By R.M.B Senanayake –
Is an international role necessary to strengthen government’s mechanism to address issues of the past?
The UN report on human rights in Sri Lanka has been published. A news report says that the release of UN Report on alleged war crimes and human rights violations in Sri Lanka’s war is an important step in the country’s transition to good governance and ethnic reconciliation.
The UN Report goes on to say that it will require the Sri Lankan government and people to give their attention to the unhealed wounds of the past that continue to fester in the body politic without any action being taken by any government for fear of displeasing the masses and losing their political support. But this is a total failure of political leadership. Instead, the liberal political elements that are in the present Government have sought to resolve the problem by stealth, by removing the obstacles and listening to the grievances of the Tamil political leadership without any publicity. This may be the politically prudent way in a country where racists are just below the surface. So the ethnic problem has dragged on for many years and no government has taken action to resolve the issue comprehensively. But it cannot be allowed to drag on indefinitely.
The present government too does not want to openly resolve the issue for fear of losing the votes of the Sinhalese. But that is a failure of moral and intellectual leadership on the part of our governing elite. It is necessary to remind these racists in our society, of the violations committed by us Sinhalese racists in the not too distant past as given in the UN Report. The UN Report highlights among others the atrocities that took place, the failures of governance and continuing suffering of victims. Could we honestly disagree with them?
The Tamil problem has not been addressed and is outstanding for a long time. It will not just go away and requires a resolution by an enlightened government in the South to enable a genuine reconciliation of the races – the Sinhalese and the Tamil s. A new problem has been added with regard to the Muslims who are now a displeased community too. The Christians feel it will be their turn next. So these problems cannot be ignored.
The UN Report says “The Sri Lankan government has made little progress in providing accountability for wartime abuses. The government’s failure to comply with a March 2013 United Nations Human Rights Council resolution led to a new resolution in 2014. The resolution calls on the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to investigate serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law and related crimes by both sides during Sri Lanka’s civil war, which ended in 2009.
The government, it says “has also continued its crackdown on critics. In March 2014, it detained two prominent human rights defenders who were looking into the arrest of an ethnic Tamil activist. Although the two were subsequently freed, the government arrested scores of other Tamils under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act. It also labelled 16 overseas Tamil organizations as financers of terrorism without providing evidence of unlawful activity by the groups”.
Sinhala racism is lying under the surface waiting to be revived by some extremists. A law against racial and religious incitement should be enacted by the present government. A similar law was passed in India. The message must go to the Sinhala racists that incitement of violence against minorities is against the law. The present provisions in the Penal Code are perhaps too weak. So a new law is necessary.
The UN Report refers to a rally by the ultra-nationalist Buddhist Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) that escalated into violence in June, resulting in the death of four Muslims, injuries to at least 80 people, and the destruction of numerous Muslim homes and businesses”.
The UN Report also says that “the government’s treatment of Tamils forcibly returned to Sri Lanka after being denied asylum overseas continues to be a significant concern”. In 2014, the government also started forcibly returning foreign nationals seeking asylum in Sri Lanka, many of them from communities at risk in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The UN Report has recommended mechanisms to deal with the past that will be based on a four tier system. It will include a Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation, an Office of Missing Persons, a judicial mechanism with special counsel to be set up by statute and an Office of Reparations. There is mow greater acceptance of the need to investigate the past. If the past is swept under the carpet the risk of its repeat is high. In 1988 we ignored the violations of human rights of the JVP insurrectionists. True they committed atrocities. But a civilized government is not expected to adopt the same practices. We had an insurrection in 1971 but the then government under Sirimavo dealt with it without violating the human rights of the JVP prisoners.
There appears to be a greater convergence within the country today on the need to investigate the past and bring the sordid chapter of communal violence to a close. The election of the new government in January has opened up space for a genuine dialogue and disposal of the past. The UN Report has recommended a hybrid judicial mechanism and the involvement of international judges, lawyers, prosecutors and investigators. Should we not accept it?
The argument that it would interfere with our national sovereignty is not valid for we have signed up to the International Covenants. It will no doubt stir up the racists who will oppose it. Justice for the victim is of no concern to them when the victim is of a different ethnic or religious affiliation. So it will remain a contentious issue in our society on which divergent points of view are being expressed. But those in authority with a mandate from the people need to take the initiative. Leaders are required to lead and act according to what is right according to law- not only domestic law but also international law and human rights.
We have in the past ignored violations of human rights and failed to investigate human rights violations, or to ascertain the truth and ensure justice. The UN says they are encouraged by the fact that Sri Lanka has a new government that has adopted a stance that is diametrically opposite to that of the previous government; that the new government has expressed its willingness to cooperate with the UN and international community and has pledged to implement its commitments to international standards.
So the new government should express its opinions openly and seek to influence public opinion on the need for truth seeking to enable reconciliation of the communities. This will enable not only the International Community but also the victim communities to have confidence in them that they will pursue the truth and punish those responsible for the atrocities of the past.
But as the aforesaid reporter says let the UN and international community strengthen the capacity of the Sri Lankan government’s proposed domestic mechanism by providing it with the necessary international resources, support and advice and enhance the credibility of its proposed four tier mechanism by having a dialogue with all stakeholders to refine the mechanism. It can also appoint the members of this mechanism via the multi-partisan Constitutional Council, which includes the Leader of the Opposition R. Sampanthan, who is also the leader of the main Tamil political party in Parliament and three eminent and multi-ethnic representatives of civil society”