Amnesty and Commonwealth meet on Sri Lanka

sharma kamlesh   As the clamour for international investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka gets louder, Amnesty International’s secretary general Salil Shetty met the secretary general of the Commonwealth Kamalesh Sharma, in London on February 3. The meeting was focused on human rights situation in Sri Lanka and was the first time Sharma had agreed to meet Amnesty to discuss these issues. TOI’s Kounteya Sinha speaks to Shetty on the outcome of the meeting.

Has the Commonwealth agreed to launch an investigation into war crimes against Sri Lanka?

Unfortunately not, and that is not what we asked for in the meeting. However, some individual Commonwealth countries have joined the chorus calling for an international investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka.

What were the main points of discussion?

The singular point was the Commonwealth’s silence on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. The Commonwealth Secretariat has seemed to give far too much credence to the Sri Lankan argument that it needs “time and space” to investigate the conflict, rather than pushing the government to take action.

The Commonwealth’s line that it’s “actively engaging” on human rights in Sri Lanka does not stand up to scrutiny. For example, why has no one from the Commonwealth spoken publicly on the well documented attacks on human rights defenders around the CHOGM? The silence really undermines the Commonwealth’s credibility as a whole – many of the crimes Sri Lanka stand accused of are in direct violation of its Charter.

How serious are the crimes in Sri Lanka and can the evidence be trusted?

There’s an overwhelming body of evidence on alleged war crimes by both the Sri Lankan army and the Tamil Tigers during the armed conflict, in particular in the final bloody months in early 2009. The alleged crimes are very serious and the both Amnesty and the UN have found many of these allegations to be credible. The UN has estimated that 40,000 people were killed in the army’s indiscriminate shelling of the Tamil-majority north. People there went through unspeakable horrors – we at Amnesty have collected harrowing witness testimony, as have many others. These allegations must be independently investigated and those found responsible held to account.

What are Amnesty’s demands from the Commonwealth and the international community?

We want the Commonwealth to stop taking the Sri Lankan PR machine at face value, and take genuine steps to push Sri Lanka to improve the human rights situation there. From the international community, a continued push for an international war crimes investigation is essential – it’s good to see that the momentum is gathering pace for just that ahead of the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva in March.

But what has happened since the end of the war is just as important to highlight. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been on a steady path to shore up power and repress anyone it thinks is standing in the government’s way, often violently. There’s been a disturbing pattern of cracking down on dissent, with anyone from families of victims, journalists, trade unionists, opposition members, and human rights defenders threatened, harassed or worse.

Has India been forthright about Sri Lanka?

India has increasingly been more vocal on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. PM Manmohan Singh did not attend CHOGM in Colombo in November, widely interpreted as a message on the country’s human rights situation, and Delhi has supported successive UN resolutions calling for accountability for the horrible abuses of the armed conflict.

What do you expecting India’s role be and what do you expect India to do?

India’s tougher stance is very welcome, but that is not to say that Delhi cannot do more. Sri Lanka has shown itself both unwilling and incapable of addressing conflict-era abuses – we hope Delhi now joins the growing chorus of voices pushing for an internationally led war crimes investigation.

Amnesty has been wanting to meet Kamalesh Sharma for long. Why did it take so long?

We’ve been asking for this meeting with the secretary general for a long time, and we’re glad that it finally happened. There have been busy schedules on both ends, but ultimately it has to be up to the Commonwealth Secretariat to explain why we couldn’t meet sooner.

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