Human rights and the NGOs

Place: Sri Lanka | Courtesy: Sunday Leader
| Date: 20000400

Sri Lanka’s ambassador to the United Nations S. Palihakkara, presented Sri Lanka’s official position on human rights developments in 1999, at the 56th sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNCHR) sitting in Geneva.

The thesis of his argument was that ever since the PA government returned to power in 1994 there has been a steady improvement in the human rights situation in the country compared to the scale of violations during the two previous UNP regimes. And though he did admit to certain shortcomings in the human rights regime today, he claimed that remedial measures will be taken soon.

The replay of the same old record you will say and you will be absolutely right. For those of us living here and to Sri Lanka watchers overseas, that is not convincing enough, and the ambassador has to do a little better. The European Union’s statement on the violations of election law and freedom of expression showed it was taking none of that either.

While the representative of the Sri Lanka government was defending his country’s human rights record, NGOs and lobby groups specialising in human rights went about presenting the other, and the bleaker, side of the rosy picture the regime was keen on putting forward.

The NGO delegations were expected to lobby on the following subjects at the UNCHR: 1) response to the report of the United Nations Working Group (UNWG) on disappearances, 2) media freedom and pressurising the government to officially invite the special rapporteur on freedom of expression, 3) child soldiers (both on the government and LTTE sides), 4) torture and rape by the security forces, 5) the peace deals and the Norwegian initiative, 6) internally displaced persons (IDPs) of the Wanni, 7) the pass system in Batticaloa and 8) situation of the Tamils (civilians) in Colombo.

The NGO delegations were not expected to make official presentations, but to lobby delegates on the above issues as a counterweight to the government’s portrayal of the human rights situation in the country.

While NGOs from Sri Lanka were lobbying in the UN, their efforts were assisted by regional and international NGOs, as well as organisations in other countries interested in Sri Lanka. Among the important issues taken up by these delegations were disappearances and freedom of expression.

Disappearances in this country can be categorised into three, period-wise: 1) during Eelam War I - predominantly Tamils (1980-1987); 2) during the JVP insurrection - predominantly Sinhalese (1987-1989) and 3) during Eelam Wars II and III - predominantly Tamil (1990-todate). The interventions have focused on all three periods, but concentrated on the present.

Among the critical responses were the interventions by regional NGOs such as the Hong Kong based Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and its sister organisation Asian Legal Resources Centre (ALRC). The AHRC called for intervention to remedy the grave situation that has arisen over disappearances and has demanded from the UNCHR that an international tribunal be established to probe the issue.

The ARHC in its urgent appeal program’ is lobbying for intense pressure to be brought about by the concerned public on the UNCHR to establish such a tribunal stating that the time is opportune to bring to trial the perpetrators of forced disappearances. The AHRC argues that even the Sri Lankan government admits to around 30,000 disappearances, while the unofficial figure is closer 60,000.

"This immense human tragedy remains unresolved as the families of the victims despair over the inability of the Sri Lanka government to investigate these cases. The scale of the tragedy puts the investigation and trial out of reach of the government and must be taken on by the UN, as is in the case of the Balkans war crime trials. AHRC is of the belief that forced disappearances constitute a crime against humanity."

These strident words were backed by an oral intervention by the ALRC before the UNCHR. The ALRC chides the government for "hardly taking significant action to prosecute the offenders of over 30,000 disappearances." The intervention states that the public confidence in law enforcement is "on an all-time low." The presentation continues that the UN agencies in Sri Lanka are well informed of the scale of disappearances and the negligence to prosecute offenders.

The ALRC statement continues, "The UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearance has made many recommendations which it recently noted had not been implemented. The Working Group visited Sri Lanka in 1999 and its public statements show a lack of progress (in the government responding to the problem of disappearances)."

The establishment of a forum where concerned NGOs are able to express themselves before the various commissions and agencies of the UN is a welcome step in curbing and checking the freedom governments have had in systematically deceiving the international community on human rights as well as on other shortcomings within national borders. Though the real success of this system is still debatable, there is no doubt that it has had a salutary effect on democratising access to a body which once catered only to the constituent governments.

There has however been a systematic campaign by nationalist minded sections of the Sri Lankan public, supported by certain media organisations who perceive NGOs that lobby foreign governments and international organisations as being somehow anti-national and subversive. They find these NGOs which are largely foreign funded, do not necessarily uphold social hierarchies which place Sinhala Buddhists at the pinnacle and others in inferior positions, and propagate the notion that the Sri Lankan state should be plural and multi-cultural, irksome. However, these prejudices are cleverly disguised to seem as if they are concerned about inroads being made into the sovereignty of the state.

It is improbable however to believe that the same sections of the media will reject out of hand as interfering in the affairs of a sovereign state’, interventions made by certain foreign NGOs on matters dealing with media freedom before the UNCHR.

The International Working Group (IWG) issued a lobby document last week urging that the Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Expression (SRFE) be allowed to come to Sri Lanka in 2000. The IWG’s statement places on record that during the 1999 UNCHR sessions in Geneva, the Sri Lanka government was urged by NGOs to invite the SRFE to undertake an official UN visit to Sri Lanka. Despite the SRFE expressing a desire to do so, the Sri Lanka delegation did not extend such an initiative.

The aims of the IWG’s lobby was, among others, to urge that restrictions placed on the press in law and practice are removed; to make representations to the LTTE in regard to freedom of expression in areas under its control; to provide the international community with specific targets with which it may assess the government with regard to its commitment to the freedom of expression; to improve general flow of information in order to fully monitor the human rights and humanitarian needs of the country and to encourage wider and deeper coverage of the conflict and the human rights and humanitarian needs in the conflict zones in both the Sri Lanka and international media.

The IWG lobby document goes on to state the harassment and constraints in law and practice the media faces in Sri Lanka and how the PTA and emergency regulations are invoked to restrict reporting and to circumvent the normal legislative process. It states that the government has imposed a media ban in the conflict areas where there is most likely to be human rights and humanitarian needs violations. It also says that there is no evidence that in areas under defacto LTTE control, freedom of expression is encouraged, tolerated or protected.

Is it for our nationalists find it acceptable that NGOs intervene in certain matters such as freedom of expression and opinion and not on human rights abuses such as disappearances, extra-judicial killing and unlawful detention of Tamils in the hands of the security forces?

The fact is that the Sri Lanka government has a dismal record on human rights that affect both the majority community and the minorities. Leave alone the issue of unity and separation, Sri Lankans have to realise that for the very functioning of institutions and for basic governance, we cannot only remedy abuses in the freedom of expression and franchise.

Transparency and accountability is needed from the security forces and the police when they carry out their official functions, expeditious release of political prisoners and reformation of draconian legislation is required to demonstrate the effectiveness of the judicial system and finally the state has to be made better accountable to the international community as a signatory to the international covenants on civil and political rights as well as on economic, social and cultural rights.

This cannot be achieved by the state alone. Greater the freedom NGOs and international organisations have to intervene in Sri Lanka’s domestic affairs’ the better will all sections of Sri Lanka’s population be assured of the standards of human rights being upheld in this country.

Courtesy: Sunday Leader, 16th April 2000