By Jehan Perera –
The drama over Prisons Minister Lohan Ratwatte could not have come at a worse time for the government. But it can also be the turning point. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is due to address the UN General Assembly in New York this week. The attention of the international human rights community has been focused on Sri Lanka during the past week due to the recently concluded sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Sri Lanka was a country of interest due to its checkered human rights track record, especially in relation to the war, and subject to a special address by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. Next week will see an EU delegation visiting Sri Lanka to assess the human rights situation in relation to the GSP Plus tariff privilege that the country obtained again in 2017 having lost it for seven years in 2010.
The immediate challenge to the government’s plans for economic recovery hinge on its ability to keep the GSP Plus and not lose it. This privilege, which permits the country’s exports entry to the EU market without the payment of import duties, has helped to sustain Sri Lankan business enterprises during the Covid-induced economic downturn. With the exception of the tourism related business sector, several export-oriented business sectors have been showing healthy profits due in large measure to the GSP Plus facility. The GSP is given on condition that human rights are being protected in the country concerned, which has become a question mark for Sri Lanka. The questions have grown since the change of government. The attempt to withdraw from the commitments with regard to human rights given by the previous government when it co-sponsored UNHRC Resolution 30/1 in 2015 has not been well received by the international human rights community.
The alleged offences committed by Minister Ratwatte, and the delayed response by the government undermines its presentation of facts and arguments that Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris made during his presentation in Geneva last week intended to show that the Rule of Law, independence of state institutions and human rights are to be found in the country. Minister Ratwatte is alleged to have entered two prison compounds, visited the gallows in one along with his personal friends and threatened Tamil prisoners in another with his gun and made them kneel down before him. However, he has denied doing anything improper and his version has, according to media reports, been corroborated by prisons authorities who have claimed that no untoward incidents have occurred. This has been amidst claims and counter claims about the availability of CCTV cameras in the high security prisons.
The alleged act of unprovoked disregard for the human dignity of the two prisoners held as LTTE suspects under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which itself violates international standards of human rights, has become a rallying call for unity amongst the Tamil community. This justifies or adds credence to the view that the minorities have security issues in the country and their rights are inadequately protected. Rival Tamil political parties have been issuing statements of condemnation. They have also got onto common platforms in opposition to the minister’s conduct. On the positive side, the protests have not only come from the Tamil community. The mainstream media and opposition political parties have also joined in the condemnation and demanded that the government takes immediate action. In addition, the ruling party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Secretary Sagara Kariyawasam has said that “This type of action cannot be permitted in any civilised society and appropriate action should be taken after investigations.”
There is a need for governmental action that goes beyond the mere resignation of the accused minister from his portfolio of prisons while retaining his other ministries. There is an urgent need for this. In June of this year the European Parliament passed a resolution that the GSP Plus should be withdrawn if Sri Lanka did not show signs of progress in its protection of human rights. The resolution expressed “deep concerns over Sri Lanka’s alarming path towards recurrence of grave human rights violations as described by the most recent UN report on the country, which lists among the early warning signals the accelerating militarization of civilian governmental functions, reversal of important constitutional safeguards, political obstruction of accountability, exclusionary rhetoric, intimidation of civil society, and the use of anti-terrorism laws.”
The government’s position in Geneva was that there is no need for international involvement in either monitoring or investigating human rights violations in Sri Lanka as the country has its own internal mechanisms to do so. Foreign Minister Prof GL Peiris speaking in Geneva said, “We reject the proposal for any external initiatives purportedly established by Resolution 46/1 while domestic processes are vigorously addressing the relevant matters. This will polarize our society, as we experienced with Resolution 30/1. The Council must adhere to its founding principles. External initiatives embarked upon without the cooperation of the country concerned cannot achieve their stated goals, and will be subject to politicization.”
The problem of impunity for state actors is long standing and precedes the present government. Successive governments have whitewashed the crimes of their members as taking punitive action is politically costly to them. Usually the culprits have political assets that outweigh their crimes in the eyes of the political parties and voters alike. It is this tolerance of conduct with impunity and without accountability by those in government, who set themselves above the law, that has taken the country to the dock of international human rights opinion in Geneva. Unfortunately this type of conduct gained political acceptability during the period of the three decades long war and long periods of emergency rule. However, the war is now over more than 12 years and the last election was fought on promises of a restoration of law and order and the practice of discipline as being national values.
The key area of governance failure highlighted by the UN High Commissioner has been the area of impunity and lack of follow up in emblematic cases where human rights violations are alleged to have occurred. It was on account of this failure of previous governments to ensure accountability, which continues, that the UNHRC Resolution 46/1 of March 2021 mandated the establishment of a special investigation unit at the UN level to monitor the human rights situation in the country and collect information. According to the UN Human Rights Commissioner this “Office’s work to implement the accountability-related aspects of Resolution 46/1 has begun, pending recruitment of a start-up team. We have developed an information and evidence repository with nearly 120,000 individual items already held by the UN, and we will initiate as much information-gathering as possible this year.”
As Minister Ratwatte is a member of parliament it would be appropriate that an independent inquiry be conducted with the investigators being appointed in a bipartisan manner by the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader to instill public and international confidence as this is absent at this time. In the meantime the Minister should be persuaded to resign from all ministerial appointments pending investigation or be removed from such positions as this is an issue that goes to the heart of the issue of impunity. The failure of the Sri Lankan system of justice to act with transparency and integrity in the case regarding Minister Ratwatte will only serve to further justify the stance of the international community regarding the need for external intervention. It will undermine the efforts of the government to argue otherwise. A credible internal investigation and judicial action is necessary if external intervention is to be kept at bay and the GSP Plus is to be retained. This can be the turning point.