On the frontline: J C Weliamuna, Sri Lankan human rights lawyer

REBECCA LOWE

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IBA Global Insight’s senior reporter speaks to the leading human rights lawyer and former Executive Director of Transparency International Sri Lanka

Jayasuriya Chrishantha Weliamuna was only ten when he saw dead bodies floating in rivers near his village of Walasmulla in the Hambantota District of Sri Lanka. The 1971 Revolt by Marxist group Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) had struck the South, and civilians were caught in the crossfire. Such early experiences, and opportunities afforded to him by his unusually liberal parents, propelled him towards a career in the law.

Unlike others in rural communities, he and his five siblings were given the freedom to choose their career paths and taught to stand up for their rights. For Weliamuna, this message resonated throughout his childhood, ultimately giving him the strength to take on the oppressive power of the state as one of the leading human rights lawyers of his generation. ‘I had seen so much violence and so many leaders murdered,’ says the 51-year-old, ‘and I believed the legal profession had the power to make a difference’.

After taking advantage of Sri Lanka’s free secondary education system, Weliamuna travelled to Colombo to work as a waiter while he revised for – and passed – the highly competitive Law College entrance exams. But college wasn’t solely about study; relations between the Tamils and Sinhalese government were deteriorating rapidly, and he quickly found himself at the heart of several civil rights movements campaigning for interracial justice. ‘After the 1983 riots against Tamils, when hundreds were killed, we students took a very strong stand,’ says Weliamuna, who’s never aligned himself to a single ideology. ‘I am a Sinhalese Buddhist, but we wanted to protect the Tamils because they were under siege.’


‘I had seen so much violence and so many leaders murdered and I believed the legal profession had the power to make a difference’

Jayasuriya Chrishantha Weliamuna
Leading human rights lawyer; former Executive Director of Transparency International Sri Lanka

The first death threats Weliamuna received were not from the government but from the JVP, a nationalist group at war with both the army and anyone attempting to criticise them. It was a terrible time, he recalls. He would stumble across ‘around five to ten bodies’ each day, most of which were JVP sympathisers. Between 1983 and 1987, he estimates around 40,000 people were killed. ‘There was no inquiry into any of these killings,’ he says. ‘There was complete impunity.’

A brief stint working for commercial lawyer Edgar Cooray, with its formidable 18-hour-a-day work ethic, ‘sharpened’ his professional skills. From there, he joined R K W Goonesekere, the revered human rights lawyer and Chairman of the Civil Rights Movement, who died on 17 November. Goonesekere was an ‘enormous influence’ on his young protégé and Weliamuna became involved in many of the major cases of the time involving freedom of association, torture, detention and national security, at one time juggling an astonishing 500 pro bono cases at once.

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In 2002, shortly after leaving to set up his own practice, Weliamuna took up the post of Transparency International (TI) Executive Director for Sri Lanka. Over the next eight years, the budget increased 40-fold and staff numbers rose from two to 42. However, despite TI’s considerable achievements, Weliamuna admits the problem of corruption remains entrenched today. ‘A small group have captured all state organs and accumulated huge wealth and power. It is one of the worst periods of corruption in my lifetime.’

Weliamuna is not alone in this opinion. In November 2013, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay stated she was ‘deeply concerned that Sri Lanka […] is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction’. In August 2014, Sri Lanka declared the UN would be denied visas to conduct an investigation into alleged war crimes committed during the 26-year civil war against the Tamil Tigers, claiming the allegations were false and the inquiry prejudiced.

Weliamuna believes the government missed a ‘good opportunity’ to resolve ethnic conflict following the end of the war in 2009. Achieving accountability is essential for the country to move forward, he says, ‘but in Sri Lanka there has never been a single investigation […]. Until this happens the culture of violence will continue.’

Over the years, Weliamuna has come to know this culture well. He has borne the brunt of state intimidation tactics, including death threats and smear campaigns and, in September 2008, a direct attempt on his life when two grenades were thrown into his bedroom. Nobody was hurt but the attack served to toughen Weliamuna’s resolve. He was determined not to be bullied by a group of ‘cowards and clowns’, he says, and felt a duty to his country not to flee. ‘If you really want to experience how power can be abused by the state, you must do public law,’ he says. ‘This is one area where you can challenge such power democratically through the courts.’

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Yet the legal system in Sri Lanka has been a constant source of frustration and disappointment. Weliamuna says that judges, once a bastion of independence and integrity, are now highly politicised. He doesn’t mince his words: ‘It is the worst situation in the history of the judiciary. There’s no quality control and no scrutiny.’

Recent events seem to lend credence to Weliamuna’s view. In January 2013, Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was impeached in a process described by many – including the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) – as politically motivated. For Weliamuna, the situation was clear. ‘It was all concocted. She was sacked from the judiciary because she gave independent judgments.’

IBAHRI Co-Chair Sternford Moyo called on the Commonwealth, over which Sri Lanka assumed chairmanship in November 2013, to hold the country to account: ‘If the Commonwealth is to have any relevance in today’s world, it must act swiftly and decisively to ensure that Sri Lanka engages meaningfully with human rights.’ Speaking in response to the IBAHRI report in April 2013, barrister Nigel Hatch, former legal adviser to the then Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaranatunga, said the report’s findings were flawed and partisan.

As ballots are cast in one of the closest presidential election battles of recent history – between incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and former Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena – the future of this fragile nation hangs in the balance. For Weliamuna, the key to getting Sri Lanka back on track is strengthening the rule of law, including constitutional reform to abolish the executive presidency. And the key to establishing the rule of law is simple: ‘Open discussion, debate and expression of views – fearlessly – is the only answer.’

The High Commission of Sri Lanka to the UK was contacted by IBA Global Insight regarding issues raised in this article, but declined to comment.


Rebecca Lowe is Senior Reporter for the IBA and can be contacted at rebecca.lowe@int-bar.org