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Statement by Ms. Magdalena Sepulveda, on behalf of all Special Procedures mandate holders, at the 11th special session of the Human Rights Council on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka

26 May 2009

Mr. President,
Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Coordination Committee of Special Procedures has asked me to deliver the following statement on behalf of the Special Procedures mandate-holders of the United Nations Human Rights Council.

We welcome this opportunity to address important immediate and longer term issues in relation to the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. We hope these discussions will lead to a constructive and effective dialogue to ensure that all rights are enjoyed by all persons in Sri Lanka.

We reiterate our deep concern at the continuing humanitarian crisis and at the serious human rights situation in Sri Lanka. We are also concerned about the lack of transparency and accountability that accompanies this crisis. A huge number of civilians have been displaced and many have been killed. The devastating situation of civilians in Sri Lanka trapped in the midst of fighting between the Sri Lankan army and the LTTE resulted in over some 300,000 displaced persons interned in Government-run camps. Their situation must be immediately addressed.

As we have stated on previous occasions with regard to other situations, the obligation under international law to distinguish between combatants and civilians, to direct attacks only against combatants and military targets, and to ensure protection of civilians must be respected by all parties to the conflict. In this regard, it is clear that the LTTE has acted in flagrant violation of the applicable norms of international law by using civilians as human shields or in preventing them from leaving the conflict areas. As to the Government of Sri Lanka, citing security concerns, after three months it continues to detain in temporary camps the more than 300,000 men, women and children who escaped the fighting. This gives rise to concerns of arbitrary detention. Many have endured months of terrible conditions in the conflict zone before their present internment. With combat operations in the conflict zone coming to an end, it is necessary to speed up the screening process in the camps. Releases must take place without further delay and should prioritize the most vulnerable. The reintegration of these persons into society with due attention to their mental and physical integrity is critical. We welcome reports that, as of 18 May 2009, 1,535 of the most vulnerable people had been released from the camps. However, many children and sick persons remain detained and their survival is at stake. We deplore that in the camps some have already died from starvation or malnutrition.

Today, a critical humanitarian situation exists with regard to essential needs such as food, water and sanitation, shelter, education and healthcare. Access to food has been hampered by arduous and lengthy registration procedures. We stress the importance of full and unfettered access to all areas of the country, including the points of initial reception for persons leaving the conflict zone and internment camps, to enable the international community to assess the actual situation and be in a better position to provide essential assistance. We regret that United Nations personnel were until very recently denied access to the conflict zone and initial screening points for persons exiting the conflict zone, including Kilinochchi. This makes it very difficult to determine the veracity of the allegations of serious human rights violations, including enforced disappearances and arbitrary executions and detentions. Indeed, we are very concerned about recent reports we have received that some of those who risked their lives to help the sick and wounded in the conflict zone are now being detained incommunicado.

As mandate holders appointed by the Human Rights Council we stand ready to assist the country in helping to ensure that the rights of every person in Sri Lanka, irrespective of origin, are realized. While some mandate holders have had the benefit of seeing first hand the situation in the country, many of us have not had this opportunity. In this regard, we call upon the authorities to swiftly extend invitations to those special procedures mandate-holders who wish to conduct country visits to Sri Lanka.

In addition to our concern at the severe abuses in areas of conflict, we want to emphasize the wider and endemic problems and failures to protect human rights throughout the country. Weak institutional structures permit impunity to go unabated. We continue to receive disturbing reports of torture, extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances. Those defending human rights, journalists, doctors and lawyers, do not have the space they need to do their important work without fear of reprisals. Regrettably, human rights defenders continue to be arrested and detained without charges; threats and attacks against them occur all too frequently. The denigration and stigmatization of human rights defenders is a cause of serious concern, as attempts to portray them as traitors or enemies of the state put their lives in peril. Room needs to be provided for constructive dialogue which also includes the possibility to express dissent in a democratic society.

The wounds of war run deep and will require careful attention to heal. We strongly urge the Government of Sri Lanka to immediately take measures in support of the victims of human rights abuses and their families. In support of the views expressed by the United Nations Secretary-General during his recent visit to Sri Lanka, we believe that reconciliation and peace-building is paramount for the society of Sri Lanka. Thorough governance reforms are needed to prevent further human rights violations. This reconciliation process must be established and implemented on the basis of the rule of law and the principles of non-discrimination and equality. Respect for and protection of minority rights must be an essential component of a peace-building process. This process must ensure the Tamil community and all other minority communities in Sri Lanka their rightful place in society, their participation in Government and institutions of the State, and a meaningful role in determining their future as equal citizens of Sri Lanka. A climate of constructive dialogue, confidence-building and mutual understanding must prevail.

A true reconciliation process requires an assessment of what has happened and must ensure accountability and an end to impunity. In this regard we recommend the establishment of an effective mechanism to impartially inquire into all violations committed to ensure that Sri Lanka’s society can build a peaceful and prosperous future based on the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Thank you for your attention.