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Unlike many activists who are ground down by the challenges of taking on a powerful state, Ruki Fernando has never lost the ability to laugh out loud at the sheer absurdity of the Sri Lankan government’s graceless efforts to dodge accountability for abuses. That includes its public campaign to deny any responsibility for war crimes during its defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in early 2009.
While I have never met Father Praveen, I do know of his painstaking efforts to assist families and victims of human rights abuses, documenting cases, enabling people to demand answers.
The authorities have now detained both men without charges under Sri Lanka’s notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act. The police Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) picked them up after they sought to ensure the welfare of 13-year-old Balendran Vithushaini, who had been ordered into probationary care following the arrest of her mother, Balendran Jeyakumari, on March 13. Both mother and daughter have publicly protested enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka.
There’s a grim irony in the timing of the arrests that come just as a resolution on Sri Lanka’s failure to address accountability is under discussion and will be voted on soon at the ongoing United Nations Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva. In spite of council resolutions in 2012 and 2013, Sri Lanka has taken no meaningful steps towards ensuring justice for the victims of abuses during its civil war, and has instead launched an aggressive campaign against those Sri Lankans who advocate for accountability. Human rights defenders, activists, journalists, and civil society members who are critical of the government have regularly been threatened and harassed. Those who have an international profile, such as Fernando, face particular government hostility.
In his statement at the Human Rights Council on March 5, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, G.L. Peiris, made specific mention of Sri Lanka’s “vibrant” civil society and the “freedoms they enjoy.” Perhaps Fernando would have laughed that the government had exposed its insincerity by the outrageous arrest of two prominent human rights defenders days after this comment, and while the resolution is still to come to a vote.
Human Rights Council members should demand the immediate release of Fernando and Father Praveen and be clear that this will not deter them from adopting a resolution on Sri Lanka to promote accountability for war crimes. The arrest of these human rights defenders shows just how important it is for countries around the world to stand up for human rights in Sri Lanka.