Concluding her recent fact-finding trip to Sri Lanka, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay warned that President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government was “heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction… despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant, all-embracing state”.
Pillay’s statement cited a long and growing list of serious human rights problems, including “persistent impunity and the failure of rule of law”.
The Sri Lankan government responded to her comments with accusations of “prejudice” and a “lack of fairness and balance”.
Alleging authoritarianism, it argued Pillay “clearly transgresses her mandate and the basic norms which should be observed by a discerning international civil servant” and was a “caricature” who was “influenced by vested interests”.
During her trip, ministers had questioned Pillay’s motives and even-handedness.
Citing her south Indian heritage, they argued she was sympathetic to the Tamil Tigers, who were defeated in the brutal conclusion to Sri Lanka’s quarter-century of war in May 2009.
Such harsh public criticism of the high commissioner would be unusual in other contexts, but it is the Sri Lankan government’s routine response to international officials who challenge their narrative of a post-war Sri Lanka well on its way to reconciliation.
The government’s denial and refusal to engage even well-intentioned criticism are reflected in its continuing repudiation of important reforms called for in consecutive resolutions by the UN Human Rights Council in March last year and this year.
Not surprisingly, Sri Lankan activists and political opponents face much worse treatment.
Pillay highlighted the government’s “harassment and intimidation” of community leaders and human rights advocates she had just met.
“Utterly unacceptable at any time,” she said, “it is particularly extraordinary for such treatment to be meted out during a visit by a UN high commissioner for human rights.
“This type of surveillance and harassment appears to be getting worse in Sri Lanka, which is a country where critical voices are quite often attacked or even permanently silenced.”
It is to the great credit of Pillay that she has brought global attention to the problem, having raised the issue in her opening statement to the UN Human Rights Council, whose latest session began this week.
Pillay’s initial assessment of her visit made it clear she wasn’t fooled by a series of government moves – a handful of arrests, a few new inquiries, recycled promises of legal reform – designed to make it appear as if it is addressing international concerns about impunity and rule of law deficits.
Although Pillay “welcomed” a newly appointed commission of inquiry into war-time disappearances – the latest in a long line of official commissions that have failed to weaken systemic impunity – her fundamental message was clear: the Rajapaksa government was moving in the wrong direction.
Her week-long fact-finding mission affirms the International Crisis Group’s findings that Sri Lanka has spurned the suggested reforms called for by the UN Human Rights Council in March last year and this year.
Sri Lanka has failed even to implement the core recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.
Pillay found Sri Lankans faced a “sustained assault” on freedom of expression; a judiciary whose independence was badly undermined by January’s politically motivated impeachment of the chief justice; an “oppressive and intrusive” military presence in Tamil majority areas of the north and east; a “recent surge in incitement of hatred and violence against religious minorities, including attacks on churches and mosques”, without effective action being taken against the perpetrators; and a continued failure to investigate allegations of war crimes in a credible and independent manner.
In response to the charge of authoritarianism, the government has pointed to Sri Lanka’s numerous post-war elections as proof of its democratic credentials.
As the campaigning under way for provincial council seats illustrates, elections that are held in the context of state control of the media, impunity for rights violations and heavy militarisation are better seen as useful tools to consolidate Rajapaksa’s government power rather than as opportunities for open debate and citizen choice.
The lesson of Pillay’s visit is not just that the situation is deteriorating, but that the Rajapaksa regime’s rigid denial of its grave human rights crisis demands a more robust united international response.In this context, South Africa has an important role to play when it joins other Commonwealth leaders at the organisation’s annual heads of government meeting in Colombo in November.
Commonwealth leaders should publicly challenge Sri Lanka’s institutionalised impunity for human rights abuses, its tolerance of attacks on Muslims and the deliberate undermining of the rule of law.
They should publicly insist on the need for a proper process of accountability for events at the end of the war – as the ANC and South African government have previously called for.
The government should not be allowed to use the Commonwealth heads of government meeting to showcase a false picture of a democratic country at peace and on the road to reconciliation.
Members of the UN Human Rights Council should begin informal discussions to design an international mechanism empowered to investigate the many credible allegations of violations of international law by both sides in Sri Lanka’s civil war and monitor continuing human rights violations and attacks on the rule of law.
The council should move to establish this mechanism during its session in March next year.
Before leaving Sri Lanka, Pillay expressed shock at the levels of trauma and emotional distress she encountered in those she met from the north and east, especially among families of those forcibly disappeared.
“I have never seen this level of uncontrollable grief,” she said.
The emotional and political wounds of Sri Lanka’s decades of civil war can only begin to be healed once the government ends its policy of denial.
Insisting the Sri Lankan government do so is perhaps the most important way the international community can help lay the foundations for a sustainable and just peace.
* Keenan is project director and senior analyst on Sri Lanka for the International Crisis Group