By Rajan Philips –
The 48th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that began on August 13, is already remarkable for two new developments. The first is the enabling of the UN High Commissioner to update in real time the charge sheet against the Sri Lankan government. This is not due to any arrogation of powers on the part of the High Commissioner, but is entirely the result of the government forever piling on its past follies with new ones. The indictments in Geneva are becoming serial only because the government’s misdoings in law and order are already serial.
The second development is more hilarious than serious, and it is about competing letters that are reported to have been sent to the High Commissioner by Tamil political personas. News about the letter writing tamasha was restricted to the Tamil media, until DBS Jeyaraj brought it out to laugh out loud in the open. It is difficult to project the future trajectory of the new letter writing politics, but there are plenty of political tamashas from the past that will fit the present episode into a familiar pre-war pattern.
High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s opening statement on Sri Lanka has more references to the current goings-on than any past occurrences. Early on, in her third paragraph, Dr. Bachelet alludes to the “corrosive impact that militarization and the lack of accountability continue to have on fundamental rights, civic space, democratic institutions, social cohesion and sustainable development.” In the very next, fourth paragraph, she takes on the “new state of emergency” and expresses concern that “emergency regulations are very broad and may further expand the role of the military in civilian functions.” Then the sting, “the Office will be closely monitoring their application.”
There you have it. The monitoring of the application of Emergency Regulations is now on the UNHRC radar. It is not that UNHRC is going to crash the sky down on the Rajapaksa presidency, but so long as the Sri Lankan file remains open in Geneva the list of charges and indictments against the Rajapaksa government will keep growing. The Commissioner’s statement lists all the recent transgressions of the government in addition to declaring Emergency Rule.
The highlights include excessive force on peaceful protesters, and their arrests and detention in quarantine centres; continuing deaths in police custody besides torture and ill-treatment by law enforcement officials; the suspension of the case against former Navy commander Wasantha Karannagoda for the enforced disappearances of 11 men in 2008 and 2009; and the Presidential pardon of Duminda Silva, who was convicted for murder.
The unenviable task of defending the indefensible fell to the new Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Prof. GL Peiris (PGLP), who has returned to his old portfolio after a ragged stint as Minister of Education. He had little to say about the current goings-on and not too much to say about the positive achievements of the government. He of course rejected the suggestion of any “external mechanism to investigate issues in Sri Lanka.”
There may never come a time when an external mechanism gets established in Sri Lanka. But talking about it will never end until Sri Lanka has a government that finds the will and resources to put its own house of disorder into order. If there has been any lingering illusion that the present government may yet rise up to this task, that was blown away, yet again, by the thuggish antics of State Minister Lohan Ratwatte in the Anuradhapura Prisons.
Apparently, he held the portfolio for Prison Reforms and Prisoners Rehabilitation, and Gem and Jewellery Industries – a very ‘methodical’ (the term President GR has used to explain the logic behind his cabinet assignments) combination of duties. After the Anuradhapura fiasco, Mr. Ratwatte remains State Minister of Gem and Jewelry Related Industries, minus Prison Reforms and Prisoners Rehabilitation. He half-resigned after Anuradhapura and the President accepted the half-resignation without fully firing him. Talk about domestic mechanisms!
Mastermind and the Scapegoat
Not surprisingly, the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings have also become a permanent item of concern for the UNHRC. The Commissioner expressed solidarity with the victims and religious leaders and their cry for truth, justice, and full accounting for the tragedy. She also expressed the Commission’s deep concern about the prolonged detention without trial of Lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah (now over 16 months) under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Similarly, Ahnaf Jazeem, a teacher and poet, has been detained, also without trial since May 2020.
The case of Lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah has been on UNHRC’s radar for some time. And the Sri Lankan government took note of it and referred to it during a media briefing in Colombo, on September 10, by Defence Secretary, General Kamal Gunaratne. The briefing became a headlined story and General Gunaratne reportedly appeared at the briefing “flanked by Navy Chief VA Nishantha Ulugetenne and IGP C.D. Wickramaratne.” The principal purpose of the meeting was to ‘decry’ alleged efforts by interested parties to implicate the President in the Easter bombings.
Towards the end of the briefing, General Gunaratne brought up the arrest of Lawyer Hizbullah and the fact that “the Lawyer’s arrest had been raised at the highest level at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council.” He went on to assert that “in spite of representations made to the UNHRC on behalf of the lawyer, they had irrefutable evidence regarding the detainee’s involvement in Easter carnage.” The question is if there is even plausible, let alone irrefutable, evidence why could not Mr. Hizbullah be put on trial?
Those who follow this matter in Sri Lanka and quite passionately outside Sri Lanka say that there is not even a shred of evidence against Mr. Hizbullah. And government lawyers in the Attorney General’s Department have lately gone quiet on the matter. Earlier one of them even described Mr. Hizbullah as a behind-the-scenes terrorist operator during a court hearing. If government lawyers could be so unkindly indifferent to the plight of one of their colleagues and a lawyer of some repute, what fairness could others expect from their system of justice.
To be clear, the reason why Defence Secretary General Gunaratne brought up the arrest of Hizbullah at the media briefing likely has nothing to do with prosecuting the long detained lawyer. It also may not have been intended as a rebuke to the UNHRC. A plausible, not necessarily irrefutable, reason could be that he wanted to prop up the detained lawyer as a scapegoat for Easter bombings to divert attention from the gossipy search for the ‘real’ mastermind behind it.
The attempted diversion would seem to have backfired. You cannot scapegoat Lawyer Hizbullah any worse than he has been hurt so far. But the tag of mastermind may have escaped the gossipy underworld and got stuck in the respectable public domain. To be fair, General Gunaratne did not use the term ‘mastermind’; other Rajapaksa supporters did, but only to ‘decry’, just as the General did, the mastermind allegation that was mostly social media gossip. Not anymore. And no one can ask for proof of any kind, since the government itself is not interested in proving or disproving anything about the Easter bombings. But for His Eminence Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith.
How far the Cardinal will go in his search for truth and accountability for the Easter carnage is not a matter for mortal minds. He seems to have indicated that he is prepared to go to Geneva via the Vatican. And he has demonstrated to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa that a Sri Lankan Head of Government or State can go to Italy, or Rome, or New York, as much as they want, but to visit the Vatican, they will need a visa from the Church in Sri Lanka. But there is more than a stroke of irony in the Cardinal’s search for truth and accountability through the western medium of Human Rights.
“Monavada me manawa himikam (What are these human rights)?,” Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith haughtily asked in a sermon at St. Matthew’s Church, Ekala, in September 2018, as the Journalist Sanjeewa Fernando has poignantly reminded us (Daily Mirror, 15 September 21). I wrote about it then, with a 1948 picture of Elanor Roosevelt holding the English version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, because the Cardinal’s sermon and reports about it hit Sri Lanka when the UN was celebrating the 70th anniversary of the universal declaration. This was also when Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mangala Samaraweera were being savaged by nationalists for co-sponsoring the infamous UNHRC Resolution 30/01 in Geneva. Now no one asks, what are these human rights? If at all, the question might be, who are you to ask?
Resolution 30/01 has now grown to Resolution 46/01 and the ‘progress’ in between has been less than a handful going by what Minister Peiris listed as his government’s achievements in his address to UNHRC. Included in his list are the work of agencies that were established through the efforts of the late Mangala Samaraweera in the face of opposition by the SLPP and others. Despite earlier threats to dismantling these agencies (The Office on Missing Persons (OMP), The Office for Reparations (OR), and The Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR), the government is now taking credit for their work. But UNHRC resolutions are not going to end and what has become a bi-annual UN audit on the government is likely to continue indefinitely. The government’s frustrations are obvious even though it has far worse things to worry about.
There is also growing frustration of a different kind in Tamil political circles and that seems to have been the trigger behind the recent letter politics involving Tamil MPs and ex-MPs. In a matter of weeks, three letters are reported to have been sent to High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet – all three letters reportedly dealing with developments in Sri Lanka affecting the Tamils after the Commission’s March 2021 Resolution 46/01. And all three letters have been sent by people associated with the TNA, with the sole exception of CV Wigneswaran, the former Chief Minister and now MP, who is no longer with the TNA. He reportedly signed the first letter along with six current and former MPs belonging to TELO and PLOTE organizations.
TELO and PLOTE are the smaller constituent parties of the TNA along with the dominant ITAK (aka Federal Party), and the purpose of the first letter was to pre-empt a letter that was to be sent on behalf of the TNA and was being prepared by TNA leader R. Sampanthan. The TNA leadership was obviously miffed by being upstaged by its smaller partners, and eventually sent its own letter under Mr. Sampanthan’s singular signature. The tamasha did not end with it. A rogue third letter was also sent allegedly by nine dissidents – all belonging to Mr. Sampanthan’s ITAK organization, who took exception to the TNA leader quoting (in his letter) a UN Experts Panel report that associated not only the Government of Sri Lanka but also the LTTE with potential war crimes and crimes against humanity.
It might be more challenging to keep pace with the egotistical, if not petty, goings-on in the world of Sri Lankan Tamil politics than to monitor the human rights violations of the government of Sri Lanka. Even the UNHRC will be constrained to focus on the latter and ignore the former. The irony is that the human rights situation in Sri Lanka may have become a permanently self-sustaining matter for the UNHRC in Geneva. And it will likely keep running its course, with resolution after resolution, even if there is no corresponding change on the ground in Sri Lanka. And nothing can change in Sri Lanka with a government that is increasingly going wayward, on the one hand, and with Tamil political leaders, on the other hand, who can do nothing more than write competing but redundant letters.