beyond the physical distance and barriers, Inoka’s frustrations with the new government appeared to be in stark contrast with the secretary general’s optimism and praise for the new government. Or perhaps, it showed the distance between the diplomatic niceties of the UN and the tears of Inoka and her children along with the tens of thousands like her.

 Attacks on freedom of expression and assembly

Inoka had spent the previous night and day on Colombo’s popular beachfront, Galle Face Green, observing a 24-hour protest vigil. For three years, she had been calling on authorities to investigate the disappearance of her husband and provide some interim relief to her and her children. However, she hasn’t receives any answers in the past three years and they don’t appear to be forthcoming in the future.

In desperation, Inoka, together with 12 friends and supporters, organised a peaceful and silent march towards the Presidential Secretariat and the Hilton Hotel. “We were armed with only photos of Madushka and banners. Vehicles and pedestrians passed by us freely, with absolutely no disruption. But despite our pleas, we were stopped by the police, violating our rights to freedom of expression and assembly,” she said. “After we were compelled to disperse, a lawyer and an activist at the protest were stopped and subjected to intimidation by the police when they were leaving.”

Instead of expediting the investigation into her husband’s disappearance, the police have started investigating Inoka and some activists who were supporting her. She and at least four activists have been summoned to the Fort Police Station on the morning of September 14. Some of the activists have expressed fears of being arrested.

On August 31, hours before the secretary general arrived in Colombo, several university students were reported to have been hospitalised due to the teargas and water cannons used by the police to disperse them from staging a protest march against a private medical college and demanding an increase in the university intake.

On the day after the secretary general left from Sri Lanka, the police stripped a young man on the road and assaulted him on charges of being a drug user. When a journalist challenged the police conduct, he too was assaulted.

Although the space for freedom of expression and assembly has increased since January 2015, such incidents have happened regularly in the past 20 months, especially in the highly militarised North.

Despite these incidents, the secretary general chose to unreservedly welcome the good governance initiatives of the new government.

Long wait 

More than 100,000 Sri Lankan families, who have reported missing relatives since the 1980s, share the pleas of Inoka.

Like Inoka, nearly all families await truth, justice and reparations. When the secretary general visited the war-torn Jaffna, several Tamil families of the disappeared, from across the North, lined up the streets with photos of their loved ones, placards demanding truth and justice, and with tears in their eyes.

Protesters rally as UN chief Ban Ki-moon visits Sri Lanka. Credit: Reuters

Protesters rally as UN chief Ban Ki-moon visits Sri Lanka. Credit: Reuters

A few days after the secretary general left, a young Sinhalese boy was reported to have disappeared in the Southern city of Hambantota after last being seen in police custody. The day before the arrival of the secretary general, an ex-LTTE cadre – a Tamil – was reportedly abducted in a white van, in the highly militarised Northern city of Kilinochchi.

He was later reported to have been found in police custody, just like several other Tamils who were abducted earlier this year. The whereabouts of at least two other Tamils who disappeared from the North earlier this year remain unknown despite complaints to the authorities.

Ironically, the abduction of the ex-LTTE cadre was reported to have happened on the International Day for Victims of Enforced Disappearances, in the same month parliament approved the setting up of an Office of Missing Persons (OMP) – the government’s latest initiative to address disappearances – and three months after Sri Lanka ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.

Despite serious concerns being expressed about the “consultation” process and the OMP by families of disappeared, byactivists and by the government’s own Consultation Task Force, long before and even during his visit, the secretary general chose to welcome both.

Tamils, whose lands are occupied by the military, also took to the streets of Jaffna when the secretary general present. Some of them travelled several hours and over hundred kilometers and were probably consoled by the fact that the secretary general had called for speeding up process of return of land so that they could return home.

Before the secretary general arrived in Colombo, families of the Welikada prison massacre and eyewitnesses who were being threatened and intimidated appealed to him for a meeting. They also pleaded with him to highlight the lack of progress in investigations and prosecutions in his private meetings and his public remarks to the media. While the contents of private discussions are unknown, there was no reference to impunity in relation to this single largest post-war massacre in any of secretary general’s public remarks.

He, however, did emphasise that the victims deserve to have their voices heard, that they deserve credible, transparent and solid transitional justice mechanisms and that they cannot wait forever. He also indicated that he had stressed the importance of these with political and military leadership.

UN’s failure and attempts to move on

The secretary general was forthright about what he called the “big mistakes” that the UN made in relation to Sri Lanka under his leadership, and that if the organisation had been more engaged, they could have saved several more human lives.

Despite this having been acknowledged in 2011 by the secretary general’s panel of experts and subsequently by a UN internal review report, the secretary general personally acknowledging this in Sri Lanka was of significance. He, however, stopped short of apologising for this monumental failure under his leadership and avoided facing those who were abandoned by the UN, despite some of them lining up the streets in Jaffna while he was there.

Instead, the secretary general remarked that the UN had learnt “very hard lessons from Sri Lanka where the fog of war had obscured the centrality of human rights” and that the UN had taken steps to ensure that human rights were at the centre of all its decision-making. He squarely attributed the Human Rights up Front (HRuF) initiative as a response to the mistakes the UN made in Sri Lanka and the lessons they had leant.

Looking ahead

If the UN’s HRuF were to become a reality, a good place to start would be Sri Lanka – the tragedy that led to the initiative. The report of the panel appointed by the secretary general helped kick start subsequent actions on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council and by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). However, a coherent rights-based strategy from the UN towards Sri Lanka is not yet visible.

The new government has improved relations with the UN and intensified engagement with UN officials. But despite this, the secretary general doesn’t appear to have elicited a major commitment from the Sri Lankan government during the visit, such as ways to engage with the Human Rights Council beyond March of next year, or establishing an OHCHR field office in Sri Lanka.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to engage with UN officials and the member states, especially to get a response for people like Inoka, the families and eyewitnesses of the Welikada prison massacre and the many survivors and families of victims from the North who ask, “will the UN listen to us, what they will do for us?”

Last week I choose to be with Inoka at her vigil and forego the meeting with the secretary general. But, despite survivors, families of victims and some activists trying to communicate reports of continuing violations, and the limited progress in addressing impunity to the UN, rights issues didnot feature prominently in the secretary general’s public remarks.

Neither was there much symbolic action expressing solidarity and support for the struggle for rights by Inoka and others like her.

The UN, especially the incoming secretary general should be careful not to get carried away with the “charm offensive” of the Sri Lankan government and its ambitious promises. Changes for the better, after an end of a three decade brutal war and a decade of authoritarian rule, should not lead to Sri Lanka being prematurely marketed as a “success story,” even before the survivors and the families of victims experience tangible changes in their lives.

While much of the reform must happen within Sri Lanka, the UN officials and member states still have an important role to play beyond praising the positive initiatives and the progress made. The secretary general, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN’s various mechanisms and institutions should try to provide an objective picture of the situation in Sri Lanka to the UN member states, find ways of continuing engagement over the next few years and give a central place to the tears, cries, struggles and expectations of Inoka and others like her.

Remembering, celebrating and missing Sunila Abeysekera

First published at on 9th September 2016

Ever since Sunila passed away 3 years ago, I have wanted to write about her, but found it difficult to articulate my experiences and feelings. There’s much that has been said by many about her. Among these, what Dayapala Thiranagama wrote about her two years ago has remained in my memory, as it captures much of the Sunila I knew, remember, celebrate and miss.

Below are some excerpts of how Dayapala, describes his first encounter with Sunila which led to their long years of friendship.

I was waiting in my cell for yet another excruciating round of torture, which I had been subjected to since I had been abducted two weeks ago from my university boarding house. All of a sudden, a young, smartly dressed woman, of middle class appearance was standing in front of my police cell. She called me by name. This was the first visitor I had seen since my capture. CID had not recorded my abduction or my presence in the police station and did not allow anyone to see me. My torturers told me that I would not be going home this time. Sunila and I started our friendship in these extraordinary circumstances. Her courageous presence before my police cell, even for a few minutes, ensured that there was a witness to my abduction and torture.”

He goes on to say “She used to visit detainees at police stations, prisons and other places such as those who were living underground, to offer vital support to them when necessary. Such visits had a profound effect on those she helped. Much of the help she gave others was not widely (known) but was invaluable to those people. One such example was her support and help when my wife Rajani was assassinated by the LTTE. I was still underground and Sunila undertook the most difficult task of organising my safe passage to Jaffna to attend Rajani’s funeral. Sunila also led a group of activists from the South to join a protest march in Jaffna town one month after Rajani’s assassination. In Colombo Sunila organised a commemoration meeting around that time.”

Sunila was probably the most sought after, celebrated and well known Sri Lankan human rights and women’s rights activist nationally and internationally in recent times. She won prestigious awards and held many positions. But that is not what I remember her for.

Her approach to activism – and I mean practice, not preaching or teaching – has had a profound influence on me. I consider Sunila to be one of my two main mentors (other being Fr. Tissa Balasooriya) and I’ve been fortunate to have been with Sunila and watched her “in action”. As she confronted military personnel on frontlines of the war in the East in 2007, trying to reach populations in areas that were cut off. As she negotiated with Police who were trying to disrupt a protest in front of the Fort railway station. When she was talking to the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, Diplomats in Colombo and the then Minister of Human Rights. When she was asking uncomfortable and thought provoking questions during a training on gender and sexuality. And maybe most importantly, when she spent time visiting and talking to families of disappeared persons, displaced and others affected by war and violence.

Much of what I have learnt about fact finding in dangerous and difficult circumstances, doing documentation and sharing personally sensitive and politically explosive stories, providing protection to those whose lives were at risk and engaging in lobbying and advocacy comes from Sunila. It was about ethics, principles and attitude, as much as it was about skills. It was about why we were doing these as much as how.

Looking back now, I also fondly remember the scoldings I got from her, with a strong flavor of love and care – for me and others. For instance, the wrath I had to face when she found out  that a pregnant colleague had gone with me to Jaffna at the height of the war in 2008.

I remember how comforting it was to have been able to call and talk to her when I was being held up for hours at an Army checkpoint one evening in 2008, near the frontlines of the war in Mannar. She insisted on staying on the phone most of that time. And she took the opportunity to scold me for having ventured there, for dragging others into danger and returning at a time she considered to be too late. Later in 2009, I came back to Sri Lanka, after a colleague was arrested while I was in India, disregarding a SMS from Sunila suggesting for me to stay on there. She didn’t say anything afterwards. But weeks later, when threats were getting serious and imminent, she called from overseas and instructed me to leave Sri Lanka immediately. I obeyed. While I was in exile, we talked regularly and she helped me assess the security situation and challenged me to return to Sri Lanka after a few months, without ever pressuring me. Among the many times I wished she was alive was on the lonely and scary night that I was arrested and detained. Later, after my release, as I was discredited and marginalized by friends, relatives and even some activists, I felt sure she would have been among those who would have warmly embraced and welcomed me.

Memories of Sunila also consist of some good times even during the worst of times. Good food, drinks, stories – in her house in Maharagama, in Batticaloa, Geneva and Bangkok. When I was living in Bangkok, she was the most frequent visitor from Sri Lanka. She regularly brought me ginger beer, arrack and Sinhalese newspapers, and rarely did we miss watching a movie together. The few days I spent with her in her apartment in Kuala Lumpur while I was in exile in 2009 and the week I spent with her in The Hague in 2013, as she was battling cancer, will remain as the most precious days I’ve spent with her.

Today in Sri Lanka, there are changing ground realities, shifting political positions and alliances, debates on compromises and realism, and blurring of lines. As we search for meaningful, principled and relevant ways of activism, meeting up to different expectations of diverse survivors and families of victims, Sunila is greatly missed. Trying to carry forward even a small part of her legacy remains a great challenge.

Compared to many other activists, I’ve only known Sunila for a short period. But it has given me much to remember and much to celebrate about Sunila. Enough to miss her greatly.