Sri Lanka has taken the controversial step of arresting two of its most prominent political activists ahead of an expected censure of its human rights record by the United Nations next week. The detention of Ruki Fernando and Praveen Mahesan, both of whom have been involved in the fight for accountability over the country’s civil war legacy, is raising concerns that the government is cracking down on domestic opposition in anticipation of certain international condemnation.
Fernando and Mahesan were both detained under Sri Lanka’s anti-terrorism legislation and are accused of inciting racial or religious hatred or violence between ethnic groups — charges that are unequivocally dismissed by fellow human rights activists who point to the pair’s role in reconciliation efforts and fighting extremism. Their efforts around the recent case of a Tamil activist detained last week after campaigning against political disappearances is a good reminder of the trend here as well as the high political charge that remains around the legacy of Sri Lanka’s civil war — the very issue that has the country in hot water at the United Nations.
The forthcoming vote by the Human Rights Council in Geneva would pass a resolution initiating an independent inquiry into allegations of war crimes from the latter part of the decades-long civil war, which finally came to an end after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in 2009. The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, which has been vocally hostile towards the U.N., has done a lot to lay the groundwork for dismissing any criticism by the international organization. However, the expected censure next week would be the third time Colombo has faced condemnation by the body and will likely be the first time that an independent investigation is established.
VISUAL CONTEXT: Rajapaksa family in government
The heightened international scrutiny does not appear to have dissuaded Colombo from its own stance on wartime abuse inquiries and, if anything, the Rajapaksa government appears to have doubled down on its controversial crackdown on democratic freedoms. This recent case should lend credence to Colombo foe U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay’s accusation that Rajapaksa is “heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.” The high-profile crackdown on activists, however, show that Rajapaksa is clearly not overly concerned about giving off the appearance of authoritarianism. If anything, the government’s actions in recent days indicate that Colombo will only dig in its heels in the face of international condemnation.