International

UN says Sri Lanka turning authoritarian

The remarks from the UN human rights chief were met with scorn by the country's government

Sri Lankan activists hold lighted candles during a candlelight vigil in Colombo Friday held to mark the International Day of the Disappeared. The vigil came as the U.N. human rights chief was visiting the island to probe alleged war crimes.
Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images

The United Nations human rights commissioner has chastised Sri Lanka's government, saying it is showing signs of becoming more authoritarian despite the end of the country's long civil war more than four years ago.

U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay said that it was "utterly unacceptable" that rights activists who spoke with her during her weeklong fact-finding mission on alleged war crimes had subsequently faced harassment by the police and the military.

"I'm deeply concerned that Sri Lanka, despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant, all-embracing state, is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction," she said.

Sri Lanka's government reacted angrily Sunday, saying that Pillay had acted beyond the mandate of her position in issuing her criticism.

"The High Commissioner's observation...is a political statement on her part, which clearly transgresses her mandate and the basic norms which should be observed by a discerning international civil servant," the government's Information Department said in a statement.

"The judgment on the leadership of the country is better left for the people of Sri Lanka to decide than being caricatured by external entities influenced by vested interests."

The government also criticized a planned floral tribute at the location where the Tamil Tiger separatist leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed, as well as selective media access to Pillay's visit to former war zones and her comments on a newly created law and order ministry, and on religious minorities.

During her stay, Pillay met with government officials, rights activists and people affected by the war. She visited the former northern war zones in Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and the eastern district of Trincomalee.

Her visit followed a resolution by the U.N Human Rights Council in March that called on Sri Lanka to more thoroughly investigate alleged war crimes committed by government troops and separatist Tamil Tiger rebels in the civil war that ended in 2009 and lasted 26 years.

A U.N. panel said it has "credible allegations" that both sides committed atrocities and war crimes, and singled out the government for most of the blame.

The panel indicated Sri Lanka's Sinhalese-dominated armed forces may have killed up to 40,000 minority Tamils in the final months of the war, which ended with the rebels' defeat. The rebels were also accused of killing civilians, using them as human shields and recruiting child soldiers.

"It is important everyone realize that although the fighting is over, the suffering is not," Pillay told a news conference at the end of a controversial fact-finding mission to assess Sri Lanka's progress.

She also urged the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse to de-militarize the former war zones in the country's east and north.

Describing her visit to the former war zone in northern Sri Lanka, Pillay said she was concerned about the military's increasing involvement in civilian affairs and urged the government to speed up demilitarization. She also said there were increasing reports of sexual harassment of women and girls.

"I was concerned to hear about the degree to which the military appears to be putting down roots and becoming involved in what should be civilian activities, for instance education, agriculture and even tourism," Pillay said, adding that she also heard of private land acquisition to build military camps and even a holiday resort.

Pillay is to report her findings to the rights council next month, as called for by the resolution.

Hostility

Pillay began her visit last weekend after Colombo appeared to drop its public hostility towards her and the U.N. rights body, which has adopted two resolutions against the island in as many years.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa told Pillay Friday that his people believed the U.N. was a biased organization, and the report she was due to release next month had already prejudged the country.

Pillay also responded to hostile remarks from government ministers and media, who throughout her visit questioned her impartiality because of her own Tamil background.

"They have claimed that I was in their pay, the 'Tamil Tigress in the U.N.' This is not only widely incorrect, it is deeply offensive," she said, adding that Rajapaksa apologized for such remarks from his ministers.

The pro-government activists have accused the international community of drumming up false allegations of war crimes during the final months of a separatist conflict.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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