Sri Lanka disbands irksome human rights group

[TamilNet, Saturday, 05 July 1997, 23:59 GMT]
The Sri Lankan government created the Human Rights Task Force (HRTF) to appease international alarm over widespread violations. Toothless and under-funded, the organisation was meant to be a charade for the world. However, following its recent critical reports on the deterioration of human rights situation in Jaffna, the Sri Lankan government has swiftly disbanded it, and replaced it with an even weaker organisation, the Human Rights Commission (HRC).

The Human Rights Task Force was one of a number of ‘human rights groups’ created by the Sri Lankan government to appease the concern of international governments and human rights organisations. Although it had some power on paper, the HRTF was treated with contempt by the security forces, who routinely ignored the established reporting procedures.

The fundamental flaw with the HRTF was that it had no means to punish or charge any violator of human rights. Belying its name, it was merely meant to monitor reports of violations gathered from the public. Staffed mainly by Sinhalese, the Tamil civilians considered the HRTF ineffective at best and suspicious at worst.

Based out of Colombo, the organisation was largely inaccessible to the Tamil public. It did have some offices in the East, but local Tamils have been too frightened to speak to its representatives. One Batticaloa resident told us, "How can we expect the Sinhalese [HRTF] officials to be objective when Sinhalese troops are killing, torturing and raping our people? Who knows, perhaps they even pass on the details [of complainants] to the army.”"

Nevertheless, the establishment of the HRTF and the passing of regulations regarding the notification of detentions were welcomed by the international community, which had been urging the Sri Lankan government to create such a body for some time.

Having fulfilled its role of easing international criticism of the Sri Lankan government’s approach to human rights, the government was not keen for the HRTF to actually unearth violations, thereby highlighting the unsavoury problem internationally.

Despite having captured Jaffna in early 1996, the Sri Lankan government has banned international observers from visiting the area, unless escorted by the Sinhalese military. Nevertheless, human rights organisations have obtained detailed evidence of appalling violations of human rights in the North. Amnesty International has confirmed at least 600 disappearances in the Jaffna peninsula alone during 1996. The situation continues to deteriorate.

When the HRTF visited the area a few months ago, it said that there was an urgent need to open an office there, to record the widespread disappearances and to gather evidence. The Sri Lankan military vehemently opposed the move and two weeks ago, the Sri Lankan government declared that the HRTF was to be disbanded and be replaced by the Human Rights Commision (HRC).

On the 30th of June 1996, the HRTF ceased to exist. However, its intended replacement, the HRC, is being intentionally handicapped. Despite the bad performance of the HRTF, its 120 staff members have nevertheless obtained some experience in gathering evidence. They have also established contacts with other NGOs. The HRC, by contrast, has a handful of employees and a small number of inexperienced clerical workers, without experience or training.

One employee told the Midweek Mirror, a Sri Lankan weekly, "We are just government pensioners doing this job as a favour to the Commission. We have no experience in human rights or non-governmental organisations.”"

The HRTF had hoped, perhaps naively, to be absorbed into the new body. Instead, its staff have been fired with two weeks notice. Some HRTF staff said that they will apply for positions in the HRC, when the posts are advertised. One employee told the Midweek Mirror, "“they told us unofficially that preference would be given to ex-task force staff, but who can really say.”"

As before, only Sinhalese can expect to be employed by the HRC - the posts are to be advertised by the Colombo HQ. Even though the majority of human right violations are taking place in the Tamil homelands, it is doubtful whether there will be enough Tamil speakers to ensure sufficient evidence is gathered to prosecute violators.

The incoming staff will be under no illusions as to where their loyalties should lie: the demise of the HRTF will be a stark reminder as they set about monitoring human rights in an island where a cloak of censorship conceals atrocities on an unprecedented scale. It is also an indication of the Sri Lankan government'’s lack of commitment to human rights.

According to international human rights organisations, Sri Lanka has arguably one of the worst human rights records in the world.


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