Sri Lanka and Fiji: Ghost Human Rights Commissions
Vanessa Spencer, Strategic Initiatives Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
A National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) is a body created and funded by the state with a mandate to protect and promote human rights. In order for an NHRI to provide human rights education to the public, advise the government on human rights issues and monitor state actors – who may be perpetrators of human rights violations – it must be independent and impartial. Indeed, independence from the state, together with active engagement with non-government organisations and other civil society actors, are key components of an effective NHRI. The Human Rights Commissions (HRC) of Sri Lanka and Fiji, countries marred by civil conflict, lack both.
The history of socio-political instability in Sri Lanka and Fiji combined with the absence of a regional human rights institution or treaty in the Asia Pacific region enhance the urgency for effective and legitimate NHRIs in these countries. For the past few years, however, both the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission and the Fijian Human Rights Commission have come under strong criticism for their lack of credibility and cooperation with civil society. These factors have made them anachronisms and have prevented the establishment of a solid culture of human rights in two countries that are in desperate need of immediate redress and prevention of human rights violations.
Sri Lanka HRC: The Hope For A Solution, A Part Of The Problem
The people of Sri Lanka witnessed the systematic perpetration of human rights violations by both sides of a civil conflict that lasted over a quarter of a century. With one of the worst human rights records in the world, the government is yet to address impunity for past human rights abuses and is accused of numerous cases of enforced disappearances, torture, illegal detentions and unlawful killings.
The Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission (SLHRC) was established in 1996 to investigate human rights abuses, advise the government and provide human rights education. It aims to do so “with the coordination and cooperation of all stakeholders that work towards protecting and promoting human rights for all”.
SLHRC is considered to be one of the worst in South Asia. In 2007, the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions (ICC) downgraded the Commission to ‘B’ status due to, among other reasons, its lack of independence, political impartiality and regular rapport with civil society.
Regretfully, the Commission’s support of and engagement with civil society actors has not seen improvements. Since the civil society protests in 2006 against the unconstitutional appointments of SLHRC’s commissioners, what should be a mutually beneficial relationship has been marked by deep distrust, a boycott by civil society and open hostility by the Commission.
SLHRC has been persistently crippled by strong political interferences. As a consequence, it is notorious for ignoring attacks, enforced disappearances and killings of human rights defenders. In 2009, three civil society consultations resulted in the creation of what later proved to be a disappointingly ineffective human rights defenders’ focal point in the Commission. After the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009, several serious allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity were made by reputed civil society groups. Recently, a Panel of Experts appointed by the UN Secretary-General found several such allegations to be credible. Evidence that support such allegations has also been authenticated by two successive UN Special Rapporteurs on Extrajudicial Killings. In June 2011, Channel 4, a British TV channel, screened a documentary on Sri Lanka containing terrifying video footage that was presented as evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the last phase of Sri Lanka’s civil war. Despite widespread condemnation and demands for credible independent investigations, SLHRC has been unable to take any meaningful positions on the issue.
Fiji HRC: A State Of Inadequacy
With a long history of coups d’état and constitutional crises, Fiji’s human rights situation has been severely undermined in the past few years.
The Fiji Human Rights Commission (FHRC) was established in 1997 to, inter alia, provide human rights education and make recommendations to the government on human rights issues.
FHRC’s lack of independence has been a matter of concern after the 2006 military coup, when its Chairperson, Shaista Shameem, was unconstitutionally appointed. In 2007, Shameem publicly supported both the coup and the limitation of human rights by the military forces on account of the State of Emergency. The Commission eventually resigned from the Asia Pacific Forum (the network of Asia Pacific NHRIs) and from the ICC, which had criticised its lack of “both credibility and independence”.
The promulgation of the 2009 Human Rights Commission Decree further hindered FHRC’s independence by determining that “the functions, powers and duties of the Commission do not extend to receiving complaints against, or investigating, questioning or challenging, the legality or validity of the Fiji Constitution Amendment Act, 1997, Revocation Decree, 2009, or such other Decrees”.
The blatant disregard of FHRC’s legislative duty to consult and cooperate with human rights organisations has been particularly patent in its criticism of human rights NGOs’ role in Fiji. In 2008, it published confidential e-mails between NGOs and newspaper publishers on the country’s political situation and supported the expulsion of the latter due to “national security” concerns. It further recommended the enhancement of governmental scrutiny of the media and NGOs.
The Commission’s unwillingness to investigate numerous cases of torture, detention and the killing of human rights defenders and other government critics by the military continues to this day. In January and February 2011, trade unionists Pramod Rae and Attar Singh were threatened and intimidated by army officers. In February, the Prime Minister threatened two human rights defenders with detention following their critics of the country’s judiciary system at Fiji’s Universal Periodic Review. The occurrence of similar cases rose in the weeks leading to a plan for a peaceful demonstration against the government in the Fijian capital last March, which was cancelled due to high police and military presence. Nevertheless, FHRC states that no recent complaints of abuse, detainment or intimidation by the security forces have been made, which suggests that a lack of trust in the Commission and fear of repercussions effectively silence victims of human rights abuses.
Ghost NHRIs Or No NHRIs At All?
The Sri Lanka and Fiji Human Rights Commissions are excellent examples of NHRIs that, owing to their lack of independence, see their engagement with civil society deeply hampered. More shamefully, they fail to protect those who are in the best position to document past and present human rights violations.
In principle, their mandates guarantee that they will effectively protect and promote human rights. In practice, their role has been virtually reduced to that of superficial human rights education.
Civil society actors who work towards the improvement of a country’s human rights situation can be invaluable sources of independent and comprehensive information – an essential ingredient to understanding the human rights issues at stake and the consequences of not addressing them appropriately. This is especially important when public awareness of and access to NHRIs is limited, and when these institutions lack resources and staff.
NHRIs that are preserved with the only purpose of convincing citizens and the international community that the government is dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights not only fail in their rationale but are also detrimental to the idea behind institutions such as NHRIs.