By Laksiri Fernando –
I am basing this critique mainly on President’s interview to the Daily Mirror titled “Critics of SL Have a Misguided Notion” published on 1 January 2014, as it is always better to be precise when discussing the issues of human rights or democracy. The views expressed in this interview have no excuses of ‘problems of articulation,’ like in a ‘on the spot’ interview, as it was conducted in advance through email, probably with other’s assistance.
It was highlighted in the preface to the interview, President saying that “those who criticise the Human Rights record of the country are either those who have not visited [or don’t know] the country or those who are the voices of the LTTE.” I cannot possibly be accused of either of these allegations, as I have always been a strong critic of the LTTE, and my knowledge of the country cannot be second to the President.
I understand, however, that he was aiming the allegation mainly to the ‘outsiders,’ but what it shows is his intolerance to any criticism and dismissal of any human rights advocacy as “voices of the LTTE.” He has also further stated in the same vein, “They simply act as the voice of the defeated terrorists. They are both within and outside Sri Lanka.” This is quite unfortunate as it equates ‘human rights criticism to terrorism.’
My focus of this article is not on the human rights record of the country as such, but the pitiable views expressed by the President on human rights themselves. Altogether he has answered 10 questions and most of them are to do with development and infrastructural projects on which I don’t have much issue here. However, what is characteristic is his attempt to highlight the achievements of development, in contrast to the record of human rights, as if to say that human rights and democracy are things that the people have to scarify in achieving development. This is unacceptable and defy the experiences of development and human rights in many countries.
There has been one direct question on human rights that was asked from him: “There has been criticism against your government with regard to human rights abuses. What is your response to this?”
In response, he has himself asked two questions: “Who criticises us? And why do they do so?”
This is of course a response, but not a genuine answer to the question from the caliber of a President. However, he has admitted that the critics are “both within and outside Sri Lanka” and has ironically stated that what he now calls “malicious propaganda…was set in motion since the early 80’s” which obviously includes himself in that category of ‘malicious propaganda.’ It is possible that he was reflecting or mirroring on the matter, from his own image or motives on human rights.
In late 1980s, he was acting as a human rights crusader. This is well known. He was also a human rights lawyer. As an opposition Member of Parliament, he went to Geneva to the UN Human Rights Commission, the predecessor of the present UNHRC, with Vasudeva Nanayakkara and was extremely critical of the then government. I was a witness. He cannot deny that. Those days, not only the North, but also the South were engulfed with different types of terrorism. That time, patriotism was not a barrier for him to criticise the government. Why now? Is it just because he is the President? As the saying goes, ‘what is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander.’
In addition, there is no threat of terrorism now, for which the main credit undoubtedly should go to him. But aren’t the people deserve more freedom now than before?
If he were using human rights, just as a propaganda tool for political ends at that time, without any genuine conviction, it is possible that he wants to judge everyone from that yardstick. That is not fair or correct to say the least. It is rather outright hypocrisy. From my own experience, I do completely differ that human rights is just a propaganda tool. Human rights are genuine concerns although some use them for political purposes. I have known many other human rights crusaders of that vintage, for example, Jose Romos-Horta. Jose became the President of East Timor, but did not betray or flinched on human rights like President Rajapaksa.
The following however was the full answer that he has given to the question.
All those who criticise us including those who have never set foot here and those who do not know what Sri Lanka looks like or her history or for that matter what happened in the period 1983 to 2009, are those who accuse us without any evidence. They simply act as the voice of the defeated terrorists. They are both within and outside Sri Lanka. I don’t have to tell you the scale of the malicious propaganda that was set in motion since the early 80’s.
As governments, we have been poor in countering these and presenting our case forcefully. The only abuse is that we defeated the brutal terrorists which some people labeled as unbeatable. I have always maintained that we have given opportunities for people to present any grievance and that we have a rock solid judicial system which is time tested. I reject that our government abused human rights. I cannot comprehend how those same people who accuse us now, waited in stoic silence when the terrorists for nearly three decades massacred thousands of innocent people, men , women, children, pregnant women etc., and governments of the day looked helplessly being unable to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country. Where were the so called human rights crusaders then?
I have already commented on the first part of the answer which also appeared as a preface to the interview in the Daily Mirror. He may be correct to say that “As governments, we have been poor in countering these and presenting our case forcefully.” This must be the reason, why the government is hiring Thomson Advisory Group and the Majority Group in the US alone, spending over Rs. 15 million of tax payer’s money per month in addition to other extravagant expenses for propaganda and propaganda personnel.
If Sri Lanka faces human rights questions fairly and squarely, and makes genuine efforts to improve them, the expenses cannot be that high. Honesty is inexpensive, dishonesty is expensive. Of course there can be adverse propaganda initially, whether you are honest or not, but they would die down eventually.
Human rights are not ‘grievances’ as he has implied in the statement, they are important entitlements of the people. The ‘rock solid judicial system’ that he has boasted about, was not even in a position to safeguard the dignity and the rights of the Chief Justice, not so long ago, due to the government manipulation. This is a time tested fact, not a fiction.
The question asked about human rights was not merely in the context of the war. Therefore, to say that “the only abuse is that we defeated the brutal terrorists which some people labeled as unbeatable,” or “I reject that our government abused human rights” is not relevant. More than its irrelevance, it is a reduction of all human rights issues to the elimination of terrorism.
The defeat of terrorism or elimination of it, was a necessary task to reestablish peace and democracy in the country. But to imply that it should be or should have been done at all costs is inconsistent with human rights and humanitarian law.
The President’s reductionist attitude or approach also became revealed when he referred to the Northern elections.
I am also happy that we were able to restore total democratic rights of the people in the North which the terrorists deprived them of, for many decades and hold free and fair elections to the Northern Provincial Council.
It is completely erroneous to claim that the holding of the elections to the Northern Provincial Council as a restoration of “total democratic rights of the people in the North.” Although the wording imply that the ‘total restoration’ was done even before the elections; that was not at all the case. While it should be appreciated that the suppression of terrorism has undoubtedly opened up democratic space in the North, that space is also circumscribed by the heavy military presence and their activities. Let me highlight one aspect of the complexity in the North as follows.
When the North was under the yoke of the LTTE, although they were ‘terrorists,’ they were Tamils. The army in the North today, although ‘not terrorists,’ are Sinhalese.
This is something that the country should find a solution for.
There is obviously a complete lack of understanding of the subtleties involved in the Northern scene, even if we assume that the President is genuine in pursuing some reconciliation. But most grotesque was his attitude towards democracy and governance. There were many places where he pictured democracy as just elections. That may be his limited understanding, I am sorry to say. But most dangerous authoritarian pronouncement came when he was referring to what the British PM said during CHOGM.
In regard to what the British PM said, I must emphasise that we are a sovereign government, duly elected by the people and that no one can threaten countries or governments. (My emphasis)
It is true that no one should threaten ‘countries or governments.’ It is also true that the way David Cameron uttered his challenge also was reprehensible, waging his finger. International leaders should not behave so. But to counter that or anything else, the President cannot claim that his Government is Sovereign. This cannot be ignored as a slip of the tongue or the pen. What was said more precisely was “we are a sovereign government.”
‘We’ can soon become ‘I.’