Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • April 2011
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Bob Blake’s visit and a Human Rights Agenda

Posted by harimpeiris on April 26, 2011

Robert O Blake, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs and former United States Ambassador to Sri Lanka is due to visit Sri Lanka on May 3rd, a visit originally scheduled to occur in April but postponed to May. Bob Blake will be coming to Sri Lanka at a time when the government is facing a serious international situation with the publication in full of the UN experts report on accountability issues in Sri Lanka. It is widely believed that the US will be at the forefront of pushing for accountability in Sri Lanka. This also comes at a time when the US State Department has raised serious concerns regarding the state of human rights in Sri Lanka.

“The government and its agents continued to be responsible for serious human rights problems. Security forces committed arbitrary and unlawful killings, although the number of extrajudicial killings declined. Disappearances continued to be a problem, although the total also declined. Many independent observers cited a continued climate of fear among minority populations, in large part based on past incidents. Security forces tortured and abused detainees; poor prison conditions remained a problem; and authorities arbitrarily arrested and detained citizens. Official impunity was a problem; there were no public indications or reports that civilian or military courts convicted any military or police members for human rights abuses. The government established a post-war Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Denial of fair public trial remained a problem; the judiciary was subject to executive influence; and the government infringed on citizens’ privacy rights. There were instances when the government restricted freedom of speech and of the press, and there were incidents of restrictions on freedom of assembly and association. Authorities harassed journalists critical of the government. Infringement on freedom of movement was lower than in the previous year, and citizens were able to travel almost anywhere in the island; in practice police and military checkpoints were still a frequent sight in Colombo and elsewhere, and numerous High Security Zones (HSZs) and other areas remained off limits to citizens. Election law violations and government influence created doubts about the fairness of both the presidential and the parliamentary elections. Official corruption, with impunity, and lack of transparency were serious problems, and the government hampered the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). With the passage of the 18th amendment in September, the mechanism by which the seats on the Constitutional Council and its subsidiary councils are filled was changed. The president now holds the authority to name all members to each of these councils, with only the requirement to “seek advice,” but not approval, of the parliament. Violence and discrimination against women were problems, as were abuse of children and trafficking in persons. Discrimination against persons with disabilities, persons with HIV/AIDS, and the ethnic Tamil minority continued, and a disproportionate number of victims of human rights violations were Tamils”. (US State Department, 2011)

The government response was as follows.

“Yes there are incidents of torture, we ourselves have admitted that but yes there are cases we could not investigate especially in the North and the East due to the conflict,” Prof. Rajiva Wijesinghe told BBC Sinhala service.

Human rights flow from us being human beings. Civilized societies and legitimate states are required to protect them. Human rights violations in Sri Lanka are a sensitive subject. The government denies it; the people ignore it, all part of a social compact, where during a necessary war against separatist terrorism the suspension of civil liberties and resultant violations of human rights were necessary. As Cicero argued in the Roman Senate, “In the war of good against evil, the laws are silent”. However surely there is a very valid political question whether two years after the end of the war, such a situation should continue, whether as part of our peace dividend, an improvement in the human rights situation should not occur.

There are irrefutable facts in the US State Department report we cannot deny, such as impunity. Blanket denials lack seriousness and erode the credibility of the persons making such denials and the institutions they represent. A better response by the Sri Lankan government, her security agencies and Human Rights Commission, would be to admit to problems regarding human rights and take concrete, if small and incremental measures towards improving the same for the betterment and welfare of Sri Lanka.

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