- Monday, 15 September 2014
It has become routine to say that today Sri Lanka is more polarized than ever before. For the past two years there has been anxiety within the Muslim community about anti Muslim propaganda and the possibility of targeted violence against them. Now this has found expression in the newly appointed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Zeid al-Hussein’s inaugural speech to the UN Human Rights Council. He said, “I am alarmed at threats currently being leveled against the human rights community in Sri Lanka, as well as prospective victims and witnesses. I also deplore recent incitement and violence against the country’s Muslim and Christian minorities.” Although the new Human Rights High Commissioner is reputed to be moderate in his views, he appears to be following in the path that has been set by his predecessor in office Navanethem Pillay.
Thus it can be seen that the UN mandated investigation into the last phase of Sri Lanka’s war is going ahead despite the efforts of the government to short circuit it. The government has invested in lobbying in the capitals of several important countries, not least the United States, but with no visible results in halting or derailing the probe. Even the replacement of former UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navanethem Pillay has not had any impact on the probe which continues autonomously. The continuing momentum of the war crimes investigation will be causing anxiety in those in the government who are most likely to be at the receiving end of its strictures, and possible sanctions. The limited success of the government’s present lobbying efforts seems to have prompted a rethinking of the government’s approach to it.
- Monday, 08 September 2014
The appointment of a new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Husseinn, presents the Sri Lankan government with an opportunity to engage with the Office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner and to shed some of the negative baggage of the past. The government’s relationship with the former UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Navanethem Pillay, was acrimonious and mistrustful. It was bereft of the dialogue that could have helped to reconcile the differences that existed between the two sides. The main area of dispute has been the question of an international investigation into whether war crimes took place in Sri Lanka. The government would be hoping that the change at the top of the UN Human Rights Commission would mean that the UN investigation that has commenced might be stalled.
The appointment of an UN investigation team was not the former UN Human Rights Commissioner’s arbitrary decision. It followed a vote by the 47 countries represented on the UN Human Rights Council. In March 2014, the majority of countries in that body approved a resolution that called for the establishment of a UN investigation into the last phase of Sri Lanka’s war to ascertain whether war crimes and other serious human rights violations took place and to recommend a course of follow up action. This being the situation, it is unlikely that the new Human Rights High Commissioner will be able to stop the investigation. The decision of a collective body will not be overridden by the personal preferences of those appointed to head that body. It is unlikely that the new UN Human Rights High Commissioner would reverse the course taken by his predecessor.
In his opening remarks, the new UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, has said that ‘Moreover, I attach great importance to the investigation on Sri Lanka mandated by this Council, on which OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) will report later in the session. I encourage the Sri Lankan authorities to cooperate with this process in the interests of justice and reconciliation. I am alarmed at threats currently being levelled against the human rights community in Sri Lanka, as well as prospective victims and witnesses. I also deplore recent incitement and violence against the country's Muslim and Christian minorities.” These words do not suggest any significant departure from the approach of the previous Human Rights High Commissioner, Navanethem Pillay.
- Monday, 01 September 2014
One of the many benefits of the end of the war is the ability of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims to mix with one another without the prospect of getting into trouble. During the time of war, such mixing was potentially problematic, as those who were Tamil could easily be suspected of having links with the LTTE. Therefore even those who were engaged in peace building were wary of bringing members of all ethnic communities together. There was also a second reason. This was the polarization that existed within the communities as they supported one side or the other. This was something that was far too volatile and controversial for anyone or any group to take up. So the issue of the war was, by and large, not discussed in multi-ethnic settings. It was safer to do so in mono-ethnic settings.
However, the end of the war has provided the opportunity for people from the different ethnic communities to come together and to discuss issues. There is less of a need to support one side or the other, as to seek ways to jointly address people’s minds to bringing reconciliation and a political solution which is a mutually shared goal. People at the community level are prepared and willing to engage in joint activities, whether it is discussing together or doing something concrete together, that will heal the wounds of the war. Discussing the causes of the war and how it was fought can still be polarizing. But the search for a solution can be undertaken jointly, as indeed it must, at both the community and national levels. In this context, it is unfortunate that civil society interactions to promote mutual understanding of each other’s sufferings and the way forward are being viewed by sections of the government with suspicion.
- Monday, 01 September 2014
DUE PROCESS OF LAW MUST PROTECT THOSE WHO SEEK THE MISSING
International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances was marked on August 30. On this day, families of disappeared persons in Sri Lanka, and friends and activists, gathered in Vavuniya in the North, to once again publicly appeal to find the missing persons, at least know the truth of what happened to them, and hold those accountable to justice.
Previously in March this year, several Human Rights Defenders were arrested. Several of them were subsequently released following local and international protests. But one of them, Balendran Jeyakumari, continues to languish in prison. She has been a leading campaigner for the rights of those who have gone missing during the war, and of their families. Jeyakumari is a victim herself who lost three of her four children in the war. Two of them were killed in the course of the war. The third, a boy aged 15 at the time he went missing, is alleged by her to have been taken into government custody. Her remaining child, a girl aged 13, has been pictured in the media carrying the photograph of her missing brother, and asking for her brother’s return.
The arrest and detention of Balendran Jayakumari under controversial circumstances and without being brought to trial, raises the question whether those who speak out on behalf victims of the war are being targeted for arbitrary punitive action. Due process of justice requires that the suspects should be tried before courts without being held for long periods under detention. The Prevention of Terrorism Act, which is a widely criticized law, allows individuals to be detained for up to 18 months without charge. But it was for use during the war. Today, Jayakumari is detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for over five months by a court order and languishes in the Boosa detention centre which is at the other southern corner of the country.