By Rajan Philips –
UN Human Rights Commissioner Navanetham Pillay’s weeklong visit to the country is remarkable on several counts. As always, the visit has since been overshadowed by other events both local and international. It is a fact of life in our time that real-time information and rapid news dissemination impose on us, ordinary mortals, new developments everywhere and in quick succession before we are able to digest and/or deal with preceding developments. Ms. Pillay’s visit has been overshadowed by the depressing news about the international farce over Syria’s tragedy, as well as local developments including, to mention a few, the TNA manifesto for the Northern PC election, the shameful saga of UPFA infighting in the Northwestern PC election, and the headline grabbing public spat between Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapksa and Minister Rauff Hakeem over global (allegedly Muslim) extremism and its local (allegedly Muslim) manifestations.
While overshadowing, these developments also provide a helpful context for digesting the significance of Ms. Pillay’s visit and the meaning of her long parting message. The Gotabhaya-Hakeem spat is indicative of life inside the Rajapaksa regime – cynical tolerance of confusion and conflicting messages from all and sundry while leaving all decision making to the brothers. Mr. Hakeem may protest, comrade Vasudeva could charm the UN Commissioner, but their words carry little weight in the President’s court. The life of message confusion and conflict did not spare even the visiting dignitary. Ms. Pillay was subjected to a moronic marriage proposal, not to mention her being challenged by the editorial page boy from the Lake House. But being a South African of South Indian Tamil origin, she seemed insightful of South Asian societal antics, if not mores.
Respect for human life
It was not surprising that the President and government spokesmen apologized to Ms. Pillay but no one literally took to task the offending culprits. It was an keeping with the same old, same old, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, shape-korala-danne Rajapaksa modus operandi. For her part Ms. Pillay offered a stellar lesson in what it is to be a public, and international, persona regardless of one’s family, religious, ethnic or geographical roots or origins. She dismissed the description of herself in sections of the Sri Lankan media and political circles as the “Tamil Tigress in the UN”, as “not only wildly incorrect”, but also “deeply offensive.” She dissociated herself absolutely and thoroughly from the LTTE, and advised those in the diaspora revering its memory that “there should be no place for the glorification of such a ruthless organization.”
In the next breath, she said what no Sri Lankan political leader has said so far, as far as I can remember. I believe Mr. Ranil Wickremasinghe tried to say something reparative in Jaffna, after the war, but as usual made a botch of it. Ms. Pillay paid her “respects to all Sri Lankans, across the country, who were killed during those three decades of conflict …”, and offered her “heartfelt sympathy to their families, all of whom – no matter who they are – share one thing: they have lost someone they can never replace.” From Syria to Sri Lanka, their obvious differences notwithstanding, the respect for human life, and not the glorification of war in furtherance of sovereignty or self-determination or national security, must be the essence of politics in our time.
At the press conference in Colombo, she handsomely thanked the government for “its invitation and excellent cooperation” during what was a very complex mission, which was also her longest visit to a single country. Pleasantries aside, she was forthright about the oral update she will be presenting to the UNHRC in Geneva, in September, and the full written report due March next year. She went on to highlight all the key human rights issues that are afflicting the country and are of concern to the international community.
While recognizing the rebuilding of physical infrastructure in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, she noted the woeful lack of social infrastructure that is required for restoring human life in these areas to its pre-war status. The continuing expansion of military bases and forays into civilian activities such as education, agriculture and tourism are neither necessary nor helpful. Quite apart from their implications for political reconciliation, roads and troops cannot bring redress to the disproportionately large war victims comprising widows, orphans, and persons without sight or limbs. They constitute a collective universe of trauma and special measures are necessary to redress them.
This is one area where NGOs are needed (unlike in undertaking post-disaster physical infrastructure work which should never be their business) and have proved their worth in crisis situations everywhere in the world. And Ms Pillay was justifiably “surprised and disappointed to learn that the authorities have restricted NGO activity in this sector.” Why this restriction? What sense of priority? Are prawn farms and tourist resorts more important than providing solace, as the first step in restoring normalcy, to the tens of thousands of widows, orphans and otherwise afflicted persons?
Promises and Performance
Despite its imperfections, the LLRC report remains the principal framework to compare the government’s promises and performance. If it was the intention of the government to persuade the UN Human Rights Commissioner into believing that its performance matches or exceeds its limited promises, the government should feel disappointed that the Commissioner left it open to continuing examination. The government should know that it would not be difficult to convince others in the international community or anywhere else if it is demonstrably sincere in its commitment to doing the right thing and has the capacity to objectively and critically measure its performance before inviting others into believing it. And the evidence of performance must be seen in the lives of the people on the ground and not in tomes of glossy binders or power point presentations.
The government could also help its case and credibility immeasurably if it could put an end to continuing human rights violations even after the end of the war, and not just among the Tamils but affecting the Muslims as well as the growing dissenters among the Sinhalese. It is not very convincing to assert that your right hand is implementing the LLRC recommendations, while your left hand is violating human rights in new areas. And it was not good image for the country to have the visiting UN Human Rights Commissioner read out from a list of ongoing violations at her press conference in Colombo.
The government has its work cut out in addressing these issues, and the way to do it is not by resorting moralizing verbal gymnastics that the Secretary of Defense seems to have reportedly tried in his meeting with the Commissioner. Lashing out at the US is not the way to answer the questions that are being asked of the Sri Lankan government in Geneva and elsewhere. Nor invoking the bogey of global extremism is the approach to building positive relationships with local Muslims. These could be self-serving arguments that may also be intended for local headlines and enthusing BBS storm troopers, but they will not persuade an informed and intelligent diplomat like Navanetham Pillay.
Hot on the heels of Ms. Pillay’s departure , the TNA released its manifesto for the Northern Provincial Council election. Rather than boosting the dramatic choice of Justice Wigneswaran as candidate for Chief Minister, the manifesto detracts it. It is not a coincidence that there is considerable correspondence between what the manifesto calls “Matters of immediate concern for the Tamil People”, and the key issues that Navi Pillay highlighted in her press conference. These are the facts of life, and ‘this is how things are’ on the ground, in the north and in the east. The manifesto could have exclusively focused on these matters of immediate concern and the political means to address them – instead of burdening them with a preamble, that is, for all practical intent, no more than the figurative (Old Testament) history of Tamil politics. Not every political narrative, or manifesto, needs to start with the original sin. And that is a matter for another day.