UN Special Rapporteurs are taking turns visiting Sri Lanka; last week the envoy on Counter Terrorism and Human Rights came and made waves with his critical report on existing torture practices. The report would have come as a rude shock to many, almost to the point of disbelief. The fallout in officialdom seems to be [...]


Torture: Truth, twists and turns


UN Special Rapporteurs are taking turns visiting Sri Lanka; last week the envoy on Counter Terrorism and Human Rights came and made waves with his critical report on existing torture practices. The report would have come as a rude shock to many, almost to the point of disbelief. The fallout in officialdom seems to be to ask why he was permitted to see ex-LTTE combatants in custody and how coloured their complaints of torture would have been.

In a four-day visit, he came, he saw and he critiqued, leaving one with the lingering question whether he came with preconceived notions. He was challenged by the Justice Minister who either did not have the skill of advocacy to change the Special Rapporteur’s findings, or had a bad brief, or the visiting diplomat only wanted to tick the box that he had met with the Minister and gone ahead with a prejudged report. For his meeting with the Minister was a mere footnote in his report.

Whatever it is, the report once in the hands of the international media portrayed Sri Lanka as a virtual ‘pariah state’ — a nation that abuses the human rights of its population. Sadly, we are left with this report and in a rare act of swiftness on the part of the Government it proceeded with the Office of Missing Persons, thereby receiving a little pat on the back from the spokesman for the UN Secretary General for doing so. The UN Special Rapporteur on Political Affairs who is currently in Sri Lanka has given this newspaper an interview.

The entire human rights argument against Sri Lanka has been long debated since the country was at war with one of the world’s most fascist terrorist organisations. Many in Sri Lanka justifiably feel hard done when human rights proponents especially those from the West critique what’s happening here when their own countries get away with blue murder.

Britain has expressed “concern” over the UN report. Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in London has been summoned to be told so. Whitehall remains under the belief that Britain still rules the colonies. Take the text-book case of the murder of Osama bin Laden. We are told to believe the version that he was shot dead when he went for his gun as US Special Forces raided his house in Pakistan. His body was dumped in the sea and the story ends there. No UN inquiry into the matter. The former US Vice President Dick Cheney went public to justify the torture treatment (such as water-boarding) at the US-run Guantanamo detention centre on the basis it provided the intelligence that led to bin Laden’s whereabouts. The US military prison Abu Ghraib in Iraq was notorious for human rights violations. No UN inquiry there either.

President Barack Obama came to office promising to close down these prisons, but after two terms and eight years, he could pass a controversial health law but not close these prisons down. The US is now taking a more practical stance on human rights vis-a-vis terrorism. Much to the horror of the State Department that led the way in preaching human rights to countries selectively around the world, including Sri Lanka (while the US Defence Department was engaged in human rights violations every day in West Asia), US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is reportedly downgrading the US campaign against mass atrocities, shuttering the State Department’s office that campaigned for two decades to hold ‘war criminals’ accountable.

He is also re-assigning the Special Coordinator of the Office of Global Criminal Justice. Instead, the Department has been asked to focus on economic opportunities for US businessmen and strengthening US military prowess worldwide. This might sound like good news for Sri Lanka. There is more likelihood of having this monkey off its back in the form of the UNHRC Resolution (which the US has co-sponsored with Sri Lanka) now. Sri Lankan Ministers have already wagged their fingers at those wanting the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) amended, saying that counter-terror laws of the West are far more draconian.

But this discontent in Government is brought about, in part, by its own misreading. Over-ambitious promises to appease critical voices have now posed problems. The raft of (as some would argue, far too expansive) transitional justice reforms and blithe assurance that it would replace the PTA with a better-framed law have made this current situation predictable. Perforce the Government has to listen to stern homilies and lectures from visiting UN experts who seem to have woken up from the honeymoon that the UN had up to now with the post-2015 Government.

There were some errors that could easily have been avoided. For instance, it was supremely naive to secretly prepare a Counter-Terror draft law meant to replace the PTA. The confusion in various drafts ‘leaked’ to the media, its clauses restricting freedom of expression and information despite a new Right to Information law and the inability by the Government to articulate a clear policy position on the matter has been raised previously in these editorial spaces.
Strictures issued by the UN Special Rapporteur apart, the fact is that this Government must, for the good of its own citizens, make sure that its laws are effective and implemented properly so that torture is not used as a law enforcement tactic. The harsh reality is that torture continues to be practised, both in normal cases and in terrorism cases. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has pointed to this as a disturbing reality of its work. So, it is not just the visiting diplomats pre-judging, but our own experts pointing this out.

The Commission’s ability to change state practice is limited because the Commission itself has no effective powers of enforcement. It is a paper tiger. It is disregarded even when laws are drafted despite it being legally mandatory that it should be consulted. It is on record that the Counter-Terror draft law was not sent to Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission for scrutiny. Then, we have to face the ignominy of a UN Special Rapporteur or an international human rights watchdog howling that Sri Lankan authorities abuse the population. And even though good judgments are handed down from time to time by the Supreme Court calling upon law enforcement officers to refrain from resorting to torture, and punishing them with fines, they are not reflected in state policy and practice.

These are matters that the Government should urgently attend to. Its platform of good governance is being tested in every quarter. These were the same failings of previous governments. It would be a pity if that hopeless pattern is repeated by this Administration from which much was expected once upon a time, not so long ago.

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