- Created on 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.
- Created on 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.
- Created on 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.
- Created on 25 August 2014
This is a very troubled period for civil society. The free space for activism that is outside of the government sphere has shrunk due to the policy of centralization adopted by the government. Institutions of the state that are meant to be relatively independent of the government have come under political control. This has had the effect of weakening the system of checks and balances that ensures good governance. It is not surprising that NGOs, which are part of that larger system of governance, and which focus on issues of governance and human rights should feel themselves to be under siege. The negative comments against NGOs by government leaders are part of a trend that seeks to make them a national security problem that requires a stronger governmental hand to control. Recently there have also been publication of regulations that seek to limit the space for NGOs to function, to interact with the media and to conduct their seminars and workshops.
The role of NGOs, which are a part of civil society, has now become a major national issue. There are media headlines and editorials on the allegedly anti national impact of their work. They are being condemned for working hand in glove with the international community to investigate the last phase of the war. The latest critique of them has come through the comment of Finance Secretary Dr P B Jayasundera. Usually it is his comments on the economy that are read and analysed to gain a better understanding of the country’s economy and future prospects. But delivering the keynote address at the opening session of the three day Defence Seminar 2014, which is an international conference organised by the Sri Lanka Army, held for the fourth consecutive year, he ventured beyond the economy to state that “the operation of NGOs in non regulated environments has become a threat to financial management, inclusive development and law and order itself.”
- Created on 18 August 2014
The government is financing more lobbying companies in the US to change the minds of the US leadership. It has been the United States that has been most strongly pushing for an international investigation into the conduct of the last phase of the war. But it is not going to be so easy as influencing the President of the United States through lobbying companies. For the government’s efforts to be successful it has to show progress in two areas that convinces the international community. First, it has to come up with a superior alternative to the UN investigation that is now underway. Second, it has to show that it is serious about practices of good governance that will support such an alternative mechanism. However, the government is having setbacks in both areas which is not a recipe for success, but is one for failure.
The government’s bid to strengthen the national commission appointed by the President to investigate missing persons has induced it to widen the mandate of that body very significantly. As a result the priorities of the commission ay have to shift away from dealing with the issue of missing persons to other complex issues of international humanitarian law and war crimes that were not part of its original mandate. The Chairman of the Commission on Missing Persons has made it clear that the Commission itself did not ask for the international advisors to the commission who have been appointed. In fact they have yet to meet formally, even though a month has elapsed since the first three members of the international advisory team were appointed.
- Created on 04 August 2014
Addressing the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, President Mahinda Rajapaksa explained to the country’s business leaders what his government had achieved in the past nine years. His government had eliminated the LTTE and created an environment in which business led development was possible. In addition, the government had invested massively in infrastructure. Government leaders frequently report on the rapid strides that the country is taking to achieve its development goals. They are able to show concrete evidence in the form of visible assets that include new expressways and many greatly improved roads, the newly opened Independence Square shopping arcade, and the new metropolis of Hambantota.
But there is a problem with the government’s development. This is its compartmentalization. Some sectors of society are prospering. They are rich, articulate and at the cutting edge of progress. But there are even larger sectors in the country, and of its people, that have been left out. This is a recipe for inequity and injustice, and for polarization and bitterness as its fruit. An example would be the hill country where the Tamils of recent Indian origin, also known as estate Tamils live. The towns populated by the estate Tamils are much like they always were. They look like fifty years ago. The gap between Hambantota and Hatton is even wider than the gap between Singapore and Sri Lanka.
- Created on 28 July 2014
The disruption of two media training programmes for Tamil journalists from the former war zones of the North in quick order makes it appear that they have become a target for suppression. In the space of less than six weeks there have been at least two attempts to prevent Tamil journalists from interacting with the larger civil society, to share their experiences and to benefit from the latest advances in methods of news investigation and dissemination. In this context the spokesman for the Free Media Movement has said, “A journalist needs to be trained so that they can do more for society. The government is stopping that from happening. What they want are journalists who will be their puppets.” He added that he had been threatened not to speak at the press conference convened to publicise the issue.
Six weeks ago, a workshop held in a hotel in Negombo on investigative reporting on the enforcement of the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which had been organized for the Northern Tamil journalists by Transparency International’s Sri Lanka Branch was disrupted by a mob who threatened the safety of the participants in violation of their rights to freedom of assembly and expression. The police had only been prepared to offer safe passage to the participants to leave the hotel when the workshop was prematurely stopped. But they were not prepared to ensure that the workshop continued with their protection. The right to free assembly and speech are protected in the Constitution and the police are obliged to protect these rights of the people, but this did not happen.
- Created on 25 July 2014
A delegation from the National Peace Council met the Parliamentary Select Committee established to make recommendations for a political solution to the ethnic problem, on the 6th July at 3 pm. The delegation had met the Committee on an earlier occasion and had been asked to make further submissions and clarify certain matters in the written submissions which follow:
The 13th Amendment was passed in 1987. It provided for devolution of power to Provincial Councils and the subjects and functions devolved to the Provincial Councils were set out in the List.—
Executive Power- The 13th Amendment Article 154C says. “Executive power extending to the matters with respect to which a Provincial Council has power to make statutes shall be exercised by the Governor of the Province for which that Provincial Council is established, either directly or through Ministers of the Board of Ministers, or through officers subordinate to him, in accordance with Article 154F.
154F.(1) There shall be a Board of Ministers with the Chief Minister at the head and not more than four other Ministers to aid and advise the Governor of a Province in the exercise of his functions. The Governor shall in the exercise of his functions act in accordance with such advice except in so far as he is by or under the Constitution required to exercise his functions or any of them in his discretion”.
So there is provision for the Governor to exercise his Executive powers only on the advice of the Chief Minister and the Provincial Council except where under the Constitution he is required to act in his discretion.
But the Provincial Councils Act No 42 of 1987 has gone beyond the constitutional requirement and given the Governor wide powers to act in his discretion without consulting the Chief Minister. Under Art 15(2) the decisions of the Governor are also deemed to be the actions of the President.
But the Provincial Councils Act No 42 of 1987 departed from the principles under-lying the Constitutional Amendment.
All contracts entered to by the Governor in the exercise of his executive power are to be treated as contracts and executed in the name of the Provincial Council and any actions (legal) in relation to the exercise of such executive shall be brought by or against such Provincial Council( Art 16(1) and (2).
- Created on 21 July 2014
The government’s decision to invite three eminent international legal experts on human rights and war crimes to advise its Commission of Inquiry into Missing Persons was unexpected. It caught even senior cabinet ministers by surprise. The government had been steadfast in denying that serious human rights violations and war crimes took place from the commencement of such allegations more than five years ago. So far all inquiries conducted by the government have reaffirmed the government’s position that no such offenses took place. But as those have been a case of the military investigating the military and exonerating the military, the inquiries have not been internationally credible. The appointment of the independent UN investigative team to probe into these matters following the resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council in March of this year appears to have jolted the government to reconsider its past position.
It is noteworthy that the UNHRC resolution of March 2014 had two operative parts to it. The first was to call for an investigation into the past by the Sri Lankan government that met with international standards. The second was to call for the Office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner to commence an independent investigation if the Sri Lankan government failed to carry out such an investigation itself. The appointment of the experts and expanding of the mandate of the Commission comes after the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights launched its own investigation on the war and appointed three experts, also of the highest international calibre and credibility, to oversee the probe. Now by appointing its own three member advisory panel, the government seems to be striving to operationalise the first part of the UNHRC resolution with the hope of diminishing the need for the implementation of the second part.
- Created on 14 July 2014
The ambiguously worded directive from the government’s NGO Secretariat responsible for monitoring non-governmental organizations, and which calls on NGOs to operate within their mandate, has led to strong criticism from a range of actors. These include the main opposition party, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and the international community. The circular issued by the NGO Secretariat that was posted to more than 1400 NGOs throughout the country stated that “It has been revealed that certain Non Governmental Organisations conduct press conferences, workshops, trainings for journalists and press releases which is beyond their mandate. We reiterate that Non Governmental Organisations should prevent from such unauthorized activities with immediate effect.” This statement has led to the apprehension that NGOs as a sector, and as a whole, are being prohibited from conducting press conferences, training journalists and issuing press releases.
The circular put out by the NGO Secretariat is ambiguously worded. There are two ways in which it can be interpreted, and the common view taken by the NGOs and detractors of the government is that the government meant it for the worst. They have all been very critical of the government and voiced their condemnation of this attempt to restrict the freedom of expression and association of civil society groups. The Bar Association said the NGO Secretariat had violated the fundamental principles that governed a free and democratic society guaranteed by the constitution and it was completely militating against the rule of law principles of the country. “We observe that this attempt is nothing but yet another effort to silence the alternative public opinion of the society through inculcating fear psychosis among the section of the society enhancing the autocratic writ to a fearful height."