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Shooting from the hip

Editorial-August 31, 2013, 6:36 pm
Having failed to rein-in some of its supporters, or possibly having egged them on earlier, the government obviously had no wish to permit any pre-departure ruckus over UN Human Rights Commissioner Navanetham Pillay’s week-long Sri Lanka visit, the longest such mission she had undertaken during her watch in Geneva. There weren’t all that many protestors trying to approach the UN compound on Bauddhaloka Mawatha in Colombo yesterday where Pillay hosted a news conference. In fact the police had blocked off entry from the Thunmulla end and some observers thought that there were more cops around than protestors! Be that as it may, it was clear that good sense had prevailed unlike on a previous occasion when a minister of the government staged what he called a ``fast-unto-death’’ outside the UN compound and prevented, though for a relatively short time, movements in and out of those premises. The police eventually intervened and did not permit the blockade to continue but there was no prosecution of anybody responsible for an illegal siege. In an unusually long statement made at her news conference, Pillay protested about ``some media, ministers, bloggers and various propagandists’’ in Sri Lanka describing her as a tool of the LTTE and in their pay. She said that she had been called the ``Tamil Tigress in the UN’’ and complained that it was not only wildly incorrect but deeply offensive. ``This type of abuse had reached an extraordinary crescendo during this past week, with at least three government ministers joining in,’’ she said. While we Lankans have got used to hearing the kind of nonsense spouted by the like of Minister Mervyn Silva, his most recent being an offer to marry High Commissioner Pillay and teach her the history of this country, and at a time she was on a visit here at the invitation of the government of which he is a member, cannot be tolerated. It is time that the President Rajapaksa puts Silva right. The president has damaged his own image by permitting a member of his cabinet to behave as Silva does. Also, permitting constituents of the ruling coalition to express with impunity viewpoints contrary to the government’s own collective position can only result in damage to the government itself as has been proved during this visit. Pillay said at her press conference that the president had apologized to her for the offensive remarks. That is well and good, but those who made those remarks must be held to account. Although Pillay in her statement expressed the customary pleasantries, thanking the government for its invitation and the ``excellent cooperation’’ and permitting her to go anywhere she wished and see anything she wanted to see, she alleged that some of those she interacted with had been subjected to official surveillance. She specifically claimed that a number of human rights defenders, at least two priests, journalists and many ordinary people who had met her or planned to meet her had been subject to ``harassment and intimidation.’’ She said that she had received reports that that people in villages and settlements in the

Mullaitivu area had been visited by police and or military officers both before and after she arrived there. In Trincomalee, several people she met with had been questioned about the content of their conversation. Saying that the UN takes the issue of reprisals against people because they have talked to UN officials as an extremely serious matter, she said she would report those that had taken place in connection with this visit to the Human Rights Council. It is essential that the government clears the air about these allegations. We cannot accept Pillay’s position, no doubt based on what has been reported to her by her officials, as absolute fact. The people have the right to know whether there had been any kind of intimidation as alleged and if so those responsible must be brought to account. If there was no public outcry of the scale that followed the Weliweriya shooting, and specifically if there were no deaths, it is unlikely that high ranking military officers including a brigadier and some colonels would have been relieved of their duties at least for the time being. It seems fairly clear that the authorities overreacted in that instance. While we do not condone protestors blocking roads, massively inconveniencing people who have nothing to do with what they are protesting about, shooting unarmed protesters and placing passers-by at high risk cannot be accepted. Whatever its findings, a military court of inquiry will not be seen as impartial when the conduct of the army itself is being investigated. It is therefore welcome that the normal magisterial inquiry is proceeding in parallel. President Rajapaksa is reported to have told Pillay at his meeting with her on Friday that there was a perception among people here that her forthcoming report to the UN Human Rights Council may have already pre-judged Sri Lanka and that the UN is a ``biased body.’’ If this is correct, the president had set aside diplomatic niceties and was shooting from the hip. Pillay has done likewise when she said in her statement that ``the war may have ended, but in the meantime democracy has been undermined and rule of law eroded.’’ She also saw Sri Lanka heading in an ``increasingly authoritarian direction.’’ Independent observers of the Sri Lanka scene cannot fail to take notice of the unfortunate manner in which the previous chief justice was impeached and the politicization of the judiciary although the acceptance (and indeed the granting) of state appointments to CJ Bandaranayake’s spouse was to say the least questionable. Fortunately Pillay did not proceed with an ill-advised step of laying a wreath at Puthumathalan where Prabhakaran was killed. A gesture of mourning the loss of lives on both sides in the war would not have been inappropriate. But laying it where Prabhakaran died and tipping off the international media of the wreath-laying would certainly have been over the top. It is clear that Pillay’s report to UNHRC is going to be critical of Sri Lanka. If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that there are many areas in which we are deserving of criticism. An impotent opposition has made it all too easy for a powerful government to do as it pleases regardless of right and wrong. A course correction of sorts was attempted ahead of Pillay’s visit. She has acknowledged the vast strides in the provision of physical infrastructure in the war-wracked areas and other positive developments although the minuses of what she said yesterday far outweigh the pluses. It is a fact of life that we have to engage with the global system as we did with Navi Pillay. The best way of defending ourselves is to set matters right in areas where they are obviously wrong. But politics is the art of the possible and re-election will be the top priority of all those holding office. All else, unfortunately, will be secondary.