While expressing concerns that the Government may be wavering on its human rights commitments, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein disclosed that while the element of fear has considerably diminished, at least in Colombo and the South, in the North and the East, while it has mutated, the element of feat continues to exists.
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Issuing a statement at the end of his four-day mission in Sri Lanka, Al Hussein said, “The Government has shown the will to make great changes. But from the victims in the North and in the East, and also from some of the wisest analysts here in Colombo, I have heard fears that the Government may be wavering on its human rights commitments,” he said.
He was however quick to add that despite this cause for concern, he has been assured of their ‘firm conviction’ in safeguarding human rights by both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe during his meetings with them today morning.
“Virtually, everyone agrees there has been progress, although opinions differ markedly about the extent of that progress. The ‘white van’ abductions that operated outside all norms of law and order, and — as intended — instilled fear in the hearts of journalists, human rights defenders and others who dared criticize the Government or State security institutions, are now very seldom reported. The number of torture complaints has been reduced but new cases continue to emerge — as two recent reports, detailing some disturbing alleged cases that occurred in 2015, have shown — and police all too often continue to resort to violence and excessive force,” he noted.
He also recalled how his trip was much more ‘friendly, cooperative and encouraging’ visit than that of his predecessor in August 2013, which was marred by vituperative attacks on her integrity, simply because she addressed a number of burning human rights issues.
“But, I am aware that some of the same people have given me a similar welcome — I’ve seen the posters — but I am pleased that in the new environment in Sri Lanka, all voices, including the moderate voices of civil society, can at last be heard, even if sometimes the voices of hatred and bigotry are still shouting the loudest, and as a result are perhaps being listened to more than they deserve,” Al Hussein added.
He noted that one of the most important long-term achievements over the past year has been the restoration of the legitimacy and independence of Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission, with the appointment of new leadership of great integrity, through the proper constitutional process, offers a new start to revitalize this all-important national institution.
“I hope the Government will now swiftly provide it with the resources, and above all the institutional respect it needs, to enable it to fulfil its great potential, not only to provide human rights protection for all Sri Lankans, but also to offer expert advice on laws and policies from a human rights perspective,” he said.
The UN Human Rights chief however noted that despite these advances Sri Lanka is still in the early stages of renewal.
“Repairing the damage done by a protracted conflict is a task of enormous complexity, and the early years are crucial. If mistakes are made, or significant problems are downplayed or ignored during the first few years, they become progressively harder to sort out as time goes on. While the glass is still molten, if you are quick and skillful, you can shape it into a fine object that will last for years. Once it starts to harden in misshapen form, it becomes more and more difficult to rectify. Likewise, if any of the four key elements of post conflict resolution — truth-telling, accountability, reparations and institutional reform — are neglected or mishandled, unresolved resentments will fester, new strains will emerge, and a tremendous opportunity to establish long-term stability, which in turn should result in greater prosperity, will be lost,” he warned.
According to the Al Hussein, with large parts of the country having been physically, politically, socially and economically separated from each other to a greater or lesser degree for much of the past three decades, “the effort to rebuild trust in the State, and between communities, will take years of political courage, determination and skilled coordination and planning.”
“When you visit Colombo, you see a bustling city, a mass of construction sites, clean streets, and flourishing businesses. You see a thriving tourist industry. When you visit the North and the East, you see, in patches at least, damaged and depressed areas, poverty and continued displacement. Signs of physical development, certainly. And positive vision and ambitions among the elected representatives. But also more ominous signs of hopes that are not yet bearing fruit, and optimism that is already showing some signs of souring,” he cautioned.
He noted that while the Task Force appointed to lead the National Consultation process includes high quality representatives of civil society, there are concerns — including among the Task Force members themselves, he warned that the process is too rushed and has not been properly planned or adequately resourced.
“There are some measures that could be taken quickly which would reverse this trend of draining confidence. First of all, the military needs to accelerate the return of land it has seized and is still holding to its rightful owners. While some land has been returned in the Jaffna and Trincomalee areas, there are still large tracts which can and should be swiftly given back. Once the land has been given back, the remaining communities of displaced people can — if given the necessary assistance — return home, and a lingering sore will have been cured once and for all. In parallel, the size of the military force in the North and the East can be reduced to a level that is less intrusive and intimidating, as a first step in security sector reform,” Al Hussein suggested.
He also called on the Government to quickly find a formula to charge or release the remaining security-related detainees. “In addition, the Prime Minister’s recent statement that nearly all the disappeared persons are dead has created great distress among their families, who until then still had hope. This statement must be followed by rapid action to identify precisely who is still alive and who has died or been killed, properly account for their deaths — including whether or not they were unlawful — identify the location of their remains, and provide redress,” he said.
Speaking on the resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council on 1 October last year, a resolution that was co-sponsored by Sri Lanka and agreed with the consensus of all 47 Member States of the Council, he noted that there were many myths and misconceptions about the resolution, and what it means for Sri Lanka.
“It is not a gratuitous attempt to interfere with or undermine the country’s sovereignty or independence. It is not some quasi-colonial act by some nebulous foreign power. The acceptance of the resolution was a moment of strength, not weakness, by Sri Lanka. It was the country’s commitment to both itself and to the world to confront the past honestly and, by doing that, take out comprehensive insurance against any future devastating outbreak of inter communal tensions and conflict,” he said.
“The world wants Sri Lanka to be a success story. For a country to be stable, to be a success, it needs to have a strong, impartial and credible justice system. The security services and the judiciary must function in the interests of all its citizens,” he said.
Al Hussein noted that extreme nationalistic tendencies lay at the heart of Sri Lanka’s conflict, and they should not be allowed to undermine the country’s long term chances of recovery once again. “Only a year ago, large numbers of Sri Lankans voted for change, for reconciliation, for truth, for justice. It would be a great shame if a minority of extreme voices — on both sides — who are bent on disruption, were allowed to prevail by creating fear where there should be hope,” he said.
“Let me make it as plain as I can: the international community wants to welcome Sri Lanka back into its fold without any lingering reservations. It wants to help Sri Lanka become an economic powerhouse. It wants Sri Lanka’s armed forces to face up to the stain on their reputation, so that they can once again play a constructive role in international peace-keeping operations, and command the full respect that so many of their members deserve.
But for all that to come to fruition, Sri Lanka must confront and defeat the demons of its past. It must create institutions that work, and ensure accountability. It must seize the great opportunity it currently has to provide all its people with truth, justice, security and prosperity,” he added. (By Munza Mushtaq © CT)