UN rights chief criticises Sri Lanka official

Powerful defence secretary among other government figures accused by Navi Pillay of waging disinformation campaign.

sri lanka elex
Many Tamils are hoping the upcoming provincial elections will be a step towards autonomy [Reuters]

The UN’s top human rights official has accused some of the Sri Lankan government’s most senior officials of waging a disinformation campaign against her, just one day before the country’s provincial elections.

In a statement on Friday, Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, aimed direct criticism at Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the powerful defence secretary and brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and other government officials.

During her visit to Sri Lanka last month, at least three government ministers “joined in an extraordinary array of distortion and abuse” which is continuing now, Pillay’s spokesman Rupert Colville said in Geneva.

At the end of her visit, Pillay issued a statement saying democracy was being undermined and the rule of law eroded in Sri Lanka, with the country increasingly becoming an authoritarian state, despite the end of its civil war four years ago.

The government responded that she had violated her mandate by making political statements.

We consider it deeply regrettable that government officials and other commentators continue what appears to be a coordinated campaign of disinformation

by Rupert Colville, Navi Pillay's spokesman.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa said her visit was influenced by propaganda from remnants of the Tamil Tiger rebels who lost the war.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) claimed they were fighting to create an independent state for ethnic minority Tamils, citing alleged discrimination by the Sinhalese majority.

A UN report says that as many as 40,000 people may have been killed in the final phase of the civil war, and Pillay’s visit followed a resolution in the UN’s 47-nation Human Rights Council in March that urged Sri Lanka to investigate more alleged war crimes committed by government forces and Tamilrebels.

On September 12, Pillay’s office sent a formal complaint to the Sri Lankan government demanding that it immediately retract and publicly correct “misinformation which has, not surprisingly, aroused much disquiet in Sri Lanka,” Colville said.

Pillay complained that Gotabaya Rajapaksa made false claims that she had asked President Rajapaksa during their private meeting to remove a statue of Sri Lanka’s first prime minister from Colombo’s Independence Square.

“This claim is without a shred of truth,” Colville said.

The row comes as Sri Lanka prepares for provincial elections that many Tamils are hoping will be towards autonomy, something which years of war failed to achieve.

Sporadic violence

The elections will create the Tamils’ first functioning provincial government and is expected to give them a limited say in their own affairs.

“Let us have the right to look after ourselves,” said CV Wigneswaran, a former Supreme Court justice and chief candidate for Tamil National Alliance, the main Tamil party and once a political proxy for the Tigers.

He called the party’s political goals “no violence, one country”.

Campaigning has been marked by sporadic attacks and threats, mainly against Tamil Alliance supporters.

An election monitor said soldiers armed with clubs attacked supporters of Ananthi Sasitharan, a Tamil Alliance candidate, at the candidate’s home late Thursday, wounding eight people.

Sasitharan, the wife of a former LTTE leader, escaped unharmed, according to Keerthi Tennakoon of the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections.

Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya, a military spokesman, denied that soldiers took part in an attack.