Awards for Colombian Journalist and Sri Lankan Rights Defender
October 12, 2007
(New York) – A courageous journalist who is exposing horrific crimes by guerrilla, government, and paramilitary forces in Colombia and an activist who has spent 20 years documenting vicious abuses by both sides of Sri Lanka’s civil war have been chosen to receive the prestigious Human Rights Defender Awards, Human Rights Watch said today. The awards will be presented at a series of annual dinners across North America in November.

Both honorees have faced death threats and been forced into brief exile at one time because of their work on behalf of the voiceless victims in their strife-torn countries. They are known for traveling deep into rural areas to gather testimony that would otherwise never see the light of day. Human Rights Watch’s global rights defender awardees for 2007 are:

“We are honoring Hollman and Sunila for their tireless efforts to shed light into the shadowy corners of conflict, to expose and end the abuses that ruin the lives of so many in Colombia and Sri Lanka,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Their work exemplifies the ideals of the human rights movement: courage, an unswerving commitment to justice and genuine concern for the rights of all victims.”

Morris, a well-known television journalist, documentary filmmaker and writer who championed the victims of this political violence, runs a television show, “Contravia,” that investigates human rights abuses and addresses some of the most difficult and controversial issues in Colombian society. He practices journalism that is, says Morris, “motivated by hope, struggling for life and fighting for memory.”

Abeysekera, once a drama critic, has for two decades worked as an activist on behalf of Sri Lankans victimized by government security forces and the armed opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. She has been a leading activist on behalf of the human rights of women in Sri Lanka and globally. Focusing on women puts her at the eye of Sri Lanka’s violent storm. “Women and children are the first victims of any kind of conflict,” Abeysekera said.

Human Rights Watch staff work closely with the human rights defenders as part of our human rights investigations in more than 70 countries around the world. The 2007 Human Rights Watch Annual Dinners where the defenders will be honored will take place in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Toronto.

“We are inspired by the work of Hollman Morris and Sunila Abeysekera,” said Roth. “Their work sends a powerful message that governments and armed groups should end their abuses and respect the rights of the people around them.”

Background on the 2007 Human Rights Watch Honorees:

Hollman Morris, Colombia

In a country where reporting on human rights violations is an extremely dangerous undertaking, Hollman Morris speaks out against abuses in Colombia’s decades-long armed conflict. A journalist and human rights activist, Morris has dedicated his career to uncovering the truth about atrocities committed on all sides: by right-wing paramilitaries, left-wing guerrillas, and government authorities. Forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, targeted assassinations, threats, and kidnappings remain commonplace. Like his colleagues, Morris has faced serious harassment and death threats for his work.

Morris documents and denounces atrocities through local and national radio and television, as the founder and editor of the Peace and Human Rights Section of the newspaper El Espectador, as a documentary filmmaker, and as an independent writer. His work has done a great deal to shed light on the conflict’s impact on Colombia’s most vulnerable, and often forgotten, citizens. Human Rights Watch honors Morris for his courage and unfaltering dedication to exposing Colombia’s most egregious human rights abuses.

Sunila Abeysekera, Sri Lanka

As executive director of INFORM, a leading Sri Lankan human rights nongovernmental organization, Sunila Abeysekera fights to expose serious abuses committed in Sri Lanka’s civil war. For more than two decades, Abeysekera has struggled against the entrenched culture of impunity to hold perpetrators accountable for enforced disappearances, killings of civilians, violence against women, torture in detention, and the rights of displaced persons.

With a rare ability to act as researcher, advocate, and spokesperson, Abeysekera is internationally recognized as one of South Asia’s preeminent human rights activists. Amidst a bloody civil war along an ethnic divide, Abeysekera refuses to take sides, denouncing abuses by both the government and LTTE. Her fierce commitment and passion for the truth have won Abeysekera the respect of Tamils and Sinhalese alike. She has faced death threats for her work and was briefly forced to flee the country, but Abeysekera remains steadfast in her work. Human Rights Watch honors Abeysekera for upholding the human rights of all Sri Lankan citizens regardless of religion, ethnicity or gender.