As we head towards the debating of yet another and progressively sterner draft resolution against the Government of this country at the United Nations this month, a besieged mentality appears to be reflecting in some quarters of public opinion. Predictably, this is used by government politicians from President Mahinda Rajapaksa downwards to drum up local support electorally.
Disregard of basic fundamentals of state and government
Hence the President’s bravado pronouncement this week at a provincial council election rally of the government in Ratnapura that he will not ‘dance to anyone’s tune.’ Such defiance has become a farce if not a comedy. President Rajapaksa’s frequent boast that he will go to the gallows for ‘the people’ ignores the fact that international law does not sanction the death penalty in any event. These are however, inconvenient truths that are irrelevant in the larger picture of a Government that does not hesitate to utter the most diabolical lies for its own advantage and moreover, of an Opposition that is so pathetically ineffective that it constitutes as equal if not more a disaster for Sri Lanka.
Indeed, very little shocks us now. The abandonment of basic fundamentals dividing State and Government has become routine. So the propriety of the Head of State addressing election rallies of a political party appears not to raise eyebrows. And the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and the President’s brother who is a public servant regularly speaks, acts and behaves as if he is in political command. Which in fact, he is.
Being satisfied with less
This week, a Cabinet Minister, Rishard Bathiudeen ‘apologized’ (reportedly, he later denied this) to court in respect of threatening the Mannar Magistrate in 2011. This same Minister had later attempted to pressurize the Judicial Service Commission into transferring the Magistrate and his henchmen were (‘allegedly’) implicated in the stoning of the Magistrate’s Court when part of the court premises were set on fire.
From one perspective, it is nothing short of a veritable miracle that a Minister in the Rajapaksa Cabinet ‘apologized’ to court. On the other hand, a Minister in another administration had to spend time in jail not so long ago, just for a chance remark disparaging court judgments. What happened in Mannar was infinitely more serious. But an ‘apology’ (and that too, only purported) solved the matter to all intents and purposes. Should we then rest happy that the independence of the judiciary has been secured?
The Government’s disregarding of duties
In this scenario where many of us seem resigned to our unhappy fate, certain truths need to be extracted. This Government’s frequent complaint is that Sri Lanka’s human rights record is being singled out for disproportionate attention by countries with vested agendas. This is, by no means, an original argument. Indeed, there is nothing very skilled or clever about this lament. It is the common defence of authoritarian rulers. At a basic level, this Government refused to deflect international attention away from Sri Lanka by adopting measured and substantial reforms based on the minimum of the Rule of Law as recommended by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).
The Government’s adherence to the LLRC’s report has been perfunctory. Its contempt of the Rule of Law continues even at this present day. And the reach of this shadowy arm of extrajudicial summary justice extends beyond the former war theatre of the Wanni. Weliweriya, (for which no real accountability has yet been secured), taught the Sinhala people just that. Just a month ago, an activist demanding equitable treatment for the slum dwellers of Wanathamulla was abducted and released only after considerable pressure was exerted. This week, a war widow (who had been a rallying point of family members of the Northern ‘disappeared’), and her thirteen year old child living in Kilinochchi was arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (1979, PTA) after her house was surrounded by several army and police in the dead of the night.
The question as to whether such a show of awful military might was required to handle a woman and a child? And why is the ordinary law not utilized rather than the draconian antiterrorism statute? Yet these antics continue locally even as this administration pretends wide eyed innocence abroad while its Rhodes scholar-turned grossly expedient politician, Sri Lanka’s Minister of External Affairs takes refuge in blandly unconvincing reassurances.
Not only small countries are singled out
Meanwhile, it is amusing to see some in Government getting enthused over recent findings by the United Nations Human Rights Committee (the Committee), castigating the United States for its human rights record on Guantanamo, target killings and clandestine surveillance operations. The eighteen members of the Committee established under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), function independently and include some of the world’s most respected jurists. The Committee had, in the previous decade, repeatedly requested Sri Lanka to enforce several Rule of Law protections which this Government has refused to do. It is different from the United Nations Human Rights Council which is a political body and before which, the resolutions on Sri Lanka have been tabled.
The Committee’s strictures against the US this week only reiterate previous findings by the Special Rapporteurs of the United Nations and indeed, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Not only the US but India itself has been critiqued for overstepping the line. Despite routine government propaganda, not only small nations are singled out by the juristic world order.
Sri Lanka edging closer to the old Burma
But the difference is that to their credit, these countries do not track, hunt down, abduct or kill dissenters. Judicial systems function within those countries. The courts are respected. The difference is that democracy works for those citizens – even in a flawed manner. We confront a different reality.
Right now, all signs indicate that Sri Lanka will be pushed into a dangerously isolationist corner within the coming weeks. A decade ago, grouping Sri Lanka with the old Burma would have sounded incredulous. Now, this possibility looks increasingly believable, to our own exceedingly profound detriment.