Human Rights

Will Commonwealth find UN Human Rights chief credible enough?

Visiting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navaneetham Pillay on Saturday has openly slammed the incumbent regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa as one that is “heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction”.

“I am deeply concerned that Sri Lanka, despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant, all-embracing state, is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction,” she said, while addressing a media briefing in Colombo at the end of her week-long fact-finding mission in Sri Lanka.

“The war may have ended, but in the meantime democracy has been undermined and the rule of law eroded,” she stressed, adding that the physical reconstruction “alone will not bring reconciliation, dignity or lasting peace”.

Both the local and international human rights activists, however, raised a question whether the Commonwealth would find her claims credible enough and halt its preparations forthwith to hold the next Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting as scheduled in November in Colombo.

Need to respect those grieve

“Wounds will not heal and reconciliation will not happen, without respect for those who grieve, and remembrance for the tens of thousands of Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslims and others who died before their time on the battlefield, in buses, on the street or in detention. Clearly, a more holistic approach is needed to provide truth, justice and reparations for people’s suffering during the war,” Ms Navi Pillay said.

During her stay in Colombo, she met President Rajapaksa, top government ministers and high-ranking government officials including Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, political leaders and cross section of people, including some of the war victims. She also undertook visits to the war-ravaged Northern and Eastern provinces and held meetings with war survivors and religious leaders, despite protests and intimidations.

Claiming that she was “extremely moved by the profound trauma” she has seen among the relatives of the missing and the dead, and the war survivors, the UN Human Rights chief said that there are a number of specific factors impeding normalization “which, if not quickly rectified, may sow the seeds of future discord”.

“These are by and large to do with the curtailment or denial of personal freedoms and human rights, or linked to persistent impunity and the failure of rule of law”, she said.

Reprisals utterly unacceptable

Disturbed by the incidents that a number of human rights defenders, priests, journalists, and many ordinary citizens who met with her or planned to meet her ware subjected to harassment and intimidation, she said that the people in villages and settlements in the former war zones of Mullaitivu and Trincomalee areas were visited by police or military officers both before and after her visit and questioned about the contents of the conversation.

Claiming that this type of surveillance and harassment appears to be getting worse in Sri Lanka, a country where critical voices are quite often attacked or even permanently silenced, she warned that it was “utterly unacceptable at any time, it is particularly extraordinary for such treatment to be meted out during a visit by a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights”.

“I wish to stress that the United Nations takes the issue of reprisals against people because they have talked to UN officials as an extremely serious matter, and I will be reporting those that take place in connection with this visit to the Human Rights Council,” she said, urging Colombo to halt these kinds of harassment and intimidation against the rights activists and journalists on a regular basis.

More than 30 journalists are believed to have been killed since 2005, and several more – including the cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda ­– have disappeared. Many others have fled the country. Newspaper and TV offices have been vandalized or subjected to arson attacks – some, such as the Jaffna-based paper Uthayan, on multiple occasions”.

“With self-censorship fuelled by fear, journalists report that there are articles that they dare not write, and others their editors dare not print. Freedom of expression is under a sustained assault in Sri Lanka,” she said.

Verbal attacks, character assassination deeply offensive

Commenting on the scathing verbal attacks and attempts of character assassination prior to and during her visit, she said “some media, ministers, bloggers and various propagandists in Sri Lanka have, for several years now, on the basis of my Indian Tamil heritage, described me as a tool of the LTTE”.

“They have claimed I was in their pay, the “Tamil Tigress in the UN.” This is not only wildly incorrect, it is deeply offensive. This type of abuse has reached an extraordinary crescendo during this past week, with at least three Government Ministers joining in”, she said, without referring to a statement by a government minister proposing to marry her.

She said she was extremely “concerned” about the degree of military involvement in civilian activities and the acquisition of private land to build military camps and installations, including a holiday resort.

“Clearly, the army needs some camps, but the prevalence and level of involvement of soldiers in the community seem much greater than is needed for strictly military or reconstruction purposes four years after the end of the war,” she said, highlighting the continuing high level of surveillance and harassment of former combatants and returnees.

Call for international inquiry to continue

Assuring that the Human Rights Council would be looking to see something credible in terms of investigation of what happened at the end of the war in May 2009 and many other past cases, she said she has also requested more information about the Courts of Inquiry appointed by the army to further investigate the allegations of civilian casualties and summary executions.

Stressing that appointing the army to investigate itself does not inspire confidence in a country where so many past investigations and commissions of inquiry have foundered one way or another, Ms. Pillay said that “unless there is a credible national process, calls for an international inquiry are likely to continue”.

She also expressed grave concern at the recent surge in incitement of hatred and violence against religious minorities, including attacks on churches and mosques, and the lack of swift action against the perpetrators. She said was it was surprising to note that the Government seemed to downplay this issue.

She said with the abolition of the all important 18th amendment, the important checks and balances on the power of the Executive has been badly weakened, while the controversial impeachment of the Chief Justice earlier this year, and apparent politicization of senior judicial appointments, have shaken confidence in the independence of the judiciary.

Colombo not fit to host CHOGM: AI

Issuing a statement on the outcome of her visit, the Amnesty International on Saturday said although it was glad that Navi Pillay got a chance to meet some victims and families of the disappeared in Sri Lanka, reprisals against those she met “doesn’t bode well for the Commonwealth Summit set for November in Colombo”.

The AI said that the Sri Lankan conflict may have ended in 2009, but the level of human rights violations in the country remains critically high. it said that the Sri Lankan government still shows no real will to account for past crimes, combined with new attacks on those calling for accountability.

“There is still every need for the UN to set up an independent international investigation into crimes under international law in Sri Lanka, as Pillay has called for in the past,” the AI said in a statement, demanding that the UN and Commonwealth should “respond effectively to these latest concerns raised by Pillay”.

Image: A Sri Lankan ethnic Tamil girl presents a floral garland as she welcomes U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay as she arrives at a vocational training center in Kilinochchi, Sri Lanka | Eranga Jayawardena - AP Photo

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