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Sri Lanka – sun, sea, torture and impunity

A heavily worked phrase used by the tourist industry is to describe a particular destination as a “country of contrast”. Sri Lanka is surely such a country - at one level a popular tourist destination, which according to the advertising blurb offers travellers “such a remarkable combination of stunning landscapes, pristine beaches, captivating cultural heritage and unique experiences”. In contrast it also detains its citizens without trial, restricts freedom of expression, arrests members of the judiciary, stands accused of committing war crimes and routinely tortures.

This contrast struck home with me this week on seeing a case highlighted by Amnesty International to mark the International Day in Support of the Victims of Torture on 26 June. The case was that of Thevan (not his real name) who recounts how he was tortured in a police cell in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Thevan’s ordeal began when he was abducted by men driving a white van. He was blindfolded, beaten and tortured for days. When he could no longer stand he was eventually taken to hospital where doctors treated his injuries. A prolonged period of detention without charge, and further beating and humiliation followed. Eventually Thevan’s family managed to bribe the right officials and secure his release – he promptly fled Sri Lanka and is now safe in another country.

Thevan was suspected of being a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), itself a group that was no stranger to committing human rights abuses. The 26-year brutal armed conflict between the Sri Lankan Government forces and the LTTE ended in 2009, with tens of thousands killed in the final months. The human rights abuses that became entrenched over the period of the conflict continue to persist to this day.

In fact the situation in Sri Lanka is deteriorating. Journalists, lawyers, grassroots activists, even the judiciary – anyone who dares to criticise the authorities – can be picked up under arcane security laws and detained for years without access to the outside world. We have documented this “Assault on Dissent”.

It is in this climate of human rights abuses that Sri Lanka will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November. The biennial gathering will see the leaders of more than a quarter of the world’s countries descend on Colombo to discuss a range of issues. To me it seems obvious that human rights must be top of the agenda and the opportunity must be used to press the Sri Lankan government to address its appalling record in this area.

We were disappointed that the UK Government was so quick to support CHOGM being held in Sri Lanka. We’d have liked to have seen them use the threat of re-locating the meeting to secure some significant progress on human rights from the Sri Lankan Government. However, they failed to do so, and they now need to use the meeting as an opportunity to secure such progress.

They must put pressure on Sri Lanka to end impunity for past abuses, use the September Session of the UN Human Rights Council to ensure human rights in Sri Lanka are scrutinized and they should support calls for an independent international investigation to be established into all allegations of war crimes.

Finally the UK Government must unequivocally condemn the escalating attacks on Sri Lankan human rights defenders and broader civil society, including the judiciary. Given the Sri Lankan Government’s reputation for intimidation and harassment of civil society we are deeply concerned that this may escalate in the run up to, and during CHOGM.

The Sri Lankan Government will no doubt ensure that the advertising and public relations battle begins in earnest as they seek to portray the Island as an idyllic and tranquil paradise. They have a history here and have in the past employed public relations companies in an attempt to polish their tarnished image. We mustn’t let CHOGM be used as a platform for the Government of Sri Lanka, there has to be progress on human rights.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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