Carry on goal to protect minorities’ freedom, punish perpetrators – US commission to Sri Lanka gov’t.

Sri Lanka's new President Maithripala Sirisena screenshot Sri Lanka Mirror Facebook

Sri Lanka’s new President Maithripala Sirisena screenshot Sri Lanka Mirror Facebook

A US delegation, which visited Sri Lanka to assess the climate for religious freedom, other human rights, and tolerance, have noted progress on the issues in Sri Lanka since the country’s 2015 election. It cited the importance of punishing perpetrators of attacks and stopping harassment of religious groups trying to build houses of worship.

Commissioner Eric P. Schwartz of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said he met with Minister of Foreign Affairs Mangala Samaraweera, Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapaksa, Minister of Buddha Sasana Karu Jayasuriya, and Minister of Muslim Religious Affairs Abdel Halim Mohamed Hasheem, as well as representatives from Sri Lanka’s diverse religious communities during the March 15-17 visit.

“We are encouraged by statements made by officials with whom we met,” Schwartz said in a statement posted on the commission’s website.

He cited  among “welcome” developments comments he heard supporting national reconciliation among all Sri Lanka’s religious and ethnic communities. 

“After a devastating war and reports that religious minority communities were increasingly subjected to attacks in recent years, the new government’s engagement with religious minorities is an important step forward in the effort to promote national unity and increased space for all religious groups,” the commissioner pointed out.

He also cited government’s measures in the areas of freedom of expression and association noting these “tend to create a climate conducive to religious freedom.”

Buddhism is the official religion in the country where Buddhists reportedly comprise more than 69 percent of the 21.87 million people. Most of the rest are Muslims (7.6 percent) or Hindu (7.1 percent). Christians make up about 6.2 percent of the population.

Expressing pleasure in hearing that reports of abuses against minority religious communities have diminished over the last few months, Schwartz encouraged the government to hold perpetrators of such crimes accountable. “We believe accountability will encourage a critical sense of security and well-being among affected communities,” he stressed.

He also said representatives of civil society at meetings reported “continued concerns about the ability of religious communities to practice their chosen faiths without restriction,” citing experiences of intimidation or harassment when trying to build houses of worship. 

“We hope and trust Sri Lankan officials will address these issues in the weeks and months to come,” Schwartz said.

The U.S. Congress created USCIRF in the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) as an independent, bipartisan, federal government entity to monitor the status of freedom of religion or belief abroad and provide policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress.

Maithripala Sirisena won as president in the Jan. 8 polls set by incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the latter’s bid to seek a third term. Sirisena has pledged to abolish the executive presidency within 100 days of being elected, and repeal the controversial eighteenth amendment and restore the 17th amendment that limits the president’s rule to two terms and sets other restraints on the presidency.

 

Bishop in northern Sri Lanka, Tamil alliance protest postponement of war report

Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar on Tuesday (Feb 24) joined a demonstration led by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) against the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) decision to delay the release of a report on issues of accountability during the Tamil separatist war and the post-conflict period.

However, Bishop Thomas Savundranayagam of Jaffna where the protests were held refrained from joining the protest due to the participation of politicians in the event, Sri Lankan online newspaper, The Island, reported on Thursday. 

TNA (Tamil: தமிழ்த் தேசியக் கூட்டமைப்பு) is a political alliance in Sri Lanka composed of moderate Tamil parties as well as number of former rebel groups that has participated in elections since 2001.

Bishop Joseph meanwhile reportedly called the deferment of the report’s release as UNHRC’s deception of the Tamil people who have no faith in a domestic investigation of war crimes under any government. 

Read The Island’s full report

On the day of the protest, the Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF) and the Welfare Organisation for the Forcibly Disappeared Persons also jointly decided in Jaffna not to appear and give evidence before the Presidential Commission to Investigate Complaints Regarding Missing Persons (PCICMP).

In their statement released Feb. 27 the forum convened by Bishop Joseph listed reasons why it is convinced that a credible inquiry is possible only through international means.

It noted that while the government has promised to create a credible domestic mechanism for probing alleged atrocities it “seems to continue with the approach adopted by the previous regime towards truth, justice and accountability of which your commission’s continuance is a prominent example.”

“We cannot afford to continue to appear before this commission giving it a stamp of legitimacy,” Task Force leaders wrote.

The UNHCR investigated allegations of war crimes following a resolution adopted last March, and planned to present its report during next month’s session. However the UN body announced it would issue its report in September instead after newly installed Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena assured that government would conduct an impartial and transparent domestic probe into allegations of atrocities. 

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister had reportedly asked the UN body to give the administration installed in January more time to establish a new judicial mechanism to deal with the fallout of the investigation.

Alleged war crimes include attacks on civilians and civilian buildings, and executions of combatants and prisoners by both the Sri Lankan military and Tamil Tigers  – the guerrilla organization established in 1976 that sought to establish an independent Tamil state of Eelam in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. 

Sri Lankan military and paramilitary groups backed by them were also accused in enforced disappearances and acute shortages of food, medicine, and clean water for civilians trapped in the war zone. Tamil Tigers were allegedly recruiting children as fighters.

The group gained control of Jaffna Peninsula by 1985, two years after escalation of violence between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lanka military. It lost control of Jaffna in October 1987 to an Indian peacekeeping force that had been sent to Sri Lanka to assist in the implementation of a complete ceasefire.

However, following the withdrawal of the IPKF in March 1990, the Tigers grew in strength and conducted several successful guerrilla operations and attacks around the country and in India.

Earlier in 1981, Pope John Paul II created Mannar diocese from territories formerly under the pastoral care of the Jaffna diocese.

 

Pope Francis, visit war-torn areas and survivors – Tamil Civil Society Groups

Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF) has called upon Pope Francis to visit war-torn areas in the North and East and visit the survivors of the “war  against Tamils”, as part of his visit to Sri Lanka in 2015.

TCSF – a network of Tamil civil society social activists from the North and East including Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar, aired their appeal in a letter to the Pope on Sunday. It requested him to openly call upon the Government of Sri Lanka to genuinely address grievances of Tamils during his meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The text of the letter is published on Eye Sri Lanka

Address grievances of all factions – human rights, justice and peace advocate

In her presentation to last month’s International Conference on Politics and International Affairs in Athens, Salma Yusuf, pointed out that while the defeat of the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) in May 2009 ended the three decades-long conflict, its root causes remain.

Yusuf, university lecturer and adviser to programs on human rights law, transitional justice, comparative social justice and peace-guilding, stressed that grievances of all factions in the conflict have to be addressed. 

“When advocating reconciliation and unity, the fears and anxieties of all communities must be acknowledged, understood and addressed,” Yusuf said.

She warned, “An over-emphasis on the grievances of the Tamil community alone which is the natural tendency can lead to new waves of conflict and at must be avoided at all costs.” 

Read full text of her presentation  titled Sri Lanka: Reconciliation is Both a Process and a Goal 

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