The National Peace Council (NPC)

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03.11.14 Media Release

EARTHSLIP DISASTER HIGHLIGHTS THE NEGLECT OF PLANTATION TAMIL COMMUNITY
The landslide that buried an entire village on Meeriyabedda Estate in Haldamulla, a tea plantation in Sri Lanka’s central hills is a tragic reminder of a marginalized ethnic minority and the failure of the democratic political system to address their needs. The plantation Tamil people have been discriminated against from the time of Independence from British colonial rule when they were denied their citizenship and continue to suffer from that legacy. The wealth they have produced has gone into the coffers of state and plantation companies, but inputs to upgrade the quality of housing for the plantation workers who toil under extreme weather condition has been minimal and often not meeting minimum requirements to enable them to lead dignified lives.

Even today the plantation Tamil community continue to be denied land ownership on the plantations where they have lived for generations and live in ramshackle “line houses” constructed during the colonial period. The media has reported that the affected community had been informed of the danger of earth slips and the need to relocate but they had nowhere else to go. There was negligence in the failure of state authorities to relocate the people to safer locations. The responsibility lies also with the trade unions which are meant to look after the well being of the plantation workers and who are part of the government. The government is improving buildings and infrastructure in the urban areas spending considerable amounts of money. As the plantation workers are the poorest segment of our society the government needs to take the responsibility to find alternative land and houses for them.

The National Peace Council is encouraged by the multi-pronged and national response to the catastrophe faced by the affected people, of whom an estimated 300 were initially believed to have been buried alive and as many as 80 children orphaned, although the government now claims the figures are significantly less. The security forces were quick the dig the area looking for survivors and for bodies, President Mahinda Rajapaksa paid a personal visit and humanitarian supplies have been sent by a number of private companies and organizations in addition to the government. Humanitarian agencies who have deployed staff on the ground also report that there is a substantial influx of relief items to the two safety centres (dry rations, cooked meals, drinking water, clothes, utensils, personal items etc). The All Ceylon Hindu Congress has offered to admit these children to Hindu College, Ratmalana on full scholarship which could be considered for those orphans who have no families to support them.

We note, however, that the government has decided to take steps to ensure that the orphans will be looked after by the state. While we commend the government’s willingness to take responsibility for the orphans, we believe that the better environment for them would be with their families or extended families rather than in state-run orphanages. We recommend that the orphans be placed with their relatives whose parental function is strengthened by state support both financial and adequate housing, and by monitoring. This will ensure that separation of families and the need for institutional care is minimized in accordance with international standards as advocated by the Tokyo-Seoul Declaration to Establish UN World Orphans Day of October 31, 2014. We also recommend that this tragic moment be utilized to address the deeper problems of the plantation Tamil community, especially their inability to own land and thereby improve their conditions of living.

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17.10.14 Media Release

POPE’S VISIT CAN PROVIDE FURTHER IMPETUS TOWARDS NATIONAL RECONCILIATION

There are indications of a snap Presidential Election being declared in the latter half of November and held as early as January 2015. Political parties are mobilizing their constituents for this eventuality. However, legally speaking, presidential elections are not due until November 2016. Therefore, the government retains considerable flexibility regarding the timing of the elections. Several members of political parties and civic and religious leaders have appealed to the President not to hold the election until the Executive Presidency is abolished or reformed. The National Peace Council urges the government to also consider the forthcoming visit of Pope Francis to Sri Lanka when deciding on the date of the presidential elections.

The Vatican has a policy of not having papal visits coincide with elections. The Pope’s visit is scheduled for January 13-15, with these dates being fixed in June this year. The Pope is expected to conduct religious services in both Colombo and Madhu, in the former Northern war zone, which can provide further impetus towards national reconciliation. Since there are significant numbers of Tamils who are Catholics and since the two bishops of Mannar and Jaffna in the North play an important role in furthering such reconciliation we think the Pope’s visit is best used to promote reconciliation between the government and the Tamil people. The Sinhalese Catholics of the South can make common cause with the Tamil Catholics in welcoming the Pope.

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18.09.14 Media Release

THE CONSTRUCTIVE ROLE OF CIVIL SOCIETY
Since 2009, Sri Lanka has been emerging from a long period of ethnic conflict, violence and war. However, in the post-war context new tensions and points of conflict have emerged. Religious tensions in the country which have been present for decades have now become highlighted. Ethnic and religious identities tend to go together for the vast majority of the population. In the past year there has been a rise in tensions between Buddhists, Muslims and Christians that is taking the place of the previous divide that separated Sinhalese and Tamils.

Unfortunately, political leaders have sought to mobilize electoral support on the basis of ethnic and religious nationalism, which generates counter mobilization and a vicious cycle. This has been noted by the newly appointed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein. In his inaugural speech to the UN Human Rights Council earlier this month he went beyond the focus on the issue of what happened during the war. He looked at the present also when he said, “I am alarmed at threats currently being leveled against the human rights community in Sri Lanka, as well as prospective victims and witnesses. I also deplore recent incitement and violence against the country’s Muslim and Christian minorities.”

In the present context, an important task for civil society organizations would be to strengthen the bonds between the communities at the local level. The community leaders at the local level belonging to all communities by and large have no serious problem with each other. But they need to be supported with societal and logistical assistance to bring the different communities together. Such getting together to sustain inter-ethnic and inter-religious harmony is an important national objective. This is a task that has been taken on by civil society organizations.

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31.08.14 Media Release

DUE PROCESS OF LAW MUST PROTECT THOSE WHO SEEK THE MISSING
International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances was marked on August 30. On this day, families of disappeared persons in Sri Lanka, and friends and activists, gathered in Vavuniya in the North, to once again publicly appeal to find the missing persons, at least know the truth of what happened to them, and hold those accountable to justice.

Previously in March this year, several Human Rights Defenders were arrested. Several of them were subsequently released following local and international protests. But one of them, Balendran Jeyakumari, continues to languish in prison. She has been a leading campaigner for the rights of those who have gone missing during the war, and of their families. Jeyakumari is a victim herself who lost three of her four children in the war. Two of them were killed in the course of the war. The third, a boy aged 15 at the time he went missing, is alleged by her to have been taken into government custody. Her remaining child, a girl aged 13, has been pictured in the media carrying the photograph of her missing brother, and asking for her brother’s return.

The arrest and detention of Balendran Jayakumari under controversial circumstances and without being brought to trial, raises the question whether those who speak out on behalf victims of the war are being targeted for arbitrary punitive action. Due process of justice requires that the suspects should be tried before courts without being held for long periods under detention. The Prevention of Terrorism Act, which is a widely criticized law, allows individuals to be detained for up to 18 months without charge. But it was for use during the war. Today, Jayakumari is detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for over five months by a court order and languishes in the Boosa detention centre which is at the other southern corner of the country.

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19.08.14 Media Release

The CONTINUING SURVEILLANCE OF CIVIL SOCIETY EVENTS
The issue of security forces personnel in uniform and intelligence officers in plain clothes performing surveillance of civil society activities in the North and East has been widely reported in the post-war period. There are reports that this surveillance includes social functions such as weddings, puberty ceremonies, memorial services in addition to seminars and workshops organized by civil society organizations in the North

On three occasions in the past month, the National Peace Council regrets to note that activities under its inter-religious reconciliation programme have been subjected to surveillance by the security forces. Two of these events have been outside the former war zones of the North and East, which suggests that the practice of surveillance is encompassing the entire country.

In Kandy, where we were conducting an inter-religious dialogue inside a private hall of a reputed civil society organization of long standing, we were informed that intelligence personnel had entered the hall in civvies and were recording the discussion. In Galle, where we held a programme that brought children and their parents together from all communities, we had invited the local police to attend, and also informed the Mayor. However, another police team came to investigate the programme. They left after the local police explained the programme to them. In Addalaichenai in the East, where we held a youth amity camp, we had once again informed the local police and local government authorities. But despite their presence, uniformed military personnel with weapons had come and questioned the organizers of the programme on three separate occasions over a two day period.

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23.07.14 - Media Release

CREDIBILITY REQUIRES BEING CONSISTENT INTERNALLY AND EXTERNALLY 

The government has decided to invite three eminent international legal experts on human rights and war crimes to advise its Commission of Inquiry into Missing Persons. The team of experts is headed by Sir Desmond de Silva, Queen’s Counsel, a prominent British lawyer and a former Chief War Crimes Prosecutor at the UN Tribunal for Sierra Leone, who is also of Sri Lankan origin. It will also include Professor Sir Geoffrey Nice, a British lawyer who headed the trial of Slobodan Milosevic at the international tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague; and Professor David Crane of the United State who was the Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone.


They will serve on an Advisory Council to the Commission of Inquiry to advise it on matters pertaining to the work of the Commission. In addition, the government has expanded the mandate of the Commission on Missing Persons to include the loss of civilian life during the war and violations of international humanitarian law or international human rights law. They will also inquire into whether there was adherence to or neglect of the principles of distinction, military necessity and proportionality under the laws of armed conflict and international humanitarian law, by the Sri Lankan armed forces and LTTE.

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11.07.14 Media Release

GOVERNMENT NEEDS TO WITHDRAW NGO CIRCULAR
The NGO Secretariat of the government which is placed under the Ministry of Defence has issued a circular to all NGOs directing them to act within their mandate. The circular states “It has been revealed that certain Non Governmental Organisations conduct press conferences, workshops, trainings for journalists and press releases which is beyond their mandate. We reiterate that Non Governmental Organisations should prevent from such unauthorized activities with immediate effect.”

The National Peace Council is very concerned about this directive. According to our knowledge there is no law under which an NGO can be prosecuted for going beyond its mandate. Any action beyond an organisation’s mandate merely renders such action ultra vires and not valid in law unless the Memorandum of Association is amended which is a domestic procedure of the NGO. So NGOs wonder whether this directive is to intimidate them, create uncertainty, and silence dissent and exposure of the truth. If an NGO violates the criminal law or other statutory law it can be prosecuted under the existing laws.

As an organization we work within our mandate. It is important for the government to clarify its position without ambiguity as these types of circulars would bring misunderstandings and tensions between civil society and the government. This one violates the right to freedom of expression and freedom of association that is guaranteed under the Constitution and contravenes the several international covenants that Sri Lanka has signed. If Sri Lanka is to be respected as a democracy, the government needs to recognize that majority rule, or having a majority in Parliament, does not foreclose other opinions that exist in the society at large.

Those who govern a country need to hear the opinions of the people and not have it filtered for them by those who are around them and have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. This requires a free flow of information, which is what NGOs provide as they work directly with the people at all levels of society and gather information which they analyse and disseminate. Therefore we ask the government to withdraw this circular and take action under the existing laws where an NGO violates them.

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16.06.14 Media Release

COMMUNAL VIOLENCE CANNOT BE PERMITTED
The mob attack on Muslim owned shops and homes in Aluthgama and Beruwela signifies a significant escalation in anti Muslim activities that have been taking place over the past two years. It is reported that at least 2 persons have died and more than 30 injured in clashes. Previous such incidents were on individual targets, including mosques and shops. In most of those previous incidents the responses by the police and security forces was slow or ineffective with the miscreants going free, which created a climate of impunity for the attackers.

The most recent incident follows allegations that three Muslim men assaulted a Buddhist monk after getting into an altercation with his driver. Another version is that it was the driver who got assaulted and not the monk although the complaint to the police states otherwise. Whatever be the truth of the matter, it is totally unacceptable that there should be an attack on shops and homes of others merely because they belong to the same ethnic or religious community of the persons with whom a private dispute has arisen. This incident follows a sustained hate campaign against the Muslim community in the Aluthgama area and elsewhere in the country which has not been countered by either legal or political means.

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15.06.14 Media Release

BREAKUP OF MEDIA WORKSHOP WAS VIOLATION OF MULTIPLE RIGHTS
There has been a worrisome pattern of forcible disruptions of civil society activities aimed at promoting accountability and good governance.  The most recent targeting of a media workshop on investigative reporting is a continuation of this trend.  This workshop held in a hotel in Negombo was disrupted by a mob who threatened the safety of the participants in violation of their rights to freedom of assembly and expression.   The three day training workshop was on ‘the Investigative reporting on the enforcement of the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and had been organized for the North- Eastern Tamil medium journalists by Transparency International’s Sri Lanka Branch.

The National Peace Council deplores the attitude of the Police who were not prepared to give protection to the participants at the workshop to enable them to continue with their programme.  The police had only been prepared to offer safe passage to the participants to leave the hotel after the workshop had been prematurely stopped. The right to free assembly and speech are protected in our Constitution and the Police are obliged to protect these rights of the people. This constitutes a violation of the Rule of Law and may draw the attention of the United Nations since protection for the Rule of Law is an obligation of the Government under the UN Charter. The Government is already accused of violating the Rule of Law during and after the war and an international inquiry is ready to begin.   

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13.06.14 Media Release

CREATE COUNTERPART MECHANISM

TO STRENGTHEN PROSPECT OF RECONCILIATION

The international community  has resolved to inquire into the violations of the Rule of Law  with regard to the last phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war and thereafter.   The UN Human Rights Council has passed three resolutions over the opposition of the Sri Lankan government focusing on the issue of accountability for human rights, which is an obligation that is binding on all States. This has been decried by the Sri Lankan government as motivated by ill will and prejudice and as inimical to national sovereignty.  Sri Lanka however is not the only country subject to investigation for their record of human rights.  Other countries that are currently under scrutiny are Turkey, Myanmar, Nigeria, Bahrain and South Sudan.

The third and most recent resolution that was passed in March 2014 called on the UN Human Rights Commissioner to establish an international investigatory mechanism.  She has now requested the Sri Lankan government for its cooperation in taking this investigation forward.  It is unlikely that Sri Lanka can successfully invoke ‘national sovereignty’ as a valid reason to reject the UN Resolution.  All States who are members of the UN are required to follow the Rule of Law and uphold human rights.   It is obligatory on the UN and its agencies to investigate allegations of violations of  human  rights and war crimes for otherwise the UN Charter will be a mere piece of paper to be left to individual States to follow or not.

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