Civil Society Criticises Commonwealth on Sri Lanka

Civil Society Criticises Commonwealth on Sri LankaThe Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) has issued an urgent plea for the protection of human rights defenders in Sri Lanka following remarks by President Mahinda Rajapakse at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and a spate of attacks on civil society activists and families of the disappeared.

Opening the CHOGM’s People’s Forum, President Rajapaksa said: “While diversity of opinion is natural in civil society, it is important that one basic quality should underpin the work and the thinking of all civil society organizations. This quality without doubt should be feeling for one’s motherland and commitment to her well-being.  The stature and territorial integrity of the country is the crucial consideration.”

In the run-up to the meeting, buses carrying relatives of the disappeared from the Tamil north were turned back to prevent them from holding a vigil in the capital. A human rights seminar and opposition politicians were attacked by a mob led by Bhuddist monks and visas refused to prominent lawyers from the International Bar Association. All meetings have been banned in Colombo for a month.

“We are concerned at the implied criticism and threat in the President’s statement,” said Maja Daruwala, CHRI’s CEO. “We believe it’s also patriotic to draw attention to wrong doing, to call for accountability and for governments to protect the rights of individuals and collectives who use the rule of law to right those wrongs.”

Over 100 activists from 50 countries at the Civicus conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, called on the Sri Lankan government to respect its international obligations and for the Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma and member states to seek assurances from the Sri Lankan government that it will protect human rights defenders and bring perpetrators of attacks on them to book.

“We note with concern the ever-shrinking space and threats under which civil society organizations operate within Sri Lanka. In the recent past, individuals associated with civil society organisations in Sri Lanka have been attacked, disappeared and killed.

“We note that several ministers in the Sri Lankan government have publically threatened civil society activists and have sought to justify and incite violence against them on the basis that their criticism of the activities of the government is “unpatriotic.” Many civil rights actors presently live under real threat to their lives, livelihoods and ability to associate lawfully with others or assemble peacefully,” said a statement from the Civicus meeting.
The Chairman of the Sri Lankan Broadcasting Corporation Hudson Samarasinghe recently made public death threats on a radio show against prominent human rights activist Dr.Nimalka Fernando.

Dr. Fernando was the convener of an alternative CHOGM People’s Forum which boycotted the meeting and sent a communiqué to the visiting heads or state protesting at the military occupation of the north, continuing human rights abuses and calling for Sri Lanka to be removed as the Chair of the Commonwealth. 



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