|The current state of Human Rights in Sri Lanka, June 2008|
|Monday, 23 June 2008|
by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
A recent article by the Asian Human Rights Commission had some characteristic critiques of the requests for assistance in strengthening Human Rights in Sri Lanka made in our submissions during the Universal Periodic Review. Having heard from Basil Fernando, in a moving private missive, about the fears he entertains, and recognizing that he had some justification for those fears in the experiences he underwent in the seventies and eighties, I will not critique his critique, since it was doubtless advanced in all sincerity. However, it does highlight some of the problems we in Sri Lanka face in trying to address human rights issues whilst refusing to be browbeaten, by more insidious forces than Basil, into acquiescing in the claim that we cannot deal with our own problems.
In order to look into the situation as it was a year ago, when various elements in various anti-government institutions launched their attack, and as it is now, we should begin by considering the various charges laid against Sri Lanka, viz
1. a. Civilians are killed in the course of military operations
b. There is widespread impunity in Sri Lanka.
9. a. Sri Lanka needs better witness protection.
b. Sri Lanka is not interested in witness protection.
Now if we look at all those charges, it was the second of each pair that had widespread provenance in the run up to the meeting of the Human Rights Council in Geneva last September, when there were open attempts to bring a resolution against Sri Lanka. As a result of the strenuous defence put up by the country, with Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe leading a delegation in the early part of the month, with Minister G L Pieris later engaging in scholarly refutation of the view that the situation demanded external intervention, we now have to deal only with the first of each pair, or rather with the first of each of the last six sets.
Thus, when it is claimed that Sri Lanka was in a state of denial, it certainly denied the latter of each set of propositions. It also denied the former of the first three sets, and was able to show with evidence that charges in those respects were misplaced. This was not to deny that there had been civilian casualties, but the proportions were minimal in comparison with such casualties in other battles against terrorism, and this has now been recognized. Again, the attempts to demonize the Karuna faction, aided and abetted by those UNICEF employees who demonstrated against the government for their own political preferences, have now been laid to rest. We can now, having got over that carefully manipulated distraction, get back to the real business of rescuing the hundreds of children still held in military servitude by the LTTE in the Wanni.
So too UN evidence itself shows that the third charge was nonsensical, and indeed the Sri Lankan record of dealing with IDPs is one of the best in the world. This of course applies only to recent IDPs, and we have much to be ashamed of in the treatment of the old IDPs, in particular the Muslims chased out of Jaffna by the LTTE in 1990. But at least this government is trying to address that problem, which was ignored by successive governments previously.
And perhaps most remarkably, we have now got back on the table the UNDP Stocktaking Report about the National Human Rights Commission which had earlier been suppressed. The readiness of the UN to help in that respect now is a marked change from the hell or high water approach which an earlier Senior Human Rights Adviser had advocated, to the extent of failing to use funding provided by sympathetic donors to strengthen the HRC.
With regard to torture, it is well known that it exists all over the world, and as the recent death in Britain of a young soldier punished to death shows, it is not only in a context of ‘othering’, as in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay that such horrors occur. It is of course the duty of any country to put a stop to such occurrences, through training and education, but also through punitive action. In this regard it has been noted that Sri Lanka has issued indictments, but the conviction rate is low. The UN Special Rapporteur has suggested that one reason for this may be a mandatory high sentence, and this should perhaps be adjusted. But it is also necessary to improve our investigative techniques and prosecution skills, and these are now being addressed. There is certainly no need to feel ashamed of seeking expert assistance in these areas, and indeed it is unfortunate that the so-called international Police Support Group failed in its several years of existence to deal with the problems more systematically.
With regard to the last four problems, Sri Lanka has recognized that there have been serious deficiencies, though these are not unusual in a state fighting against terror. The last of these has been addressed through an Act now before Parliament, and even though some may claim this is not ideal, it is the first of its kind in the region. It should be noted that, again, assistance in promoting this was not forthcoming from the Senior Human Rights Adviser, while his sidekicks who were assistants to the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons actually tried to sabotage training in this area which the Legal Director of the Peace Secretariat had initiated. The IIGEP, it should be noted, has as yet failed to reply to the objections which were made to this high-handed conduct.
With regard to the dangers to journalists, as with disappearances and extra-judicial killings, there were certainly grave problems in 2006 when the LTTE domination of particular areas, with its severe repression of other Tamil groups, was coming to an end. However, that period of open season, before the government was able to conclusively establish its writ in the East as well as parts of the North, has been brought to a close. Abuses still occur however, and it is essential to stop them. But it must be noted, as with the latest killing of journalists in the Jaffna peninsula, that the LTTE is also responsible for such threats to stability, and while it is still insidiously powerful there will necessarily be unacceptable but understandable reactions. It is in such a context that the government determination to put a stop to terrorism is so important because, with the best will in the world, unless that happens abuses will necessarily occur.
Of course government too has an obligation, to expedite investigations, to issue indictments, to hone its prosecuting skills, although finally decisions as to guilt or otherwise lie with the courts. In these respects there is much to do, but it would help if deficiencies in these areas were recognized as such, and not characterized as part of a master plan to suppress human rights entirely. Obviously, where charges on the lines of the latter part of each set above were freely flung, a confrontational approach is encouraged, which will not benefit anyone. Instead of that, it would be useful if what are termed advocacy groups, instead of engaging in sensationalistic reporting that serves to raise their profiles, concentrated on identifying individual cases and working together with government to remedy problems.
Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
(Courtesy : SCOPP )
|Last Updated ( Monday, 02 February 2009 )|
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