By Reema Omer –
In a meeting with External Affairs Minister G. L. Peiris last week, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif expressed his admiration for Sri Lanka’s “unremitting endeavors for promoting economic independence, human dignity and social justice for the people of Sri Lanka.” He pledged Pakistan’s support for Sri Lanka’s ongoing struggle to evade accountability and justice in the United Nations, and warmly accepted President Rajapaksa’s invitation to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, scheduled to take place in Colombo in November this year.
Sri Lanka’s authoritarian drift
Prime Minister Sharif’s statements starkly clashed with the assessment, a few days later, of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Navi Pillay, who finished her official visit to Sri Lanka on 31 August 2013. The High Commissioner noted that “the war may have ended, but in the meantime democracy has been undermined and the rule of law eroded.”
She expressed concern that despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a vibrant, representative State, Sri Lanka “is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.”
Widespread and systematic abuses
Shamefully, Pakistan has engaged in a boisterous defence of Sri Lanka at the United Nations, despite the country’s record of widespread and systematic human rights violations accompanied by near absolute impunity.
It’s time for the new Prime Minister, the first to enjoy a peaceful transfer of civilian authority, to turn around Pakistan’s reputation as a defender of rights violators and a culture of impunity.
In 2011, the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability found that both the Sri Lankan Government and Tamil Tigers were responsible for serious abuses amounting to war crimes during the final stages of the civil war. The Sri Lankan Government, for its part, was responsible, among other abuses, for the enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and torture, including rape, of thousands of civilians suspected of having ties with the Tamil Tigers. In addition, the Panel found that the Government attempted to intimidate and silence the media and other critics of the war through a variety of threats and other actions, including subjecting them to enforced disappearance.
Commitment to an independent Judiciary
As the UN High Commissioner pointed out, despite the end of the conflict, there has been no “peace dividend” in Sri Lanka. Instead, there have been deeply troubling attacks on the independence of the judiciary in Sri Lanka. In October 2012, the secretary of the Judicial Service Commission was physically assaulted in broad daylight. In January 2013, Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was unlawfully removed in a clearly politicized impeachment process. The ICJ, supported by fifty-six eminent jurists from around the world condemned the impeachment process, calling it a “contravention of the Constitution, international human rights law and standards, including the right to a fair hearing, and the rule of law.”
Chief Justice Bandaranayake’s impeachment should set off alarm bells for all those who witnessed General Pervez Musharraf’s removal of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in 2007.
We should recall Prime Minister Nawaz and his party led a “long march” for the Chief Justice’s restoration. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made a fierce defence of the independence of the judiciary for Pakistan, yet appears happy to allow Sri Lanka’s Executive trample the country’s Judiciary.
An old habit
The Pakistan Muslim League (N) Government is not the first Pakistani government acting to protect the Sri Lankan State from human rights scrutiny.
In March 2013, Pakistan was one of the most outspoken States against the UN Human Rights Council Resolution that encouraged Sri Lanka to carry out credible investigations into the unlawful killings and enforced disappearances during its nearly 30-year long civil war, especially in the final stages. The Resolution also expressed concern at the continuing cases of enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture, threats to the rule of law, religious discrimination (including attacks on Muslims, mosques, and religious schools) and intimidation of members of civil society and journalists.
Pakistan not only voted against the Resolution, but also actively campaigned to convince the block of States from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, including Kuwait, Mauritania, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, to vote against the Resolution.
The controversial Commonwealth heads of Government meeting
Though not obvious from the Nawaz-Peiris meeting, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting has itself been a subject of much controversy.
The International Commission of Jurists and other human rights groups and lawyers have called on the Commonwealth Secretariat to refrain from hosting the heads of governments meeting in Sri Lanka, maintaining that doing so would cast serious doubts on the Commonwealth’s commitment to supporting human rights and democratic reform enshrined in the Commonwealth Harare Declaration.
Canada has decided to boycott the meeting unless and until Sri Lanka meaningfully addresses its human rights situation. The United Kingdom, Australia and India have also been under immense pressure to boycott the meeting. Pakistan on the other hand seems oblivious at best, and unmoved at worst, by these calls.
A False start
Pakistan has a responsibility to prevent further entrenchment of impunity and authoritarian rule in Sri Lanka, where ethnic and religious minorities are being increasingly marginalized, independence of the judiciary is fast being eroded, and the rights of the Sri Lankan people are being undermined.
Nawaz Sharif has argued very publicly for democratic governance in Pakistan. He has taken to the streets to defend the independence of the judiciary and has repeatedly pledged his commitment to the rule of law. It is time for the Prime Minister to ensure his foreign policy reflects these stated principles.
*The writer is a legal advisor for the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). She tweets at reema_omer.