Dear Commonwealth Heads of Government,
I am writing on behalf of Human Rights Watch to express our grave concerns about the Commonwealth’s decision to press forward with the holding of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka in November 2013. Unless Sri Lanka makes prompt, measurable, and meaningful progress on human rights issues, we urge that you change the venue for the 2013 summit.
A summit in Sri Lanka will cast serious doubts on the Commonwealth’s commitment to supporting human rights, democratic reform, and fundamental human rights enshrined in the Commonwealth Harare Declaration of 1991. Holding the summit in Sri Lanka is likely to prove to be a major embarrassment to the Commonwealth and its participants.
During the final months of the armed conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009 and since, the human rights record under the administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been abysmal. Indeed, Commonwealth concerns about human rights violations perpetrated by Sri Lankan government forces during the fighting prompted Commonwealth leaders in 2009 to defer a decision on Sri Lanka’s candidacy to host the summit. Despite the failure to bring the perpetrators of these and other abuses to justice and a worsening human rights situation that include clampdowns on basic freedoms, attacks and threats against civil society, and executive actions that imperil Sri Lanka’s democracy, Commonwealth leaders in 2011 agreed to allow Sri Lanka to host the 2013 summit.
Since then, impunity for past abuses has continued and democratic space has been severely narrowed. Despite credible allegations by both the United Nations Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts and the government’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) of numerous violations of the laws of war, the government has undertaken no serious investigations or prosecutions.
Because of the Sri Lankan government’s unwillingness to address these concerns, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution in March 2012 that called on Sri Lanka to implement the LLRC recommendations. Although the Sri Lankan government in July 2012 unveiled a “National Action Plan,” supposedly to implement the LLRC recommendations, it addresses only some of the LLRC recommendations and delegates implementation to domestic institutions with a vested interest in thwarting accountability. The Action Plan has led to no significant improvements in the human rights situation, nor any steps to end impunity.
In 2011, Human Rights Watch and other domestic and international human rights groups urged the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group to impose the following benchmarks as a pre-condition for Sri Lanka’s hosting of the 2013 summit. These benchmarks remain relevant today and include:
1. Ensuring meaningful domestic implementation of the international human rights treaties to which the government of Sri Lanka is party and bringing all legislation into line with international human rights standards;
2. Providing guarantees that all Sri Lankan people will be treated with dignity and respect as equal citizens, and live in an environment in which they can enjoy all fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of Sri Lanka;
- Restoring constitutional provisions that guarantee separation of powers and reinstating the independence of the three branches of government;
- Restoring the independence of key government institutions, such as the National Human Rights Commission;
- Instituting effective mechanisms to protect journalists, civil society groups and human rights defenders who work for the promotion and protection of human rights;
- Supporting and cooperating with independent and credible domestic and international investigations into all allegations concerning violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in the country, especially related to the conduct of the conflict which ended in 2009; and
- Committing to collaborate with the Office of the UN Secretary-General to initiate the implementation of the recommendations set out in the report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts.
Human Rights Watch believes that these benchmarks are reasonable and well within what any rights-respecting government—particularly a Commonwealth government committed to implementing the 1991 Harare Declaration—should voluntarily undertake. To allow Sri Lanka to host the 2013 summitwithout meeting these benchmarks would be to reward an abusive government with an undeserved badge of international acceptance.
The Sri Lankan government should not receive the honor of hosting the Commonwealth summit unless it makes major progress on all the above, particularly in accountability for alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious conflict-related abuses; loosening restrictions on and ending threats and harassment against civil society activists and journalists; and conducting credible investigations and prosecutions of ongoing rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, and torture. We have seen no sign that the government intends to undertake any of these actions.
Far from taking action to address the problems above, the government has further called into question its commitment to human rights and democracy with the recent impeachment of Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirani Bandarayeke and the decision to replace her with Mohan Peiris, a former attorney general and ruling party stalwart overtly hostile to accountability for human rights investigations. When he was attorney general, Peiris was consistently hostile to human rights investigations and actively impeded the work of the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP), which included citizens of Commonwealth countries such as former Indian Chief Justice P.N. Bhagwati, former UN Special Rapporteur Sir Nigel Rodley, Professor Ivan Shearer, Professor Bruce Matthews, and Dr. Kamal Hossain. The IIGEP later abandoned its investigations, citing a lack of government cooperation.
The impeachment hearings, conducted by a parliamentary committee consisting largely of members loyal to the government, were riddled with due process concerns and were ruled by both the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals to be unconstitutional. The appointment of Peiris, whose allegiance to this government has been public and steadfast, is further evidence of the attack on the independence of the judiciary, a central tenet of a rights-respecting state.
The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth and a number of Commonwealth member states including Canada, the United Kingdom and South Africa, have publicly condemned the impeachment process as a violation of Commonwealth principles.
Human Rights Watch is also deeply concerned that in addition to hosting the 2013 Commonwealth summit, Sri Lanka will also hold the chairmanship of the Commonwealth from 2013 to 2015. Handing Sri Lanka leadership of the Commonwealth at a time when democratic institutions are under direct and sustained attack by the Sri Lankan government will be an affront to the victims of rights violations in the country and around the Commonwealth.
We urge you to follow the lead of Canada, which has made clear that Prime Minister Harper will not attend the summit unless issues of human rights, accountability, political reconciliation, resettlement, and the independence of the judiciary are addressed. The United Kingdom has indicated that it is looking closely at the steps that Sri Lanka takes before deciding how to approach the CHOGM. On February 1, 2013, Deputy Foreign Minister Alastair Burt said “[W]e have not yet decided on the level of any attendance at CHOGM, but we will be looking to Sri Lanka, as we would any host, to demonstrate its commitment to upholding the Commonwealth values of good governance and democratic principles, adherence to the rule of law and respect for human rights. This will help ensure a well-attended and successful meeting.”
We urge you to stand with past and present Sri Lankan victims of serious human rights abuses and move the CHOGM to a rights-respecting country.
Asia Executive Director
The UN Panel of Experts report concluded that government forces and the LTTE conducted military operations “with flagrant disregard for the protection, rights,
welfare and lives of civilians and failed to respect the norms of international law.” The report also said that up to 40,000 civilians might have been killed during the last five months of the war, the majority by government shelling. See http://www.un.org/News/dh/infocus/Sri_Lanka/POE_Report_Full.pdf.
The LLRC report, although largely exonerating government forces, concluded that there were “considerable civilian casualties” during the final stages of the fighting and that hospitals had been shelled “causing damage and resulting in casualties.” The report listed several incidents where violations might have occurred and called on the government to investigate these. See http://slembassyusa.org/downloads/LLRC-REPORT.pdf.