By Jehan Perera
The government has criticised sections of the diplomatic community for getting involved in events targeting a particular region and community which lead to volatile situations and urged the diplomatic community to be more conscious of local sensitivities when attending events of an emotive nature. This has followed the growing interest that some embassies have been demonstrating in ensuring that civil society space for dissent is not restricted by the government. When an event organized by a civil society group to give voice to the grievances of family members of those who had gone missing in the war was held in Colombo last week, it was broken up by outsiders. This led to several embassies issuing an unprecedented joint statement.
The embassies of France, Germany, Great Britain and Switzerland condemned the disruption of the meeting in which families of disappeared Tamils were briefing Colombo-based diplomats and civil society activists. Issuing a joint statement, the embassies stated that “an organized group including monks” had disrupted the civil society meeting, on the theme “Sharing and listening session with families of the disappeared” organized by Families of the Disappeared in the Centre for Society and Religion. The statement said that the organized group made forced entry into the room where the discussions were taking place, shouting violently and “All those present felt that their security was under threat.”
The joint statement urged the Sri Lankan government to ensure and respect freedom of assembly and expression in Sri Lanka and to ensure the safety of those who participated in the meeting. In addition, the US Embassy in Colombo also expressed concern over the incident while claiming that the initial reaction of the local police to this disruption appeared to be in “support of the mob’s efforts to shut down the meeting.” In the case of forcible disruption of events, especially by extremist Buddhist groups that are seen to be linked to the government, it has become the unfortunate practice of the Police to ensure that the event is abandoned and the parties dispersed, with both sides being summoned to the Police Station to lodge their respective complaints.
In fact the government took the statement by the foreign embassies so seriously that the External Affairs Minister Prof G L Peiris summoned all diplomatic missions to inform them about the limits of their mandate. The Ministry also issued a strong statement that “a certain section of the diplomatic corps appears to be involved in a manner lacking in objectivity, in events organized for a particular region and community.” It is clear that what was being referred to was the North of the country and the Tamil community who were the main victims of the last phase of the war. The singling out of the Tamil minority and the North of the country would be in conformity with the government’s domestic priority of affirming national pride and continuing to receive the political support of the ethnic majority in a time of elections.
The meeting that was broken up was convened by the Right to Life Human Rights Center and sought to give voice to the sentiments of t hose who had lost their loved ones over five years ago. While the larger Sri Lankan society may be willing to forget what happened during the war time and enjoy the fruits of peace, those who lost their loved ones cannot so easily forget, especially when they are unsure as to the fate of their missing ones. The timing of the meeting was appropriate, as it coincides with the government’s surprise appointment of three international advisors to guide the proceeding of the presidentially appointed commission on missing persons, which has recently also had its mandate expanded.
Unfortunately the meeting, which was attended by civil society activists, media and foreign diplomats could not proceed for long as it was disrupted by a group led by Buddhist monks. The intervening group from outside claimed that the meeting was to provide secret information to the international community and also that it was not providing information on those who went missing due to the activities of the LTTE. In their statements the embassies made the point that action of the Police in preventing the break-up of the meeting of the Families of the Disappeared was inadequate. They noted that all those present felt that their security was under threat.
It was not only the foreign embassies that registered their protest. The head of the Centre for Society and Religion Fr Rohan Silva also issued a statement. He said “The CSR, founded by the late Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, OMI, has earned the respect and recognition of all political parties and all religious denominations as an institution that promoted the values of democracy and for years had stood for the defence of social justice, peace, equality for all citizens in every sphere of life. Even during some of the darkest moments of the Nation’s history, the CSR remained an oasis where a modicum of sanity prevailed. It is indeed most unfortunate that these time tested values of the CSR were transgressed and its hallowed precincts violated by a group that forced itself into the premises uninvited and instilling fear and intimidation among those participating in a meeting on purely humanitarian grounds.”
The CSR statement also made the relevant point that “We live in a world where humanitarian concerns transcend national boundaries, hence the presence of non-Sri Lankans should not be construed as external interference. ” The government’s domestic imperative of showing a strong hand to the ethnic majority population and obtaining their backing goes counter to another important government priority. The government’s main foreign policy concern is accountability in regard to what happened during the war. The issue of war crimes is particularly serious because it gives the international community the power to punish according to international law. Unlike other issues of abuse of power, for which there are no international laws, where war crimes are concerned there are international laws. This explains why the government is investing heavily in opposing the ongoing UN investigation into the last phase of the war.
The media has reported that the government has recently been hiring lobbying agencies in Western countries. It has also employed the services of international experts to advise the Commission of Inquiry into missing persons. However, it is important to note that the international community is not only present in the capitals of countries. It is also present in Sri Lanka in the form of embassies and high commissions. The diplomats attached to them also represent their countries. In fact, as they are on the ground in the countries to which they have been sent, the government in the home country may take the views of their own diplomats more seriously than those of lobbyists and other international experts. It is therefore as necessary to win the support of the diplomats of foreign missions based in Colombo, as it is to woo foreign government officials in their capital cities.
It is possible that the initiatives that the Sri Lankan government is taking to gain international goodwill and support abroad is being severely undermined by what is happening within Sri Lanka itself. It would be a miscalculation to believe that it is possible to separate what is happening locally with the lobbying that is done internationally. There needs to be a consistency between the government’s conduct of its affairs locally and what it says through its lobbyists internationally. Any sharp contradiction between the two would not be helpful to the government.
In this context it is to be welcomed that a second meeting by the same organization, the Right to Life Human Rights Centre at the same venue of the Centre for Society and Religion on the issue of torture by the Police took place without disruption, although the organizers received threats not to go ahead with the meeting. The foreign diplomats were there once again. It appears that the government did not wish to be at the receiving end of more such strictures, especially when there is an ongoing UN investigation into human rights failures during the war. On this occasion the Police were present and the mischief makers had been warned off. The role of the international community, it appears, has become more important. The international community, of which Sri Lanka is a member, has come to play at least a limited role in being a check and balance in favour of protecting democratic rights