By Jehan Perera –
The UN Human Rights Commissioner is visiting Sri Lanka during a time of peace, but it is indeed a fragile peace. This month alone saw two major breaches of the peace which are reflective of deep seated problems in the country’s governance. The army attack on the community level protestors at Weliveriya, and anti-Christian sentiment displayed, and the police inaction during the attack on a Muslim mosque in Colombo are still fresh in the mind of the general public and ethnic minorities in particular, even though a fortnight later most of the dust has cleared. The efforts by the opposition parties to highlight the flaws in governance, and the acts of violence by the state, have been sporadic and short lived due to their weakness. The weakness of the opposition and the ability of the government to co-opt or negate those who dissent are opposite sides of the same coin. The role of the international community continues to remain important in upholding human rights standards.
Just two days prior to the arrival in Sri Lanka of UN Human Rights Commissioner, Navanethem Pillay, the government implemented yet another one of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) by moving the Police Department out of the Ministry of Defence. It did so by creating a new Ministry of Law and Order which has been mandated to implement the Police Ordinance. The LLRC had said that “The Police Department is a civilian institution which is entrusted with the maintenance of law and order. Therefore it is desirable that the Police Department be de-linked from the institutions dealing with the armed forces which are responsible for the security of the State.” But indicative of continued resistance to a total de-linking, the government appointed a retired army general to be the Secretary to the new supposedly civilian-controlled Ministry.
The deployment of the police along with the military was not a recent phenomenon brought about by the present government but is a practice that has continued for many years. This may account for the resistance to de-militarising the country after the end of war. During the war, the police began to play an increasing para-military role on account of the need for more manpower to cope with the power of the LTTE. The period of the Ceasefire Agreement from 2002 onwards led to the creation of a short-lived Ministry of the Interior which was responsible for the police. But this ended when former President Chandrika Kumaratunga brought back the police under the Defence Ministry in 2004 so as to coordinate all the security forces under one unified command structure. The negative dimension of bringing the police under the Defence Ministry was that it was that it would be used as an adjunct to the military even in matters of preserving civil order and the two could be used interchangeably by the government.
The problems that could arise with the police being under the Defence Ministry became evident when, four years after the end of the war, the army stepped in to ruthlessly quell a community level protest over drinking water. The killing of three civilians, including a school going child, at Weliveriya seems to have served as a wake-up call to the government about the dangers of military over-kill. Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has shown an awareness of this larger dimension of the problem when he explained the desired approach of the police at the opening of a police Special Task Force training school. He said, “Law and order, and a serene environment, were a must to attract foreign investors and tourists to the country to develop the nation. Therefore the police had to maintain a friendly rapport with the people.” He had also reiterated the importance of using minimum force as much as possible to avoid a breakdown in the relationship with ordinary citizens of the country.
Unfortunately, however, the Defence Secretary’s vision of the security forces of the State maintaining a friendly rapport with the people is still far from being a reality in the North of the country where the last battles of the war were fought. One of the eye sores and heart aches, of the past was the giant checkpoint complex at Omanthai, one end of which was managed by the LTTE and the other by the army. This checkpoint enabled the LTTE to show its authority to the world at large, as it meant that no one from outside the North could get in except with their approval. LTTE cadres who manned the checkpoints used to search the vehicles of travelers and open their bags and also check their identity documents and give them slips of paper as if they were visas. They were often arrogant and hard hearted in their approach to hapless travelers.
It is ironic that four years after the end of the war that the Sri Lankan government should be continuing with a pernicious LTTE institution, meant to show the world that the country was divided. Today, Omanthai is the only place in Sri Lanka where travelers are compelled by the military to get down from their vehicles at all times of the day, even late at night when they are fast asleep, and carry their luggage by foot to be searched by soldiers. Travelers are also questioned as to why they are travelling north or south as the case may be. This causes a lot of heartburn as the war has ended. Now to add to the harassment of travelers, the government has set up another checkpoint, at Elephant Pass, although the checking that goes on there is more superficial. When I asked the soldiers on duty at Omanthai this past Saturday night why they are stopping vehicles they said it is for the country’s security. When I asked if the LTTE is still around, they laughed and said no. The yearning of all people whether Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim is to be free and to travel freely without being questioned, intimidated or bossed by persons in uniform.
The government has been making preparations to cater to the visit of UN Human Rights Commissioner Navanetham Pillay who has been a strong critic of its human rights practices. The mandate of her office is to ensure that member countries abide by the commitments they have made in joining the UN system and acceding to various treaties and covenants. The visiting Human Rights Commissioner has a tight schedule which the government has agreed to facilitate, including arranging for meetings with the President and his two brothers who hold key positions in the government. In the past, the government has gone into confrontation with her, as well as with her predecessor in office, Louise Arbour who visited Sri Lanka in 2007. But the problems they disagreed about then have remained, and have grown. As she will probably not travel by road on her visit to the North, the soldiers on duty at the Omanthai checkpoint will not get an opportunity to check her vehicle too.
But there is no doubt that the UN Human Rights Commissioner will come to Sri Lanka well briefed about the past and present. She is also scheduled to meet with a cross section of both the government and society, including families of the missing and civil society groups. The latter groups are hopeful that international pressure will have an impact in producing potentially positive outcomes within Sri Lanka. Recently the government responded positively to international pressure and agreed to a joint needs assessment of those affected by the war in the former war zones along with United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). This opens the possibility of more, and much needed, international assistance to those who continue to languish in poverty and are neglected due to low priority being given to them by the government’s budgetary allocations which gives priority to massive infrastructure development.
The government should also consider removing the checkpoint at Omanthai, as it will be in accordance with yet another of the LLRC recommendations regarding demilitarization of the North. Prior to Ms Pillay’s visit and apart from setting up the new Ministry of Law and Order, the government has appointed a presidential commission to investigate into persons who went missing during the war. Another step forward has been to commence prosecutions into the extra-judicial executions of five students on Trincomalee beach during the war period. The holding of the Northern Provincial Council elections can also be attributed to international pressure. To the extent that some measure of power-sharing comes about between the centre and provinces and between the ethnic majority and minorities, there will be positive engagement. These are all in conformity with the recommendations of the LLRC, on which the visiting UN Human Rights Commissioner is tasked with reporting back to the UN Human Rights Council at its next session which commences in October.