As a columnist for The Sunday Leader I noticed an absolute fear of Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa in the Editor. Anything critical about him would be cut even when it was not subject to defamation suits. These cuts in otherwise critical articles give the impression that comment is free in Sri Lanka, when it certainly is not. This self-censorship situation brought about by editors is worse than in our shameful times of censorship when editors would mark out the censored parts in black or with the word CENSORED so that readers know we have no freedom and can make out what was removed. Now we are given the false impression that there is press freedom.
It has come to my attention that there could be pattern with other newspapers also treating Gothabaya as off limits. I reproduce below the original article of the weekly (Saturday) column by Shanie in The Island of 02 March, 2013 with the censored paragraph about Gothabaya Rajapaksa highlighted:
Human Rights Concerns must not be cast aside; it affects us all
NOTEBOOK OF A NOBODY
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main….
Each man’s death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls, It tolls for thee.
John Donne (1572-1631)
Every time, the United Nations Human Rights Council meets in session or one of the international Human Rights Organizations issues a statement on violations of human rights in Sri Lanka, the government of Sri Lanka gets into a combat mode. Their response follows the rule that attack is the best form of defence. The attack takes the form of personal abuse directed at the human rights defenders; there is no attempt to meet the issues of violations that have been raised. Its apologists and other hangers-on merely follow suit with hysterical outbursts against the United Nations, the international community and the local human rights defenders. None of them seem to care to read the reports released by the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights or by the different human rights organizations. Their criticism of the reports is therefore not informed and raises more issues than clarifying any. Mahinda Samarasinghe is normally not prone to such hysterical responses; his speech at the current sessions of the UNHRC therefore seems untypical of him.
Human rights are an issue that must be the concern all citizens of this country. If our country is to develop and our people are to become responsible citizens, then all alleged violations must be subject to independent and impartial investigation. This was recommendation of the government appointed Lessons Learnt and reconciliation Commission. Based on the recommendations of the LLRC, the government drew up a National Action Plan. The plan was silent on some key recommendations but even on those which it pledged to implement, very little meaningful action has been taken. The LLRC was emphatic about the need to observe the Rule of Law. In their recommendations, they stated: ‘Along with an independent Judiciary and a transparent legal process a strict adherence to the Rule of Law is a sine qua non for peace and stability which is of the essence, if there is to be any meaningful reconciliation.’ On the contrary, there is continuing violation of both aspects of the legal process. And new revelations are coming to light now which the government cannot and must not ignore.
Mass Graves at Matale
Take the case of the recent discovery of human skeletons in a mass grave in Matale. The preliminary investigations by scientists and forensic experts suggest that this was a ‘crime site’ related to the second southern insurgency. But this has to be investigated. There were attempts recently to cover up this site and close investigations. We trust this will be resisted and an independent investigation conducted, particularly in view of the suspicion that war crimes may have been committed.
Such a follow-up is important if the results of the preliminary investigations tracing these findings to the second insurgency are shown to be correct. Even suspected insurgents and criminals are entitled to rights. Extra-judicial executions under any circumstances are totally unacceptable. A Police spokesperson has suggested that these remains belong to those buried in an earthquake in the area in 1946. At that time, there were apparently no reports of missing persons. But in any case, to clear any doubt, it is necessary that an impartial probe by an independent body is done.
Last year, C A Chandraprema, the political writer, wrote ‘Gota’s War’ eulogising Gotabaya Rajapakse’s contribution to the crushing of the northern insurgency, indirectly rubbishing claims that Sarath Fonseka, as Army Commander, was the principal architect of the military victory. But that book was written and published before the discovery of the mass graves at Matale. In that book, in the twenty-eighth chapter titled ‘The Second JVP Insurrection’, the author makes an unintended revelation. He writes on Page 173: “On 1 May 1989, with Colonel Wimalaratne being promoted to the rank of Brigadier, Gota was made the commanding officer of the 1st Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment…With this promotion, he was posted to Matale as the district coordinating officer tasked with bringing the JVP under control. The first Gajaba Battalion, which had been in Trincomalee for nearly one and a half years, was brought down to Matale. Lieutenants Shavendra Silva, Jagath Dias and Sumedha Perera were among his company commanders in Matale…(p 177) Gota remained the security coordinating officer of Matale until the end of the second JVP insurrection. In January 1990, he applied for three months leave and went to the USA to see his family.” In view of these facts, it becomes all the more necessary for an independent probe to be conducted so that Rajapakse and/or anybody else are cleared of any war crimes in 1989. It may be ironic that the persons being accused of war crimes now are the same persons who were then in charge of Matale. An independent probe may reveal they are innocent, But a probe by a body unconnected with these persons is necessary to show this.
Dr Navi Pillay and UNHCHR
It will be recalled that in 1994 there was horrendous violence in Rwanda when the majority Hutus, backed by the state security forces, were accused of mass murders and violence against the minority Tutsis. In the following year, the United Nations created the International Criminal Tribunal in Rwanda to probe the serious violations of humanitarian laws. One of the twelve Judges from across the world selected to sit on the ICTR was Dr Navi Pillay, the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. She was already a highly respected Judge of the South African Supreme Court. Interestingly, when the UN Security Council voted to select the twelve Judges to the ICTR, Pillay was the only Judge to receive the support of all fifteen members of the Security Council.
Critics who say that she has not been fair to the position of the Sri Lankan government must realize that she has never been accused of bias in her judicial career. From being the first female Judge of the South African Supreme Court in 1994, she was selected as a Judge of the ICRT in 1996 and then from 2003 as Judge of the newly set up International Criminal Court in The Hague. She has always had an unswerving commitment to justice and the rule of law. Her thesis for her doctorate in Juridical Science from the Harvard University in 1988 was on ’The political role of the South African judiciary’ in which he argued that Judges could not fulfill their proper judicial role as long as they had to implement unjust and immoral laws.
At the fifteenth anniversary remembrance of the Rwandan pogrom, she spoke about her work on the ICRT and stated: ’This is also an opportunity to pay homage to the witnesses who came forward with harrowing accounts of atrocities. These individuals refused to remain silent and tacitly tolerant about violations of human rights. Their testimony helped to dismantle barriers to dialogue and to mend and restore the very foundations of peaceful co-existence, for it is the establishment of truth that fosters reconciliation. In expressing their grief and horror, survivors in Rwanda did not choose the barren path of wanton revenge, but that of justice and thereby cleared the way for communal re-building. They sought the help of the international community to bolster their efforts. These are the heroes whose courage gives life to the rule of law as a standard of human conduct in the world.’
It was in similar vein that Pillay paid a tribute to human rights defenders in her opening address to the current session of the UN Human Rights Council: ‘Civil society has evolved and expanded, with many more active national human rights organizations around today than there were 20 years ago. These national human rights defenders are the heroes of our time. It is, therefore, a matter of great concern that so many State authorities continue to ignore or repress civil society organizations, human rights defenders and the media. These organizations and individuals inject the life blood into human rights: they are the promoters of change, the people who ring the alarm about abuse, poor legislation and creeping authoritarianism. Nonetheless I continue to hear of brave human rights defenders, journalists or bloggers who have been threatened, harassed, arrested or killed because of their work on behalf of the human rights of others. Such intimidation has sometimes even occurred during the proceedings of this Council. We must never tolerate such pressure, or reprisals against those who rightly seek to engage the international human rights system.’
It is this vision and commitment that we need in all active defenders of human rights. It is a vision that should be a vital possession of Human Rights Commissioners in all countries. It is fortunate for the United Nations that Dr Navi Pillay, as were her predecessors, have this unswerving commitment and vision before them. It is that commitment that has brought justice to the victims and to the violators of humanitarian laws in Rwanda, in Kosovo, in Serbia and in Cambodia. It is the single most effective deterrent to the perpetrators of state violence against a helpless people, not, of course, against armed lawless groups.
Need for meaningful investigations
It must be emphasized that the resolution passed last year and the one coming up for a vote this year are for the government to take meaningful steps to strengthen its record on human rights. They are not against Sri Lanka as a country. On the contrary, if the recommendations in the resolutions, as also the recommendations of the LLRC, are implemented in the right spirit, it will be a boost for Sri Lanka.
Last year a film came out showing killings that alleged violations of humanitarian laws. This year, another film is being exhibited that shows a young boy, purportedly the son of the LTTE supremo Prabhakaran, before and after being extra-judicially killed. Like last year, the government contests the authenticity of the film. In view of the controversy over this, the LLRC recommended that ‘the Government of Sri Lanka institute an independent investigation into this issue with a view to establishing the truth or otherwise of these allegations and take action in accordance with the laws of the land. Equally, the Commission feels that arrangements should be made to ensure and facilitate the confidentiality and protection of information and informants. The Commission strongly urges all those concerned, especially the organizations that provided the original images and the broadcasting organization, to extend fullest cooperation by providing the necessary information to facilitate this work.’ Sadly this recommendation has not been acted upon.
The LLRC also commented on the non-implementation of the recommendations of previous Commissions of Inquiry. They stated: ’The Commission strongly recommends the implementation of the recommendations of the Report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry appointed to Investigate and Inquire into Alleged Serious Violations of Human Rights Arising Since August 2005, particularly those relating to further investigation and prosecution of offenders involved in the incidents of the death of 5 students in Trincomalee in January 2006 and 17 aid workers of the ACF in August 2006. Such action would send a strong signal in ensuring respect for the Rule of Law, which in turn tends to contribute to the healing process.’
If Sri Lanka is to get its act right, we have to convince the human rights defenders, both local or international, that the government of Sri Lanka is serious about adherence to the rule of law. Beyond rhetoric, its actions so far provide little conviction that it is inclined to uphold the rule of law and international humanitarian laws. The farcical impeachment process of the 43rd Chief Justice Dr Shirani Bandaranayake and its denial of many of the key LLRC recommendations is evidence that the government has many lessons yet to learn, if it is so inclined to do so.
Read this article in Sinhala here. Translation by Yahapalanaya Lanka.