Sri Lanka – A Place of Endemic Torture?
by Pax Christi member Anne Dobbing
I attended Pax Christi Scotland’s online event to mark the start of the United Nations 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence from 25th November to the 10th December.
I joined Pax Christi Scotland during the pandemic, and I have been impressed with the energetic engagement with global campaigns as well as with Scottish areas of concern, working to further the causes of peace and to eliminate warfare and the exploitation of people by violent means of any kind.
This Zoom event was particularly poignant in light of Scotland’s Police involvement in training police officers in a country far across the world.
It focused on Sri Lanka, and specifically on 25th November, the International Day Against Gender Based Violence, on the continuing violation of human rights in Sri Lanka under the regime of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. We noted the success of the campaign by Pax Christi Scotland in collaboration with Human Rights Watch, the Sri Lankan Campaign for Peace and Justice, and Freedom from Torture to end Police Scotland’s participation in training Sri Lankan police officers - but the harrowing testimonies that followed were a very grim reminder of the violence and fear of torture that faces people in Sri Lanka on a daily basis, including girls, women, journalists, teachers, farmers and ethnic minorities.
Frances Harrison, former BBC journalist in Sri Lanka who has worked in a variety of key roles for the UN and Amnesty International and is now a director of the International Truth and Justice Project, gave a harrowing account of a girl whom she called Rajini, who was abducted from her home while her mother was beaten up, and kept in prison for 10 days. During this time she was whipped, stripped, beaten with cables, raped, dragged by her hair and suffered 59 cigarette burns on her breasts and at the top of her legs. She was too traumatised even to testify after being released and remains so traumatised that she has been suicidal, and still suffers from nightmares and avoids contact with men.
Frances went on to speak of her experience of working with other Sri Lankan victims of torture, using art, poetry and music to enable them to regain their true identity after the terrible experiences they have endured.
Fr Nandana Manatunga, director of the Human Rights Office in Kandy, Sri Lanka, spoke of the present situation that he faces on a daily basis – of the brutality by police and military personnel and of the disappearance of people, especially journalists. He told us of protests by teachers, farmers and medical workers and said torture is the most usual investigation method when people are arrested. The human rights situation in Sri Lanka has worsened, he said, since the start of the COVID pandemic, because police powers have been extended. Victims are monitored and questioned again and again and harassed, together with their families, who may also be threatened and arrested. Fr Nandana showed devastating pictures, explaining that victims are often left blinded, deaf, and unable to walk. He spoke especially about the shocking statistics of the prevalence of domestic violence against girls and women.
I reflected that Fr Nandana was a very brave man to speak out so uncompromisingly, and wondered if he would be at risk of arrest himself as a result. What is the cost of advocacy for victims of torture, I wonder, in a country where torture is used so routinely? How much protection can an ordained priest expect from his title and position?
Tamil-Canadian human rights lawyer Dharsha Jegatheeswaran, Co-Director of the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research in Jaffna told us that the north and east of Sri Lanka is one of the most heavily militarised areas in the world, with a ratio of one soldier to every two civilians. The situation has become more acute since the start of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency. Tamil women’s land has been stolen; there are false arrests and families harassed. She said that when the UK government provides support to Sri Lanka it promotes and justifies a very bad Sri Lankan government.
I later visited the website of the Sri Lankan Campaign for Peace and Justice and saw with horror the images of Boris Johnson greeting President Rajapaksa with jokes and elbow bumps at the COP26 conference, and an account of President Rajapaksa’s meeting with the Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Patricia Scotland, who spoke about Sri Lanka’s ‘skilful’ leadership of the Mangrove Action Group - this despite the Sri Lankan government’s very poor record on illegal deforestation and mining.
Melissa Dring, Campaign Director of the Sri Lankan Campaign for Peace and Justice, was encouraged – as all of us attending the event were - by the cessation of Police Scotland’s training of Sri Lankan Police. This has happened because of a persistent and effective campaign by activists. But Melissa said there is still a defence advisor from the UK military working in Sri Lanka, and that we should continue to be vigilant to ensure that other UK police forces do not engage with a new training contract for police in Sri Lanka. She also highlighted the role the Australian government has played in providing equipment to Sri Lankan forces, which as we’d heard, are allegedly perpetrators of torture.
What I watched and heard made a deep impression on me. I spent the evening afterwards reading further about Sri Lanka, and realised that I needed to share this with as many people as possible as a priority. I’ve already written to my MSP and MP.
Some people may ask,
“Why should we concern ourselves with a regime so far away?”
I would answer that we all share one fragile planet. When we read about desperate refugees fleeing war and abuse and dying in small boats as a result of their journeys, we need to recognise why they come and must formulate just policies that offer them a route of safe passage to protection from harm and a chance to recover from the trauma they have experienced. To quote the poet John Donne: “No man [or woman] is an island, entire of itself… ”
I firmly repudiate the deception that refugees are ‘economic migrants’, who choose to relocate to another, richer country. No one in their right mind would risk starvation, poverty, danger and even death for themselves, let alone for their families and children unless the situation in their country of origin was utterly desperate.