By Dharisha Bastians –
So perfectly orchestrated and precisely timed, the detention of human rights campaigners in Sri Lanka over the past week almost looks like internal sabotage to ruin the country’s faltering chances at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva
“Authoritarian regimes take the heart out of people. Take the fight out of people. Everyone taken is also taken with a message for the rest of us: ‘you will be next’” – Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, civil society activist
Here’s a mid-week riddle: What do the Tamil widow Balendran Jeyakumari, activists Ruki Fernando, Father Praveen Mahesan and Sri Lanka’s Justice Minister have in common?
They all chose to engage with international human rights mechanisms, including UN rights chief Navi Pillay. And now they are paying for it.
Since her explosive press conference at the UN compound in Colombo, a recurring theme of Navi Pillay’s remarks on the situation in Sri Lanka has been reprisals against rights activists and others who work to defend fundamental freedoms in the country. Her persistence on the issue, in the face of stringent Government denials and demands for proof, has made the safety of activists in Sri Lanka a central theme of international engagement on human rights issues in the country, now taking place predominantly at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
But not even Pillay could have predicted that the culture of intolerance for dissenting opinions in Sri Lanka would extend all the way up to President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cabinet of ministers.
“We will skin the b****** alive!” screeched Bodu Bala Sena General Secretary Galagodaaththe Gnansara Thero at a press conference in Colombo earlier this week. The General Secretary, who flew to Burma to receive a special birthday gift from Burma’s radical monk Akshin Wirathu this month, flayed Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem for the crime of being associated with a report handed over to Pillay in August last year. The report detailed multiple attacks on Muslim places of worship that have been associated with or incited by the campaigns of hardline movements like the BBS and its partner organisations over the past year.
Hakeem flayed by cabinet colleagues
The hardline Buddhist group is famous for its hate-filled invective against perceived enemies. The attack on Hakeem, while extreme and vicious, is not unusual. The crescendo of abuse hurled at the Justice Minister by his cabinet ministers on election platforms and press conferences over the past month tells an entirely different story. Since an incensed President Mahinda Rajapaksa read Minister Hakeem the riot act in cabinet about the report to Pillay multiple ministers have pitched into the Muslim Minister for colluding with foreign forces seeking to effect regime change in Sri Lanka.
But because of his run with the hare and hunt with the hound policies, Minister Hakeem elicits little sympathy. His party ensures the UPFA retains a two thirds majority in Parliament. But conveniently, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress routinely campaigns independently at elections, permitting the Muslim party to brazenly attack the policies of the ruling Government as being discriminatory towards minorities. Once the polls are complete, the SLMC led by Hakeem will blithely hand its several seats at the two provincial councils over to the UPFA, distorting its mandate each time after contesting elections on a stringently anti-Government platform.
As a firmly entrenched, if mistrusted member of the Rajapaksa administration therefore, Minister Hakeem has insurance which human rights campaigners like Fernando, Father Praveen and Jeyakumari do not.
Under heavy surveillance and garrisoning since the end of the war in 2009, international focus on Sri Lanka’s human rights record is making life in Kilinochchi hell again.
The famous little girl
Jeyakumari, the 50 year old mother of four was picked up by the TID at her home in the Wanni. Her last remaining child, 13 year old daughter Vibooshika was taken into custody with Jeyakumari and subsequently released to child protection authorities.
For her 13 years, the little girl is already internationally famous. On the frontlines of every demonstration by families of missing people in the North, Vibooshika weeps like her heart is broken, asking for the return of her ‘anna’. As the youngest participant in the often emotional protests, the child attracts the lens, tears frozen on a face that is twisted with grief. A child conscript with the LTTE, Jeyakumari’s 15 year old son is missing since he reportedly surrendered to the military in May 2009. The widow’s strongest proof that the boy was in state custody is that his picture appeared in a Government publication about the LLRC report. The picture shows Jeyakumari’s son engaging in physical exercise with other ex-LTTE cadres enrolled in the state rehabilitation scheme for former combatants. The TID has detained the Tamil widow on charges of harbouring an armed and wanted man, a suspected LTTE operative.
Fernando and the Catholic priest who travelled to Jeyakumari’s village in Dharmapuram on Sunday to gather details about the raid on her home and subsequent arrest, met a similiar fate.
Fernando, who engages in human rights documentation work and Father Praveen who works closely with families of missing people in the North, help to take stories like Jeyakumari’s out into the world. With the Government under fire internationally for its unwillingness to investigate involuntary disappearances and a myriad other violations, this has become a dangerous line of work.
The detention of Fernando and the Catholic Priest, only three days after Jeyakumari’s arrest, set alarms off across the world, most notably in Geneva. Rights organisations in Geneva made representations to the UNHRC President and country delegations regarding the latest arrests. In Colombo, civil society activists and diplomatic missions stepped up the pressure. A flood of statements condemning the arrests emerged from major capitals of the world. Despite deepening hostility between the ruling administration and Western countries lobbying for improvements in the country’s human rights situation, diplomatic missions in Colombo were in constant touch with Government officials to urge restraint and demand access for the activists’ lawyers. Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, detainees can be held for up to 72 hours before being produced in court to be released or served with official detention papers. Officials from foreign missions went so far as to make late night phone calls to police stations in the North where Fernando and Father Praveen were being held, to ask for details about the condition of the detainees and the charges upon which they had been arrested. In some cases, flustered police officials hurriedly disconnected the lines.
From bureaucrats and political officials in Colombo, the missions were getting a consistent message: ‘It is beyond our control’.
In Geneva meanwhile, the Government was digging in its heels. Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva is the only Sri Lankan overseas mission to be staffed entirely by career diplomats. These officers, fully cognizant of the fact that damage control needed to be done given the degree of focus the detentions were getting, issued a lengthy diplomatic note to all permanent missions and international organisations in Geneva. The US mission alone failed to receive the note. The Government delegation to the UNHRC would later exercise a right of reply at the Council regarding the arrests along similar lines.
Enter “Gopi” or “Gobi” aka K. Selvanayagam, the LTTE operative the TID claims it was hunting based on intelligence information that he was regrouping the Tigers in the North. The Government note explaining Jeyakumari’s arrest and detention, said investigators had obtained a lead on Gopi’s whereabouts that had led them to the Balendran home in Dharmapuram. Shots were fired injuring a policeman and massive caches of weapons were found, the note goes on to explain. When Jeyakumari refused to tell investigators the suspect’s whereabouts, she was arrested and later detained for further interrogation, according to the note. Ruki Fernando and the Catholic Priest had been arrested and detained because they were engaging with persons connected with “Gobi”, the Government explained in its letter to the missions. In crux, the note argued in no uncertain terms that the detentions were within the country’s legal framework and had been made to ensure national security.
The Military Spokesman expounded the same charge about Gopi in the state press, alleging that the two activists arrested on Sunday had major links with LTTE cadres.
While terrorism concerns were easily understood as being a security imperative for any country, the fact that the three persons arrested in connection with the LTTE operative coincidentally also happened to be disappearances activists significantly eroded the argument’s credibility. The narrative seemed to fit too comfortably with Government propaganda that has ceaselessly equated human rights activism with support for the LTTE cause internationally.
But sometime on Tuesday evening, the ground began to shift.
The Military Spokesman told foreign journalists he had been misquoted in the state media about the two activists’ and their Tiger connections and insisted he would be issuing a correction. The news items about Fernando and the priest were taken down from the Defence Ministry website. Police Spokesman SSP Ajith Rohana told Daily FT the TID “may conclude investigations” about the two activists on Tuesday night. Forty eight hours after they were arrested in the Wanni, Ruki Fernando and Father Praveen were given bail by the Colombo magistrate who was roused at 11 p.m. at his Wattala home.
The series of arrests of well known rights campaigners under widely criticised anti-terror legislation that remains in place five years after the LTTE was defeated, seemed irrational and ill-timed at best or defiant of international opinion and scrutiny at worst. Three days after the arrests, diplomats and analysts are still struggling to make sense of what prompted the latest sequence of events. Clear in his mind that the UNHRC cannot impose sanctions on his administration because that would require the approval of the UN Security Council where he is certain Beijing and Moscow will protect Sri Lanka, was President Mahinda Rajapaksa testing his strength? Were state law enforcement agencies merely following intelligence leads? Is the Government seeking to resurrect the LTTE spectre ahead of the provincial elections and tie the resurgence inextricably to human rights campaigners?
Or did the Government simply plough through with the arrests to send a message to the international community about how little it cared about external pressure?
If it was the latter, the administration’s high-handed tactics only succeeded in proving the polar opposite. The machismo and tough talk subsided swiftly on Tuesday evening as the international outrage grew louder and the TID prepared to release Fernando and the priest. In the final analysis, the advent of sudden saner counsel and backtracking by the security establishment seemed to prove that one section of the Government had been acting alone. Once again, the rest of the administration was left to mop up the mess.
That has not been easy.
Hours after it told the UN that Ruki Fernando and Father Praveen had been arrested for engaging with persons connected to “Gopi”, the Government said in a statement that the pair had been detained for their “presence in the crime scene”. And while the Magistrate had signed an unconditional release, the Ministry said the two activists had been granted bail while “investigations continue.”
Detaining high profile activists during the UNHRC sessions will be chalked up as a colossal blunder at the conclusion of the current round in Geneva. The move could not have been better scripted even if it had been the conspiratorial work the pro-separatist lobbies operating overseas. .
Already struggling against an avalanche of bad publicity and damning reports at the UNHRC, events of the past 72 hours will almost certainly impact Sri Lanka’s fortunes in Geneva, where diplomats and Ministers are engaged in last ditch attempts to swing member states ahead of the 27 March vote.
The outcry over the latest detentions coincided unluckily with the third and last informal discussion on the Sri Lanka resolution. Convened by the US Permanent Mission in Geneva, the informal consultation was a public discussion at the Palais Des Nations which houses the UNHRC. The meeting was the last opportunity for member states to air their views publicly about the language and scope of the resolution. Crucially, US Ambassador to Sri Lanka Michele J. Sison, who has unique assessments of the situation on the ground by virtue of being based in Colombo, also participated in the final informal meeting.
“Operative Clause 8”
The co-sponsors of the resolution steered Tuesday’s discussion to focus on the mandate for the Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) to lead an investigation into violations in Sri Lanka. The co-sponsors are leaning towards allowing the office currently run by High Commissioner Pillay to appoint experts of its choice, rather than having the Council appoint a commissioner to lead the investigation, according to sources with knowledge of the discussions. This decision would effectively put the OHCHR in the driving seat in terms of the inquiry into Sri Lanka. Debate also persists as to the time frame of violations to be investigated by the OHCHR and how far back into the conflict the probe would delve. The delegation of the Russian Federation intervened during the discussions to insist references to “demilitarisation” and gender-based violence is deleted in the resolution text. The position was reinforced by the Chinese delegation and the routine disagreements with the resolution’s 8th Operative Clause, which sets up the OHCHR investigation more explicitly in the second draft continued at the meeting. The final language of the resolution is likely to determine the time-frame of the investigation and lay out the technical details of the OHCHR inquiry with more clarity. Representatives from the Japanese and South Korean delegations remained silent observers to the discussion, but sources in Geneva say support for the resolution is crystallising at the Council.
Pillay’s last hurrah
Navi Pillay, the Sri Lankan Government’s bête noir will provide the final thrust of lobbying in favour of the US sponsored resolution at the Council next Wednesday (26). Pillay, who has already said she was “disturbed” by reports that the Government had used the PTA to arrest human rights activists, will make her oral presentation on Sri Lanka based on her fact finding mission to the island last year. With an extended term expiring in August this year, her 26 March speech may well be the last time Navi Pillay addresses the Council about Sri Lanka in her capacity as High Commissioner for Human Rights.
During her press conference in Colombo, the 72 year former judge of the International Criminal Court effectively set in motion the series of events leading up to next week’s resolution on Sri Lanka at the Council. Operative Clause 8 of that document will permit her office to commence investigations into the abuses she has been flagging for five long years. The Government has attempted over the years to discredit Navi Pillay, but she has proven a far more skilled and single-minded adversary. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is the advocate of victims, not governments. Her mandate is to provide advocacy for voiceless victims of abuse at the highest international levels. It has never been part of her role to safeguard the interests of rulers.
This is a crucial distinction the Government has consistently failed to understand.
Next week, when Navi Pillay speaks about the plight of victims in Sri Lanka, of Jeyakumari and Vibooshika, Ruki and Father Praveen, and even Minister Hakeem’s grievances, the world will sit up and listen. Already concerned by the reports of the recent detentions, member states that were on the fence may already be teetering in favour of the US resolution. For such delegations, Navi Pillay’s oral presentation could prove the final catalyst.
“The war is over, the suffering is not,” Pillay said after concluding her visit to Sri Lanka in August last year.
And didn’t the Government go out of its way to prove that this week.
Courtesy Daily FT