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A Trip Over Its Own Feet

A Trip Over Its Own Feet

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Published by Thavam

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Published by: Thavam on Sep 11, 2013
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10/26/2014

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APMUCH TO DO: While Sri Lanka has taken some steps towards reconciliation, whichMs Pillay noted, it still has a long way to go.
September 11, 2013
 It is in Sri Lanka's own long-term interests to engage constructively with the manyconcerns raised by Navanethem Pillay during her recent visit there
 As the U.N. Human Rights Council meets once again in Geneva this month, theportents for Sri Lanka are not promising. Later in this session (which began onSeptember 9 and will run until September 27), U.N. High Commissioner for HumanRights Navanethem Pillay will make an oral presentation on Sri Lanka’s human rightssituation based on her recent visit to the country. She is to make a written submission
 
in March 2014.
Some credit
Ms Pillay undertook the visit on an invitation from the Sri Lankan government to seefor herself the progress that the country has made on post-war reconciliation. Theinvitation was made against the background of two resolutions on Sri Lanka in theHRC in two successive years. At the end of her week-long visit, she acknowledged thegovernment’s “excellent co-operation” in the planning and execution of a “complexmission,” her longest in any country, and praised it for honouring its commitment thatshe could go anywhere and meet anyone.Most of her other observations, though, were nowhere near as complimentary. In astatement to the media in Colombo at the end of her visit, the U.N. official gave morethan a hint of what her presentation in Geneva might contain. Ms Pillay’s bombshellconclusion from her week-long visit was that Sri Lanka was moving in an “increasinglauthoritarian direction.”
Overreach
Sri Lanka, which has been urged by the HRC to carry out a credible investigation intoallegations of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law in thefinal stages of the war against the LTTE in 2009, has chosen to respond officially by accusing the U.N. of bias, denouncing Ms Pillay for making “political statements” andaccusing her of mission overreach.Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris dubbed Ms. Pillay as being “unfair, wrong and biased,”and said her statement showed a “disturbing absence of balance.” After a meeting between her and Mahinda Rajapaksa, a statement from the President’s office saidmany Sri Lankans thought of the U.N. as a “pessimistic organisation,” and that MsPillay’s report would contain “prejudged matters.” And in a speech to constituents notlong after her departure, Mr. Rajapaksa said he wondered how anybody could describea country that holds elections regularly — a round of provincial elections is being heldon September 21, in the north-western, central and for the first time, in the TamilNorthern province — as authoritarian.Ms Pillay’s concern though was not about the regularity of elections, but, as she madeamply clear, with the governance deficit that directly and adversely affects or violatespeople’s rights. And it was not as if she had to put herself out to find the evidence —even while she was in Sri Lanka, the military questioned several people she met andspoke to in Trincomalee and Mullaithivu. Describing such surveillance and harassmentas unacceptable conduct at any time and “extraordinary” while a U.N. rights official was visiting, she was clear she would report the matter to the HRC. Sure enough, inher opening speech at the 24th session on Monday, she flagged her concern about this.Differing only in the details and emphasis, her overall message to Sri Lanka was nodifferent from what even friends of the Rajapaksa government at home and abroadhave been saying in more diplomatic language since 2009: the end of the war is anopportunity; use it wisely — as Ms Pillay wished Sri Lanka had done — to construct anew “all-embracing” state.This was also the message in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission(LLRC) that President Rajapaksa appointed in 2010, and whose report the governmentcommendably made public. Notably, both the 2012 and 2013 HRC resolutions praised
 
the LLRC’s recommendations as constructive, though they stressed that it did not gofar enough in recommending actions for transitional justice.
Not enough
Sri Lanka has implemented some of those recommendations, and Ms Pillay noted that, but not enough for substantive progress. It was only a week before the U.N. official’smission that the government finally appointed a presidential commission toinvestigate disappearances in the North and East; some land the military had takenover for its high security zones more than two decades ago has been returned toowners; and the Northern province is all set to get its first elected provincialgovernment later this month. But there is no move to investigate allegations that themilitary deliberately bombed civilian safe havens in the final days of the war. Themilitary still retains an overwhelming presence in the North and East. And thegovernment is seriously considering diluting devolution of powers to provinces, which will undermine what little autonomy provincial assemblies in the Tamil areas aregranted by the Constitution’s 13th amendment. Aside from this, the government has been at best an observer to new emerging faultlines between the majority community and religious minorities even as old ones waitto be addressed. The media feels intimidated after killings and disappearances of  journalists; the “white van” phenomenon, long associated with disappearances, is back in southern Sri Lanka even as families in the North and East still cope with a missingson, husband or father.Ms Pillay made the point that roads and other post-war reconstruction of physicalinfrastructure, and the resettlement of people on the scale that the Sri Lankangovernment undertook are commendable achievements, but cannot by themselves bring reconciliation or lasting peace.Dismissing such concerns as the creation of a biased international system, or of the“LTTE’s agents” within it, has been Sri Lanka’s standard response to any criticismfrom within or outside the country.In this instance, Ms Pillay’s Indian Tamil heritage became a point of debate andsuspicion. The highly respected 72-year-old South African jurist was accused of being a“Tamil Tigress,” a “tool” of western powers, and an agent of India’s Research & Analysis Wing. One minister was crass enough to declare he wanted to marry her sothat he could take her on a trip around the country to teach her Sri Lanka’s history.Usually, those targeted in this manner have preferred to shrug it off diplomatically.Unexpectedly, in her official statement, Ms Pillay hit out at the aggressivepersonalisation of her mission as “deeply offensive”; and disappointingly for herdetractors, described the LTTE as a “murderous” organisation whose acts the Tamilcommunity should not glorify.The best course for Colombo would be to understand and address the range of concerns expressed by Ms Pillay. True, the U.N. is not the most perfect organisation,and the international order is stacked against weaker nations. But that does not meanthe issues she raised do not exist. Indeed, it is in Sri Lanka’s own long-term interests of reconciliation and lasting peace that it deals with these issues — the earlier, the better.The first step in this would be the conduct of a free and fair election in the NorthernProvince later this month, and thereafter, allowing the elected government to function

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