By Rajiva Wijesinha –
I noted earlier that the visit of Navanethem Pillay should be seen as an opportunity by the Sri Lankan government, and the way the visit went, as well as the statement she made, confirms this view. Of course we had to contend with the fact that not all the advice she received was constructive, but the manner in which she reversed her earlier intention to lay flowers at Mullivaikkal indicates that she herself wanted to be positive. Though she argued that she had placed flowers elsewhere, she is too intelligent a woman not to have realized that her gesture would have been seen as a tribute to the LTTE, not to the victims of the long drawn out conflict.
I suspect too that, having come here, and seen our basic commitment to pluralism, she would have for the first time realized what an aberration the LTTE was. Though I do not think she would ever have stuck up for terrorists, she might have thought previously of the LTTE as at least in part freedom fighters, given her own upbringing in South Africa, where the Africans were without dignity or rights in the dark days of apartheid. Coming here would have helped her to understand the difference, and that I believe prompted the first foursquare condemnation of the LTTE from the UN system that we have now finally heard.
Sadly this was accompanied by the one blot on an otherwise very balanced and potentially helpful statement. She claimed that the LLRC report ‘side-stepped the much-needed full, transparent, impartial investigation into the conduct of a conflict that saw numerous war crimes and other violations committed by both sides’. This parroting of the American stance was a pity, because it could allow her detractors to side-step the other important points she raises.
I say American stance, because it was the Americans who, alone of what they term the international community, attacked the LLRC report on these grounds, in a perverse statement by Victoria Nuland that was in sharp contrast to the very positive approach of other countries – including the British, who had first started the call to hounds in this connection, but whose current High Commissioner, John Rankin, is a very different person from the David Miliband groupies we had previously.
The American condemnation of the LLRC report was taken up also by the TNA, just as it had taken up the American support for Sarath Fonseka in 2009, and by the CPA. This in turn led to the extremists in government attacking the LLRC from the other side. Though I think they were wrong to do this, instead of supporting government commitment to its recommendations, I can understand their fears that the Americans and their allies, having waited till these recommendations were implemented, would then have also demanded their pound of flesh. Unfortunately the negative approach of Wimal Weerawansa and his ilk have meant that the LLRC recommendations were not implemented swiftly.
That position is now changing, though perversely government failed to ensure a meeting between Ms Pillay and Mrs Wijayatilaka who is now in effect in charge of ensuring implementation, and her also very efficient Deputy Anura Dissanayake (who has also now got to act as Secretary to the Ministry of Education, another instance of the over-burdening that all competent individuals in this country, apart of course from myself, have to endure).
The other reason I stressed the American repudiation of the LLRC report is because of the increasing evidence of the manner in which they use allegations of Human Rights violations to fulfil their own devious agendas. Ms Pillay told me that she was deeply concerned about the situation in Syria, and I got the impression that she understood very well that the Americans were trying through false propaganda to justify the attacks on President Assad that they and their Israeli allies have long dreamed of. I sent her some evidence of the plotting that had taken place, and the next couple of days saw even normally compliant Western journalists providing details of the manner in which extremist rebels the Americans favoured had been guilty of the use of chemical weapons. I can only hope then that Ms Pillay will be forthright in her condemnation of what is going on, and not ignore the cumulative evidence of ruthlessness that we have seen in Iraq and Libya and other places where thousands have been sacrificed on Uncle Sam’s altar.
For the rest, I found Ms Pillay’s report extremely helpful, though perhaps this was because she repeated many of the things I have been saying for a long time. Though the advice I have given has been consistently ignored, government may take Ms Pillay more seriously, given the possible adverse consequences of ignoring her. Whether the Ministry of External Affairs understands this is of course another question.
Chief amongst the points Ms Pillay made was one I discussed recently with military officers, in saying that cement alone was not enough. Her more elegant version was that ‘physical reconstruction alone will not bring reconciliation, dignity, or lasting peace’. Unfortunately, carried away perhaps, as I have suggested, by progress in the East, government has ignored this fact and failed to treat the concept of reconciliation with the seriousness it deserves.
Going hand in hand with this is her recognition of a ‘desperate need for counseling and psychosocial support in the North’. I have pointed this out repeatedly, indeed I anticipated the need for this in 2008 and had very productive discussions with the WHO in Geneva about preparing for this, but unfortunately such matters were forgotten when the Peace Secretariat was closed down and matters left to those who cannot conceive of spiritual and mental problems in their concentration on the material.
I am also sorry that government has thus far ignored my pleas that we must provide closure to those who have suffered bereavement. Ms Pillay, in stressing this aspect, will I hope recognize that the confrontational approach of War Crimes allegations will not help, and that the belated but welcome Commission on Disappearances should be supported, in terms of truth seeking rather than punishment giving. Her point that disappearances in the rest of the country too should be looked into is a very valid one, and I hope government takes this on Board and expands the scope of the Commission. I hope too that government accepts the suggestion to invite the Working Group on Disappearances. We had very positive interactions with them when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights, and indeed they acknowledged this in a report at that time, but after the Ministry was abolished our Mission in Geneva failed to respond to their queries.
This was part of the absurdity of having entrusted Human Rights to the Ministry of External Affairs, and one of our officials who had been moved there told me that the then Secretary had been misled when he claimed that responses were sent to missives from the Office of the High Commissioner. A very able Secretary to the Mission in Geneva, who refused an extension in despair at the lack of communication evinced by the lady in charge of Human Rights after Tamara Kunanayakam was sacked, confirmed that we had behaved like the proverbial ostrich when letters arrived, which naturally contributed to the view that we simply did not care.
And perhaps indeed we do not care, as was evident from the fact that the National Human Rights Action Plan was not highlighted during Ms Pillay’s visit. I don’t think she can be blamed for not mentioning it, and we cannot fault Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe for having obviously failed to make any impression on her, given that he has no clear mandate with regard to Human Rights, but simply acts as an envoy on matters over which he has no real influence.
It is possible then that the newspaper report which claimed that the President was annoyed with the Foreign Ministry for arranging a meeting with Minister Samarasinghe is accurate, but the responsibility for that lies with both Ministers concerned for having failed to brief the President on the importance of the NHRAP, and the need to expedite action on this. Neither had explained to the President the importance of establishing a Ministry for the subject, and if we are to muddle on as now, with no clear responsibilities for the subject, we can only anticipate further disasters in the months to come.
This situation is the sadder because there was such a splendid opportunity to set things right when a new Ministry for the Police was established. Ms Pillay was I think wrong to focus on the Ministry being under the President as the problem, since that does not preclude the civilian approach she rightly wants. What was wrong was to stress the aspect of control with regard to Law, in calling it a Ministry of Law and Order, when what should have been stressed was the Rights aspect of Law.
What the President should have done was establish a Ministry of Law and Human Rights, with the obligation to uphold Law being implicit. When the Ministry was first gazetted I suggested that Mrs Wijayatilaka be appointed Secretary, which would have stressed the positive aspects of the change. Though I do not agree that a retired Major General is the wrong person to be Secretary to such a Ministry – given not only the admirable human qualities of the man in question, but also the fact that a retired military man is a civilian – I think government should have helped him find wider acceptance by stressing that his role, as he himself has noted, is in support of the citizenry, for whom the police should be a supporting rather than a restricting instrument.
In this context I think Ms Pillay was right to draw attention to what seems excessive militarization, since while I believe the military has much more to contribute, it is necessary to do this through civilian structures. Unfortunately, in the confrontational approaches of those supportive of and those opposed to the military, there is no effort to conceptualize what is needed in terms of the norms a society at peace and requiring reconciliation should adopt. I have written about this at length, but though senior military officers are receptive to the ideas, I fear that the Ministry of Defence has not developed the skills to activate such ideas so as to fulfil its own requirements, whilst also assuaging the concerns of the civilians amongst whom the military operates.
This is in part because of what still seems a sledgehammer approach to opposition, which can only damage the reputation that our forces richly deserve after the comparatively humane way in which they fought the war. The destructive approach was implicit in the response by some of my colleagues in Parliament to what happened at Weliveriya, when they claimed that there was a large scale conspiracy.
Surely those in charge must realize that, if indeed there was such a conspiracy, its aim was not to intimidate government but rather to provoke a violent reaction, which fulfils their purpose of both weakening government and drawing attention to its aberrations. If the authorities do not see that those who react violently are falling into this trap – or, worse, represent a strain of thought in the military that is resentful of its current leadership and wishes to disgrace it – then government will surely inflict – and suffer – more such tragic events in the months to come. Thankfully, both the Chief Government Whip, and the Leader of the House, stressed the need to adopt the apologetic approach of the President rather than attempt to justify the unacceptable.
In this regard I hope that finally action will be taken with regard to the 2006 killings at Trincomalee (a blot which must swiftly be removed), something I have drawn attention to, and as to which the President too suggested indictments, five years ago.