Politics & Economy

Undermining the Legacy of Mandela: Zuma's silence on Sri Lankan rights abuses

The Canadian and Mauritian heads of state boycotted the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting held in Sri Lanka earlier this month because of the host country's appalling human rights record. More than half the leaders of the 53 member states stayed away, making this the lowest turnout in the group's history.

Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu said days before the meeting that it should not be held in Sri Lanka.

British Prime Minister David Cameron made strong remarks at the meeting about the lack of accountability for rights abuses in Sri Lanka. He was echoing the call in March by the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Navaneetham Pillay, for an international commission of inquiry into crimes committed against members of the Tamil minority during the civil war that ended in 2009 after 26 years.

Local and international rights activists have been making such calls since 2009 and been endorsed by a UN panel of experts that included former South African Truth and Reconciliation (TRC) commissioner Yasmin Sooka.

Prominent and diverse civil society groups in Sri Lanka boycotted the official Commonwealth People's Forum and held an alternative event. The police stopped a rights event held by the country's main opposition party at its headquarters the day before the meeting began, and participants from the north were prevented from coming to the meeting. 

Cameron became the first head of state to visit the war-ravaged northern town of Jaffna, snubbing government and military officials and opting to meet people who are still displaced because of the military's land occupation. He visited a Tamil newspaper whose editors, staff and premises have been attacked repeatedly for publishing content critical of the government.

South African President Jacob Zuma, by contrast, was among the heads of state who refused to consider a boycott against Sri Lanka, to speak out about human rights abuses or to show symbolic solidarity with the victims.

The boycotts, Cameron's remarks and symbolic actions, as well as widespread international media coverage of rights abuses and the stifling of dissent in the country, gave fresh momentum to the idea of an international commission. But Zuma appears to have joined hands with Sri Lanka's authoritarian rulers in warding off such long-awaited measures by pushing, instead, for a South African-style TRC.

Yet something that became apparent to me during a three-month stay in South Africa earlier this year was the government's inability or unwillingness to deal with the "unfinished business" of the apartheid era by implementing key recommendations of the TRC. There is a lack of justice and reparations for the vast majority of apartheid-era victims, survivors and their families, even after two decades of transition to democracy.

If South Africa does promote such a flawed process without honest self-reflection, it would spell disaster for Sri Lanka or any other country.

The many domestic commissions that this and previous Sri Lankan governments have appointed show that there is absolutely no real interest in truth-seeking or accountability on their part. The recommendations of the most recent high-profile commission remain unimplemented more than two years later; the reports of other commissions have never been published.

Overall, this month's meeting generated much international coverage of human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government.

The systematic repression of freedom of assembly and expression in the weeks before and during the meeting was only the tip of the iceberg.

Unlike local mainstream media, many international journalists tackled this onslaught on press freedom head-on, writing about and broadcasting the intimidation. Sadly, most Sri Lankan media appear to have been cowed by the government.

It was exposed that the government organised or orchestrated pro-government rallies across the country, even as police cracked down on protests by victims of abuse.

The meeting was an international public relations disaster for the Sri Lankan government and a small victory, perhaps a ray of hope, for victims of violations and their families. They noted that Zuma remained silent on the matter of human rights and sided with the government, attempting to undermine international initiatives to push for accountability in Sri Lanka.

Such positioning by Zuma will further undermine the legacy of Nelson Mandela across the world, as well as give the lie to South Africa's portrayal of itself as a world leader in the promotion of democracy and human rights.

Image courtesy: Chris Jackson / Getty Images

© Mail & Guardian


Ruki Fernando is a Sri Lankan activist based in Colombo and attached to the Inform Human Rights Documentation Centre. He works closely with families of the country’s disappeared on documentation, local campaigns and international advocacy.

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Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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