Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • October 2012
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A pro active approach to the rights review in Geneva

Posted by harimpeiris on October 31, 2012

The universality of human rights, adopted by the United Nations of which Sri Lanka is a proud and long standing member in good standing demonstrates its practical application this week, when Sri Lanka’s human rights track record is being scrutinized at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a mechanism where all the one hundred and ninety three member countries of the UN have their human rights track records scrutinized once every four or five years.

The universal nature of human rights is clearly spelt out in the UN’s universal declaration of human rights and its provisions are also basically enshrined in Sri Lanka’s own constitution, giving domestic effect to its international treaties and obligations. The counter argument to the universal nature of human rights is state sovereignty and the rights of a people to determine their own parameters in human rights. However, there are limits to which a state may go, especially in the violation of basic human rights. Accordingly even as Sri Lanka generally bristles at the thought of an international review of its own domestic action on basic rights, it still seeks to project the image of a state defending and upholding human rights. Accordingly members of the Attorney General’s Department and various other sundry government defenders will go to Geneva and claim, entirely unconvincing and in fact untruthfully that Sri Lanka is a sterling defender of human rights.

The areas of concern for the international community are clearly spelt out through the questions that have been asked for the Sri Lankan government to respond to. Sri Lanka has been questioned regarding violence against women, custodial torture, extra judicial killings, and disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, the killing of five students in Trincomalee and the execution of seventeen aid workers from ACF.  Further queries have also been raised regarding democratic issues in the post war period, the unconscionable and Mahinda Chinthanya violating postponement of conducting the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) elections and instead running the Northern Province through the military and an ex military governor.

China lends a helping hand

The Chinese Communist Government has never been known to be particularly concerned about human rights whether in their own country or elsewhere, from Tiananmen Square to Tibet, just ask the Dalai Lama. From Sudan to North Korea, the Chinese demonstrate little interest in the domestic human rights of its friendly nations, so in Sri Lanka, in addition to the port, airport and power plant it is funding in opaque ways, they establish themselves as the sole funders of the government’s military cantonment and resultant demographic change plans in the North.  Accordingly in Geneva they have asked the Sri Lankan government what can be termed a helpful question as to the development measures taken by the government in the post war North. Someone needs to tell the Chinese that a post war public works program is neither a victim centered reconciliation process nor a political settlement for a durable and just peace.  Now, in Sri Lanka the Chinese have felt some need to engage with the hostility they rather obviously create with their insensitivity to local minority community concerns, so the Chinese Ambassador after delaying for months a TNA request to meet with him, not only finally meets a TNA delegation but also does a well publicized tour to the North and proclaims that he believes, contrary to the Sri Lanka government’s stand, that the TNA and Mr.Sambanthan seem truly committed to a durable political solution within a united Sri Lanka.

The Government in a defensive mode

The real crunch at the UNHRC in Geneva is not the current UPR process, but about four months down the road, at the next general session in March next year, when Sri Lanka’s compliance with the resolution passed by the UNHRC at its previous sessions comes up for review. Internationally the Sri Lankan government is seen as defensive and not engaging on the post war reconciliation issues and the human rights concerns that underpin those issues. The government’s general default strategy seems to be that if it procrastinates long enough that the issues will go away and the international community will lose interest, while also perhaps giving an opportunity for a purely security response to reconciliation and human rights to take root. Accordingly there has been only delay in implementing even the government’s own very in house Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC’s) modest recommendations, leading to a near consensus at least in the western world and India that the Rajapakse Administration at its very apex is uninterested and insincere about any pledge to effect any post war reconciliation and address the underlying causes of the ethnic conflict and an ethnically deeply polarized society.

Impeaching the Chief Justice; Lessons from Pakistan and Maldives

It is in this context that government insiders are blithely but seriously considering possibilities of pursuing impeachment proceedings against the Chief Justice, perhaps to seal Sri Lanka’s fate as a banana republic. The head of any country’s apex court is not removed for any cause or no cause, but only due to proven moral turpitude or criminal misconduct. Recent experience from two South Asian neighbors should demonstrate to the Rajapakse Administration, the high political price of pursuing action against an independent judiciary. In Pakistan the quasi civilian regime of General Musharaff ended with his attempts to remove the Chief Justice, who refused to recognize his dismissal. The government had to back down and reinstate him. In the tiny Maldives, democratic icon and populist former President Nasheed is facing criminal charges of illegally ordering the arrest of a senior appellate court judge, while in office.

Assaulting the independence of the judiciary, delaying reconciliation, avoiding political reforms and denying the existence and hence any remedies of any human rights violations in the country is not really a recommended strategy for Sri Lanka to pursue in explaining to the international community its policy framework for a new Sri Lanka in the post war era.

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