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(New York) - The recent downgrading of Sri Lanka’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) by an international committee highlights the need for independent international monitoring of the human rights situation in the country, Human Rights Watch said today.

Recently the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights – the international body that regulates national human rights institutions – reduced Sri Lanka’s NHRC to the status of an ”observer” because of government encroachment on its independence. As a result, the commission no longer has the right to vote in international meetings and is not eligible to stand for election to the international coordinating committee.

“Sri Lankan government claims that its Human Rights Commission is a strong and independent institution ring hollow,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Unfortunately, Sri Lanka lacks credible domestic institutions to address human rights violations.”

The international coordinating committee downgraded the Sri Lankan NHRC on two grounds: first, because of concerns that the appointment of its commissioners was not in compliance with Sri Lankan law, which meets international standards; and second, because of doubts that the commission’s practice was not “balanced, objective and non-political, particularly with regard to the discontinuation of follow-up to 2,000 cases of disappearances in July 2006.”

In May 2006, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa personally appointed five commissioners in violation of the Sri Lankan constitution. Article 41B of the constitution specifies that appointments to the NHRC can be made only after a recommendation from the Constitutional Council, a multi-party body established by the constitution.

The NHRC has failed to adequately address the hundreds of reported cases of new “disappearances” in Sri Lanka over the past two years. In a note dated June 29, 2006, the secretary of the commission said that it had decided to stop inquiring into these complaints “for the time being, unless special directions are received from the government.”

An internal NHRC circular dated June 20, 2007 imposed a maximum time period of three months in which complaints must be filed with the commission, even though no there is no such limitation in existing laws or regulations. More than three months after an incident, the commission will only investigate complaints at its discretion.

The need for independent monitoring of human rights has become more urgent since mid-2006, as human rights abuses against civilians escalated in line with increased fighting between the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The NHRC has been absent and inactive rather than taking a proactive role in investigating these abuses and reporting its findings, Human Rights Watch said.

Given the failure of domestic institutions to address continuing human rights abuses by all parties to the conflict in Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch again urged the Sri Lankan government to accept a United Nations field operation with a strong monitoring mandate.

“The commission’s lack of independence has reduced it to a mute witness of rising human rights abuses in Sri Lanka,” said Pearson. “To address the intensifying abuses by all sides in Sri Lanka’s war, the government should welcome a United Nations human rights monitoring mission.”

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