Government envoys from Sri Lanka told the UN’s top human rights body Wednesday that their country is taking new steps to battle torture, a move that an advocacy group attributed to an Associated Press report documenting allegations from men who said they were brutalized, raped and branded.
The Human Rights Council held a long-planned review of Sri Lanka’s record a week after the AP investigation relayed the accounts of more than 50 men who said they were tortured under the current government, some as recently as July.
The government envoys took some at the council meeting in Geneva by surprise by announcing that Sri Lanka’s Cabinet had a day earlier agreed to accede to the Optional Protocol on the Convention Against Torture. The 15-year-old accord allows for greater international scrutiny of countries’ detention facilities.
Harsha de Silva, a deputy minister for national policies and economic affairs, acknowledged that the government’s commitment to human rights has been questioned.
“No nation is perfect,” de Silva told the rights council. “It’s natural to feel a sense of frustration.”
Speaking later to the AP, he said Sri Lanka has “zero tolerance” for torture.
“It is an abhorrent practice, and we are completely and absolutely against that,” de Silva said. “That is why the Cabinet, you know, gave its decision to accede to … the optional protocol.”
Critics scoffed that the treaty pledge was another empty promise on human rights from a country still recovering from a devastating 26-year civil war that ended in 2009. Men interviewed for the AP’s investigation, all members of Sri Lanka’s Tamil ethnic minority, said they were accused of trying to revive a rebel group on the losing side of the civil war.
Government critics also insisted that Sri Lankan officials were attempting to head off criticism at the Human Rights Council in the wake of the AP report.
Manivannan Pathmanabhan, a human rights minister with a non-governmental group called the Transitional Government of Tamil Eelam, said the envoys’ announcement was a desperate attempt to “hoodwink” the council.
He said the AP report was the reason the government “decided to go and sign this protocol immediately.”
Most of the men in the AP’s investigation said their captors identified themselves as members of the Criminal Investigations Department, a police unit that investigates serious crimes. Some said their interrogators appeared to be soldiers.
The optional protocol, if properly applied, can increase international scrutiny on a country that adheres to it, such as through visits to jails and prisons.
Sri Lankan Foreign Affairs Ministry secretary Prasad Kariyawasam called on the accusers in the AP report to come forward to Sri Lankan authorities.
“Well people are surprised, because in Sri Lanka government does not condone torture at all, and we are surprised at their accusation of this nature, and we would like to investigate and come to conclusions,” Kariyawasam said of the accounts in the AP’s report.
Kariyawasam said Sri Lankan authorities had not yet investigated the claims because they haven’t received any evidence or accounts directly.
But speaking Tuesday in Vancouver, Sri Lankan Defense Secretary Kapila Waidyaratne denied the claims of torture by the suspected rebels, calling them “baseless and unfounded.”
The men, who are seeking political asylum in Europe, said their captors accused them of working to revive the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which battled Sri Lankan government forces for decades until their defeat in 2009.
The Sri Lankan government has said repeatedly, however, that the rebel group was no longer a threat.
Dr. Paul Newman, a professor of human rights at the University of Bangalore, said government officials agreed to accede to the optional protocol to “tick the boxes” of the rights council.
“They were to be answerable to the international community, which has seen, not just read … this report made by the AP,” Newman said, adding that he does not believe the government would keep its promise to prevent the use of torture.
“But then it certainly gives some solace, at least to the victims and their families, that yes, the international media is watching,” he said.
Sri Lanka has faced years of criticism for dismissing calls by the United Nations and foreign governments for an independent inquiry into alleged war crimes and other abuses committed by both sides during the civil war.
The Tamil Tiger rebels, as they were known, were designated a terrorist organization after a wave of suicide bombings, and were also accused of using child soldiers and killing Tamil political rivals.
Last month, the United Nations special rapporteur for transitional justice said Sri Lanka was nowhere close to where it should be in dealing with allegations of war crimes and other rights violations from the war.
John Fisher, Geneva director for Human Rights Watch, said Wednesday’s review of Sri Lanka’s record “highlights the increasing gap between the government’s commitments on rights and its lack of action.”