An Arrogant Sri Lanka Has Been Let Off The Hook Despite drawing Heavy Fire In Geneva For Lack of Progress On LLRC

By: Veluppillai Thangavelu

The Greek philosopher and physician Sextus Empiricus (c. 160-210 AD) wrote 'The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind small' meaning at some point a sinner will be punished and that it takes time in coming. If Empiricus is alive today he would have re-phrased his saying as 'The mills of UNO grind slowly, but they grind small.'

The Thamil Diaspora and human rights activists who awaited the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) sessions at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) held on November 01, 2012 with hope and interest would have been disappointed that Sri Lanka has been let off the hook one more time thanks to the last minute volte face by the Indian delegation! US, France and Switzerland lost no time to express their displeasure at India's summersault! Sri Lankan Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe was able to paint a lily white Sri Lanka that is already implementing 110 out of 210 recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) almost 18 months ago. Ironically the sessions coincided with Mahinda Rajapaksa government presenting an impeachment motion against Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake on the very day the UNHRC was reviewing Sri Lanka's progress on human rights.

Add to the impeachment motion there were talks at the highest level of corridors of power to abolish the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in clear violation of the commitments undertaken by the Sri Lankan government at the last UPR in 2008. The call for the abolition of the 13th Amendment came from Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who is notorious for his anti-Thamil crusade and his ‘war crusade’ during the last stages of the war. Though in name he is a public servant, he in fact is the de facto Defence Minister. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa's call has been a fall from manna to the die-hard Sinhalese - Buddhist racist elements within the government.

The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) led by Minister Champika Ranawaka and the Nation Freedom Front (NFF) led by Minister Wimal Weerawansa have begun a vigorous strong campaign against the 13th Amendment with the blessing of the Mahanayaka Theros of Malwatta and Asgiriya Chapters.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa told BBC recently that ‘North is not just for Tamils’ and the ‘TNA should be accountable for LTTE atrocities’. He also said that TNA is asking the same demands that LTTE earlier espoused. Gotabhaya Rajapaksa may be somewhat right when he says North is not just for Tamils, because there are Muslims and Sinhalese living there. But, this cannot nullify the claim by the Thamil people that North as well as East is their ‘historical habitation’ or even ‘homeland.’ The Indo Sri Lanka Accord signed by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India and President J.R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka, on the 29th of July 1987, acknowledged that the Northern and Eastern Province 'have been areas of historical habitation' of the Tamils in the island of Sri Lanka. (Preamble to Indo Sri Lanka Accord, July 1987)

What is deplorable is the way he says it, his ranting and fuming, his facial expression and the context. He is undoubtedly emotional and frenzied and that is an indication of prejudice and perhaps something worse than that. He was also the key person who didn’t want the national anthem to be sung in Thamil by the school children in the North!

Among the recommendations of the LLRC one was on the issue of the 13th Amendment. The LLRC recommended that “devising an appropriate system of devolution that addresses the needs of the people.” It did not refer to the 13th Amendment, but it wanted an appropriate system of devolution that address the needs of the people. One can infer that the LLRC wanted the government to go beyond the 13th Amendment. Therefore, it would be a Himalayan blunder if the government goes ahead with the abolition of the 13th Amendment, if not immediately but in course of time.

It may be recalled Mahinda Rajapaksa during and after the war was harping on Devolution and the 13th Amendment as the solution for the festering ethnic divide.

Unsurprisingly, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe Minister of Plantation Industries and Special Envoy of the President on Human Rights waxed eloquent about the enormous strides the Sri Lankan government has taken to implement the LLRC proposals. He had a bad brief, yet he ventured to put up a brave face despite his government's dismal record on human rights, rule of law and erosion of democracy. He was engaged in damage control efforts and defending his government come rain or sun. In point of fact he was defending a corrupt dictatorship and lying through his teeth through out his speech. For instance he listed an itinerary of subjects contained in the LLRC Action Plan that the government propose to implement not already implemented. The implemented areas so far are as follows:

    Devising a centralized database of missing persons;
    Implementing the Registration of Deaths Act (2010);
    Creating a centralized database of detainees and make access available to next of kin;
    Screening detainees to identify those with special needs;
    Examination of cases of young ex-combatants, release and reunification with families;
    Establish a task force to develop and implement a child tracing programme;
    Ensure freedom of movement for media including in the North and East;
    Remove restrictions on visiting places of worship;
    Allow visitors from overseas to visit recently resettled areas; and
    Free movement of persons on Kandy-Jaffna A9 Highway.

Despite the tall claim by the Minister a register of missing persons is still not available to the public. A centralized database of detainees and make access available to next of kin is still not available. This was a promise the government made one year ago to the TNA leaders. The released ex-LTTE cadres after rehabilitation are in many cases made to fend for themselves. They are under close watch by the army and kept in leash. Recent reports suggest that released LTTE cadres have been re-arrested and reported missing after arrest. A task force to develop and implement a child tracing programme is to be appointed in the future. Media persons still faces threat and cohesion to toe the line. The latest causality is Fredrica Janz, editor of Sunday Leader fired for exposing and criticising the government. Recently, she had a slanging match with the all powerful Gotabhaya Rajapaksa who scolded the poor editor in raw filth. Latest reports say she has fled the country like many of her colleagues earlier. Defence Secretary says quite frankly that "He only ‘threatened to sue her’ and ‘not to kill her’ to mean The Sunday Leader Editor, Frederica Jansz.

Fortunately, there were few takers for Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe's harangue. The UN Ambassador dryly claimed what Samarasinghe has said is old stuff. The US, author of the Resolution on Sri Lanka at the 19th session of the UNHRC in March this year, made a firm statement at Sri Lanka’s UPR. US Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe while commending certain steps taken by the government expressed serious concerns over the continued violation of human rights taking place in Sri Lanka. Donahoe also referred to the move to impeach the Chief Justice and said, “Especially in light of today’s news of the efforts to impeach the Chief Justice, strengthen judicial independence by ending government interference with the judicial process, protecting members of the judiciary from attacks, and restoring a fair, independent, and transparent mechanism to oversee judicial appointments”.

US State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland has said that the US also noted with concern recent threats to Sri Lankan judicial officials, including the assault last month on a judge who had publicly criticized government pressure on members of the judiciary. “We urge the Government of Sri Lanka to avoid any action that would impede the efficacy and independence of Sri Lanka’s judiciary. The United States along with our partners in the international community continues to urge Sri Lanka to address outstanding issues of the Rule of Law, democratic governance, accountability and reconciliation,” Nuland said.

The statements made by Donahoe and Nuland last week were warning signs to the Rajapaksa government that the focus of the international community was once again on Sri Lanka. The US that which remained somewhat subdued in relation to Sri Lanka since last March made a firm statement during Sri Lanka’s UPR. Donahoe’s statement: “We note steps taken by the government of Sri Lanka to resettle IDPs, foster economic growth, improve infrastructure, and develop a National Action Plan for implementing a number of recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC)”.

However, the US stated that it remained concerned by the consolidation of executive power, including the passage of the 18th Amendment, and that no agreement has been reached on political devolution.

“Former conflict zones remain militarized, and the military continues to encroach upon daily civilian and economic affairs. The Ministry of Defence has controlled the NGO Secretariat since 2010,” Donahoe noted. However, the most serious comment by the US was to say that serious human rights violations continue, including disappearances, torture, extra-judicial killings, and threats to freedom of expression.

“Opposition figures have been harassed, detained, and prosecuted. There have been no credible investigations or prosecutions for attacks on journalists and media outlets. In the past 30 days, a judge who questioned executive interference in the judiciary was severely beaten in broad daylight by multiple assailants and derogatory posters appeared in Colombo threatening the director of an NGO challenging a government bill that would weaken provincial councils. No arrests have been made,” Donahoe stated.

The US made several recommendations that include the implementation of the constructive recommendations of the LLRC, including the removal of the military from civilian functions; creation of mechanisms to address cases of the missing and detained; issuance of death certificates; land reform; devolution of power; and disarming paramilitaries. The US also observed: “Transfer NGO oversight to a civilian institution and protect freedom of expression and space for civil society to operate, by inter alia investigating and prosecuting attacks on media personnel and human rights defenders. End impunity for human rights violations and fulfill legal obligations regarding accountability by initiating independent and transparent investigations, which meet international best practices, into alleged violations of international law and hold those found culpable to account”.

The US publicly warned Sri Lanka that if it did not satisfy its promises, the next Geneva session will be a difficult meeting to Sri Lanka. The US also warned that Sri Lankan government is engaged in anti-democratic actions without fulfill the promises given to the International countries.

India accused of watering down the US resolution in March came hard on Sri Lanka to the surprise of the diplomatic community. Ruffled by the move to abolish the 13th amendment, India the architect of that piece of legislation in its brief statement after commending the government’s resettlement and related efforts dedicated more of its statement to the concerns it had over Sri Lanka. New Delhi has once again firmly stated its stance on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. India called on Sri Lanka to honour its commitment made to the international community at the last UPR in 2008 where it was said that the 13th Amendment would be implemented and built upon to create a meaningful devolution package.

“We recall the commitments made by Sri Lanka to the international community during the UPR 2008 and on subsequent occasions for the implementation of the 13th Amendment and building on it so as to build a meaningful devolution package. We urge expeditious action to take forward the political process for an early political solution,” the Indian statement said. India also noted, “We have noted the announcement by the Sri Lankan government on holding Provincial Council elections to the Northern Province in 2013. We urge that the people of the Province should be able to exercise their democratic rights as guaranteed to them by the Sri Lankan Constitution as early as feasible.

“We look forward to the effective and timely implementation of the constructive recommendations contained in the LLRC report. These include those pertaining to early progress towards reconciliation, promotion of a trilingual policy, reduction of high security zones, return of private land by the military and phasing out of the involvement of the security forces in civilian activities in the Northern Province. We have noted the Action Plan proposed by the Sri Lankan government for time bound implementation of these recommendations. We believe that early and visible progress in this regard will foster genuine reconciliation. We call for credible investigations to be conducted in respect of allegations of Human Rights violations and incidents involving loss of civilian life brought out in the LLRC report.”

Responding to the delay in holding elections in the Northern Province, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe assured the Indian delegation that the Northern Provincial Council elections will be held on time. Samarasinghe further stated that 32 out of the 34 local government bodies have already been elected in the Province. Interestingly, Samarasinghe refrained from elaborating on the Rajapaksa government’s stance on the 13th Amendment or how it planned to move ahead with the implementation.

Canada home to over 300,000 Thamils of Ceylonese origin asked Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe to inform the UPR the status of this process, responsible institutions, progress to-date, and benchmarks for completion of these investigations. Canada made several recommendations that Sri Lanka:

    (1) Repeal Sections 9 (1) and 15 (A) (1) of the Prevention of Terrorism Act to ensure that detainees are held only in recognized places of detention, with regularized procedures and safeguards to protect detainees including access to legal representation and systematic notification to families of detainee whereabouts. 2. Create a mechanism to ensure that all internally displaced persons, including 66,151 “Old IDPS” and further 103,274 living with host communities, receive a written statement detailing their entitlements and plans for return to their original homes. 3. Expedite implementation of reconciliation measures in the North. This would include removing oversight of humanitarian and NGO activities from the purview of Ministry of Defence to a civilian body, reducing the intrusiveness of military presence on civilian life in the North and setting a specific date for free and fair Northern Provincial Council elections.

Canada also expressed serious concerns with respect to Sri Lanka’s human rights situation. Reports of intimidation of journalists and others critical of government policy are particularly troubling. The government must guarantee freedom of expression of its citizens. More than three years after the end of the war, many of the underlying causes have not been adequately addressed. There is little evidence of progress towards establishment of political reconciliation involving devolution of power, as per the 13th Constitutional Amendment.

However, the harshest criticism against Sri Lanka came from the permanent mission for Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Geneva. The British mission accused the government of attacks and intimidation of journalists, human rights defenders and legal professionals. The reference to alleged attacks and intimidation of legal professionals was made in the wake of the SLFP-led UPFA government moving to impeach Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake over alleged misconduct and malpractices on her part. The British mission warned Sri Lanka against legal or political immunity for those responsible for attacks as it would then have to face the consequences. The government was also strongly advised not to target those cooperating with UN mechanisms.

Indicating that it was not satisfied with the progress in the ongoing investigations into accountability issues, the UK demanded a thorough investigation into what it called grave breaches of international humanitarian law during the armed conflict. In other words investigation into genocide.

UK also demanded a safe environment for people to express their views and beliefs without being targeted, while urging the government to invite Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression. Sri Lanka was told that as in any democracy open and honest debate and respect for the rule of law would be crucial to overcoming major challenges.

All in all Sri Lanka came under heavy fire from the international community though it had also its backers like Russia, China and Cuba. It looks though the world is still divided like during the cold war era.

The talk about abolishing the 13th Amendment may be a red herring to divert the attention of the international community from core issues like the LLRC. So also the impeachment motion against Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. Sri Lanka's government has accused the country's chief justice of unexplained wealth, misuse of power and had "plunged the Supreme Court and the office of chief justice into disrepute."

The Sri Lankan government remains arrogant and has not displayed the political will or commitment to bring about genuine reconciliation between communities. Drunk with absolute the government is doing everything in its power to move on the opposite direction sliding towards a dictatorship under the cloak of democracy.

The Thamil Diaspora should keep up the pressure. Bishop of Mannar Rayappu Joseph added his voice via Skype on behalf of the Thamil people. He stated that the 13th Amendment is “fundamentally flawed” and has called for the recognition of the Tamil people as a nation as crucial to bringing about peace on the island. Speaking further he said "Our solution does not lie in the 13th Amendment but on the Tamil nationhood to be recognised. We are not a minority. From the beginning of history there have been two nations, that must be recognised.” The Bishop then went on to state that the 13th Amendment was “fundamentally flawed” and called for the Tamil people to have the “right to rule”. The next UN Human Rights Council Session 2013 Monday 25 February to Friday 22 March 2013 in Palais des Nations, Genève, Switzerland. The international community must stop barking and really bite Sri Lanka by imposing sanctions against Sri Lanka, if it continues to dilly dally and take refuge under subterfuges from implementing the recommendations of the LLRC fully and in good faith. The mills of UNO have grinded slowly far too long.

Please Click here to login / register to post your comments.