|Objectivity versus Balance in pursuing Human Rights|
|Friday, 30 January 2009|
The Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights appreciates the concern expressed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights regarding the plight of civilians trapped in the conflict zone in northern Sri Lanka. It is also grateful that she has noted in her recent statement ‘reports of forced recruitment, including of children, as well as the use of civilians as human shields by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)’.
She has however, in declaring that ‘People trying to flee the conflict areas are reported to have either been prevented from doing so, or to have been arbitrarily detained in special centres’, fallen into the same trap as previous UN officials who strove to find a balance between terrorists and a democratically elected government. Whilst this unbalanced approach might have been appropriate when the elected government was also seeking to negotiate in good faith with the terrorists, it is unseemly after the terrorists withdrew from negotiations and launched attacks which had to be countered.
It should also be noted that UN officials in Sri Lanka have been clear about the fact that it was the LTTE that prevented people trying to flee the areas from doing so, and have finally made categorical statements to that effect, even though they have granted that it was easier to criticize government because there was no danger of them being killed. The plight of two expatriate UN workers, who bravely stayed in LTTE controlled territory because of fears for the safety of local UN staff and their families, and were then not permitted to leave on Tuesday after safe conduct had been negotiated, provides some excuse for UN diffidence. Now that they have finally come to safety however, it is unfortunate that the High Commissioner cannot name names.
Again, the claim of people being ‘arbitrarily detained in special centres’ is strange, particularly on the day when the government held a workshop with UN and NGO staff to work out modalities of assistance to these centres. Whilst security considerations are paramount, the government has ensured not only food and health facilities, but also education and vocational training and employment for many of those who succeeded in fleeing the LTTE and reaching government controlled territory.
It is also sad that the High Commissioner claims that the safe zones proclaimed by the government ‘have subsequently been subjected to bombardment’. The word bombardment, though perhaps technically not inaccurate for artillery shells, suggests attacks from the air, which has not thus far been suggested by anyone. Certainly, the LTTE did place heavy artillery within the safe zone, as testified to by the Bishop of Jaffna who, in requesting the government to extend the safe zone, said that he was ‘urgently requesting the Tamil Tigers not to station themselves among the people in the safety zone and fire their artillery-shells and rockets at the army. This will only increase more and more the death of civilians thus endangering the safety of the people’.
The High Commissioner is also doubtless not aware that the UNDP Resident Coordinator, who had earlier that day brought the firing to the attention of the Minister for Disaster Management and Human Rights, and issued a statement suggesting government might have been responsible, later declared that ‘we believe that firing this morning most likely was from an LTTE position.’
In short, it is regrettable that the High Commissioner seems to be diffident about criticizing terrorism, because a statement that seems to place government and the LTTE on the same level loses the moral authority it should have with regard to criticisms as to actual violations of human rights. In this regard the High Commissioner does express some understanding of the Sri Lankan situation when she talks about the corruption wrought ‘by more than two decades of bloody internal conflict’ and the need ‘to tackle the core problems that have fuelled this conflict for a quarter of a century, in order to bring peace and prosperity and restore fundamental rights and freedoms for all Sri Lankans in all parts of the country’. We are grateful for this understanding, which is a sea change from the many politically motivated pronouncements that have heaped all blame for the current sad situation on just the current government.
The High Commissioner is aware that, unlike previous governments, the present government is seeking active assistance from her Office for training and other measures to improve human rights in Sri Lanka. Whereas we are proud of the record of our armed forces in upholding national and international law more successfully than other forces engaged in the struggle against terrorism, we know that there are other aspects that need to be addressed, and we are striving to do so despite the difficulties caused by terrorism.
It is unfortunate therefore that the High Commissioner does not recognize the effectiveness of Sri Lanka’s struggle against terrorism, and intervenes in a manner that suggests she is still not aware of the enormity of Tiger actions. Nevertheless, we look forward to her cooperation, and the cooperation of other UN agencies, in helping to make the lives of all our citizens better in a fully democratic and pluralist Sri Lanka.
Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights
|Last Updated ( Friday, 14 August 2009 )|
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