/ 6 March 2008

Sri Lanka under fire over human rights ‘nightmare’

Sri Lanka was hit by scathing criticism over its human rights record on Thursday, with its government fingered over hundreds of ”disappearances” and an influential panel storming off the island.

A team of top foreign judicial and forensic experts said it was quitting the war-torn nation because Colombo had failed to seriously investigate a string of high-profile cases, including the massacre of aid workers.

The International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP), comprising experts from Australia, Britain, Canada, India, Japan, France, The Netherlands and the United States, as well as the European Union and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said a government probe into abuses did not meet even basic minimum standards.

The move is a major blow to the image of the island’s government, which pulled out of a truce with Tamil Tiger rebels in January and is locked into an escalating battle with the rebels across the north.

In addition, a report from New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) — entitled Recurring Nightmare: State Responsibility for ”Disappearances” and Abductions in Sri Lanka — added weight to calls for tough international monitoring.

The watchdog said UN rights monitoring was desperately needed following more than 1 500 cases of abductions in the past two years.

Most of the victims were ethnic minority Tamils from the island’s restive north and east, HRW said, describing the situation as a ”national crisis”.

HRW’s deputy Asia director Elaine Pearson said President Rajapakse, ”once a rights advocate, has now led his government to become one of the world’s worst perpetrators of enforced disappearances”.

There was no direct reaction from the government, which has consistently and furiously rejected calls to allow foreign rights monitors to set up shop in Sri Lanka.

However, Sri Lanka’s Minister for Human Rights, Mahinda Samarasinghe, said Colombo was an example to other nations battling ”terrorism”.

”We are proud of our record in dealing with terrorism, whilst minimising harm to civilians,” Samarasinghe was quoted as saying in Geneva, where he is attending a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council.

”We hope that … when dealing with terrorism in other countries, our circumspection in this regard should be emulated,” he was quoted as saying.

Sri Lanka has in the past labelled international diplomats raising rights concerns as ”terrorists” and supporters of the Tamil Tigers, who are leading a drawn-out campaign for independence for the island’s Tamils.

Since fighting between the government and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) escalated in 2006, HRW said the military and pro-government armed groups had abducted and killed hundreds.

In 2006 and 2007, the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances recorded more new ”disappearance” cases from Sri Lanka than from any other country in the world, the report said.

”Disappeared” persons are commonly subjected to torture or extra-judicial execution, HRW said, adding that the vast majority of cases it documented indicated the involvement of state security forces.

In many cases, the group said, security forces made individuals ”disappear” because of their alleged links with the LTTE.

Clergy, teachers, humanitarian aid workers and journalists also were targeted, the report alleged.

Colombo pulled out of a tattered 2002 truce with the Tamil Tiger rebels in January in the belief that it would be able to crush the guerrillas and regain areas under rebel control.

But HRW’s Pearson, calling for a UN mission to monitor abuses, said: ”The end of the ceasefire means this crisis will continue until the government starts taking serious measures.” — AFP