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Battling the ghosts of Aluthgama

September 11, 2014

In the lead-up to crucial UN Human Rights Council Sessions in arch ne!t "ear, the #o$ernment is in
o$erdri$e to %in o$er the ne% top &n$o" on Human Rights 'rince (eid, and retain the support o) the
Islamic bloc in #ene$a, despite the long shado%s cast b" the *luthgama riots
+hen the Sri ,an-an #o$ernment pins its hopes too dearl" on a particular thing, it is almost a certaint"
that disappointment, disillusionment and bitter resentment are soon to )ollo%. a/or e!pectations %ere
placed on 'rince (eid Ra0ad *l Hussein, mere mortal and ne% UN High Commissioner )or Human
Rights, successor to Na$i 'illa" %ho has pursued and plagued the Ra/apa-sa #o$ernment 1 or so it
belie$es 1 %ith a $endetta since 2002. 3he regime has made no secret o) the )act that 'illa"0s ethnic
3amil heritage has inspired part o) this deep mistrust.
4ordanian (eid %ill be unbiased and pro)essional in his engagement %ith Sri ,an-a, the #o$ernment
belie$es. *s the U'5* counted do%n the da"s to 'illa"0s retirement, there %as perhaps some hope that
the ascension o) (eid %ould turn a ne% chapter )or Sri ,an-a at the UNHRC, %here pes-" resolutions
and in$estigations are cramping its st"le.
Instead, %hen he addressed the 46-member UN Human Rights Council )or the )irst time on 7
September, (eid pro)essed a deep admiration )or Na$i 'illa", %ho he said had been the $oice and lungs
o) $ictims o) abuse and atrocities all o$er the %orld. He $o%ed to carr" on her %or-, and %ith regard to
Sri ,an-a, (eid echoed 'illa"0s call )or cooperation %ith the probe led b" %hat is no% his 8))ice, and
raised strong concerns about threats to human rights de)enders and religious minorities in Sri ,an-a.
In short, the bubble seemed to burst earl". 3he pla"ers might
ha$e changed, but the UN0s top en$o" on human rights issues
is still singing the same tune. +hich is as it should be, e$en i)
the #o$ernment persists in belie$ing that indi$iduals rather
than processes and policies are dri$ing the international
agenda on Sri ,an-a.
+hen it cannot %in o$er processes and institutions, the
#o$ernment prides itsel) on %inning o$er indi$iduals. It
manages this in the 9ritish House o) Commons %here ,ord
Naseb" and a hand)ul o) others raise dissenting $oices against
the U:0s Sri ,an-a polic".
+ith a signi)icant measure o) success, the #o$ernment
managed to %in o$er Common%ealth Secretar" #eneral
:amalesh Sharma, the )ormer Indian diplomat %hose )aith in
Sri ,an-a0s /udicial s"stem and democratic credentials ne$er
%a$ered, e$en at the height o) an illegal and unconstitutional
sac-ing o) the countr"0s Chie) 4ustice.
(eid hails )rom a nation %hich is in turn member o) a bloc o) countries deepl" s"mpathetic to the Sri
,an-an #o$ernment. Ho% much is the #o$ernment0s euphoria about the 4ordanian la%"er0s
appointment as UN High Commissioner )or Human Rights, tied to the belie) that pressure )rom the
right ;uarters could s%a" his opinions on Colombo and its human rights record<
8IC0s crucial role
In this some%hat s-e%ed calculation and in ensuring ongoing support )rom Islamic
nations at the UN Human Rights Council in #ene$a, the 8rganisation o) Islamic
Cooperation =8IC> has a crucial role to pla". 3he 8IC has been o$er%helmingl"
)riendl" to%ards Sri ,an-a, to such a degree that Colombo %as appl"ing )or
obser$er status in the ?6-member bloc o) Islamic nations.
In an unprecedented mo$e, the 8IC issued a strong public statement on Sri ,an-a
)ollo%ing the *luthgama riots in 4une this "ear. In pri$ate, its communications %ith
Colombo %ere e$en more scathingl" critical. 3he 8IC also issued a strongl"-
%orded statement to the #o$ernment, e!pressing its deep displeasure o$er the
$iolence unleashed against the uslim communit" in the island0s south.
3he 8IC reaction to the incidents in *luthgama on 1? 4une unsettled the regime )ar
%orse than all the diplomatic statements combined on the $iolence, in #ene$a,
Colombo and else%here. In mid 4ul", 'resident ahinda Ra/apa-sa dispatched his
presidential ad$isor on uslim *))airs, *bdul Cader ansoor oulana to the
organisation0s head;uarters in 4eddah, Saudi *rabia )or meetings %ith 8IC
Secretar" #eneral, I"ad *meen adani. oulana sought the meeting to e!plain to
the 8IC Chie) that the incident in *luthgama and 9eru%ala had been blo%n out o)
3he assertion came too little too late, since the 8IC had alread" been supplied %ith e!tensi$e
documentation and photographs regarding the $iolence, loss o) li)e and damage to propert" during the
riots. uslim ci$il societ" acti$ists and $olunteers mobilised )ranticall" both during and a)ter the
*luthgama riots, compiling situation reports, damage assessments and press cuttings to create
a%areness both locall" and internationall". *rmed %ith that in)ormation, adini %as able to counter
the #o$ernment en$o"0s narrati$e.
'resident Ra/apa-sa %as incensed %hen his 4ustice
inister and Sri ,an-a uslim Congress Chie) Rau))
Ha-eem held tal-s %ith the 8IC Secretar" #eneral
during an Umrah pilgrimage to ecca in late 4ul".
Ha-eem is belie$ed to ha$e brie)ed an 8IC delegation
e!tensi$el" on the *luthgama $iolence and the
ongoing hate campaigns against the uslim
communit" and its places o) %orship and enterprises
b" hardline groups percei$ed to be lin-ed to the
+hen Colombo reached out to the 8IC to arrange a
high le$el $isit %ith Secretar" #eneral adini to
discuss these issues, the o))er %as reportedl" spurned.
ilitar" mop-up and repair mission
Nearl" three months a)ter religious riots roc-ed the southern to%ns o) *luthgama and 9eru%ala, a
clinical militar" mop-up and repair mission is almost complete in the region. 5ire-damaged mos;ues,
houses and shops in se$eral uslim settlements ha$e been restored b" militar" personnel %hose
construction s-ills ha$e been honed immensel" in the post-%ar phase.
3he area is prone to recei$ing @I' $isits in the months that
)ollo%ed the 1? 4une riots. 'resident ahinda Ra/apa-sa
himsel) attended the reopening o) the Seena%atte mos;ue in
Aharga 3o%n, *luthgama, %hich had been badl" damaged in
the night o) $iolence unleashed largel" against the area0s
uslim population. 3hree %ee-s a)ter the riots, 'resident
Ra/apa-sa sauntered into the Islamic place o) %orship
bare)oot, armed %ith blithe remar-s about religious harmon"
and )oreign conspiracies to so% discord among communities
o) people in Sri ,an-a.
*rm" Chie) ,t. #en. Aa"a Ratna"a-e also toured the region
to inspect the repair %or- b" his men. Ae)ence Secretar"
#otaba"a Ra/apa-sa has stepped up the propaganda dri$e to
den" his lin-s to 9uddhist hardline groups operating in the
countr". 3he 9odu 9ala Sena and its a))iliate hardline
organisations appear to ha$e tempered their anti-uslim
rhetoric )or the time being, %ith the group0s contro$ersial
#eneral Secretar" #alagodaththe #nanasara no% gi$ing
media inter$ie%s about his romantic past.
8IC )act-)inders0 $isit
9ut in the most une!pected t%ist "et, a team o) 8IC )act-
)inders %ill $isit the island on the in$itation o) the
#o$ernment o) Sri ,an-a )or meetings and discussions %ith
#o$ernment o))icials and uslim groups, the Aail" 53 learns.
Highl"-placed sources said the 8IC delegation %ill be dubbed
a Bgood%ill mission0 and comprise o))icials dra%n )rom the
Secretar" #eneral0s 8))ice. 3he Secretar" #eneral0s o))ice in
the 8IC has suo moto po%er to ta-e action on such matters,
and ma" commission such a mission periodicall",
authoritati$e sources told the Aail" 53.
5or o$er a "ear no%, the 8IC0s global Islamophobia %atch unit has been )ollo%ing the tra/ector" o)
anti-uslim $iolence and hate speech in Sri ,an-a, inisterial sources told the Aail" 53. 3hese units
ha$e been submitting periodic reports about the trends in Sri ,an-a to the 8IC Council o) inisters.
3he )act-)inding mission %ill also submit its report to Secretar" #eneral adini at the end o) its $isit.
3he delegation has e!pressed interest in $isiting the riot-roc-ed *luthgama and 9eru%ala to%ns, in
addition to holding meetings %ith high le$el #o$ernment o))icials, uslim ministers, religious leaders
and ci$il societ" groups. 3he delegation has been cautioned to anticipate a stage-managed tour o)
*luthgama, %here the militar"-st"le post-riot clean up has been $er" e))ecti$e. @isa appro$als )or the
8IC delegation ha$e alread" been granted, the Aail" 53 learns, but dates )or the $isit are "et to be
3he 8IC mission %ill be non-intrusi$e and aimed at encouraging e))ecti$e action to curb anti-uslim
sentiment in the island, a top ministerial source told the Aail" 53. 3he #o$ernment decision to permit
the 8IC team entr" into the countr" )or %ide-ranging
discussions %ith multiple sta-eholders spo-e to its %illingness
to ensure transparenc" and open engagement, %hich is an
important )acet in its international dealings, the source added.
+hile some opposition %as li-el" )rom the Sinhala hardline
mo$ements largel" credited %ith ha$ing instigated the
*luthgama $iolence, it %as hoped that the #o$ernment %ould
not capitulate under this pressure, the ministerial source said.
Strangel" enough, uslim communit" leaders are con$inced
that the 9odu 9ala Sena and other hardline groups %ill not act
out during the $isit o) the 8IC delegation. 8rdinaril", such
engagement b" an Islamic grouping %ould be seen as intrusi$e
and cause great umbrage %ithin the hardline camp, but
obser$ers belie$e the groups %ill be on a tight leash during the
In light o) the #o$ernment0s hopes )or High Commissioner
(eid, constructi$e engagement %ith the 8rganisation )or
Islamic Cooperation %ill be seen as crucial to achie$ing its
international goals. It %ill percei$e the 8IC as being an
important pla"er in the campaign to %in (eid0s support, e$en
though there is no proo) "et that the ne% High Commissioner
%ill be %illing to "ield to regional or nati$e in)luences in his
ne% role.
Hope springs eternal ho%e$er, and the regime %ill hope that
%hile the 8IC continues its support o) Sri ,an-a at the UN
Human Rights Council, its po%er)ul leaders and intellectuals
%ill ha$e some s%a" o$er Na$i 'illa"0s successor.
High Commissioner0s appointment
Needless to sa", this ma" be a poor assessment, and one
entirel" lac-ing in understanding o) the politics o) the High
Commissioner0s appointment.
* UN High Commissioner )or Human Rights ma" be
appointed )or t%o )our "ear terms. Na$i 'illa", %ho assumed
o))ice in 2007, onl" ser$ed si!. It is an open secret in the
United Nations that 'illa" %as denied the opportunit" to ser$e
out her )ull eight "ears because she )ell )oul o) +ashington,
due to her staunch criticism o) Israel. 3he US conceded to her term being e!tended b" onl" t%o "ears,
according to )oreign media reports )rom the UN in #ene$a and Ne% Cor-, %hen she %as granted an
e!tension o) tenure in 2012.
Still, the regime is desperate to belie$e (eid is its )riend, /ust as it %as con$inced 'illa" %as its enem"D
(eid is connected to 4ordan0s monarch", and the #o$ernment ma" %ell belie$e that the Islamic bloc,
so passionate in its de)ence o) Sri ,an-a at the UNHRC, %ill ha$e a degree o) in)luence o$er the ne%
UN Rights Chie). 3his ma" pro$e a naE$e miscalculationF not onl" is (eid a passionate ad$ocate o)
international la% principles, but he is %idel" belie$ed to be +ashington0s pre)erred choice )or the
sensiti$e position.
In the long game, the Sri ,an-an #o$ernment can hope to count much less on (eid0s support at the
Council, and much more on the support o) the Islamic bloc. Haunted b" the ghosts and the legacies o)
the *luthgama $iolence, damage control %ith this grouping in the lead-up to the arch sessions in
#ene$a %ill be -e".