While most eyes were on Geneva last week awaiting the inevitable outcome of the vote against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council, a remark by a very senior Cabinet Minister caught the attention of locals immersed in an ongoing battle to protect the country’s endangered environment. The remark, coinciding with World Water Day, [...]


Ruining the ‘natural beauty’ of the Emerald Isle


While most eyes were on Geneva last week awaiting the inevitable outcome of the vote against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council, a remark by a very senior Cabinet Minister caught the attention of locals immersed in an ongoing battle to protect the country’s endangered environment.

The remark, coinciding with World Water Day, was a proposal to raid the Sinharaja Natural Forest reserve once again–this time to start a water project inside this UNESCO world heritage site with Chinese assistance. And to cap it all, to grow rubber in place of deforestation.

The senior Minister comes from the southern Hambantota district and no doubt, has long witnessed the suffering of his constituents for the lack of drinking water. The fields cry for water during the harsh droughts. He has long campaigned for this primary need of his fellow citizens. Given a choice of portfolios, he even chose Irrigation. It is just that his proposal sounded so preposterous to the rest of the country.

A previous mega project with the same objective of providing water to the southern districts by diverting the Uma Oya in the central highlands came a cropper. It deprived the people of Bandarawela and its environs of their water in the process and bowsers driven by home guards had to deliver water to residents in houses that had cracked due to engineering defects on the dam.

Last year’s focus on ‘Water and Climate Change’ to mark World Water Day was extended this year to focus on the environmental, social and cultural values placed on water. The fact that everyone needs water be they humans, animals or plants, with no substitute for it, places it in the galaxy of priceless possessions for any nation and its people. For an island nation like Sri Lanka with limited land mass and an increasing population, it is a precious resource to be harnessed with care.

Kings of yore built massive reservoirs recognising this need. They must have cleared forests but the population then was small and the cost-benefit of such ‘development’ favoured the long-term benefits accruing for generations to come. The colonial British on the other hand introduced a Waste Lands Ordinance to plunder thousands of acres of forests in the highlands to grow their coffee and tea plantations, and one might argue about their benefits to the country.

As a string of incidents of jungle clearance is reported right across the country, environmentalists and concerned citizens, especially young people–the Millennials and ‘Generation Z’ (those up to 23 years), from the big cities to the village hamlets are raising their collective voice, protesting the rape of the forests and the resultant damage to the environment. There is, thankfully, greater consciousness of the environment now, probably due to the subject being discussed in schools. It is a matter that impacts the youth for tomorrow, even if it is the responsibility of the elders to put food on the table for their children, today.

The proposed Sinharaja project, though now reportedly shelved, seems to have been a fairly well constructed long-term plan from the looks of it to make inroads into the reserve in the name of ‘development’. When just a few months back a new road was being paved therein, the country was told that it was merely reinforcing an already existing mud path used by villagers to access schools and hospitals. It now seems it was not such a simple upgrading exercise given the fact that the new project proposal required moving heavy machinery to tap water from the reserve.

The National Heritage, Wilderness Areas Act No. 3 of 1988 was introduced coinciding with Sinharaja being declared a world heritage site. It provided for “preserving in their natural state, unique eco-systems, genetic resources, or physical or biological formation….the habitat of endangered species of animals and plants… for enhancing the natural beauty of Sri Lanka…”

Globalisation has seen the denudation of forests worldwide from the Amazon to Madagascar and now Sinharaja by private companies in partnership with Governments to extract the earth’s resources. It is, no doubt, an irony for the people of the southern districts to be without drinking water when there are gushing natural springs next door. But there must be alternative solutions. Desalination for instance.

Ill-conceived projects such as the proposed water reservoir in Sinharaja will do irreparable damage to the flora and fauna and natural beauty of Sri Lanka, but so too will the very people it is intended to help, go bone dry in the decades to come by the exploitation of nature. That such a proposal was even entertained in this world heritage site whose wealth of biodiversity is without question, is a sad reflection on the shortsightedness of those who, under the guise of developers, worm their way into officialdom and are able to present it as a Government initiative.

No ‘Justice’ and ‘Dignity’ for victims of British troops?

Great Britain’s notorious colonial ‘Divide and Rule’ policy seems to have metamorphosed into a new brand of ‘do as we say; not as we do’ policy.

Just this week, a report by the United Kingdom’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities states, inter-alia, that on an average, over 140 racially motivated hate crimes take place in Britain per day. Meanwhile, a glaring contradiction has emerged between the UK’s domestic policy on accountability for human rights abusers and the moralistic lecturing that it gives other nations in the Commonwealth, including Sri Lanka. Central to this contradiction is the Overseas Operations Bill adopted in the House of Commons and now pending in the House of Lords.

The Bill proposes a presumption against prosecution of British troops engaged in ‘overseas operations’ for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed more than five years ago. Prosecutors are directed to consider factors that ‘reduce culpability’ including ‘exceptional demands and stresses to which members of Her Majesty’s services are likely to be subjected to.’ Prosecutors are allowed to proceed in such cases only in ‘exceptional’ circumstances with the ‘Express consent’ of the Attorney General. Directly contrary to international criminal law standards, the Bill prescribes near-immunity retrospectively, for crimes of murder and torture.

Persistent allegations of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan have dogged British soldiers. The Bill will take the UK out of a rules-based system and allow it to escape accountability which it preaches to other nations as in the case of Sri Lanka. The UK’s primary role in moving Resolution 46/1 on Sri Lanka in the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva was premised on the basis of war-time accountability for Sri Lanka.

‘Silent enim leges inter arma’ (the laws are silent in times of war) seems to be a principle that the United Kingdom is willing to accept, but only for its own troops, not others.

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