Ancient Mariners shooting the albatross
By: Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
Over the last couple of weeks there has been high drama with regard to Sri Lanka and the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. May 13th saw the Universal Periodic Review of Sri Lanka, with nearly 70 countries putting themselves down to speak, only 56 ultimately having time to do so. The rest of the week saw discussions over the Report of the Review, which was ultimately adopted on the 19th, rather than the 15th as originally scheduled.
Meanwhile there was a spate of statements urging that Sri Lanka not be re-elected to the Council at the election which was held on May 21st. The usual suspects, the NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and the bizarrely named Asian Human Rights Commission, that have been sedulously targeting Sri Lanka over the last couple of years, were joined by three Nobel Prize laureates. Pronouncements designed to prevent the re-election of Sri Lanka to the Council were made by Jimmy Carter, or perhaps to be more precise the Carter Centre, and Bishop Desmond Tutu and even the Argentinian Adolfo Perez Esquivel, who obviously does not understand the difference between a military dictatorship and a democratic government that functions in the context of a vociferous opposition, an independent judiciary and a vibrant indeed frenetic civil society.
Former US President Jimmy Carter
Why so much concern? While it is conceivable that all this activity is due to deep concern for human rights in Sri Lanka, it is significant that none of the Nobel laureates actually engaged with Sri Lanka before their sudden outbursts. Far from making any attempt to visit, to ask questions, to raise issues with the government, they have plunged in on the basis of generalizations that cannot be substantiated.
They are not unlike the usual suspects in this regard, for none of those who have criticized Sri Lanka in sensationalistic terms over the last year have actually responded to the detailed critiques of their releases. Human Rights Watch for instance claimed that Sri Lanka engaged in indiscriminate attacks on civilians, when their own report could only cite one instance of civilian deaths in the course of operations - and in that instance, the deaths were caused by mortar locating radar, with the HRW report itself testifying to the presence of armed LTTE cadres and the existence of bunkers in the refugee camp which was fired upon. Again, they issued a sensationalistic press release claiming that displaced persons were being resettled forcibly (involuntarily was the way another NGO that does not know the meanings of the words it uses put it), ignoring the citation in their own report of UNHCR saying that resettlement was voluntary. They did respond when this was pointed out by claiming that earlier forced resettlement had occurred, but they could not cite evidence for this, and their whole report seems to have relied for this grotesque generalization on an interview with a single person.
Now all these people are doubtless sincere, but sadly they seem to have been fed with dogma that they do not bother to check out for themselves. Bishop Tutu and President Carter, like adored childhood teddy bears, given what they stood for in the past, are too grand to go into detail, but rather swallow whatever is put in front of them. In this they resemble another less charming icon of yesteryear, Gareth Evans, who insinuated that Sri Lanka had engaged in ethnic cleansing. He was then surprised to find that the aide who had written his speech was referring in fact to ethnic cleansing by the Tigers, of Muslims, way back in 1990. Sadly these once hale and hearty and even quite productive ancient mariners have to swallow several impossible things before breakfast, if they are to aspire to being anything more than specters at feasts to which their successors will not invite them.
But who is it that feeds them with the material they crave to walk again on the world stage? Earlier I thought the position was clear with regard to Sri Lanka, it was Tigers who wanted to throw the government off balance with sustained international criticism, and the opposition which hoped that once again it could subvert democracy by toppling the government on the grounds that the world was against it. Certainly we know that when Hillary Clinton made a speech in which she seemed to justify Tiger terrorism by claiming it was different from other terrorism, she was a victim of a sustained Tiger campaign of unqualified support, whereby they assumed she would be their poodle for her tenure of the White House (incidentally they thought they had achieved this with Ken Livingstone in London, and had informed the BBC World Service accordingly, that the Tamils of London would all vote for Ken and the LTTE be thus assured of his indulgence for the next four years too).
Tigers and the UNP under its current leadership however the elected government of Sri Lanka can handle, as it showed last year when both segments were waiting with bated breath for the government to fall. The last couple of weeks have shown however that there may be other forces also arrayed against us, and these may be more insidious than the proponents of terror or of the money politics that had previously succeeded in toppling two elected governments.
For what the delay in producing the UPR Report on Sri Lanka showed was that Sri Lanka was seen as one of the strongest threats to the complacent monopoly on Human Rights based criticism that the international Human Rights establishment had hitherto enjoyed. This establishment, it should be noted, is not the preserve of individual countries for, as the UPR process showed, even countries critical of Sri Lanka intervened in a civilized manner that suggested concern with issues rather than a determination to denigrate. It is true that some of them were a bit confused about facts, but this seemed due to inadequate rather than partisan briefing. On the whole, while some preconceptions had to be refuted, the exercise at the Council itself was dignified and helpful.
Former Indian Prime Minister
Rajiv Gandhi was killed by an LTTE Suicide Bomber on 21st May 1991
Quite different was the Report produced by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Sadly, however distinguished the High Commissioner might be, she is dependent on her staff, and the prejudice of at least some staff with regard to Sri Lanka has already been obvious, as with for instance their suppression of the UNDP Stocktaking Report on the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission. That Report recommended technical assistance which the current UNDP Head in Sri Lanka is working on, but the Report was not even shown to the Head of Capacity Building in the OHCHR head office in Geneva.
Rajiv Gandhi minutes before he was killed by the LTTE Suicide Bomber,
seen with her back to the camera and flowers in her hair
So too, when the initial draft of the UPR Report was revealed, it gave 250 lines to 20 countries, which had raised questions and indulged in some critical preconceptions, with only 180 lines to 36 countries which had been more positive about Sri Lanka's achievements in the field. Not entirely coincidentally, 15 of the 20 countries were European, amongst the others being Canada and New Zealand and the United States. Perhaps even less coincidentally, no Islamic country got more than 8 lines, with Palestine being given just 2. All 56 countries had been allotted 2 minutes each for their speeches, but this was not reflected at all in the original draft. Obviously, the OHCHR has a particular view of Human Rights in which Social and Economic Rights loom very low. Their preconceptions may be understandable, coming as many of them do from countries where citizens are comparatively healthy and literate, but they should not belittle the achievements of a developing country which has enhanced equality of opportunity, which does well by its women, which even - as was noted during the UPR - continues to provide basic services in areas under terrorist control. The comfortable well paid youngsters in Geneva may not appreciate all this, but it is not their business to belittle what member countries say, to emphasize their own predilections. More insidiously, they should not have suppressed the wide acclaim for the role Sri Lanka has played on the Council over the last year. Several countries paid tribute to this, and seemed to see Sri Lanka as an emblem of hope, but this did not find expression in the Report prepared by the OHCHR Secretariat.
And herein perhaps lies the rub. Sri Lanka had helped to place things in perspective over the last year, to draw attention to abuses that should be rectified, to problems that should be solved, to needs that should be addressed. It is no coincidence that Human Rights Watch, which kept aloof when other NGOs drew attention to problems in Gaza last March, had emerged as the strongest critic of Sri Lanka, unwilling to appreciate how much the situation in Sri Lanka has improved even though no quarter has been given to terrorism. Our success in this respect, which owes much to the second track of political reform, the successful elections in the East, the empowerment of former terrorists who have abandoned sectarian violence for democratic pluralism, is a lesson to all, but it is a lesson that the prejudiced and partisan cannot accept. In this regard, to compare small things with great, Sri Lankan might be seen as an albatross, the bird of hope, heralding a new beginning in the midst of awful conditions. Sadly the bird was shot down, by Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner who could not understand anything unusual, who had to reduce everything to his own sadly static view of life. The result was further misery for everyone, until a universal sense of pity returned.
Former Sri Lankan President
Ranasinghe Premadasa was killed by an LTTE Suicide bomber on 01st May 1993 while he was attending Workers Day Rally in the Capital
On the day the UPR was held, the LTTE murdered a female Tamil Human Rights activist, who was the legal advisor to a former terrorist who took the democratic path 20 years ago, and has since survived a dozen assassination attempts. The day the voting for the Human Rights Council took place was the 17th anniversary of the murder of Rajiv Gandhi, who helped to introduce devolution to Sri Lanka through the Indo-Lankan Accord, which was welcomed by all Tamils, only to be rejected in a surge of violence by the LTTE when they did not get their way totally as to the interim administration that was proposed.
The international community, as the establishment characterizes influential countries in the West, urges Sri Lanka to talk to the LTTE, and this Sri Lanka says, as it has always done, that it is ready to do. That community cites the example of the IRA, which finally negotiated and participated fully in the peace process, forgetting that arms were decommissioned and funding had dried up before that happy consummation took place. It forgets too that, whatever may have been said in the past of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness, moderate leaders were not murdered. Over the almost half century it took for extremists to come together in Northern Ireland, O'Neill and Chichester-Clark and Trimble and Hume and Alderdice were not victims of terrorism, as were Tamil leaders such as Amirthalingam and Kadirgamar and Tiruchelvam, Sinhalese such as Premadasa and Dissanayake, and Rajiv Gandhi in India – to say nothing of Padmanabha and the rest of the EPRLF leadership.
Whether or not the LTTE enters the political process, the Sri Lankan government will work with moderates in minority parties, men and women of enormous courage. And whether or not the campaign of denigration continues, Sri Lanka will work for all aspects of Human Rights for all persons, and in particular those who are belittled by an establishment that has not been accountable for far too long. It is not a deterrent for this that membership of the Human Rights Council has now passed to other countries, and with Pakistan and Bahrain winning election it is to be hoped that the deprived whom Sri Lanka represented will continue to have a voice. Those opposed to the current Sri Lankan government may now rejoice, as the establishment did 28 years ago when Jimmy Carter lost the Presidency of the United States. But he managed over the years to reinvent himself, and continues in various ways to reassert some of the positions he tried to institutionalize in his brief tenure of the most powerful position in the world. Sri Lanka aspired to less during its two years on the Human Rights Council, but the recognition its contribution received from the downtrodden on May 13th was remarkable. Their voice will not be silenced, as the world continues to strive to strengthen human rights of all types for everyone.
Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha(Courtesy : SCOPP )
Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process