U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. (Reuters)
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. (Reuters)

U.N. vows transparency on Sri Lanka abuses

The three-person panel of experts on Sri Lanka appointed in 2010 to look into possible war crimes during the decades-long conflict with Tamil secessionists submitted its findings to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday. That report should include the attacks on the news media that have become a reality for journalists working there.

In a Ministry of External Affairs statement, the government immediately rejected the report as “fundamentally flawed” and “based on patently biased material.”

In New York, Ban’s office promised to publish the report after he shared it with the Sri Lankan government. Amnesty International said, as the report was released, that “the panel’s work on accountability issues in Sri Lanka should mark the beginning, not the end, of a process of accounting for violations”–a call that seems appropriate given the Sri Lankan government’s resistance to taking a deep look into the abuses that occurred over so many years.

The government-appointed, eight-member Commission on Lessons Learned and Reconciliation (CLLR) that was launched in June 2010 was dismissed by the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. She called for an  approach that would ensure independent international accountability. Human Rights Watch said Tuesday that “almost two years later, however, the government has taken no steps to hold anyone on either side of the conflict accountable for serious violations of international law, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

Centering on the concerns of journalists and the broader issues of media freedom, CPJ has stayed out of the larger battle around what happened in the final years of Sri Lanka’s national trauma. Our focus has been on dealing with the total impunity with which journalists on both sides of the conflict have been killed, abducted, beaten, and harassed. Over the years, we have often called on the U.N. and Colombo’s diplomatic corps to press the government on the abuse being heaped on the country’s journalists.

Many diplomats with whom we have worked over the years have done just that, sometimes publicly, sometimes quietly, to press for protection of journalists. We expect that to continue to happen as the targeting of journalists continues. Because pressure on the government has had little effect in addressing the problems raining down on journalists, organizations like CPJ have looked increasingly to the international community to raise the issues.

It now falls to the United Nations to speak out openly and forcefully, based on the findings of the commission it appointed almost two years ago. The Sri Lankan government has already complained about outside interference in its internal affairs, but with no prosecutions in the attacks on journalists and media houses (see CPJ’s Impunity Index) and the context of the violence that had engulfed the country for so many years, there is justification for a closer international involvement.