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Pillai Topples Rajapaksa's Apple Cart: Rest Is For CHOGM

After Pillai Topples Rajapaksa's Apple Cart: Rest Is For CHOGM

“I am deeply concerned that Sri Lanka, despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant, all-embracing state, is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.” So said Ms. Navanethem Pillai in her media statement issued to journalists at the media conference held at the Colombo UN office on 31 August, concluding her week long fact finding tour as the High Commissioner of the UNHRC.

She wasn't here to enjoy the “development” the government brags about. It wasn't because she wanted to check their “development” efforts the Rajapaksa government refused her request to visit Sri Lanka for almost 03 years. Her request to visit was obstructed because she wanted to see first hand, how the president appointed LLRC's Recommendations were being implemented here. Her visit was accepted this time, as President Rajapaksa thought that would provide an opportunity to undo most blunders in the diplomatic arena before CHOGM in November, as talked about in Colombo.

She thus became the most sensational State visitor ever to visit Sri Lanka. Therefore it is apt to make short reference on that before everything else. It is also relevant that she is quoted on all ridiculing, insulting comments and accusations made against her, before leaving this short reference on the issue. “This type of abuse has reached an extraordinary crescendo during this past week, with at least three Government Ministers joining in” she noted.

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One and the most sinister of them no doubt was minister for public relations, Mervyn Silva. His insane stupid statement was made into a popular news item by the mainstream Sinhala and English media (I am not competent to say that about Tamil media) and they have to take responsibility for irresponsible journalism. In any civilised society, a responsible professional media would have written many editorials demanding the government make a public apology when a minister insults its own State visitor. Such a responsible media would have condemned in no uncertain terms the insulting statements made by minister Mervyn Silva and demanded he too make a public apology. But here in Sri Lanka, the Sinhala and English media is no such responsible, professional media. They thus went on hyping the stupid and nauseating statement by minister Silva, replaying and reproducing it with comments gathered from similar odd and cranky characters. None with a sense of responsibility would contradict me for holding these sensationalist Sinhala/English mainstream media, wholly responsible for creating this type of anti social ugly political creatures.

This Sinhala regime of Rajapaksa still indulging in its war victory issuing statements to say Pillai has grossly over stepped her mandate, even with such media backing can not afford to answer the issues raised in Pillai's note given out at the media briefing. Her verbal statement on Sri Lanka would be made to the 24th Session of the UNHRC in late September. A more comprehensive written report that would run to about 20 pages would be submitted by her office to the UNHRC sessions in March next year. What they would effectively include and how she had perceived governance and reconciliation in post war Sri Lanka was evident in her statement to the media. That statement was very candid and without ambiguity. As she noted, “There are a number of specific factors impeding normalization, which - if not quickly rectified - may sow the seeds of future discord. These are by and large to do with the curtailment or denial of personal freedoms and human rights, or linked to persistent impunity and the failure of rule of law.”

While her language was very diplomatic and decent, her short note to the media was very clearly an accusation against the government on many issues and has raised concerns on many others. Leaving out all those linguistic niceties, the issues raised and allegations made were plainly spelled as,

Militarisation in North and East is beyond what the secretary to the ministry of defence argues for and the the continued large-scale presence of the military and other security forces has to be rapidly reduced.

The commission to investigate enforced disappearances though a belated effort is welcomed, but falls far short of inquiring into “white van” abductions in Colombo and other areas as it is limited to North and East and should not be made to function like 05 other similar commissions established before.

Challenged secretary to the defence ministry and other officials to rigorously enforce a zero tolerance policy for sexual abuse after raising serious concerns on vulnerability of women and girls, especially in female headed households, to sexual harassment and abuse.

Have urged the Government to expedite cases regarding remaining detainees, either by bringing charges or releasing them for rehabilitation and suggested its time to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

There is a desperate need for counseling and psychosocial support in the North for those with war related trauma and authorities have to remove restrictions on NGO activity in this sector.

The case of the five students murdered on the beach in Trincomalee in 2006 has been reinvigorated by the arrest of 12 Police Special Task Force members and will be watching the progress of the case of 17 ACF aid workers murdered the same year, in Muttur.

Courts of Inquiry appointed by the army to further investigate allegations of civilian casualties and summary executions does not inspire confidence. There has to be a credible national process of inquiry.

The necessity to provide better space for devolution was highlighted while acknowledging the holding of Northern PC elections that should be free and fair.

Her media statement though brief, also included and raised serious concerns on the deployment of the military in Weliweriya, custodial killings of detainees in Welikada and Vavuniya prisons in 2012, the absence of enacting the witness protection act drafted in 2007, hate campaigns and violent protests against minority Muslim and Christian religious groups downplayed by the government as alleged by her, restrictions and coercion on media resulting in self censorship (I don't accept this as valid in present context, except mention about the Uthayan news paper), necessity to have the Right to Information Act and a special mention and strong condemnation over the military and the police visiting some human rights activists and witenesses who came before her as the High Commissioner for UNHRC inquiring as to what they told her in their statements.

President Rajapaksa expected to make maximum use and take advantage of Navi Pillai's visit to Sri Lanka as High Commissioner of the UNHRC and in holding the North PC, for his hard fought demand to hold the November CHOGM in Colombo. CHOGM in Colombo for him, he thinks would provide a grand opportunity to undo most diplomatic blunders that holds him, his closest in the regime and some top military officers as responsible for crimes against humanity and war crimes accusations. With CHOGM in Colombo, President Rajapaksa becomes the head of Commonwealth for two years, second only to the Queen of England, the ceremonial head of the Commonwealth. He believes such international positioning would insulate him from accusations that come from the international community. In a sense, there is good logic in such thinking. Madam Bandaranayake as PM also made public use of her being made the head of the Non aligned Movement after its meeting held in Colombo in 1976. Yet an year later, she met with an unprecedented electoral defeat that she could never again recover from. There no doubt is a marked difference between the two. The office of a PM heading a democratic parliament and that of an all powerful president enjoying Sinhala gratitude for winning a 30 year war, backed by gradual militarisation of society are markedly two different power schemes. It is the almighty power of such an executive head that goes along with electoral victories for any elected representative forum, be it PCs or parliament.

For President Rajapaksa there is yet another political advantage. The main Sinhala opposition the UNP, has not been taking the issue of the CHOGM beyond casual sarcasm. Therefore within Sri Lanka, there is no serious attention paid to the issue of the CHOGM. It is the Tamil Diaspora that has unleashed a massive international campaign demanding a boycott of the CHOGM in Colombo by member countries. This campaign has in fact left New Delhi silent, not willing to make any definite comment on its participation as yet. Canada was compelled to consider a boycott of the sessions in Colombo. British leadership was pushed to consider a boycott although they have wriggled out of it for now. Australia refused to accede to Tamil Diaspora pressure over SL boat people seeking refuge in Australia becoming a complicated immigrant problem to them. New Zealand may consider a low profile presence at the CHOGM. South Africa may raise sour issues after Navi Pillai was insulted and ridiculed and she saying, “First, I am a South African and I am proud to be a South African.”

Most Commonwealth leaders opt to say they would be raising issues on accountability and responsibility against Sri Lanka at the Colombo meeting. Navi Pillai has left them with a long list of issues to raise, debate and take action. All what she has already made public in her written statement to the media as her concerns and issues are all that come under the Commonwealth resolution on “Principles and Values” adopted at the 2009 meeting in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. The Port of Spain resolution on Commonwealth's Principles and Values covers democratic governance, upholding human rights, respecting law and order, gender equality, independence of the executive, legislature and the judiciary and more that provides any member country to question the conduct of another member country and Fiji was suspended on such grounds once before in 2000 and the for the second time after its military coup in 2010. So was Pakistan, once in 1999 for almost 04 years and again in 2007 for 06 months.

The issue of devolution of powers under the 13th Amendment with the conclusion of the Northern PC elections would be another thorn for the Rajapaksa regime. Pillai has not left that issue either, in her media statement. Nor would the TNA allow the Rajapaksa regime to go about skipping over it any more. India at the Commonwealth would be pressured to at least speak on democracy and devolution,if they can not speak on other war related issues.

As Human Rights High Commissioner, Navi Pillai has toppled Rajapaksa's apple cart, it is now left to be seen how he would pick them up before the November meeting. A difficult job, given the overtime work the Tamil Diaspora puts in to heap pressure on key members of the Commonwealth. Kamalesh Sharma the Commonwealth Secretary General who said he regrets he has to suspend Fiji for not keeping to the promise of holding elections in September 2010, may not have to feel sorry about Sri Lanka, if the members take that responsibility.

Kusal Perera

“Samakaalam” – September 03


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