UN urges Sri Lanka to probe secret prisons

Geneva, September 30

The top UN human rights official called on Sri Lanka today to investigate reports of secret places of detention and to set up a “credible and independent” body to clarify the fate of people missing since the civil war that ended in 2009.

Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, voiced concern at continuing “surveillance and interference” in the mainly Tamil areas in the north and east, “including harassment and intimidation by military and intelligence services”.

“This demonstrates the pervasiveness of the structures and institutional cultures that created the repressive environment of the past and highlights the importance of much more fundamental security-sector reforms,” Zeid said.

He was addressing the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva by videolink from New York a day before the 47-member state forum is expected to adopt a resolution that seeks justice for victims of the 26-year war.

The draft resolution, co-sponsored by Sri Lanka, fails to specify the powers and role of foreign prosecutors and

judges in trying war crimes suspects under a national mechanism — a major shortcoming, in the eyes of human rights groups.

Reformist President Maithripala Sirisena, elected in January, has pledged to pursue perpetrators. A judicial process with teeth would hold out a realistic prospect of punishment for senior figures in ex-president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government and military, as well as Tamil Tiger rebels, who waged a bitter final battle in 2009 in which the United Nations has said up to 40,000 people were killed.

In a speech, Sri Lanka’s ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha said today said the government would take steps to “safeguard and uphold the human rights of all our citizens”.

The resolution is not binding but seen as a commitment by the government.