Solidarity

“We vehemently refuse to be deceived again”: Protests by families of disappeared, continuing abductions and empty promises

First published on 30th August 2017, at http://groundviews.org/2017/08/30/we-vehemently-refuse-to-be-deceived-again-protests-by-families-of-disappeared-continuing-abductions-and-empty-promises/

Above was the last line in a press release issued on 17th August, by Association for Relatives for Enforced Disappeared in Kilinochchi district, at a press conference in Colombo. It came in context of 6 month long protests by Tamil families of disappeared in the North and East, and empty promises by President Sirisena and much talk about a new Office of Missing Persons.

Today, 30th August, the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances[i]. The above could be a good start to reflect about preventing disappearances and searching for truth, justice and reparations for disappearances that has happened in Sri Lanka. Three trends come to my mind.

Reports of continuing abductions / disappearances and threats to those campaigning

Earlier this month, an activist based in the North was reported to have gone missing[ii]. Last month, there were reports of an attempted abduction of a student activist in Colombo[iii]. Earlier this year, a trade union leader was abducted in Colombo and released after being warned to “mind his own business”. The latter two had happened at the height of protests by students and workers. Based on sworn statements of survivors, the International Truth and Justice Project has reported 21 persons having been abducted / illegally detained and subjected to torture or sexual violence in 2016 and 3 in 2017[iv]. I couldn’t find information about the fate of the first person, but the others have been released, some after warnings and some after paying money. Two weeks ago, the wife of a disappeared man reported having being slapped and warned of “severe consequences” if she didn’t give up the (6 month long) protest she had been part of[v]. And in March 2017, soldiers were reported to have photographed, followed and threatened Northern journalists who were on an assignment to cover a protest by families of disappeared. The soldiers had insisted that the journalists needed to get soldier’s permission[vi]. All of the above, except the trade unionist and student activist, were Tamils.

Lack of answers after six months of protests and meetings with the government

Tamil families of disappeared, largely women, have been engaged in continuous and indefinite protests in five locations in the North and East, for about 6 months. One of their primary demands is that President Sirisena keep a promise he made to them to “release lists of persons who surrendered to the Armed forces in the final phase of the war”[vii] on 12th June 2017. Sinhalese family members of disappeared, like Mauri Jayasena from Anuradhapura also continued their unceasing campaigns to find truth and justice for their disappeared husbands. But despite multiple engagement and dialogues with the government, there have been no answers to them.

Empty promises of institutions and laws

The above trends appear to be largely ignored by the government, and those sympathetic and supportive to it. Instead, they there is optimistic talk about the OMP and a draft bill criminalizing disappearances. Almost as if disappearances in Sri Lanka could be addressed only through these, while ignoring continuing abductions, threats to campaigners, long protests and empty promises.

These three trends indicates a serious disconnect in addressing disappearances in Sri Lanka. But it doesn’t have to be so. The protesting families and many of their supporters are also expecting the law criminalizing disappearances to be enacted sooner than later[viii]. And they are supporting a victim centric, effective, independent OMP to be set up soon and have repeatedly made practical contributions towards this[ix]. They have been engaging with numerous Ministers, Government officials, at the protest sites and also by coming to Colombo. Several families leading the protests and some of their supporters had also served in the Zonal Task Force of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation mechanisms, a government initiative.

But how could families of disappeared have faith in promised institutions and laws when reports of abductions continue to emerge and there are reprisals against campaigners, and when there is no indication of firm, fast and transparent action against those responsible? Other key factors to bridge the disconnect will be if President can keep the promises he made, and if there is more sensitivity and support towards mothers, wives, fathers who have been at roadside protests in the North and East from rest of the country.

Evolution of the protests

The protests started with families of disappeared persons in Vavuniya staging a fast unto death in January this year, demanding information about their family members who had disappeared. Their leader, Jeyavanitha, a Tamil mother, clutches a campaign leaflet of President Sirisena and asserts that one of the school girls in uniform next to the President is her daughter.

As health conditions of elderly women fasting in Vavuniya deteriorated, the State Minister of Defense met the families at the protest site. He promised a meeting with several senior Ministers in Colombo, and families agreed to temporarily suspend the protest. That meeting was marred by controversy, as the government had invited some Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MPs, which the families didn’t want. TNA MPs had eventually left, but based on what the State Minister for Defense had told him, TNA Spokesperson reported to media that the families wanted priority for their own family member’s cases. Several of those actually present at the meeting till the end told me that they never asked for this, and insisted on answers to all families of disappeared. More than 6 months after, the meeting had not yielded anything. But in meantime, the families had waited for two weeks and recommenced their protests, which has now exceeded 6 months in it’s second phase.

The Vavuniya protests appeared to have triggered series of protests by other Tamil families of disappeared, with protests starting in Maruthankerny, Mullaithivu and Killinochchi in the North and Trincomalee in the East. Most at the vigil were women. They had to battle cold nights at the beginning and then the heat, dust and rain. While participating in these protests on behalf of disappeared children, women had to send other children to school and worried about safety of teenaged girls at home. Some went to work and came to the protest site in the night. During my visits to them from January to August, I sensed dejection, desperation and waning of spirit and physical strength. But families have disappeared have held on till now.

On 30th May, after 100 days of protesting, the families in Kilinochchi, convened a larger protest, with families of disappeared from all major districts in North and others from East and few from Colombo joining them. Police tried to obtain a court order to prevent it, but the Magistrate refused. Protesters rejected meetings with the Prime Minister and yet another “Committee”, but after a 5 hour blockade of the major A9 road to north, during which only ambulances were allowed to pass, they obtained a meeting with the President, which happened on 12th June – in which the President made promises that have not been fulfilled todate.

The protesters had tried to reach out to Sinhalese, through appeals, letters and banners in Sinhalese. Despite their desperate situations, and weariness in repeating their stories and being photographed by strangers I took with me everytime I visited, we were always warmly welcomed and even offered meals. Some expressed disappointment about lack of support from activists from Colombo and other parts of the country, and from Tamils in the North itself. Two weeks ago, the families came to Colombo to reach out to Colombo based media.

A few Hindu Temples, Churches, shop owners, journalists and Tamil diaspora groups had extended support by providing food. The protest in Kilinochchi has been held in the premises of the Kandasamy Temple. University students, auto drivers, shop owners, clergy have also extended symbolic support by visiting and in April, a day of hartal was observed across the North. Few Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil families of disappeared, including Sandya Ekneligoda, wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda and an award winning prominent activist, travelled several times from Colombo to extend solidarity and support. 

OMP

The President has been stalling the establishment of the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP), promised in September 2015, and for which legislation was rushed through in August 2016, bypassing promised consultations with families of disappeared and public. Then, after 10 months of silence and apparent loss of interest, an amendment was passed by parliament, removing an article that enabled the OMP to enter into agreements with external parties. Suggestions by families of disappeared were not even considered as amendments. And finally, last month, a gazette notice was issued, assigning the OMP to a ministry held by the president – when the constitution prohibits the President from holding this ministry. The requirement in the OMP Act to gazette a date OMP will come into effect is yet to be fulfilled, and there is no indication when this will be done. If the OMP is established under the present ministry it has been assigned to, it’s legal standing is questionable. And so, nearly 2 years after the promise, there is still no OMP, there is no time line for its establishment, leave alone when it will give answers to families who have been waiting for decades.

The OMP is latest of number of Commissions of Inquiries appointed by successive Sri Lankan governments, to address disappearances. According to the government, more than 65,000 complaints have been received by these Commissions since 1994[x]. Despite promises made nearly two years ago, the government has failed to publish key reports of previous Commissions, such as the Mahanama Tillekeratne and Paranagama Commission, the latter having functioned under both the previous and present government.

The government has made legislative provisions have been made to issue Certificates of Absence, but it’s not clear what procedures have been put in place to actually issue these.  Earlier this month, I met government officials across the Killinochchi district who told me they had not heard anything about this.

The government ratified the International Convention against Enforced Disappearances, but without accepting article 31 that will allow families of disappeared and other Sri Lankans to complain to the UN Committee monitoring the implementation of the convention.  The government has also promised to criminalize enforced disappearances,  but that too has not happened for nearly two years. A draft bill was expected to have been debated in parliament, but was postponed indefinitely. And at the same time, the government has failed to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and counter terrorism laws are being drafted without any public consultations, containing draconian provisions that can serve as license for enforced disappearances.

Economic justice

Despite widespread poverty amongst families of disappeared, there are no systematic initiatives to ensure economic justice for families. For many families, poverty is linked to the disappearance of the main breadwinner of the family. The right of the families to reparations has been relegated to an Office for Reparations, an entity that is likely to take even longer than the OMP to be established. There has been no response from the government to appeals for interim relief. But, even amongst supporters of families of disappeared, and amongst families themselves, there appears to be reluctance to talk about this important aspect. This is probably due to fear that it may undermine demands for truth and criminal justice, including through offers of minimalistic, temporary and unsustainable financial and material assistance. “We want our children, not chicken or certificates” thus became a slogan at protests and during hearings of Commissions of Inquiries. Administrative measures such as certificates of justice, interim relief measures or sustainable livelihoods, must be seen as a right by itself that compliments and not substitutes rights to truth and criminal justice. Protests, court cases, international campaigns etc. are likely to be more stronger, sustainable and independent if families of disappeared, especially mothers and wives, have stable livelihoods and are able to feed, educate, house, provide healthcare for one’s children who are still with them.

Moving forward

It’s important for the OMP to be operational as soon as possible, firmly rooted within constitutional provisions, with no ambiguity about its legal standing. At least at this stage, the recommendations of the families of disappeared should be taken seriously, including having families of disappeared and individuals of integrity and competence, who have confidence of many families of disappeared, women, ethnic and religious minorities in leadership positions. Independent international involvement is a must. And the government should criminalize enforced disappearances, upholding the spirit and letter of the International Convention, before the OMP begins its operations.

But the OMP should not be the only focus. The families of disappeared await response of the President to promises he made to release lists of detainees, surrendees and detention centres and publishing of Commission of Inquiry reports that many of them gave testimony to. In context of broken promises in the past, they don’t have much faith in the President’s promises. Hence, they have decided to continue the protests while awaiting a response. But there appears to be little support for these 6 month long protests and urgent demands of the families from the mainstream media and most activists in North & East, Colombo and rest of the country.

This is also a time for families of disappeared to assess their long struggles, recognize some achievements and plan next steps and phases of what is likely to be an even long and continuing struggle. This could include thinking of effective, long term and sustainable alternative strategies to present form of continuous protests. It would be important to think about strengthening alliances in Colombo and across Sri Lanka as well as internationally – with families of disappeared across the country and beyond, and potential allies such as activists, artists, academics, clergy, trade unions and mainstream Sinhalese and English media. The disastrous memorandum emanating from protest in Vavuniya in June, literary saying “we only believe in USA, only USA can help us, USA come and save us”, could serve as a wakeup call for all Sri Lankans. To be conscious of various political influences  on the protests, but not to dismiss what’s fundamentally a struggle by desperate families to find their loved ones who had disappeared. And 30th August can also be a day to reflect why our elderly mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, had to resort to such desperate and drastic calls, undertaking roadside protests for more than 6 months to find disappeared family members.


[i] http://www.un.org/en/events/disappearancesday/

[ii] https://twitter.com/garikaalan/status/900005138412191744

[iii] http://www.hirunews.lk/166456/two-ministers-accuse-police-for-their-attempt-to-abduct-convener-medical-faculty-student-activists

[iv] http://www.itjpsl.com/assets/ITJP_unstopped_report_final.pdf (page 8, section 1 – B)

[v] http://www.jdslanka.org/index.php/news-features/human-rights/702-tamil-woman-activist-campaigning-for-disappeared-threatened-with-death

[vi] http://www.tamilguardian.com/content/tamil-journalists-threatened-sri-lankan-soldiers

[vii] https://english.dgi.gov.lk/news/latest-news/1265-president-meets-family-members-of-missing-persons

[viii] https://www.slguardian.org/2017/07/sri-lanka-womens-call/

[ix] Press Release by Association for Relatives of the Disappeared, 17th August 2017

[x] http://www.mfa.gov.lk/index.php/en/media/media-releases/6502-cabinet-certificates-of-absence

Advertisements

World Refugees Day and refugees from and to Sri Lanka

First published on 21st June 2017, at http://groundviews.org/2017/06/21/world-refugees-day-and-refugees-from-and-to-sri-lanka/

20th June is World Refugee Day. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 65.6 million people have been forcibly displaced globally. I have heard that close to one million Sri Lankans have fled the country to escape violence, war and persecution. I had met few of them in different countries and been struck by their differences in their experiences, challenges, fears and aspirations.

It was alarming to hear that some had fled the country since 2015, including this year. Acording to the International Truth and Justice Project – Sri Lanka (ITJP)[1], they have taken testimonies from 57 Sri Lankan Tamils who had sought asylum in European countries after having faced abduction, illegal detention, torture and/or sexual violence at the hands of intelligence and security officers under the Sirisena government in 2015-2017. There have been many more who had sought asylum during previous governments.

Early this year, in Thailand, I met a Sri Lankan family who had been recognized as refugees by UNHCR. They were barely surviving, with no possibility to be employed legally, struggling to pay for a room to stay in, find food to eat and unable to send children to school. But they were still scared to return home. In 2016, a Tamil journalist / human rights activist who had decided to return to Sri Lanka after going into exile, was detained at the airport and questioned about his activism for more than 24 hours, before being produced before a magistrate and released on bail. His family members were subjected to questioning afterwards.

I also know a few Sinhalese and Tamil journalists and activists who had sought refuge abroad under Rajapakse regime, but had returned to Sri Lanka since 2015. Some had come permanently and some have been visiting regularly. Some had given up benefits of refugee status and possibility to obtain citizenship in a European country which had offered them refugee status. They had not faced any harassments at the airport or afterwards.

Despite rhetoric of inviting those who went into exile to return, the new Sri Lankan government has done very little to guarantee security and assist those who had requested for assistance to return home after being recognized by UNHCR as refugees. In 2015, it literarily took an earthquake for the government to take action to ensure the return of two Sri Lankans from Nepal, who had been granted refugee status by UNHCR.[2]  For around a year, the Sri Lankan government had not assisted two other activists also in Nepal who have been recognized as refugees by UNHCR, and had made repeated requests for the government to intervene to bring them home.

Returning Refugees from India

A significant number of Sri Lankans, mostly Tamils from North and East, had fled to India during decades of war, living as refugees. More than 11,000 are estimated to have returned to Sri Lanka. Despite some limited support from the Sri Lankan government, those who want to return face multiple challenges and the majority of refugees remain in camps in India, uncertain of their future. Like some of those mentioned above, they also fear intrusive visits and questioning from Sri Lankan authorities.

A major challenge they face is lack of legal documents, such as birth, marriage, and death certificates and the National Identity Cards (NIC). The lack of supportive documents[3] of parents has been a major hurdle for children to obtain consular birth certificates and subsequently Sri Lankan citizenship. Many returnees face difficulties in obtaining their citizenship, including heavy penalties and complex documentation requirements. A waiver of penalties is available only to those who possess a return letter from UNHCR, but not to those who return spontaneously of their own accord. Difficulties in obtaining consular documents increase the risk of refugees falling into the category of stateless persons. The inability of refugees born in camps to obtain citizenship (through the Sri Lankan consular process) before return causes delays in their ability to obtain other documents in Sri Lanka after return, such as the NIC, passports, and driving licences. This results in further delays in returnees claiming rights and reintegration benefits, including social welfare schemes, opening bank accounts, finding employment, and enrolling in educational institutions.

Many returnees have ended up being homeless and landless. Some of the refugee’s lands and houses have been occupied by others and refugees have been compelled to live with friends and relatives, in welfare centres or spend their meagre resources on rent. Loss of land documents, land disputes over boundaries and the inability to locate and demarcate land have also been challenges. Some returnees who are able to recover their land are unable to use it for resettlement due to the land being overgrown by jungle growth and wild animals. There are no governmental programmes to provide temporary or transitional shelter.

Deprivation of agricultural land, inability to get fishing licences, and requirement of compulsory guarantors for loans makes it difficult to restart livelihoods. They also face difficulties in finding employment opportunities in both the private and public sector, with limited support schemes available. There are no special employment schemes.

Non-recognition of educational qualifications, including high school / secondary school, degrees and diplomas, obtained overseas while living as refugees, has posed challenges for pursuing higher education and career opportunities. Obtaining equivalent certificates (to recognise certificates from foreign institutions) places an additional financial and procedural burden on returning refugees who are already struggling with very limited resources.[4]

Refugees and Asylum seekers coming to Si Lanka

Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. There are no national procedures for the granting of refugee status. Refugees who come to Sri Lanka are left to the care and protection of UNHCR, which, in agreement with the Government of Sri Lanka, registers asylum seekers and carries out refugee status determination.

About 75% of asylum seekers and refugees in Sri Lanka are from Pakistan and about 15% from Afghanistan. Visa restrictions for these nationals to enter Sri Lanka remain in place and some asylum seekers are turned away at the airport and sent back to the conditions they sought to flee, without an opportunity to present their case or right of appeal, violating the customary law principle of non-refoulement. As of end of 2016, there were 604 refugees who had been recognized as refugees by UNHCR and 576 whose applications were pending at UNHCR in Sri Lanka. In addition to Pakistanis and Afghans, others were from countries such as Bangladesh, Iran, Maldives, Myanmar, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Ukraine and Yemen. Asylum seekers and refugees live in fear of random and unannounced intrusion into their lives by the police and immigration authorities, and the threat of deportation.

UNHCR provides those recognized as refugees with an allowance of about Rs. 10,000 per person or Rs. 22,000 for family with two or more children, which is not enough to cover even accommodation and food and live in dignity in Sri Lanka. Asylum seekers don’t get any allowance and are left to fend for themselves. Few religious groups (Muslim and Christian) and NGOs have been supporting them with education, accommodation, food, healthcare etc. But these have been very minimal, often adhoc and only few have benefited.

The Sri Lankan government doesn’t ensure rights of housing, food, education, healthcare or legal employment to asylum seekers and refugees. No permanent or even transitional shelter is provided by the government. Due to hostility, mistrust, and negative stereotyping from the local community, and threats from police and immigration officers, landlords have been reluctant to rent houses and are known to take advantage of their vulnerable situation and charge unreasonable rental rates and advance payments.

They are not included in government programs for food and nutrition security or social security programs such as Samurdhi, even though this could be done fairly easily and at little extra cost. The treatment and services available to asylum seekers and refugees at public hospitals and clinics is often lacking in terms of care and compassion. In some cases, the provision of treatment is at the discretion of authorities and asylum seekers and refugees who seek medical care are made to feel like they are seeking a privilege, rather than exercising a basic right. Despite having had to flee after experiencing and witnessing atrocities, violence and discrimination, anxieties about family and friends they had left behind and finding themselves in unfamiliar and unwelcoming environment, there is no psychiatric and psychosocial care made available to asylum seekers and refugees.

Although Sri Lankan constitution guarantees “assurance to all persons of the right to universal and equal access to education at all levels”, this is not extended to refugee and asylum children. As of March 2017, there were 106 children of primary school age, of whom 46 were asylum-seekers and 60 are refugees. The refugee children between 6 – 10 years have access to schooling through UNHCR’s support, but a further 167 children of secondary school age, of whom 71 are asylum-seekers and 96 are refugees, do not have any access to formal schooling. Asylum seekers and refugees are also not absorbed into the many government technical education and vocational training systems, which has the potential to help them to learn and develop vocational skills that they could utilise in seeking employment and living independently in their countries of resettlement.

Long way to go

After the end of the war in 2009 and change of government in 2015, some Sri Lankan refugees try to return back, amidst security concerns and minimal assistance from the government. At the same time, other Sri Lankans continue to flee from persecution. And Sri Lanka is failing to provide humane care to asylum seekers coming from other countries, in line with international standards.  Our government and as people, we still have a long way to go towards being a compassionate society where it’s citizens don’t have to flee from persecution and fear and welcome those fleeing from persecution in their countries and coming to us for care and refuge.

[1] http://www.itjpsl.com/

[2] https://samsn.ifj.org/sri-lanka-the-long-road-home-for-the-exiled/

[3] Such as birth certificates of parents, marriage certificates, grandparents’ birth certificates, parents’ consular birth certificates

[4] The expenses include travelling to and from Colombo and the fees for conversions, such as Rs 35,000 for National Apprentice and Industrial Training certificates and Rs 2,500 for university degrees.

In support of religious minorities, rule of law and Lakshan Dias

First published on 18th June 2017, at http://groundviews.org/2017/06/18/in-support-of-religious-minorities-rule-of-law-and-lakshan-dias/

Religious minorities in Sri Lanka – particularly Muslims and Evangelical Christians – faced serious persecution under the Rajapakse Government, which has continued even under the Sirisena-Ranil Government. The Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, who has been hostile towards Evangelical Christians (a numerical minority amongst Christians), now appears to be assisting this Government’s approach of denying the actual problem and attacking those who are attempting to highlight the gravity of the problem. The latest victim is well known human rights lawyer and my good friend, Lakshan Dias.

Given the latest statements from the President and the Minister of Justice, and the general lack of focus on violations of religious rights of Evangelical Christians, I will focus on violence directed towards them (Evangelical Christian) in this article. Some of the systematic violence directed towards the Muslim community has been already well documented.[1]

On 27 May 2017, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) issued a press release, expressing concern about increasing attacks on religious minorities in Sri Lanka.[2] They cited over 20 incidents of violence and intimidation against Christian places of worship across the country in 2017 and over 190 incidents of religious violence against churches, clergy and Christians since 2015. Many of these incidents have been documented on the NCEASL website.[3] The NCEASL press release also highlighted the “alarming increase in the number of incidents led against Muslims”.

On 31 May 2017, the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka wrote to the President, drawing his attention to the “spate of attacks on places of Christian religious worship in the recent past” and expressing grave concern about acts of violence and aggression targeting the Muslim community.[4] The Commission requested the President to “give urgent directions to Ministry of Law and Order and the Inspector General of Police to take all necessary action against the instigators and perpetrators of violence and hate speech targeting the Muslim community as well as other religious minorities.” This clearly doesn’t seem to have happened.

Lakshan’s brave expose and reprisals from President and Minister

On 14 June 2017, during a the TV talk show titled “Aluth Parlimenthuwa (new parliament)”, Lakshan highlighted that Muslim and Christian places of worship are under attack and that 195 attacks against Christians have been reported since 8 January 2015.[5] Lakshan has been a determined and long standing campaigner and advocate on the rights of religious minorities. He often travels far to rural areas, interacts with victimized communities, publicizes their plight, and appears in courts across the country on numerous cases, during this Government and under the previous Government. Although he was referring to the NCEASL report, he is personally aware of many such incidents.

His comments on the TV talk show, especially his candid assertion that Buddhist Monks are behind some of these attacks, drew immediate and angry reactions from a hostile anchor and two other panelists. And within days, it also drew negative reactions from President Sirisena and Minister of Justice and Buddhasasana, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, both of whom were quoted on primetime news of government TV station, ITN on 17 June 2017.[6] President Sirisena said that he had called the Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, and asked from him about attacks on Catholics/Christians (although Lakshan never mentioned attacks on Catholics in the TV talk show). According to President Sirisena, the Cardinal had said that there had been no such attacks. Minister Wijeyadasa misquotes Lakshan as having said 166 attacks against Christians in recent days of this year (what Lakshan actually said is that there have been 195 attacks between 8th January 2015 till todate[7]). The Minister then goes on to say that the Cardinal had claimed no such incidents have happened in Sri Lanka.

Complicity of the Cardinal

The Cardinal on his part has accepted that he doesn’t know that Churches have been attacked to this extent and claims he doesn’t know where this data comes from.[8] This is despite NCEASL incident reports being available publicly for many years, their 27th May 2017 press release and the open letter from the Human Rights Commission etc. The Cardinal’s claim that he is not aware of such large numbers of attacks against Evangelical Christians is difficult to believe, and is likely to be an attempt to sweep these incidents under the carpet, or justify them, given his hostility towards Evangelical Christians. If he is actually ignorant, that shows an extraordinary degree of insensitivity to the rights of religious minorities in Sri Lanka and towards a minority group amongst Christians. His hostility towards some non Catholic Christians is apparent as he refers to them as “fundamentalist Christian groups”. He acknowledges that these Christians may have faced persecution, and that he doesn’t know whether such persecution has been in context of them (fundamentalist Christian groups) building “things like new churches” or trying to “recruit members in areas they had no members”. Cardinal appears to have conveniently forgotten that that for centuries, in Sri Lanka and beyond, thousands of Catholics have been recruited from areas there were never Catholics and that “things like churches” have been built across Sri Lanka by Catholics, including in areas where there had never been Catholics historically.

The President and the Minister appear to be ignorant of the fact that there are many Christian churches in Sri Lanka, and that the Cardinal is only one of the leaders of one of these Churches, the Catholic Church. It’s noteworthy that the Cardinal himself acknowledges that he is only in charge of Catholics in the Western Province (Colombo Archdiocese).[9] There 11 other Catholic dioceses in Sri Lanka led by different Bishops in the other 8 provinces in the country, and there are many other non-Catholic, vibrant Christian communities across the country. Given his limited mandate even within the Catholic Church, his open hostility towards other Christians and his stated ignorance, Cardinal is indeed a very poor choice to consult on matters affecting Christians in Sri Lanka. Indeed, while recognizing Christians as being a numerical religious minority in Sri Lanka, we also need to recognize Evangelicals Christians as a marginalized numerical minority within the Christian community in Sri Lanka, persecuted also by some Catholics, who are the majority Christian community in Sri Lanka.

It appears that both the President and the Minister had not made any effort to contact the NCEASL, even though Lakshan had cited the NCEASL as the institution which had documented the 195 attacks. If the President and the Minister had looked at the NCEASL press statement and incident reports on their website over the years, they would have got a wealth of information about attacks on Evangelical Christians under their watch as well as under the Rajapakse Government. Furthermore, the comments by the President and Minister make no mention of whether they made inquiries with other institutions – such as the Human Rights Commission and the Police – about complaints made to them.

State and Police complicity and refusal to act

An examination of documented incident reports by the NCEASL[10] indicates a range of incidents such as arson, demolition of churches, damage to property, physical assault of clergy and church members causing serious injury, death threats, intimidation, discrimination, forced displacement, and forced closure of churches. Amongst the perpetrators are Buddhist Monks, State officials and Police officers. Police officers have been known to compel Protestant Christian pastors to discontinue religious worship activities.[11] A Police officer, a Hindu religious leader and other community members had also denied burial rites to an Evangelical Christian in a public cemetery.[12]

A common theme in incidents is the seeming reluctance of the Police to act against suspects infringing on the rights of religious minorities. This reluctance appears to be due to influence and pressure exerted by local Buddhist monks, government officials, and politicians. For example, there has been much said and written about the arrest warrants and non-arrest of errant Buddhist Monk, Gnanasara Thero of the BBS, so I will not comment further on it.

Although Sri Lankan law does not require the registration of religious places of worship for any religious body, a circular in October 2008 issued by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs demanded that all “new constructions” of places of worship should obtain approval from the said Ministry. This has not been withdrawn by the current Government. Since the introduction of the circular, Christian Evangelical churches have faced routine harassment, including forced closures by local government authorities who claim such places of worship as not ‘recognized’ or ‘registered’ with the government. Refusal of ‘recognition’ by the state has deprived thousands of Christians of their right to practice their religion. THE NCEASL incident reports indicate that after this Government came into power, more than 50 incidents involving local government and law enforcement officials involved the use of the October 2008 circular to infringe on the rights of Evangelical Christians. The October 2008 circular appears to be used to target the numerically smaller Christian churches in Sri Lanka and not the Catholic and other numerically larger and politically influential churches.[13]

Threat to remove Lakshan from legal profession

Perhaps the most outrageous parts of this drama is the public threat by the Minister of Justice and Buddhasasana to take legal action to remove Lakshan from the legal profession, unless Lakshan apologizes for his comments within 24 hours.[14] Given that a Minister has no role to play in a process of the dismissal of a lawyer, this is clearly a political threat from the Minister.

I am amongst the many victims of injustice on whose behalf Lakshan has advocated in and out of courts. It is left to be seen if some of the many Christians and others Lakshan has defended, campaigned, and advocated for, will stand by Lakshan. And whether and to what extent the Bar Association in Sri Lanka, religious groups, media organizations and others concerned will respond to this threat, which appears to be a threat not just to Lakshan, but to the legal profession as a whole as well as to free expression, religious freedom and the rule of law.

Ruki Fernando is a member of the Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation Commission of the (Catholic) Conference of Major Religious Superiors (JPIC-CMRS) and the Ecumenical group, Christian Solidarity Movement (CSM).

[1] http://groundviews.org/2017/05/22/escalating-violence-renewed-assaults-on-the-muslim-community/

[2] http://mailchi.mp/0f02c4911569/press-release-increase-in-attacks-on-religious-minorities-in-sri-lanka-1208153

[3] http://nceasl.org/category/incident-reports/

[4] http://hrcsl.lk/english/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Letter-to-H.E.-re-Religious-Intolerance-E.pdf

[5] http://www.derana.lk/Aluth-Parlimenthuwa-TV-Derana&vid=18325&page=1 (1.16.17 – 1.16.50)

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMHziODI3yQ&feature=youtu.be (5.47 – 7.33)

[7] http://www.derana.lk/Aluth-Parlimenthuwa-TV-Derana&vid=18325&page=1 (1.16.17 – 1.16.50)

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0s3hdvEKe4s&feature=youtu.be (1.33-2.07)

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0s3hdvEKe4s&feature=youtu.be (2.23-2.33)

[10] http://nceasl.org/category/incident-reports/

[11] http://nceasl.org/pastor-demanded-to-discontinue-religious-activities/

[12] http://nceasl.org/burial-rites-denied-pastor-harassed-at-christian-funeral-2/

[13] The majority of Christians in Sri Lanka are Catholics. The Catholic Bishops are generally recognized as their leaders and have access to powerful politicians. Catholics and Christians in the Churches who are members of the National Christian Council (NCC) are also generally recognized by the government as legitimate and “de-facto” Christians / Churches. But Christians belonging to numerically smaller Churches, many of whom are members of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, are often not recognized by the government and not given opportunities in representative bodies and consultations, even though several of these churches are legal bodies incorporated by acts of parliament.

[14] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMHziODI3yQ&feature=youtu.be (6.37 – 6.57)

The struggle for land and reconciliation in Sri Lanka

First published on 19th May 2017 at https://www.ucanews.com/news/the-struggle-for-land-and-reconciliation-in-sri-lanka/79116

The struggle for land and reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Armed forces commandeered land during the civil war and people want all of it back

The struggle for land and reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan special forces take part in a ceremony commemorating the victory over Tamil Tiger rebels in Colombo in this file photo. (Photo by Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)

Earlier this month, I was at the historical Catholic church in Mullikulam, in Mannar district, in northern Sri Lanka. Mullikulam is a beautiful village, bordering the sea, a river, forest and many small lakes. For more than nine years, the village had been occupied by the navy, displacing the local people.

After years of protests and negotiations, helped by some church leaders, the navy on April 29 agreed to release some parts of the village and villagers were allowed access to the church, school and some farmlands.

“When we left in 2007, there were about 100 houses in good condition and about 50 other mud and thatched houses. From what we can remember, there was also a church, several school buildings, two hospitals, a library, post-office, 10 wells and nine water tanks,” said 88-year-old Francis Vaz.

But now despite the navy agreeing to release some parts of the village they are still not allowed full access to their cultivation lands, small lakes, and the river or to get to the sea through the village. Neither are they allowed access to the traditional cemetery, community buildings and their own houses.

Vaz, who I had got to know during the period of displacement, is among the people unable to go home to his own house. Navy officers were quick to stop us from getting closer to his house or even taking photographs from a distance.

He and the whole village were evicted by the Sri Lankan armed forces in September 2007 who promised to allow them to return in three days. That never happened and the navy occupied their land.

 

Other protests

The civil war ended in 2009 and Sri Lanka elected a new government in January 2015 that committed to returning land taken by the armed forces. They have released some land but much more remains occupied. Of course, there are other land issues not limited to military occupation.

Northern Tamils intensified their protests this year. After months of determined action some land in Pilakudiyiruppu and Puthukudiyiruppu in Mullathivu district were released in March. Another small plot of land occupied by the army was released after renewed protests by the Paravipaanchan community in Killinochchi district around the same time.

These successes have led to others launching indefinite protests, such as in Kepapulavu and Vattuvahal in the Mullaithivu district and Iranaithivu in the Killinochchi district. Some protesters say they will not stop until their lands are returned, keeping overnight vigils and braving cold nights and intense heat.

The army and navy have also occupied land belonging to Muslims. A local Muslim friend pointed out occupied lands in Mannar district in the Northern Province where Mullikulam is also situated. Sinhalese lands have also been occupied by the military, such as in Panama in the Eastern Province.

Since March, Muslim communities in Marichikattu have been protesting against their imminent displacement after the president declared their traditional lands a forest reserve. A banner proclaiming “Evicted by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as Tamil Tigers) in 1990 and thrown out by the Sri Lankan Government in 2017” indicated their frustration.

In Pannankandi in the Kilinochchi district, Tamil villages have demanded permanent titles to land where they have been living and working since 1990. They were resettled there after they were displaced by war but now they face imminent eviction by the original Tamil owners many of whom live overseas.

The struggle for land is beyond ethnicity and militarization. Establishing new military camps, forest reserves and tourist attractions threatens to dispossess and displace more people. Communities who have been landless all their lives have also started agitating for land ownership.

 

Releasing lands

Even the limited release of lands has come with serious problems. When I visited villages that had just been released after about eight years of army and air force occupation, I saw how the military had looted even toilet fittings, doors and windows just before the hand-over. I also saw buildings that had been razed to the ground.

The government has provided no facilities and there have been no reparations. In Mullikulam, people left behind expensive and important assets like fishing boats and nets which were never returned. As protests and negotiations continue, these will also have to be taken into consideration.

 

The need for support

Land for many rural communities is much more than property with a financial value. It is linked to culture, religious practices and it is part of individual and collective identity. It is critical for their livelihood and important for food security. Several people I have met talked of how they have to buy coconuts, a common ingredient in daily cooking, instead of just plucking them from their own trees.

Alongside protests, negotiations with the military and the government also continue. In the case of Mullikulam, which is 100 percent Catholic and where a significant part of navy-occupied land belongs to the Catholic Church, church leaders have been part of the negotiations and protests. Mass and prayers have also been held at the protest site.

Few priests and nuns, Buddhist monks, activists, politicians, students and media personnel have all supported the people’s struggle but overall, in the Catholic Church and Sri Lankan society, support for has been minimal.

Every time I have been with the protesters, government rhetoric and the theories of some intellectuals seems at a disconnect. Until and unless occupied lands are returned to their historical inhabitants and the landless have access to resources and livelihoods, reconciliation and social justice will be elusive. It is impossible to restore dignity and healing without ensuring the right to land, housing and livelihood.

Spontaneous and scattered local protests have helped regain some lands and raised awareness of these long-standing problems. These could become the basis for a stronger and more coordinated movement, driven and led by affected communities, with support from the country and internationally.

Vaz said something that had a strong impression on me. “We had everything now we’re living in a jungle. How can we live like this? I have faith that we’ll get everything back, at least so our children and grandchildren can see and enjoy the home we grew up in.”

Ruki Fernando is a Sri Lankan human rights activist who was detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and is still under investigation with restrictions on free expression. He is a member of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors.

Refugee Jesus: Christmas & Refugees in Sri Lanka

First published at http://groundviews.org/2016/12/25/refugee-jesus-christmas-refugees-in-sri-lanka/ on 25th December 2016

Jesus was born as a refugee child. When Mary, the pregnant mother on the move couldn’t find a place to give birth, it was poor shepherds that welcomed them to their stable. Immediately after Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph had to flee, to save the baby Jesus’s life from assassination attempt of a cruel King. This is the story of Christmas.

This story of Refugee Jesus, the stable and poor but generous shepherds and fleeing parents had a huge resonance for me during Christmas 2008 in when babies were born in refugee camps and later in bunkers amidst showers of bombs and shells, in Northern Sri Lanka. Last week, when I attended a Christmas gathering of Pakistani refugees in Sri Lanka, I was again stuck by the story of this original Christmas.

Compared to grand Christmas parties and Christmas Carols in luxurious hotels, decorated and lighted up Christmas trees on streets, malls and churches in Colombo, the refugee’s Christmas party was a simple event. A few Catholic priests and sisters were present and helped to organize the event. But otherwise, it was attended and run only by refugee families including children. More than the Christmas Carols, I remember them singing “we shall overcome some day…we shall live in peace some day…we shall be free some day”.

Refugees from Sri Lanka and Refugees in Sri Lanka

More than a million Sri Lankans are estimated to have fled the country as refugees to India and western countries during the war and afterwards. Even this year, those subjected to abductions and inhumane torture in Sri Lanka have fled to England. Many activists and journalists who had criticized and challenged the Rajapakse’s dictatorial and corrupt family rule were also compelled to flee Sri Lanka. Some years ago, I also left Sri Lanka due to imminent threats. I and many others have benefitted from the care and support from our friends and strangers in foreign countries.

At the same time, a small number of people facing persecution in their own countries have come to Sri Lanka seeking refuge here. Christians, Ahmadi Muslims and Atheists as well as activists, journalists, bloggers and gay persons from Pakistan and Bangladesh have been amongst those who had come to Sri Lanka seeking refuge in the last few years. I have become friends and gotten to know some of them a bit better during this time. On one hand, I feel proud that they have trusted us and come to us, hoping that we would care for them in their time of need and desperation. But my predominant feeling is of sadness and shame, that we as peoples and our government has not been able to welcome them warmly and care for them.

UNHCR, Refugees and Asylum seekers in Sri Lanka

Through an agreement in 2005, the Sri Lankan government has agreed to facilitate the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) mandate to determine refugee status of those from other countries who come to Sri Lanka and apply for refugee status.

According to UNHCR[1], there are 576 refugee claimants (asylum seekers) in Sri Lanka as of 31st August 2016, whose refugee applications are pending. These include 35 who registered in August. 439 are from Pakistan and 106 from Afghanistan, while others are from Iran, Maldives, Myanmar, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, and Yemen. The decisions on the refugee applications by UNHCR in Sri Lanka can take several years, with a longer process for those who have to appeal against rejections. In August, 10 persons were rejected refugee status by UNHCR, including 4 after an appeal.

According to the same UNHCR report, there were 649 persons in Sri Lanka who have been accepted as refugees as of 31st August 2016, including 23 recognized in August 2016.  529 were from Pakistan and 73 from Afghanistan, with others coming from Bangladesh, Iran, Maldives, Palestine, Somalia, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.

Sri Lankan Government and Refugees in Sri Lanka

Despite the 2005 agreement, several refugee claimants were arrested, detained and deported in 2014. Although the new government has been more tolerant of refugees and refugee claimants, they continue to live a miserable and uncertain life in Sri Lanka. Most Sri Lankan politicians, activists and journalists are focused on issues considered “Sri Lankan”, such as economy, corruption, new constitution, transitional justice etc. We are of course quick to seek international assistance from abroad in relation to these. But sadly, our government doesn’t permit refugees recognized as needing international protection to stay in Sri Lanka, despite the number of refugees in Sri Lanka being around 0.003% of the population. This is indeed a sad indictment of our religiosity, culture, laws, policies and practice.

Hence, those recognized as refugees have to wait several years even after being recognized as refugees before a third country accepts them for permanent resettlement. According to UNHCR, 272 persons have left for USA, 11 to Canada and 1 to Sweden under UNHCR resettlement process between January to August 2016. Separately, 14 persons had left for Canada under Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees (PSR), a program separate to UNHCR, where private individuals and organizations in Canada can sponsor the resettlement of refugees. The waiting period for this too can be about 3 and half years[2].

Challenges facing Refugees in Sri Lanka

Refugee claimants in Sri Lanka don’t get any support from the government in terms of housing, food and other living expenses. UNHCR doesn’t provide any assistance to them either until and unless they are granted refugee status. Thus, they are totally depended on any of their own savings, support from relatives and friends, or other well-wishers such as NGOs and church groups. In Sri Lanka, there is hardly any such well-wishers, despite the extensive support hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan refugees and internally displaced persons have received from foreign organizations.

For those who are accepted as refugees, UNHCR provides an all inclusive amount of Rs. 10,000 (approximately USD 67) per person for a month, for accommodation, food, communication, transport etc. Families with up to one child receive Rs. 16,000 (approximately USD 107) and families with two or more children receive Rs. 22,000 (approximately USD 148). It is almost impossible to survive in Sri Lanka with such meagre amounts. There are very few groups who have shown interest to support refugees in Sri Lanka.

The government prohibits refugee claimants and refugees from engaging in employment. But in desperation, some work illegally. One refugee told me that he works as a construction worker a few days a week, earning Rs. 1,000 (approximately USD 6.70) per day. He explained difficulties in language and also due to the fact that he had never done such work in his home country. The inability to work legally has made them extremely vulnerable, with no recourse to legal remedies if they are abused by employers. Recently, an Australian volunteer initiated a livelihood project for two refugee woman and had managed to sell most of the initial products. But sustaining sales and marketing their products in Sri Lanka remains a major challenge.

Education for children is another major challenge. UNHCR covers school expenses of children between the age of 6 to 10 years. But this means that children are unable to attend school or pre-school until they are 6 and after 10. As a result, many refugee children are unable to attend school. Although some initiatives were taken in the past to organize teachers within the community, these were difficult to sustain and could not become a viable replacement for a formal school system.

Refugees have sought and received primary health care through hospitals, but when more serious health care is needed, and when external medication and medical tests are required, refugees are unable to access such services due to lack of money. Persecutions suffered in home country, prolonged periods of stay as refugee claimant / refugee, lack of basic needs and uncertainty about future has resulted in trauma for many refugees and their families, but a refugee told me recently that mental healthcare and counselling is not easily available for them.

According to the government[3], 78 (69 males and 9 females) refugees/refugee claimants are presently in detention, with the largest number of 36 being from Bangladesh. Last week, one lady told me her son had been in detention for around two years and another lady told me her husband has been in detention also around two years.

Refugees in Sri Lanka & Legal protections 

Sri Lanka is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Although Sri Lanka is a party to the UN Convention Against Torture[4] there are no specific legislative provisions in Sri Lanka to give effect to article 3 (1) of the convention, to prevent the state from returning or extraditing a person to another state when there are substantial grounds for believing that such persons would be in danger of being subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, despite this also being a well-established principle of Customary International Law.

In the Constitution, article 12(2) dealing with prohibition of discrimination excludes non-citizens. And protections from arbitrary arrest, detention and punishment provided for in article 13(1-6) in the constitution has been denied to persons arrested, detained and deported under immigration related laws under article 13 (7).

Thinking about refugees in Sri Lanka during Christmas & beyond

Reflections about a giant Christmas tree and millions of rupees being spent on Christmas celebrations and inspiration from Refugee Jesus could hopefully enable Christians to offer more care and support to refugees in coming years. Beyond Christmas, the constitutional reform process in 2017 offers Sri Lankans a good opportunity to do away with legal provisions that are discriminatory and unjust towards refugees. And to enable a more welcoming and supportive environment for refugees where their rights, dignity and wellbeing are guaranteed through our constitution, laws, policies and practice.

[1] Monthly report of Asylum Seekers & refugees by UNHCR Colombo, August 2016

[2] http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/information/times/index.asp

[3] Written Additional Information submitted by the Government of Sri Lanka on the 5th Periodic Report to the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT), Nov. / Dec.2016, available at http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/SessionDetails1.aspx?SessionID=1085&Lang=en

[4] Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Sri Lanka’s 65,000 Disappeared: Will the Latest Missing Persons’ Office Bring Answers?

First published at http://thewire.in/2016/06/14/sri-lankas-disappeared-will-the-latest-missing-persons-office-bring-answers-42687/ on 14th June 2016

There is still a possibility to make the Office of Missing Persons an institution that can provide some degree of truth, justice and reparations to families of disappeared.

A few days ago I was with Mauri Inoka, whose husband disappeared in September 2013. She was protesting on the pavement of a major road in Colombo, close to the presidential secretariat, sweltering in the heat, with her twin children, aged about two-and-half years, born just two months after their father disappeared. The children seemed tired, hungry and thirsty, and cried most of the time. Their mother tried to console them and spoke with determination to the media personnel interviewing her, while the policemen tried to make her give up the protest. But later, after being compelled to talk to the same officials who had made empty promises at the presidential secretariat one year ago, and after the journalists and police left, Inoka also broke down and cried.

Inoka claims that the police are complicit or have information about her husband’s disappearance. Her complaints to the police, Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, and the former and present president have not yielded any answers for 1,010 days. She almost lost her job. They were often scared, homeless, hungry, displaced by floods and dependent on the occasional support that a few family members, friends, and activists could offer. Inoka was threatened several times not to pursue the case of her husband’s disappearance and was also abducted and dumped on the roadside.

Disappearances

In the late 1980s, most of those disappeared were Sinhalese, like Inoka’s husband. Since then, the majority of those who disappeared have been Tamils. Muslims also have disappeared, such as my friend and colleague Pattani Razeek. Razeek was one of the few whose body was found after he disappeared. Some suspects have been arrested, but his family believes the master minds are free and no one has been charged. Razeek’s son regularly calls me seeking help to ensure justice for his father.

In August 2006, Father Jim Brown, a Tamil Catholic priest and his assistant, Vimalathas disappeared. They had gone into a navy held area, after signing in at a navy checkpoint in Allaipiddy, Jaffna. Brown had offered shelter to people in his church to save them from bombs and shells, during heavy fighting but many civilians were killed and injured inside the church. Brown survived and had later pleaded with the navy to take the injured out of the fighting zone. He was reportedly threatened by a navy officer, and there were reports that the navy had refused orders of the magistrate to hand over the log book at the checkpoint.

They are amongst the 65,000 Sri Lankans reported to have disappeared. In the 36 year old history of the UN’s working group on disappearances, it’s the second largest case from Sri Lanka.

Eyewitness testimonies and other available evidence indicate that the Sri Lankan state – particularly its army, navy and police may be responsible for most disappearances, in the context of counter-terrorism operations mainly. The evidence also indicates that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is also responsible for many disappearances, especially during the last stages of the war.

Ironically, amongst the families of the disappeared that I have worked with, is a mother of an air force officer who had gone missing and a wife of a LTTE leader who had disappeared after surrendering to the army, along with hundreds of other LTTE leaders. About 5,000 soldiers from the Sri Lankan armed forces are also believed to be missing in action.

State role 

Families of the disappeared and the activists have faced numerous threats, intimidation, restrictions, surveillance, arrests and detention as they campaigned for truth and justice for the disappeared. In December 2011, Lalith and Kugan, campaigners against the disappearances, disappeared. In March 2014, Jeyakumary, a Tamil mother seeking truth and justice for her son, whose photo had been seen in a government-run rehabilitation facility, was arrested.  A colleague and I were also arrested when we went to investigate it. All three of us are still terrorist suspects with pending cases against us. In August 2014, when I was attending a private discussion between some families of the disappeared with lawyers, activists and diplomats, a mob led by Buddhist monks invaded the private church run building and disrupted the meeting. The police refused to intervene or provide protection. Families of the disappeared were stopped twice from coming to Colombo from the north to hand over petitions during the previous regime.

Successive government have set up many bodies to address disappearances, and families of the disappeared and activists have engaged with them, sometimes in good faith and sometimes in desperation. But truth, justice and reparations have been elusive.

A commitment the present government made through co-sponsoring the UN Human Rights Council resolution, was fulfilled last month with the ratification of the International convention against disappearances. The government, however, barred Sri Lankans from making complaints to the committee monitoring the implementation of the convention by not recognising article 31. Another commitment in the UN resolution was to establish an Office of Missing Persons (OMP). The commitment to enact a domestic law making disappearances a crime in Sri Lanka has not been fulfilled and there is no timeline for this, though it is crucial for disappearances to be criminalised before the OMP is established.

OMP as an institution

The OMP was one of the four focuses of the consultation task force appointed to conduct consultations on transitional justice. But instead of consulting people, the government relied on a secret process to come up with a draft bill to establish the OMP. After about eight months, almost at the end of the drafting process, the foreign ministry held a hastily convened de-briefing for few activists. Due to insistence of activists, another de-briefing for few families of the disappeared was held ten days later. Both were in Colombo. Four days later, the draft bill was approved by the cabinet. Technically, the bill can still be amended before it is passed into law by the parliament, but it seems unlikely that it will be changed substantially.

The draft bill is promising with concern to the right of the families to truth, with no restrictions on temporal or geographical restrictions, clauses guaranteeing anonymity for witnesses, opportunities for international expertise, powers to summon any person and obtain documents and other materials, make unannounced visits to relevant places, seek search warrants and court orders for exhumations. The office will also have branch offices.

The draft bill, however, doesn’t give the OMP prosecutorial authority and this may hamper the possibility to offer plea bargains, immunity in exceptional circumstances and other forms of incentives to elicit information.

The draft bill is vague. Gender and ethnic composition is not specified. There is no provision to include families of the disappeared in the most senior oversight body. There is no requirement for the appointing authorities to give time and opportunities to families of the disappeared and others to comment on nominees or make nominations. The regularity to provide information to families is not specified and it’s not obligatory to provide maximum information to families.

The right to pursue justice is compromised by the OMP not having prosecutorial authority and being given the discretion to share or not share information with the external prosecutorial and judicial bodies. There is no provision to ensure that tracing investigations will be done in tandem with criminal investigations or that the OMP will ensure information and evidence discovered will be treated with best international criminal investigation standards, to enable them to be admissible during any subsequent prosecutions.

Justice and aid 

At the moment, there are no initiatives to ensure economic justice for the families or offer any financial and material assistance in the form of interim reparations. The right of the families to reparations has been relegated to an Office for Reparations, a totally separate entity, which is likely to take a long time to establish. Some of the families, whose breadwinners have disappeared, may not even be able to engage with the OMP because of extreme poverty.

Procedures and obligations to deal with identified or unidentified human remains are weak in the present draft bill. At the only opportunity they had before the cabinet approval, some families of the disappeared appealed to change the name from “missing” to “disappear”. But despite promises to consider it, the name remains unchanged.

The distraught mother of Brown passed away without knowing what happened to her son. His lonely and ageing father’s only hope is to hear news of his son before he dies. Inoka desperately needs support for housing, education and food for her children, so that she can continue her struggle for truth and justice. Many families don’t have adequate financial, emotional and legal support and accompaniment to strengthen their struggles. I have often struggled and ended up frustrated trying to mobilise support for families of the disappeared, amongst politicians, journalists, artists, lawyers, activists and the general public.

At least one person was abducted by the dreaded “White Van”, a symbol of disappearances in Sri Lanka, last April. He was later found in police custody. The discovery of explosives and suicide jacket near Jaffna had led to new wave of arrests of some Tamils from the north and east since the end of March, under the draconian and much abused Prevention of Terrorism Act, which the government has promised to repeal. Torture and lack of due process has been reported in relation to some of these arrests.

The above context, and lack of consultations and sensitivity to ideas of families of disappeared in creating the OMP and the limits in the draft bill has created an environment of suspicion about it. There is still a possibility to make the OMP an institution that can provide at least some degree of truth, justice and reparations to families of disappeared, rather than giving more agony and trauma. But it will require principled commitment from politicians, sensitivity of the general public and lot of work from families themselves and those supporting them.

Ruki Fernando is a Sri Lankan human rights activist who worked with families of the disappeared, and was involved in documentation, campaigns and advocacy in relation to the disappearances. He is a member of Watchdog Collective, Advisor to INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre in Colombo.

Activists in an international system: pushing for change in Sri Lanka

Local and international activists have been crucial in getting a UN response in Sri Lanka. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate,Human rights: mass or elite movement?

Stephen Hopgood argued several years ago that it is activists, not states, who will make a difference in the future, and to a certain extent this has proved to be true in Sri Lanka. Undoubtedly, the primary struggle for human rights has to be waged at home. But there are also times when international support—such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is crucial. For us, 2006-2014 was such a time.

In 2005-2006, I was working at the FORUM-ASIA Secretariat based in Bangkok. As the conflict in Sri Lanka escalated in 2006, I decided to go home and came back to chaos. There were large-scale enforced disappearances, extra-judicial executions, mass displacement, forcible recruitment (including of children), and severe restrictions on traveling and communication. It was also a time where human rights activists, including non-governmental organisation (NGO) workers, humanitarian workers, independent journalists, clergy and opposition politicians with critical views of the government, were killed, disappeared, detained or threatened. Domestic human rights protection mechanisms, such as the Judiciary, National Human Rights Commission and the Ad Hoc Commissions of Inquiries, had become completely ineffective.

It was a very dangerous time to be an activist living and working in Sri Lanka, and it is in this context that international solidarity became a crucial element of our struggle for human rights. The primary focus of our international advocacy was targeting the United Nations (UN), and a secondary strategy of engagement was towards the Commonwealth. The Commonwealth’s failure to intervene severely harmed its credibility, resulting in some heads of states boycotting the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo. And I still believe the level of atrocities we saw in the last phase of the war, particularly in 2009, could have been less if a UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ field presence had been established.

In September 2008, when the government ordered all UN agencies to leave the war zone, the people appealed not to be abandoned. But we failed to persuade the UN to stay. In early 2009, as the war reached its peak and civilian casualties escalated dramatically, we as human rights defenders sought a special session with the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). We finally got it—but only after the war—and the outcome was a disaster for Sri Lanka and the UN.

The internal UN review that followed recognised that “events in Sri Lanka marked a grave failure of the UN” and that “many senior UN staff did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility.” But in March 2012 and March 2013, with continued pressure from human rights groups, the tide started to turn. In March 2014, the UNHRC passed another resolution on Sri Lanka, asking the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to conduct an investigation into serious violations of human rights and related crimes in Sri Lanka. Though late and limited, this was a victory for survivors, victim’s families and some of us who had long campaigned for this, even when it seemed to be against all odds.


Flickr/Vikalpa (Some rights reserved)

 

In September 2015, the High Commissioner’s office released the report of its investigations. It detailed horrific narratives of unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, forcible recruitment of children, obstructions of movement to safe areas, sexual and gender based violence, torture, and arbitrary detention on a mass scale and in a systematic manner. The High Commissioner recommended the establishment of a Special Hybrid Court with international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators to ensure accountability for the reported violations, along with other international action such as universal jurisdiction and vetting. The “hybrid court” and “international participation” appears to be what has caught the media attention. Going beyond this to address other needs such as truth seeking, reparations, memorialization, constitutional change and introspection is where more local activism is so desperately needed.

The strong involvement of survivors and the families of victims made a huge difference to international advocacy. While the international focus of Sri Lankan human rights defenders was on intergovernmental bodies, such as the UN, the Commonwealth and individual Governments, these would only change course if others—smaller in size but perhaps bigger in passion, determination and commitment—pushed them relentlessly. The strong involvement of survivors and the families of victims made a huge difference to international advocacy. Mothers, fathers, and wives came forward courageously to give testimony to high profile representatives from foreign governments and the UN, in Sri Lanka itself or in Geneva. Amongst those regular visitors and strong advocates was the wife of disappeared Sinhalese journalist, Mrs. Sandya Ekneligoda, and Dr. Manoharan, the father of a teenage Tamil boy killed on the beach in 2006.

Despite the government clampdown on local media, some international media continued to give coverage to stories of survivors of human rights violations and families of victims, in particular their struggles for truth and justice. Though their interest was not consistent and tended to focus on specific events, such coverage was essential since it was an opportunity to share an alternative narrative with the world. Several writers spent significant amounts of time with war-affected persons in the North and wrote books highlighting their stories, while others made films using materials from the last phases of the war and afterwards. They too had to face intimidations, defamation, severe restrictions on travel to the North, and surveillance and obstacles once they got there. Some were arrested, detained and deported. But these stories, through articles, video clips, films, photography and books, went a long way in keeping alive the dwindling world attention on Sri Lanka.

Probably the most controversial group has been the Sri Lankan diaspora. I met with several diaspora groups, some exclusively Tamil and some mixed with Muslim, Sinhalese and Tamil. Some diaspora groups clearly supported and justified the war and tried to cover up violence and abuses by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan Government. But many with whom I engaged appeared to be fuelled by concern and care about what was happening in Sri Lanka, about the survivors and families of victims of human rights violations. Some groups became very influential in lobbying foreign governments and UN officials, and there is no doubt that they contributed to the developments in the UN in relation to Sri Lanka.

For us, the years between 2006-2014 were a time of desperation and emergency, when we local activists, students, artists and many other human rights defenders, needed the international system—but the international system would not have taken action if we hadn’t pushed for it. There is slightly more space now for us to work inside Sri Lanka, but it would be a mistake for our international friends to leave us now, especially after the long journey they have undertaken with us. We can only hope the UN and the Commonwealth step up.

As I give thanks, I look forward to a continuing journey.

*A longer version of this piece first appeared on Forum Asia.

Solidarity Actions and Struggles for Justice in Sri Lanka

First published at http://groundviews.org/2015/12/30/solidarity-actions-and-struggles-for-justice-in-sri-lanka/ on 30th December 2015

On 28th December 2015, the Nuwara Eliya High Court delivered a historic judgment: two men were each sentenced to 23 years rigorous imprisonment and ordered to pay Rs. 200,000 in compensation after being convicted for the abduction and rape of Rita, a 17 year old Tamil girl from Talawakele in the hill country, on 12th August 2001.

It was a happy moment for Rita and those of us who were in courts with her. It was a victory for exceptional courage and determination of Rita and all those who supported her long struggle. But it also showcased the exceptional decay of Sri Lanka’s justice system – more than 14 years to ensure justice for abduction and rape of teenaged girl. In his introduction to the judgement, the Judge also highlighted this delay in justice and also referred to delays at Police stations.

Rita’s challenges, struggles, courage and determination 

It is rare that victims of rape, especially a teenage Tamil schoolgirl from an estate area, will fight for justice. She will be victimised, again and again, in the verbal comments made to her, in the way people look at her, in her village, school, work place. The Police, the Attorney-General’s Department, the Judiciary, the family, the media, and society in general are not sympathetic. Even the sympathetic may not be committed to help pursue justice. She and her family are likely to encounter threats, intimidation, and attempts to discredit her if she decides to pursue justice instead of keeping quiet.

But Rita perused justice with exceptional courage and determination, right from the time she was raped. Her first step after the incident was to go and complain to the Police and then accompany the Police to show the place of the incident and search for the suspects. These steps were referred to by the Judge in positive way yesterday in his reasoning given for the judgment.  The state counsels prosecuting her case had changed 15 times. At least 9 judges had heard her case. There were more than a hundred court hearings – in Kandy and Nuwara Eliya High Courts, non-summary proceedings, and another civil case in the District Courts. She had to go through the trauma of repeatedly explaining what happened to her in detail over a number of years, including in the face of harsh and probing cross examinations, and she even fainted once. But Rita had remained consistent in her story. The Judge also recognized this and highlighted that the defence lawyers were not able to cast doubt

on Rita’s testimony, which appeared to be corroborated by medical evidence, observations of the Police, circumstantial evidence some statements by accused

Rita had lost her father when she was young. Her grandfather died in 2009, midway through her struggle for justice – he had supported and encouraged her, and had given witness in her court proceedings. She pursued justice, despite intimidations to her and family and attempts to offer money and get her to withdraw the case. She was compelled to stay in 21 safe houses for security. She had to leave her friends and familiar surroundings and change school, village. She even had to seek employment in the Free Trade Zone, far away from the hill country she had lived all her life.

Solidarity and support for Rita 

Within a few weeks of Rita being raped, I participated in a protest in Hatton in the hill country, demanding justice for Rita. That protest was spearheaded by Fr. Nandana Manatunga, a Catholic Priest. He has remained an inspiration and good friend since then. He was the director of Caritas Kandy then, but has moved on to take new positions, in various parishes and institutions. But he had never wavered from accompanying and supporting Rita, and was in court yesterday, as he had been with Rita and numerous other victims, hundreds of times. He and his dedicated band of staff and volunteers at the Human Rights Office (HRO), Kandy, had protected Rita; finding safe houses, facilitated her education, employment, provided legal and medical assistance and counselling, provided some financial assistance, and even assisted in family funerals, sicknesses, and Rita’s own wedding. The Catholic Bishop of Mannar appealed to the then President Kumaratunga to expedite the case. National and international campaigns have been organised to exert pressure to expedite the case.

As I write this on my way back in the train from Nuwara Eliya to Colombo, I remembered stages of Rita’s struggles over the years and my meetings with her, what she had told. I also wondered whether there would have been justice even after 14 years, if not for Rita’s unwavering courage, her family’s and others support?

Rare successes due to survivors and victim’s families courage & determination

Courage and determination of survivors and their families have brought about justice in several other cases, in a country where justice has been, and still remains, elusive and inaccessible to many. In many of these cases, there has been long term accompaniment and significant support from individuals and organizations.

In May 2012, a man was sentenced for 20 years and ordered to pay compensation of Rs. 100,000 for raping 13 year old Divya, who like Rita, was also a Tamil girl from the estate community. Earlier this month, two Police officers were sentenced to 7 years rigorous imprisonment each for torturing two persons from Kandy. HRO had also managed to obtain the release of several persons who were detained for long periods under the PTA, after long years of support to the detainees and the families.

In a rare judgement from the highly militarized and war ravaged North, in October 2015, four soldiers from the Army were sentenced to 25 years imprisonment for the rape and sexual abuse of two Tamil women from Vishvamadu, in 2010. A determined struggle by Mrs. Sandya Ekneligoda[1]for six years in Sri Lanka and beyond, supported by strong national and international campaigns, has led to the arrest of several persons, including those from the military and intelligence units, who are suspected to be responsible for the enforced disappearance of her husband, cartoonist and journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda in January 2010.

But, in contrast, to the best of my knowledge, there has been no progress in investigations, no arrests in the 2007 enforced disappearance of Ramachandran Subramanium, a Tamil journalist from Jaffna, despite what appears to be eye witness accounts of military involvement. Is it because his elderly parents could not campaign like Sandya and they did not get the national and international support Sandya got? Tens of thousands of survivors and families of victims of rape and sexual abuse, torture, arbitrary detention, extrajudicial executions, and disappearances await justice in Sri Lanka for decades.

Reforming justice system

The few successes in struggles for justice in Sri Lanka have been largely due to exceptional courage and determination of survivors and victims’ families and the solidarity and support from few individuals and groups, rather than effectiveness of the state and statutory institutions established to deliver justice.

It’s a major fault of our justice system that justice is not accessible and available independently and as of right, and quickly, but rather, appears to depend on a victim’s courage or ability to garner support. 14 years is way too long for teenaged girl who was raped to wait for justice. Thus, in the longer term, reform of the justice system will be key.

Solidarity and accompaniment – how important is it?

At the same time, I believe it is also important for all of us who believe in justice to reflect how much of our time and energy we should invest in accompanying survivors and victim’s families, in their struggles for justice. It would be particularly important to reflect on ways to sustaining accompaniment and solidarity for long years, as the justice system itself tries to wear us down and make us give up. Rita’s case is a good example of sustained struggle, accompaniment and solidarity despite the delays in the system.

I have been privileged and inspired to have worked with and encountered survivors and families of victims, who had braved extreme odds and risks to pursue justice. Rizkhan, the son of my murdered friend Pattani Razeek; Sandya Ekneligoda, who I mentioned above; Mayuri, whose husband was abducted in 2013; Dr. Manoharan, whose teenaged son was executed 10 years ago; some villagers in Mullikulam whose village has been occupied by the Navy since 2007; and several wives of those who have been unjustly detained are amongst those who come to mind. There are more of course.

I have also come to admire the work of individuals and groups in different parts of Sri Lanka and beyond, who have been supporting such struggles. Together with some colleagues and friends, I have also tried hard to support some such struggles. But despite the risks we have taken, personal sacrifices we have made, and our best efforts, we have not been able to do enough. It has been heart breaking to ignore or say “no” to some desperate appeals and being unable to find others who could support where we could not. I have also been frustrated at my inability to motivate and encourage others, including colleagues and friends, to work more with survivors and victims’ families and invest more in accompaniment and solidarity.

Research, campaigning, advocacy, legal action, trainings appear to be considered more important than accompaniment and solidarity.  But in my experience, simple things standing by their side on street protests, like accompaniment to courts and other institutions, visiting them in their prisons and homes, providing moral support, helping with translations, introducing them to others who could help their cause, have been key in survivors and victims’ families obtaining justice, as has been the case with Rita and several others I mentioned above. And it’s likely to be so in the immediate future, till we have more independent, accessible and effective justice system.

[1] For a more detailed account of Sandya’s struggle in first three years, seehttp://groundviews.org/2013/01/23/11073/