Columns - FOCUS On Rights

A savvy question and answer session indeed!

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

It is true that questions of coconut prices, the elephant-human conflict and bad sanitation at housing schemes are problems that directly affect segments of the population of Sri Lanka. Whether these are questions that the President of Sri Lanka should directly address in a savvy but transparently motive-full people-to-people question and answer session televised over national media channels as we saw this week is, of course, a different matter altogether. In that event, should we not dispense altogether with Ministers and Ministries (let alone local government authorities etc) and have the entire matter of governance, big and small questions alike, deposited in the accommodative if not fittingly monarchical lap of the Executive Presidency, after all?

Cheering on the president’s vote block

President Rajapaksa’s lapse of memory in regard to the race riots that took place in July 1983 which date he was hard put to remember, ultimately recalling as 1986 and having to be corrected by those around him was a telling misstep. Regardless and timed obviously at the forthcoming local government elections, this televised session in the lines of precedents set by the late President R. Premadasa, showed the President at his persuasively appealing best, reaching out to the constituency that he perceives as being his hard rock base, namely the Sinhala rural vote block for whom, as he chuckled briefly ‘the price of coconuts was really not that much of a problem’

What underlay this oftentimes rib-tickling session was the fact that President Mahinda Rajapaksa evidently had no hesitation in taking the whole burden of public support for the increasingly unpopular members of his party, on his own shoulders. His airiness at the ubiquitous ‘war crimes’ allegations, (now more a tired refrain than anything else), was typical.

His entire rebuttal was that he was willing to take whatever burdens thrust on his shoulders, whether in the form of legal suits instituted against him by proxies of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the United States or elsewhere but that he would not allow his officials and soldiers to be impugned. The division of opinions into black and white was eerily reminiscent of former US President George W. Bush’s most unfortunate mantra of ‘either you are with us or against us.’

No shades of grey

So there are no conditionalities here, no shades of grey. The only problem that the President saw were either the Tiger proxies abroad or troublesome individuals in non-governmental organisations based locally whom he accused of being instrumental in going and crying in Geneva. All traces of the one-time human rights defender who was one of the first to place the woes of the Sri Lankan people before the international community at the Geneva based assembly of the United Nations during the enforced disappearances of the eighties had, of course, disappeared a long time ago.

Nevertheless, this flamboyantly black and white characterization of supporters on the one side and opponents on the other in a post-war context continued to be disquieting, to put it mildly. Is this what we should expect from the Head of State? Is this what the people should be content with? For those who listened captivated and wide eyed to this sight of Sri Lanka’s President proving once again that he was the best in marketing himself for his vote base, these are good questions indeed.

The other side of an appealing picture

But let us consider the other side of this appealing picture. In several months’ time, we would be noting the 4th year anniversary of the execution at point blank range of 17 aid workers of Contra L’Faim at Mutur (early August 2007). This case is illustrative as it shows how each of the legal remedies contained in Sri Lanka’s law has proved to be monumentally ineffective in bringing about accountability for a grievous crime as much as is true of similar cases, whether we talk of the killing of five students in Trincomalee (early January 2007) or the assassination of prominent and not-so-prominent editors and journalists during the past three years. The court martial and the imprisoning of Sri Lanka’s former Army Commander completes this cycle. Addressing these issues needs more than a Lessons Learnt Commission and public relations skills though this seems to be the government’s ready answer to all ills, as witnessed in the televised question and answer session once again.

The Mutur killings still remain unaccounted for due to a variety of reasons. The criminal process in relation to the killings were initially undermined by an incautious (at the best) transfer order communicated verbally by an executive officer over the phone to the Mutur magistrate who was then compelled to transfer the case to Anuradhapura. Further, a manifest lack of integrity in the investigative process was evidenced with the chain of custody being broken in respect of important items of forensic evidence.

At the constitutional level, the family members of the victims could not file a petition in the Supreme Court. The circumstances of the executions were such that no state officers were directly implicated. The fundamental rights remedy is available only in respect of alleged violations committed by officers of the state even if the identity of a particular officer is unclear. Lack of proper investigations precluded any such evidence emerging. A petition filed by family members in the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) was also to no avail.

Impunity at several levels of the State

The Mutur case therefore remains one of the best documented cases for illustrating impunity at several levels of the State. Ad hoc amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code, the appointments of Commissioners to various commissions so on and so forth cannot remedy these defects in our legal system however much we may like to believe rosy pictures presented to us in skillfully devised television sessions.

And to be very clear, this is not to say that these are all consequences of the actions of the current administration. On the contrary, preceding regimes under different political parties have contributed their own considerable bit to the trauma that Sri Lanka faces today regarding the Rule of Law. So, when we hear the United National Party strenuously advocating for a Witness and Victim Protection Act, it is somewhat hard to keep a straight face.

However, the necessity for such a piece of legislation cannot be denied regardless of the sources from which support may come at different times due to political exigencies. These are urgent reforms to the law which need to be undertaken genuinely and as part of a comprehensive package that is coupled with political will to change a culture of impunity.

Until that time, savvy television question and answer sessions will only be a passing amusement to while away the time.

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