Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, now operating under still another portfolio, presented a promising riposte to the hard-hitting report on Sri Lanka from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. It was indeed promising. In fact, Minister Ali Sabry was full of promises adding to the litany of promises made since the then UN Secretary General [...]


Minister Sabry’s promising response to Geneva critics


Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, now operating under still another portfolio, presented a promising riposte to the hard-hitting report on Sri Lanka from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

It was indeed promising. In fact, Minister Ali Sabry was full of promises adding to the litany of promises made since the then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon visited Sri Lanka a few days after the end of the LTTE insurrectionist war and issued a joint statement following talks with President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

For those like the foreign minister who seem to have short memories — conveniently or otherwise one cannot say — let me quote from that statement ‘in extenso’, so to say.

President Rajapaksa “expressed his firm resolve to proceed with the implementation of the 13th Amendment as well as to begin a broader dialogue with all parties including the Tamil parties in the new circumstances, to further enhance this process and to bring about lasting peace and development in Sri Lanka.”

However, the intrinsic part of the commitment that followed is this. “Sri Lanka reiterated its strongest commitment to the promotion of human rights in keeping with international human rights standards and Sri Lanka’s international obligations.”

It went on to say that the Secretary-General underlined the importance of an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. It added that “the government will take measures to address those grievances.”

These were the solemn promises that the government of the day held out to the international community on behalf of the people.

Now, fast forward to Minister Ali Sabry’s opening remarks. “At the outset”, said the minister in his memorable words, “on behalf of our government, I reiterate our unwavering commitment towards advancing, securing and protecting the human rights of our people and continuing our engagement with the council in a spirit of cooperation and dialogue.”

Never mind what kind of spirit the minister is speaking of but let it pass for the moment. Of greater concern right now is his reiteration of the Sri Lanka government’s (whatever shade or colour they are) commitment to safeguarding and promoting human rights.

If somebody has the time and patience to spend time pouring over government statements and references to human rights and count the times the word “reiterate” appears, it might well circle Sri Lanka’s shoreline.

In fact, it is so abused that it is tantamount to linguistic regicide, with all due respect to the late Queen Elizabeth II now lying in state before her funeral tomorrow.

In the hands of our speech writers, it has become such a tired cliché that one might well adapt the words attributed to former British Prime Minister Disraeli to read “lies, damned lies and politicians”.

If what one heard was an “unwavering commitment”, imagine what might have happened if he had wavered. Still what is important is that this commitment is not to advance, secure and protect human rights as one might have expected. Oh no! The commitment is “towards advancing, securing and protecting”.

At the speed successive governments have been advancing towards achieving this stated objective one might to have to live to be as old as Methuselah to witness any candid, substantive, verifiable progress.

Lenin spoke of one step forward, two steps back as a tactical progress. The current government has improved on Lenin. It takes one step forward promising freedom of assembly, speech and peaceful protest. Then in the dark of the night unleashes the dogs of war to break up peaceful protests and batter sleeping protesters, perhaps believing that it is acting in the best traditions of democratic government.

And what does the worthy foreign minister tell the assembled diplomats and civil rights activists gathered outside?

“The recent changes that have taken place bear testimony to our continued commitment to upholding our longstanding democratic principles and norms. The constitutional rights to peaceful assembly and expression guaranteed the democratic space for our people to exercise their rights.”

Mr Ali Sabry tells the world the people exercised their rights. Wrong, they exercised their legs and their wits, running away from the battering rams let loose from Temple Trees and later ‘rams’ in uniform unwaveringly, to employ the minister’s lingo, waving their batons or pistols and kicking the sovereign people in the chest in the presence of hundreds of other sovereign people.

The minister and like-minded politicians and their henchmen forget that times have changed and communication has changed even faster. These scenes have been captured on camera and circulated all over the world.

So when Ali Sabry and his backup team sing a different tune and try to present themselves as holier than thou, they end up as the laughing stock.

In defence of the government action, Ali Sabry said, “In this regard, transgression of the law resulting in criminal and unlawful activity was addressed in accord with the law and the constitution where such freedom was abused by elements with vested interests to achieve undemocratic political ends”

Everybody knows the law that was used to clamp down on “unlawful activity”. It is a law that only six months ago, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government promised would not be used and a moratorium was placed on it. That is the Prevention of Terrorism Act which has been the centrepiece of abhorrent law and the UN Human Rights Council and international human rights and legal bodies have been calling for its abolition or at least a watering down of its obnoxious provisions.

As a lawyer, Mr Ali Sabry should surely comprehend that because a law exists it does not necessarily mean it should be used especially when it can be loosely interpreted and power is in the hands of law enforcement agencies that have little or no understanding of its gravity and the ensuing denial of human rights.

Only the other day, a lawyer was charged by the police for tooting his car horn to the tune of the then popular kaputu kaak ,kaak. Some sane judge threw the case out of court. Such use of the law is what this country has descended to.

The promise is to replace the PTA with National Security legislation. What’s in a name, as Shakespeare asked? What assurance does he give the UNHRC and the concerned world that it will not be as grossly unjust as the PTA and it will adhere to international human rights and international humanitarian laws Sri Lanka is a signatory to?

Claiming that it will be in accordance with international best practices is not enough. That is just another promise like all other promises that have been made to the Sri Lankan people and the world. What it will truly be will be seen only when we see it!

Just to round up another promise by this very promising minister let me quote his words: “The government would endeavour to establish a truth-seeking mechanism within the framework of the constitution.

Note the word endeavour. Not that such a mechanism will be established. The government will only try. The Rajapaksas and Ranil Wickremesinghe have been in power since 2005. The same constitution has been in existence since 1978. The war ended 13 years ago. The same people are holding power. Still, it is only endeavouring. Who is Ali Sabry kidding? The UNHRC? The people?

There is more to be said but to that later.

The more one reads or listens to Sri Lanka’s contentions at the Geneva sessions the more one is reminded of the words of poet and satirist Alexander Pope which I amend slightly: “Words are like leaves; and where they most abound, much of truth of promises kept is rarely found”.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London)

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