International jurists question Sri Lanka’s moves on NGOs

[TamilNet, Thursday, 07 September 2006, 12:42 GMT]
The Commission of Jurists (ICJ) this week raised questions about the sweeping mandate of the Sri Lankan government’s Select Committee to investigate non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to root out activities "inimical to the sovereignty and integrity of Sri Lanka" and "detrimental to the national and social well being of the country", and that adversely affect "national security." The ICJ expression of concern about Sri Lanka’s handling of NGOs comes days after Colombo moved to block the funds of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) under the mandate of investigating terrorism financing – but without charging the TRO or setting out the allegations.

In a letter to President Mahinda Rajapakse, the ICJ noted that these were the objectives set out by Parliament’s terms of reference to the ‘Select Committee of Parliament for the Investigation of the Operations of Nongovernmental Organisations and their Impact’ which was set up in January 2006.

“[But] currently, [this] terminology is vague and, given the current security context in Sri Lanka, could be misused for purposes other than those intended by the Parliament,” the ICJ said.

“Terms such as ‘national and social well being of the country’, ‘national security’ and ‘sovereignty and national defence’ require further clarification in this context to avoid misinterpretation,” the ICJ said.

The ICJ’s letter to President Rajapakse began by pointing out it is a worldwide network of judges and lawyers committed to “affirming international law and rule of law principles that uphold and advance human rights,” adding it is present in 70 countries across all regions of the world, including Asia.

The ICJ said it “acknowledges that NGOs, like other organisations and individuals [in Sri Lanka], should be subject to generally applicable and properly legislated national laws and regulations in such areas as financial and tax matters and criminal law.”

“[But] such laws and regulations should not infringe on the rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression.”

These rights are contained in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Sri Lanka is party, the ICJ pointed out.

“A vibrant civil society is an essential element of any democracy and the work of NGOs should be encouraged and supported,” the ICJ said.

“Any investigation into the operations of NGOs in Sri Lanka should aim to support the legitimate activities of NGOs.”

Moreover, “the legality of an organisation's purposes and its conformity with the law should be reviewed only when a complaint has been lodged against the organisation,” the ICJ said, quoting the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on human rights defenders.

"Only an independent judicial body should be given authority to review an organisation's purpose and determine whether they are in breach of existing laws," the ICJ said, again quoting the UN Sec. General’s Special Representative.

Noting that the Select Committee was also mandated to conduct “a review of the functioning of foreign-funded NGOs and the transparency of their financial activities,” the ICJ pointed out a raft of financial legislation and reporting already binding on NGOs.

“As existing checks and balances are already in place the ICJ would like to receive further information regarding the need for additional financial reviews,” the group said.

The ICJ said it “is aware of recent critical statements about some NGOs that have appeared in Sri Lankan media.”

“With this in mind, [we] urge the Parliamentary Select Committee to ensure that due process is followed throughout any investigation,” the ICJ said.

“Following the decision to investigate, the NGO should be informed of the allegations and the basis on which the … Committee has commenced the investigation. The NGO should then be provided sufficient time and opportunity to respond and, where serious allegations have been made, to seek legal representation.”

Meanwhile “members of the Committee should not make statements to the media that may compromise or prejudice the ongoing investigation and its outcome,” the ICJ said.

Last week Sri Lanka’s Central Bank blocked the accounts of the TRO, the largest relief and rehabilitation organization operating in the Northeast.

The Central Bank justified its directive – which coincided with the eruption of a humanitarian crisis in several Tamil-dominated parts of the island – by alluding to terrorism financing investigations.

But the first TRO officials heard of any problem was when banks began refusing to accept their cheques.

The blocking of the TRO’s accounts meanwhile received widespread publicity in the Sri Lankan and international media last weekend.

TRO, registered as a charity in Sri Lanka, has regularly been audited by the Colombo authorities. Last year, the NGO won the President’s award for its achievements in the reconstruction of houses in the wake of the December 2004 tsunami.

 

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