By Rajan Philips –
Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa who made the surprising call for the government cancelling the ECT deal with India and Japan, has made another surprising and really a gallant announcement giving the green light for allowing burials for Muslim and Christian victims of Covid-19. If the Ministry of Health has been caught unawares by the PM’s statement in parliament, well, they had better get used to it. But no sooner had the government appeared to have cremated the burial issue than Cardinal Malcom Ranjith raised a new headache for the government – threatening to take his case for justice for the victims of the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks to international courts, if there is no assurance of justice through domestic investigations. That is a shocker even though it is no more than a threat for now.
The Cardinal is manifestly unhappy with the course of the investigations so far. Not only does he want to uncover those who masterminded the attacks, he also wants those who ignored prior warnings about the attacks to be exposed and punished. It is over the latter part that the government seems to be getting tied up in the usual coverup knots. As a straightshooter the Cardinal wants total transparency, but Sri Lanka parted with transparency in investigating political crimes decades ago. What has become is a culture of opacity and coverup.
If His Eminence could use his spiritual capital to successfully shake up Sri Lanka’s culture of opacity in the coverup of crimes by successive governments, he would have brought deliverance to all Sri Lankans in this world before they even get to the other world or into the cycle of rebirth. Without that deliverance, or getting on the path to it, Sri Lanka cannot get out of the muddle it has made for itself at the UNHRC and cannot avoid the annual pilgrimage to Geneva.
Put another way, it is the culture of opacity and the web of coverups involving political crimes that seriously undermines the government’s nationalistic assertions against war crimes investigations at the UNHRC. Conversely, Tamil leaders who insist on international war crimes investigations against the Sri Lankan government are cynically unconcerned about doing anything about the country’s broken-down domestic criminal justice system. A troubling intersection of these two tendencies has come about in what the Amnesty International has called, “the collapse of Joseph Pararajasingham murder case.”
Amnesty International was responding to the acquittal of of MP S. Chandrakanthan and four others in the 2005 assassination of TNA MP Joseph Pararajasingham, and the announcement by the Attorney General’s Office that it would be dropping the charges against the suspects. According to AI, this is “another sorry milestone in the Sri Lankan authorities’ continued failure to ensure justice for crimes committed during the armed conflict.” What is also disturbing is the silence among the Tamils over this particular travesty of justice. And Sri Lanka’s parliament cares nothing about accountability for the murder of one its own MPs, but welcomes those accused or convicted of murder so long as they are able to become MPs, not by winning a direct election but by getting a spot on the winning list of a political party. Once on the nomination list, criminals can campaign for mercy votes to avoid conviction. And they succeed!
Old JR’s new mutation
For Amnesty International, the collapse of the Pararajasingham murder case is a natural outcome of the government’s withdrawal in February 2020, from the UNHRC resolution (30/1) committing the country to promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights. A less natural outcome is the alleged intention of the government to take away the civic rights of opposition political leaders and public servants based on the contentious report of a controversial Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Political Victimization. True to its name, and without any irony, the Commission would appear to have prepared its own list of names for political victimisation by the government that appointed it.
Forty years ago, President JR Jayewardene invented the devise of presidential commission of inquiry to deprive his chief political opponent Sirimavo Bandaranaike, and two others from her government, of their civic rights. That was a disgraceful and damaging exercise of political power and no successor of JR Jayewardene wanted to repeat what Sri Lanka’s inaugural President did. Until now, that is, and that too with a long list of names. The list allegedly includes Ranil Wickremesinghe, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem and TNA leader R. Sampanthan. Perhaps, more will be added and merrier it would be for Sri Lanka’s democracy.
The JVP leader has colourfully told President Gotabaya Rajapaksa what to do with the Commission’s report. The question is what is the President thinking that he can do with the report, its list, and its recommendations? After precipitously withdrawing from the UNHRC resolution on postwar reconciliation, the government seems to be incubating more Sri Lankans to go to Geneva to pitch their grievances against the government before the UNHRC. The Commission on political victimization seems to be setting up everyone in the opposition – from Ranil Wickremesinghe to R. Sampanthan, to seek justice outside Sri Lanka for injustice within Sri Lanka.
Already, a line up of Sri Lankans seeking redress in Geneva seems to be starting. International justice and journalist organizations are reportedly urging the UNHRC to adopt a new resolution asking the Sri Lankan Government to “cease harassment, surveillance and attacks against journalists and law enforcement officers who investigated attacks on journalists,” and to immediately release former CID Director Shani Abeysekara. It will not be long before, if not already, UNHRC will be petitioned for similar resolutions on behalf of long detained human rights lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah, whose only palpable cause for detention without charges is that he is a Muslim. No one knows what the future holds for another Muslim professional, Dr. Mohammad Shafi, or whether he too will be forced to seek redress in Geneva.
We do not know what plans the government had to deal with UNHRC when it unilaterally withdrew from the Council’s resolution co-sponsored by the previous yahapalanaya government. Perhaps, the withdrawal was more for dramatic political effect at home than for strategically dealing with a serious matter in Geneva. One year after, there is no plan to see, and the government has neither results at home nor a new strategic plan to show in Geneva. If anything, the exercise of the political victimization commission will only be an embarrassment for the government delegates in Geneva. On the other hand, the government’s Tamil and Muslim detractors will be citing Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s threat of going to international courts, with much approval and for maximum effect.
The vacuum created by the government’s inaction, not to mention unnecessary misdoings, is being filled locally and in Geneva in ways that the government clearly has failed to foresee. Regardless of what position one takes on it, the latest report of UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet on Sri Lanka is an escalation from its predecessors. For the first time, the Commissioner is calling for targeted punitive actions by member states against perpetrators of human rights violations in Sri Lanka.
As Dayantha Laksiri Mendis has cogently pointed out (The Island, Friday, February 12) a new Geneva Resolution could be “devastating for Sri Lanka if it is based on the Report of the UN High Commissioner for HR.” He goes on to suggest that “it is desirable at this point of time to draft a counter resolution and outline Sri Lanka’s proposals relating to reconciliation and accountability without taking a confrontational approach.” Specifically, Mr. Mendis’s advice is to “draft a counter resolution and identify how we intend to deal with reconciliation and accountability taking into account ground realities, constitutional provisions and the political ramifications.” So, will it be more confrontation or a new approach to reconciliation and accountability? That is the question.
The local withdrawal effects have been quite a few, and the government should be wise to emerging new mutations of opposition and protest and learn to engage with them more positively and unlearn the old ways of counterproductive confrontation. There are signs of both within the government, although the confrontational approach is clearly having the upper hand. The most blatant and ill-advised sign of confrontation is the government’s withdrawal of the high security detail provided to TNA MP M. Sumanthiran because he participated in the P2P protest march in violation of a court order. Technically, he was in no such violation, and even if he was, it is a matter for the courts and not a government minister to act upon.
As for P2P, the alliterative abbreviation for the five-day march from Pottuvil in the east to Polikandi in the Jaffna Peninsula, it is an instance of local political filling of the void of government inaction in the north and east. The purpose of the march was to highlight the yet unresolved issues of missing persons, denial of space and right to commemorate their memory, return of land, the fate of people indefinitely detained without any legal process, and the new concern over the government’s archaeological expeditions. The march was organized by Tamil political groups with participation by Muslims and plantation Tamils and the highlighting of their concerns. One would hope that the government would have the wisdom to view this development not as a challenge to be put down, but as an opportunity to engage with the people in the north and east and their representatives to address their day to day problems. It is also an opportunity for President Rajapaksa to extend his much vaunted village visitations to include the villages in Sri Lanka’s two “deficit provinces,” as SJV Chelvanayakam used to describe them.
The antibodies within the government to the virus of confrontation are admittedly weak, but nonetheless deserve due acknowledgment. It is remarkable that the Socialist Alliance leaders are consistently principled on the question of devolution and the continuation of the provincial council system. Equally heartening is the fact that the Lawyers’ Forum for the People held their news conference last week to warn about the ridiculous recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into political victimization (PCOI), at the Dr. NM Perera Center in Colombo. They could not have found a more appropriate place for it.
To modify what Colvin R de Silva said about his legal luminary colleague S. Nadesan, NM Perera was a unique Sri Lankan who could have talked constitution to any forum anywhere in the world. In Sri Lanka, as Pieter Keuneman said it, NM was the jewel of parliament. And it is too much to expect the current parliament to live up to the high standards that were set by NM and his generation of parliamentarians. What should be worrisome at the same time is that the current parliament has got itself a majority to enact a new constitution drafted by a committee that has no political or constitutional experience at all. Whether what they will create would be appropriate for a future UNHRC resolution is a different matter that we can only wait to see.