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Human Rights Watch issues a warning about Sri Lanka

Respect for fundamental human rights in Sri Lanka is in serious jeopardy following the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President in November 2019, Human Rights Watch says in its World Report 2020. 

Rajapaksa and his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is currently named as the Prime Minister, have been implicated in several human rights violations during their previous years in power from 2005 to 2015. They are the crackdown on journalists and activists, the report said.

South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, Meenakshi Ganguly stated that “The new president seems intent not only to wipe away the Rajapaksas’ past abuses but clear the path for future ones. Concerned governments should make it clear that international crimes cannot simply be brushed under the carpet.”

During the outgoing Maithripala Sirisena administration, there was some progress in addressing abuses which took place during the civil war between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which ended in May 2009 HRW said.

Further, HRW noted that the administration made commitments to the United Nations Human Rights Council and restored some government-occupied land to original inhabitants and established the Office for Reparations and the Office on Missing Persons.

“However, Sri Lanka failed to keep its pledge in repeated Human Rights Council resolutions to establish an accountability mechanism that included international judges and prosecutors. The new Rajapaksa government has specified that it does not intend to respect those commitments”.

Senior police officers investigating Rajapaksa-era abuses have been transferred, or their security clearance has been withdrawn, and the army has been given increased responsibility for the normal police role of protecting “public safety” the report noted. 

 HRW also mentioned that the newly appointed defence secretary, Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, is implicated in alleged war crimes committed by the 53 Division of the Sri Lankan army, which he commanded and the current army chief, Gen. Shavendra Silva, recently appointed by Sirisena, is similarly implicated in alleged war crimes committed by the 58 Division when it was under his command.

“There is every reason to fear that any progress Sri Lanka has made in recent years in restoring basic rights and rebuilding democratic institutions will be overturned with a vengeance,” says Ganguly. 

Additionally, NRW pointed out that in 2019, Sri Lanka suffered its worst communal violence since the end of the civil war. Islamist suicide bombers attacked churches and hotels in Colombo and other cities on Easter Sunday, April 21, killing over 250 people and injuring hundreds more. 

Anti-Muslim mobs, some linked to nationalist politicians and incited by extremist Buddhist monks, attacked Muslim property and vilified Muslims and foreign asylum seekers, putting them at risk of assault, NRW said.

“The government imposed a state of emergency for four months. The authorities detained hundreds of people without charge under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, an abusive law that the government had committed to replacing” the report said.