Colombo, Human Rights, Human Security, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

Louise Arbour and Mahinda Rajapakse

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is finally in the island, due, in no small measure, to the campaign of local civil society and international human rights organisations to get the government to invite her to Sri Lanka. This has happened despite the threat and invective directed against local civil society ranging from the perennial accusation of rubbishing the country abroad for pecuniary gain at home, to the more dangerous incitement to hatred — the vilification of local human rights defenders as traitors. .
Louise Arbour is in Sri Lanka because there is a serious enough human rights problem in this country that warrants her presence. Over the years, her office has received information about the full gamut of violations perpetrated by the LTTE, other paramilitaries and sections of the security forces. Consequently, her visit is not a fact finding mission. The fact of grave human rights crisis has been established. Her visit is about doing something about this crisis; it is about strengthening human rights protection in the country and reversing the pervasive culture of impunity and halting continuing violations.

Does the regime understand this? Available evidence indicates that it does not. Vetoing her visiting the Wanni encapsulates the silly, myopic mindset of the regime and is illustrative of the seriousness of its commitment to do something about strengthening human rights protection throughout the country. Identifying the LTTE as a key perpetrator of human rights abuses whilst at the same time preventing Madam Arbour from visiting them and securing their buy into remedial measures, suggests that the government is not interested in halting LTTE violations but rather in pointing to them and their persistence for purely propaganda purposes. This is another aspect of the two sides being the mirror image of each other — they feed on each other’s gross violations for partisan advantage and in callous disregard for human suffering and security.

Therefore the High Commissioner’s visit will be restricted to engagement with the government and to meetings with civil society, as can be squeezed into a tight schedule. One can only hope that she does meet unimpeded and without a foreboding security force presence, with the peoples of the north and east of the country who have borne and continue to bear the brunt of rights violations. This is critically important since discussions regarding what can be done about the pathetic situation at present must be directly informed by those who have been and continue to be its victims. It is highly likely that the regime is not at all keen about this and attempts on its part to sabotage such engagement cannot be ruled out. Not everyone gets to Jaffna and back as planned, and once there, gets the required space to engage with civilians. The John Holmes visit attests to this.

The real test of the visit will probably lie in the engagement with the regime and its refusal to contemplate what civil society and informed international opinion has come around to recognising as necessary — the establishment of an Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Sri Lanka with a mandate that includes monitoring and districts-wise presence. The rationale for this is simple and compelling.

There is no national institution that commands the trust and confidence of the public in respect of human rights protection. Nor is there one endowed with the capacity, willingness and resources to begin to surmount this challenge. The violation of the 17th Amendment and the unilateral presidential appointment of commissions, has robbed the national human rights commission of legitimacy and if not for the fearless work of some of its regional offices, the national HRC would be an empty shell. Regime appointed commissions either deal with past violations or are strictly private affairs with reports that never really see the light of day. In any event, fear and a lack of trust deter victims and witnesses from going before such bodies. The much trumpeted Commission of Inquiry(CoI) and the Independent International Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) will in all likelihood grind tortuously to a halt in the face of obstacles ranging from inadequate resources to the intrusiveness of the state in their work. In its last press release the IIGEP made the point that the CoI does not meet international standards. In an earlier press release the IIGEP stressed that it should not be made out to be a mechanism for international monitoring and that it was no substitute for such monitoring.

Whatever its apparatchiks make out, with or without their customary abuse and invective, there has been no demonstrable progress as far as human rights protection is concerned. With hostilities intensifying in the north there is every prospect of the situation worsening. The space for violations and humanitarian crisis will widen. There is a need therefore to take a leaf out of the Nepal example, where the presence of international monitors and the Office of the High Commissioner have made a difference to human rights protection without infringing on the increasingly obsolete notion of state sovereignty that has become the current obsession and orthodoxy of the regime and its fellow travellers.

A field based presence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is absolutely necessary in the current context. It must be followed soon thereafter by the reactivation of the 17th Amendment, the appointment of the Constitutional Council and the independent commissions including those for human rights, the police and the public service. The field based presence of the Office of the High Commissioner will provide a fillip to the independent commissions and underscore the importance of an independent, credible and effective national institution for human rights protection. The former will be able to provide long term technical assistance and capacity building for such an institution. The regime will probably stress the importance of the latter in the hope that the High Commissioner’s visit can be hailed as a success from its perspective, on account of technical assistance being provided to the present human rights commission. This would be a farce — human rights protection cannot be strengthened by capacity building an institution that has been constituted in violation of the constitution.

The Rajapaksha regime should not seek refuge under increasingly antediluvian notions of state sovereignty to deny the peoples of this country human rights protection. Surely, the acknowledge- ment of the need for assistance in respect of something so fundamental as rights protection and the acquisition of that assistance is a sign of the maturity, confidence and security of the state?