‘We’ve never seen anything like this here before!’ The security officer at the Palace of the Nations in Geneva is visibly upset. Together with uniformed colleagues, he has entered a meeting room where an international NGO network is holding a side event, a small conference on the fringe of a session of the UN Human Rights Council. The subject of the discussion is the situation in Sri Lanka, and the situation in the meeting room gives some impression of what is happening on the island itself. The hundred or so attendees include 17 members of the Sri Lankan government delegation, who are noisily trying to disrupt the conference. They timed this to coincide with the presentation by Sandya Ekneligoda, whose husband Prageeth was abducted in January 2010 by unknown individuals. This ‘disappearance’ is a political crime that has already claimed thousands of victims in Sri Lanka – 29 in February and March 2012 alone. Sandya was using the fate of her husband, a left-wing journalist and well-known cartoonist, to speak out for the nameless wives and mothers whose husbands, sons or daughters have also ‘disappeared’, and probably been murdered. The government delegation interrupted her with shouts of ‘You’re defaming your fatherland just because your husband left you to live the good life abroad with a younger woman!’
The fact that UN uniformed security officers were needed to uphold Sandya Ekneligoda’s right to speak and allow the conference to continue was also connected with Resolution 19/2. Adopted by a clear majority of the UN Human Rights Council two days later, it commits the government in Colombo to investigate the war crimes and crimes against humanity in the last two years of the civil war that ended in 2009. Sri Lanka Advocacy, a network of human rights organisations which is internationally coordinated by medico, has been working for a long time to get a similar resolution. medico has been active in Sri Lanka since the tsunami in 2004. The refugee camps for the victims of flooding which medico’s first Sri Lankan partners established immediately after the tsunami were just a stone’s throw away from a completely devastated camp for people displaced by war. Our partners asked us at the time if they could consolidate the survivors of the flooding and the war in a single camp. medico immediately agreed, although formally this was not permitted. Together, we went to the media and pointed to the scandalous situation where we were able to help ‘our’ war refugees, but that thousands of others were left in camps which were being totally ignored by the international tsunami aid.
Sri Lanka at the time was in a state of fragile ceasefire. Two years later the war between the rebels in the Tamil minority and the army of the Sinhalese majority erupted again. Another two years, and the war was ended with the eradication of the rebels. According to UN figures, 40,000 people were killed in the closing phase in 2008-2009 alone, most of them civilians. Resolution 19/2 addresses their still nameless fate, and medico and its partners are now pushing for its implementation.
The fact that these partners are also nameless is due to the local situation. The end of the war has not meant an end to the conflict. On the contrary – the violent and arbitrary rule of government and army is no longer limited to the people in the Tamil settlements in the north and east, but extends to all who attempt to oppose it. One such, together with many others, is the Sinhalese journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, whose ‘disappearance’ and courageous wife Sandya opened our story. They also include medico’s partners, of both Tamil and Sinhalese origin. Colombo’s arm reaches even to Germany and the rest of Europe, forcing NGOs to be cautious for fear that an unguarded word might endanger the lives of their partners in Sri Lanka. This is why they formed the network Sri Lanka Advocacy as the name under which joint lobbying and PR work can take place in political circles in Berlin, at the EU in Brussels, and on the website www.lanka-advocacy.org, which is read in Germany, Europe and Sri Lanka itself. It is now a leading medium for human rights and democracy in Sri Lanka.
Resolution 19/2 is the second success which the network was involved in. The first victory of Sri Lanka Advocacy was in 2011, when the departure under a cloud of the Sri Lankan deputy ambassador to Germany did not go as quietly as Colombo and Berlin had planned. Deputy ambassador Dias had been accredited even though it was known that the major general in the Sinhalese Army had been accused of the most serious war crimes. Sri Lanka Advocacy protested, notified German MPs, spoke to ministers with human rights advocates from Sri Lanka, and went to the media. The European Center for Constitutional und Human Rights (ECCHR), which is associated with the network, submitted comprehensive documentation of the accusations. When the major general was due to leave the country discreetly, the network alerted the media, on the principle that publicity is essential to prevent war criminals from becoming diplomats. The network also achieved this in November 2011, with the award of the Bremer Friedenspreis to Shreen Saroor, a muslim activist from Sri Lanka who, like Sandya Ekneligoda, accepted the mortal risk involved in speaking up for herself on behalf of all those unable to speak out. medico was invited to deliver the laudatory address.
In 2011 the member organisations spent EUR 47,373.97 on Sri Lanka Advocacy’s lobbying and public relations work.