ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry has come under strong criticism over a controversial statement on human rights lawyer Ambika Sathkunanathan for a submission she had made to the European parliament’s sub-committee on the island nation’s human rights situation.
In her submission made on January 27, Satkunanathan, a lawyer and former commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), had made a critical assessment of the human rights situation in the country and made recommendations to European Union member states.
The foreign ministry in its statement on Friday said Satkunanathan had made “numerous misleading statements” on the situation of human and labour rights in Sri Lanka and “completely” ignored the progress made by the government on many fronts.
The ministry said it was disappointed by Satkunanathan’s recommendations, one of which the ministry said had been for the EU to use the bloc’s leverage on the Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP) plus – an annual trade concession worth over 500 million US dollars – to exert pressure on the government regarding human rights.
The ministry also said the “unfounded allegations about discrimination of ethnic communities in her testimony are reminiscent of LTTE propaganda”.
In a response to the foreign ministry’s statement, a collective of 161 civil society activists said: “The attempt by the foreign ministry to draw an analogy between the independent advocacy of a Tamil activist and researcher with the claims of the LTTE is both unwarranted, mischievous and chilling.”
The ministry statement came days ahead of the 49th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva where Sri Lanka will face the daunting task explaining the steps taken to address alleged past rights violations.
The UN rights body has already started finding facts about the island nation’s human rights record despite President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) ruling coalition repeatedly stating that it would not accept such a probe.
Repeal PTA for GSP+?
The UN rights body and the European Union have also asked Sri Lanka to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which is alleged to have been used to detain people from minority groups and government critics for months on end without charges.
“Given how the PTA and ICCPR Act have been used in Sri Lanka in the recent past by the State to target critical individuals and members of minority communities, this characterisation is ominous,” the civil society members said in their statement.
The EU has asked Sri Lanka to repeal the PTA pending renewal of GSP Plus later this year. Some diplomats have told EconomyNext that there is a likelihood of Sri Lanka losing the trade concession because it has not fulfilled all 27 international conventions it agreed to for the facility.
The government has said it has taken several measures to amend the PTA until it is replaced with a new anti-terrorism act.
However, rights activists say the government has been trying to “hoodwink” the international community to prevent any action at the upcoming UNHRC session and retain the GSP plus.
Loss of the EU’s trade concession at this juncture would be detrimental for Sri Lanka which is already facing an economic and debt crisis.
“Retaining or losing GSP+ trade privileges is entirely based on the European Union’s assessment of the conduct of the Sri Lankan Government with respect to labour rights, human rights, environmental protection and good governance,” the civil society group said.
“The suggestion that it is human rights advocacy that jeopardises GSP+ trade privileges which are crucial for the Sri Lankan economy is highly disingenuous.”
“We consider the targeting of outspoken members of civil society by a government institution using dangerous insinuations to be a form of intimidation aimed at stifling dissent and freedom of expression,” the group said.
“Statements such as this by the Foreign Ministry, we believe, aim to constrain civil society engagement as an independent interlocutor with the international community on democracy and rights issues, standing up for the rights and protection of affected communities and individuals.”
“We note with deep concern the continuing incidents of harassment of victim-survivors, human rights activists, media workers and civil society organisations by state actors.”
They noted that creating an enabling environment for civil society will require more than mere assertions that civil society is treated as a partner, and the shifting of the NGO Secretariat to a new Ministry. The NGO secretariat now comes under Public Security.
“We remain willing to engage with the government in an honest, principled and constructive dialogue on this, and the other substantive issues raised by Ms. Satkunanathan, which we share and stand-by.”
“However, the targeting of civil society activists in this manner by the Foreign Ministry does not inspire confidence or trust.”
Satkunanathan on Monday (07) responding to the foreign ministry statement said many facts in the statement were found not to be true.
“As a Sri Lankan citizen, it is my right and civic duty to question the actions of elected representatives of this country when such actions lead to the suffering and marginalisation of vulnerable communities and demand accountability,” she said in a statement.
“Only a country that respects this right can be considered truly independent.” (Colombo/Feb07/2022)