UN raises fresh fears for Sri Lanka rights defenders

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay addresses a press conference in Colombo on August 31, 2013.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay addresses a press conference in Colombo on August 31, 2013.  (AFP/File)

The UN rights chief Monday raised fresh concerns for the safety of Sri Lankan journalists and activists she said had been harassed by the authorities for meeting with her.

Navi Pillay told the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva she was worried about those she met during her week-long visit to the island, which is emerging from decades of ethnic war.

She stressed her "immediate concern for the protection of human rights defenders, journalists and communities I met during my visit from any reprisal, intimidation or attack."

"I will be reporting on my observations later in the session," she told the council.

She thanked the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse for "facilitating my recent comprehensive visit," but alleged that those she held talks with had been harassed, without giving names.

Sri Lanka's foreign ministry said its ambassador to the UN, Ravinatha Aryasinha, had urged Pillay to "adopt an objective and unbiased approach to Sri Lanka" and "not give credence to unsubstantiated allegations made by those with vested interests and agendas."

"The government of Sri Lanka is fully committed to protecting human rights defenders, and in this regard had requested the High Commissioner (Pillay) and her office to provide specific information of such incidents (of harassment), if any," Aryasinha said.

A Catholic-run human rights group working in northeastern Sri Lanka said last week it had been harassed by security personnel after meeting Pillay during her visit to the former war zone.

Pillay ended her first official visit to the formerly war-ravaged country on August 31 with a stinging press conference in which she accused the government of becoming "increasingly authoritarian".

Sri Lanka's government has criticised Pillay, saying she overstepped her mandate.

Sri Lanka's battle with separatists from the minority ethnic Tamil group ended in 2009 with a no-holds-barred military offensive which crushed the Tamil Tiger rebel group.

The military campaign sparked allegations that troops killed up to 40,000 civilians and committed other war crimes such as executing surrendering Tamil rebels and shelling civilian centres which had been declared no-fire zones.

In March, the UN passed a second resolution in as many years pressing Sri Lanka to investigate alleged war crimes more thoroughly.