COLOMBO – U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay on Saturday accused Sri Lanka of becoming “increasingly authoritarian,” with activists facing growing military harassment four years after the end of a civil war.
Pillay charged that military officials are harassing and intimidating priests, journalists and other civilians as punishment for meeting her during a fact-finding trip to the island to probe allegations of war crimes.
“I am deeply concerned that Sri Lanka . . . is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction,” the U.N. high commissioner for human rights told reporters at the end of a weeklong mission.
“You don’t invite a person like me (to the country) and then do this type of thing. This type of surveillance and harassment appears to be getting worse in Sri Lanka, which is a country where critical voices are quite often attacked or even permanently silenced,” she said.
Outside the U.N. compound in Colombo, dozens of Buddhist monks and their majority Sinhalese followers demonstrated, accusing Pillay of siding with minority Tamils as she addressed reporters who went through airport-style security to enter the tightly guarded building.
There was no immediate reaction from the Sri Lankan government to Pillay’s comments.
But London-based Amnesty International said her remarks echo their own observations that the rights situation in Sri Lanka has deteriorated since the war ended in 2009.
“The Sri Lankan government still shows no real will to account for past crimes, combined with new attacks on those calling for accountability,” Polly Truscott, Amnesty’s deputy Asia Pacific director, said.
Amnesty said there is “every need for the U.N. to set up an independent international investigation into crimes under international law in Sri Lanka.”
Pillay’s mission took her to the former war zones of the country’s north and east to meet relatives of those who disappeared during the decades-long conflict.
Sri Lanka has resisted demands from the U.N. and Western nations for a “credible” investigation into allegations that up to 40,000 civilians were killed in the final months of the separatist war.
Colombo had dropped its public hostility toward Pillay and approved her visit after previously accusing her of overstepping her mandate.
The U-turn came as Canada led calls for a boycott of a Commonwealth summit due to take place in Colombo in mid-November.
But relations appear to have deteriorated during the trip, with President Mahinda Rajapaksa accusing the U.N. of bias and Pillay of prejudging Sri Lanka during talks between the two on Friday.