By Dr Jehan Perera
The Sri Lankan Ambassador in Geneva, Ravinatha Aryasinha justified the government’s position saying that the government’s rejection of the investigation established by the Human Rights Council is due to the fact that the Government of Sri Lanka has steadfastly maintained that it owes to the country’s dignity not to subject its people to an investigation that does not conform to even the minimum requisites of justice and fair play, a position that has been overwhelmingly endorsed by the national Parliament.” He added “It is a matter of deep concern to note that you, as a high official of the UN system, have resorted to the use of intemperate language to attack and vilify a sovereign member of the United Nations. Further, you have chosen to cast aspersions and denigrate a democratically elected Government.”
These are strong words to use. The Office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner is one of the many UN institutions that have been set up to further the overall goal of world peace and stability for which the UN was set up in the aftermath of the Second World War, which led to the loss of millions of lives and the destruction of a significant section of the world’s heritage. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) represents the world’s commitment to universal ideals of human dignity. It has a unique mandate from the international community to promote and protect all human rights. The High Commissioner for Human Rights is the principal human rights official of the United Nations.
The UN system cannot permit one of its key institutions to be weakened or undermined due to the actions of one of its 193 member countries. When the Sri Lankan Government rejects the UN High Commissioner’s statement using strong language which may meet the expectations of the electorate and of the majority of Sri Lankan people, it is challenging an important component of the UN system. In his statement, the UN High Commissioner said, “The Government of Sri Lanka has refused point blank to cooperate with the investigation despite being explicitly requested by the Human Rights Council to do so. Such a refusal does not, however, undermine the integrity of an investigation set up by the Council – instead it raises concerns about the integrity of the government in question.” These are undoubtedly strong statements too.
However, it must be understood that the views in this statement, and others, made by him are not personal ones. They represent the views of the UN system, of which the Office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner is an important component. Previously it was believed by many in Sri Lanka, including those in the government, that Sri Lanka’s problem at the UN was being made worse by the actions of the previous Human Rights Commissioner, Navanethem Pillay.
It was believed that although her citizenship was South African, her Tamil ethnicity had made her biased against Sri Lanka. Therefore she too became a part of the global anti-Sri Lanka Diaspora in Sri Lankan eyes and her departure from office was expected to change the UN’s attitude to the issue of accountability for war time problems of human rights. But this has not happened. The new Human Rights Commissioner is even stronger in his position that Sri Lanka must address the issue of accountability.
“The Government’s attempts to deter and intimidate individuals from submitting evidence to a UN investigation team is unacceptable conduct for any member State of the United Nations which has committed to uphold the UN Charter,” the High Commissioner has said. “Since the end of the conflict in 2009, Sri Lanka has continued to obstruct any independent investigation despite the persistent, compelling and widespread allegations that possible serious international crimes were committed by both sides during the conflict in Sri Lanka.”
He has also noted that Sri Lankan civil society organisations and human rights defenders have continued to be subjected to surveillance, harassment and other forms of intimidation and alleged that “A wall of fear has been created that has undoubtedly served to deter people from submitting evidence.”
Despite the end of the war five years ago, there continues to be a climate of intimidation particularly in the North and East where the war was fought. The quietness of the people is not so much a sign of their acceptance of present realities as a desire to keep out of trouble. The trauma of the long years of war and terror is still with them. This is evident at discussions that take place, such as small seminars or training sessions that have nothing to do with obtaining information for transmission to those conducting the UN investigation. Even if military personnel in uniform are not present most people prefer to listen rather than to speak. Some of them prefer not to write their names in attendance registers which organisations need to show their funders so that they know the work has actually taken place.
In the past week I took part in discussions and seminars in the North and East on the issues of post-war healing and reconciliation amongst communities. At none of these events was there interference by the military or government officials. However, some of those who participated said they noted the presence of unidentified persons who took photographs and went away. Some of them also said that when they tried to organise similar events, the security forces in those areas wished to know what was happening and why. This may not be done with the intention of disrupting the activity, but rather to know what is going on. But the psychological climate is such that even this information gathering can create unease in a population that continues to live in the memory of the war that had so cruelly shattered their lives.
In the meetings I attended I saw at first hand the powerful sentiments of people who have lost their loved ones and have found no answers forthcoming from the government. There was a mother who said that she had surrendered her son to the military at the end of the war. She wanted to know what had happened to him.
She still had hope he was alive. She said other young persons who had been surrendered like her son had returned, but she said that they did not say what had happened to her son, and would not talk about the past. She said she had even been to the army camps in the East to look for him, although she was from the North and her son was surrendered in the North. She had also been to the Fourth Floor of Police Headquarters in Colombo. She would go anywhere to find her son. She had not found him, but she still had hope. It is not only to the UN investigators that the government needs to give its answers. It needs to give answers to its own people too. A new electoral mandate will not negate the need to provide answers.