Columns - FOCUS On Rights

Putting our own house in order

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

This week, one of the more absurd spectacles that I was unfortunately privy to was the sight of a portly and pompous gentleman apparently representing a 'Sinhala Association' overseas, who when interviewed on a foreign news channel, held forth on his version as to why the Tamils in Sri Lanka had been agitating for increased rights during the past three decades. According to him, this was purely because the Tamils in South India had embarked on a separate Tamil State, which struggle had spilled over to the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka. This was (predictably) a prelude to the interviewee being mercilessly lambasted - if not ridiculed - by a remarkably well informed news anchor who engaged in a rebuttal that left his helpless target gasping for air.

In another unsettling interview, an ambassador refused to concede that there had been any substantial problems affecting the Tamil people since independence, foolishly pointing to, (of all things), provisions relating to recognition of Tamil as an official language in the Constitution. Here again, when immediately refuted by the argument that this is a theoretical provision that has been disregarded in practice for countless years, which fact has been recognised even by governments, this ambassador was left looking equally and hilariously nonplussed.

Need for skilled diplomatic representation

This led me to wonder whether, in effect, such idiotic gentlemen are employed for the express purpose of subjecting Sri Lanka and the Sinhalese people to extreme disparagement when, this is exactly the time for quite the contrary to be evidenced. Sri Lanka needs skilled and sophisticated arguments from its diplomatic missions overseas and from those purporting to represent the country to make the argument towards reconciliation genuinely and sincerely.

The country does not need diplomatic nincompoops with only their ill assumed pomposity to cover their absence of capacity and skill. It is true that the arguments made by the pro-LTTE diaspora are equally absurd at times and those arguments, on the occasions that I have seen them being articulated, have been met with similarly strong rebuttals from the news anchors. However, the point is that, we can ill afford to have the official representatives of this country in particular, descending to the propaganda depths of others. Equally, we need to stop our denigration of foreign news channels and instead, (at least now), learn to use them more effectively in the case that Sri Lanka makes in regard to itself in the world.

Justice as differentiated from reconstruction

This is at the minimum. Far more is, of course, required to dent the increasingly shrill cry that is being made internationally against this country. On Monday, a special session of the United Nations Human Rights Council meets to consider Sri Lanka in what is an unprecedented step. The government is currently making its call for funds towards reconstruction and rehabilitation but the question is however as to whether this, by itself will suffice to re-amalgamate the Tamil people within our country and within our community. What about the question of justice for the extreme human rights violations that they have suffered? In what manner are we going to secure their demands for justice? In what manner are we going to ensure that these violations will never happen again?

The 2006 Udalagama Commission has turned out, as predicted by many of us at the start itself, to be a completely farcical exercise, its purposes far from securing accountability or justice for the victims in the several cases that it had been authorized to investigate.

For that matter, not only the minorities but the majority community needs the Rule of Law to be restored in Sri Lanka equally urgently. As has been pointed out time and time again in this column, justice is not limited to the ethnic minorities alone. It is not only the Tamils and Muslims who have suffered at the hands of the State. Instead, as our history shows (and regardless of pompous and ostrich-lie individuals who prefer to believe otherwise), the Sinhalese people have also been subjected to similar indignities. These need to be addressed collectively and wholeheartedly.

Imperative changes that need to be made

We need to see the emergency law consigned to the dustbin and the normal law restored in relation to every aspect of our law enforcement process. We need to see immediate improvement in our legal and investigative processes in relation to grave human rights violations.

For years, a hostile prosecutorial/legal system has led to victims of human rights violations being penalized at all stages of the process, from the very first instance of lodging a first information in the police station to the protracted and intensely adversarial nature of legal proceedings, resulting in many witnesses being coerced/compelled to change their testimony which again reinforces the cycle of impunity that prevails.

The killing of witnesses has been a persistent feature of the country's troubled criminal justice system for many years. The prosecutorial/judicial process itself is problematic; the lack of political will to prosecute grave human rights violations and the lack of will to convict is clearly evidenced. This needs to change.

Justice needs to be according to law

It is a trite proposition that justice must be done according to the law. We need to depart from the thinking that 'anything goes' when fighting the enemy and that strict standards of accountability should not be imposed on police officers and armed forces personnel.

This rationale applies with even greater force to the prosecution of human rights abuses occurring during the North/East conflict. Indeed, the most persecuted and the most marginalised are the civilian victims of the North/East conflict who are traumatized at all points of the legal process; from the commonly prevalent transfer of cases from local courts to judicial forums situated in predominantly majority provinces or the capital to painfully protracted legal proceedings which they are required to attend despite financial/social hardships, (with many of them living in refugee camps), and the generally insensitive manner in which the prosecutorial/legal system responds to their plight. This needs to change. Reforms to the country's criminal law and procedure need to be effected and implemented.

Currently, there are calls for inquiries and investigations to be conducted internationally to ascertain the crimes that had been committed during the conflict. Surely the best way to meet these calls is to put in order our own domestic systems of justice that have irrefutably been shown to be non functional rather (indeed) than dysfunctional. This is the best way that President Mahinda Rajapaksa would be able to show that his rhetoric in his Victory Day speech that he would protect the Tamil people (and that indeed, there would be henceforth no reference to the term 'minorities'), is translated to actual reality.

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