HR crisis: Lanka facing last rites
- President tells Lankan delegates to be defiant but dead-end in sight
- GL projects figure of emperor without clothes as Lanka faces EU sanctions
- Armed group with betel leaf for daylight robbery in Batticaloa
|A. Pradeep, Batticaloa's mayoral candidate on the TMVP-UPFA ticket addressing the government's Neganahira Udawa show in the Batticaloa town on Friday. Pix by J. Weerasekera
For the first time since the January abrogation of the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement, international attention focused sharply on Sri Lanka this week.
The buzz was in Geneva where the seventh session of the United Nations Human Rights Council is under way. Government's troubleshooter on human rights issues and aspirant to the post of Foreign Minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe, telephoned President Mahinda Rajapaksa this week. The call was different from the many he was making to friends in the local media outlets in the past few days to exhort his role in fighting "Sri Lanka bashers" at the UN in the Swiss city.
This call was to apprise the President of the criticism Sri Lanka was facing over human rights and related issues. Rajapaksa was defiant. He told Samarasinghe that he should counter all accusations, strongly state the Government's case and defend Sri Lanka against international conspiracies. The Minister did just that by articulating the two subjects of his portfolio - human rights and disaster management. The first was to defend the Government's human rights record and the second, to try to minimise a major diplomatic disaster that loomed.
A glimpse of just how human rights issues played out in Geneva could be measured from the official position of the British Government spelt out in Geneva. Their Minister for Africa, Asia and the United Nations, Lord Malloch Brown declared, "In Sri Lanka there are reports of disappearances, extra judicial killings and violence against the media. When Louise Arbour visited Sri Lanka in October 2007, she was alarmed by the weakness of the rule of law and the prevalence of impunity. Little has changed, and those who committed these appalling crimes remain free."
Lord Brown said Britain supports Arbour's call for a human rights country office in Sri Lanka.
Samarasinghe, on a Presidential directive so to say, hit back. "Sri Lanka regretted the misconceived approach of Lord Brown as made clear by his statement which also revealed a lack of appreciation for the steps taken to protect human rights whilst dealing with terrorism," he said.
He added, "We share the concerns of many members of the international community that such approaches only promote a growing belief that some individuals find it difficult to let go of historical possessions…."
Contentious issues apart, an entirely new element appears to have now been added to the foreign policy of the Rajapaksa administration. That is essentially an extension of the prevalent domestic policy of directly targeting persons and organisations whose views are different to those of the Government or in other words dissenting views. The harder those responsible are attacked, the better it seems to be the philosophy. Whether it pays dividends or spawns more enemies and a resultant isolation only time will tell.
To coincide with the goings on in Geneva, there has been an avalanche of other international organisations coming out with strongly worded reports on human rights abuses. The New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a 241-page report on Thursday titled "Recurring Nightmare: State Responsibility for Disappearances and Abductions in Sri Lanka." The report documents 99 of "several hundred cases reported."
The HRW accused the Government security forces, Army, Navy or Police and claims that in some cases, relatives of the "disappeared" identified specific military units that had detained their relatives and Army camps where they have been taken.
However, a retired judge probing disappearances since September 13, 2006, countered the HRW accusations just two days before their report became public.
On Tuesday, retired Judge Mahanama Thilakaratna gave details of the findings of his one-man Commission of Inquiry at a news conference. He declared that neither the security forces nor the police were directly implicated in any one of the 7130 complaints received and investigated by him. There were cases where armed groups had made abductions claiming they were from the police, CID or the STF, he said. Of this number, he revealed that 6543 of such individuals have been traced.
Unidentified groups were blamed for the incidents and most of them were to do with private disputes, money transactions, love affairs, adultery and even cases of stage-managed incidents in order to gain foreign visas, Tillekeratne disclosed.
He said that though some incidents were "blown out of proportion by NGOs, INGOs and the international community to tarnish the Government's image," the human rights record was not one to be alarmed of. A journalist asked whether Minister Samarasinghe had taken a report of his findings to Geneva, Tillekeratna seemed unaware.
The Tillekeratna Commission is yet to investigate complaints received at 52 police stations in the Jaffna, Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Kantalai and Batticaloa areas with regard to 587 cases of reported disappearances and 230 abductions. The retired judge said the writ of his Commission has been extended by three more months to probe remaining cases for compilation of their final report. He felt the Commission needs winding up since the number of complaints were fast receding.
On Thursday, the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) declared it was terminating its operation in Sri Lanka. In a four-page statement, the Commission declared, "they no longer see how they can contribute further to the protection and enhancement of human rights in Sri Lanka and have regretfully decided to bring an end to their activities in this country."
In November 2006, President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed a Commission of Inquiry to investigate and inquire into 16 incidents of alleged serious violations of human rights that arose in Sri Lanka since August 1st 2005. He invited eleven persons of "international repute to form the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons" to observe the work of the Commission.
The eleven persons were Justice P.N. Bhagawati (former Chief Justice of India), Judge Jean-Pierre Cot (France), Marzuki Darusman (Indonesia), Arthur E. Dewey (United States), Prof. Cees Fasseur (Netherlands), Dr. Kamal Hossain (Bangladesh), Prof. Bruce Mathews (Canada), Andreas Mavrommatis (Cyprus), Prof. Sir Nigel Rodley (UK), Prof. Ivan Shearer (Australia) and Prof. Yozo Yokota (Japan).
Charging that official correspondence directed to the IIGEP "has too often been characterised by a lack of respect and civility," the IIGEP statement asserted that they have "repeatedly been accused of going beyond their mandate and of interfering with national decision-making, this has never been its intention or the reality." The statement added, "….inherent and fundamental impediments inevitably lead to the conclusion that there has been and continues to be a lack of political and institutional will to investigate and inquire into cases before the Commission.
The IIGEP is therefore terminating its role in the process not only because of the shortcomings of the Commission's work but primarily because the IIGEP identifies an institutional lack of support for the work of the Commission."
The IIGEP response received sharp retorts from the Attorney General C.R. de Silva. In a statement, which was released by the IIGEP together with their own statement, the Attorney General charged that the unfounded allegations and comments are "highly prejudicial to the interests of Sri Lanka" and hence "the Attorney General cannot assume a subservient stance in responding to the IIGEP."
The timing of the IIGEP statement, the Attorney General charged, "seeks to cater for an international agenda." He pointed out that "…..what the eminent persons appear to be interested in, is to ensure an international condemnation of Sri Lanka through the expression of certain views prejudicial to the interests of Sri Lanka based on certain untested hypothesis and distorted facts and circumstances."
Pointing out that this is "in excess of their mandate," the Attorney General added "…the function of the IIGEP is to only observe the functioning of the Commission of Inquiry appointed to investigate and inquire into alleged serious human rights violations."
He said, "The mandate of the IIGEP does not include the entitlement to either engage in alternate investigations and inquiries or to comment on political and other commitments or intentions of the Government of Sri Lanka and on alleged phenomena which are of generic character."
He disclosed that Sri Lanka will take steps to re-constitute the IIGEP with an alternate group of eminent persons "who are likely to work according to the mandate of the IIGEP and in constructive partnership with the Commission of Inquiry."
The Geneva based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has also added its voice to "violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict" in Sri Lanka. It has formulated a six-page submission to the 2nd Session of the Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council from May 5 to 16 this year. The ICJ says that there should be an international human rights field presence in Sri Lanka. It feels the body should be empowered with monitoring, investigative and capacity building functions. The ICJ has called upon the Human Rights Council, among other matters, to "investigate violations of human rights, and disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force and other violations of international humanitarian law committed by Government and LTTE forces."
The call for an International Monitoring Mission amidst accusations of human rights violations has become a serious cause for concern for the Government. So much so, on the sidelines of the sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, at the UN's (Room IX) of the Palais de Nations, the Government sponsored a panel discussion last Friday on why such a mission is not necessary. Minister Samarasinghe, Secretary General of the Secretariat Co-ordinating the Peace Process, Rajiva Wijesinha and Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, Suhada Gamalath were among the speakers.
Last month, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group in its Asia Report noted that the "human rights crisis continues, despite rising concerns and calls for action from Governments, the UN and human rights groups." It declared, "Violations of civil and political rights are widespread, with the majority and worst in the north and east, where political killings and disappearances occur daily, especially in Jaffna. Considerable circumstantial evidence indicates the involvement of the military and allied former Tamil militants. …. The Group also accused the LTTE of systematically violating civil and political rights. It said that "at least some of the killings in Jaffna and other parts of the north are its responsibility….."
Last month Amnesty International in a report titled Silencing Dissent declared that the "lack of accountability for the perpetrators of human rights violations remains a serious concern." Despite demands by media associations and others for investigations into unlawful killings of media workers there has been little progress even when suspects have been identified by reliable witness, the report said. The report also said that perpetrators of human rights violations, including those who target journalists are protected from prosecution by a longstanding culture of impunity.
A response to the 42-page report of the AI came from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Friday. It claimed that there was a contradiction between the title "silencing dissent" and Government's "sustained policy of open and constructive engagement with the international community and the international human rights mechanisms." The Ministry said "a look at some of the weekend newspapers would prove the level of freedom enjoyed by the press in Sri Lanka to criticise anyone, in particular senior Government figures." That remark, no doubt, was a leaf from President Rajapaksa. He is often used to say it and repeated the remarks during a public rally in Ratnapura last week.
Though the Foreign Ministry news release cited the "Sunday press" to "prove the level of freedom enjoyed", it only listed the number of radio and television stations in the country. Pointing out that security is provided on the basis of a threat assessment, the Foreign Ministry said those who are not satisfied should apply for redress to the Supreme Court.
The assertions of many international organisations on human rights violations, abductions, killings and other issues in Sri Lanka raise a crucial question. Are they wrong in all their assertions? On the other hand, is the Government right in saying everything is wrong? If as they claim they are, why then is the need to go witch-hunting the personalities and the organisations instead of stating their own case? One need hardly spell out the reasons, for they are obvious.
On Friday night, BBC's satellite television network listed the HRW report on Sri Lanka as its main story. It quoted the HRW report as saying Sri Lanka was "one of the world's worst perpetrators of disappearances." BBC asked Rajiva Wijesinha whether the Government "will or will not" agree to an International Monitoring Mission. Wijesinha's answer was "absolutely not." The SCOPP chief's response sums up the Government's strongly defiant mood over allegations of human rights violations. There was no question of allowing a UN mission to Sri Lanka.
Tomorrow, the Minister of Export Development and International Trade G.L. Peiris is due to leave for Brussels. He has undertaken the onerous task of clinching the deal for an extension of the GSP+ facility with the European Union (EU). This is a special concession that has been extended by the EU to Sri Lanka to permit its exports -- almost 7,000 items, mainly garments, to the EU without duties imposed on other countries. The problem is that the EU is insisting on Sri Lanka improving its human rights record.
Last month, Peiris went to New Delhi to lobby EU ambassadors based there, as not all EU countries are represented in Colombo, even though the EU has an office here. On his return, Peiris wrote an article to the local media. In that, he said; "One of the most basic misconceptions is that the GSP+ review, which all beneficiary countries must subject themselves to, involves criteria of a political nature. There has been a great deal of media speculation in recent weeks that Sri lanka is in danger of losing GSP+ because the EU disapproves of the war. Nothing could be further from the truth…
Then he writes, "... the EU certainly does not embark upon an open-ended examination of the domestic policies of beneficiary countries", and goes on to down-play the EU's requirements for countries like Sri Lanka that benefit from GSP+ on the 27 international conventions it is expected to uphold as being those of a simply 'technical' nature.
But Peiris could not have been unaware of what transpired in the British House of Lords on this very subject a week before he wrote that article, totally misleading the public of Sri Lanka. In answer to a specific question by Lord Howell of Guilford whether the UK government would not lobby against sanctions being imposed on Sri Lanka by the EU, that would especially hit the country's garment trade (which shows that this is a real issue), Lord Malloch-Brown replied on behalf of the UK government saying this;
"My Lords, the issue of the garment trade and the EU is a trade matter as well as a political one. On the trade side, we have been anxious that countries such as Sri Lanka do not suffer disruption because of changed EU international trade arrangements. There need to be managed changes in such regimes.
"On the broader point, we are concerned about the escalating human rights difficulties in the country and the lack of an adequate political way forward. The EU, like us is following that. At the moment, our activities are focussed on trying to improve human rights monitoring of the situation in Sri Lanka, not on sanctions. That is the position the EU shares with us".
So whom is Peiris trying to fool? The EU is taking the country's human rights issue seriously, and no amount, and all one can do is wish him well. But let him not try and pull the wool over the discerning public of this country.
The Government was, meanwhile, equally defiant over complaints from opposition political parties and civil society groups about tomorrow's elections in the Eastern Province. Over 270,000 voters go to polls in local elections for the Batticaloa Municipal Council and eight Pradeshiya Sabhas. Six political parties and 22 independent groups are fielding 831 candidates. The outcome, in the absence of major opposition political parties fielding candidates, is foregone.
The Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP or the Tamil People's Liberation Tigers) are sure victors. Their candidates are contesting under the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) banner.
During a meeting at the office of the Lanka Jatika Estate Workers Union (LJEWU), a UNP backed trade union, civil society groups and representatives of political parties gathered to voice their protests against the conduct of local elections in the East. Their complaint was that the Government had paved the way for an armed paramilitary group to masquerade as a genuine political party to win the elections.
Opposition and UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe, said that in addition to Tiger guerrillas, several armed groups were operating in the East. He said the Government had so far failed to dislodge the LTTE from the East. They were now showing their presence in Ampara, Moneragala and even Hambantota. This was whilst the Karuna faction, now led by Pillayan who leads the TMVP, was working closely with the Ministry of Defence. Several other armed groups including those belonging to Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP) were also operating in the East.
Wickremesinghe said persons were abducted and others had been killed. There were also non TMVP candidates who were receiving death threats. Others had been forced to contest the elections. "There was no safe, free political climate for elections. This was why the UNP refrained from contesting," he pointed out.
Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) leader, V. Anandasangaree, also took part in the meeting after having had a one-on-one chat with Wickremesinghe earlier. He said that victory for an armed group in the East would not restore democracy in the East.
Concurring with the view was Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian for Batticaloa district, S. Jeyanandamoorthy. He said "we decided not to contest elections as the candidates would not have any security and since many paramilitary groups are contesting. There is no way a democratic poll could be held."
Added Jeyanandamoorthy, "Interestingly, a paramilitary group is contesting under the ruling party. This shows the Government's link with this paramilitary group. This is at a time when we, as elected MPs from the East, cannot visit areas we represent."
However, leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Rauf Hakeem is strongly in favour of opposition parties contesting the upcoming Provincial Council elections. The SLMC is contesting four local authorities - the Batticaloa Municipal Council, the Pradeshiya Sabhas at Korale Pattu, Ariyampathi and Eravur.
Hakeem told The Sunday Times "the Government has virtually given the local bodies in the east to the TMVP. We are waiting to see how the Tamil voter will respond. They have hardly any choice though," He said the Government's writ did not run in most Tamil areas. Moreover, the Government has not allowed all the political stakeholders to play a role in the local polls. The only thing that has happened is that the UPFA has succeeded in placing TMVP candidates on their list.
Hakeem said he was not sure what the LTTE or the TNA would say ahead of tomorrow's election. "If anyone thought there is going to be rigging, there is no need for it. They (the Government) has set the environment for a TMVP victory," he said. Hakeem explained that his party decided to contest because it did not want "the Government to get away with daylight robbery. We had the courage of our conviction to give the voters a choice."
With victory assured in Batticaloa next week, the Government will be desperately looking for victories in Geneva and Brussels as well. That, however, looks a bigger battle to face.