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

Post Arbour

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour has concluded her visit to Sri Lanka. At the conclusion of her visit she released a press statement, the highlights of which are worth reiterating since they profile the continuing problem of human rights protection in Sri Lanka today.

The relevant sections of the statement are:

Quoting Arbour

‘….. in the context of the armed conflict and of the emergency measures against terrorism, the weakness of the rule of law and prevalence of impunity is alarming.’ ‘…………While the government pointed to several initiatives it has taken to address these issues, there has yet to be an adequate and credible public accounting for the vast majority of these incidents. In the absence of more vigorous investigations, prosecutions and convictions, it is hard to see how this will come to an end.’

On the national Human Rights Commission,

‘………the failure to resolve the controversy over the appointment of commissioners has created a crisis of confidence in the HRC, both locally and internationally. The HRC’s failure to systematically conduct public inquiries and issue timely public reports has further undermined confidence in its efficacy and independence. Indeed, the Commission may lose its accreditation to the international body governing these institutions.’

And on the relationship between her office and the Government of Sri Lanka

‘In my view the current human rights protection gap in Sri Lanka is not solely a question of capacity. While training and international expertise are needed in specific areas, and I understand would be welcomed by the government, I am convinced that one of the major human rights shortcomings in Sri Lanka is rooted in the absence of reliable and authoritative information on the credible allegations of human rights abuses.

‘Many say that the LTTE is quick to manipulate information for propaganda gain. In my view this only accentuates the need for independent information gathering and public reporting on human rights issues.

‘OHCHR is willing to support the Government of Sri Lanka in this way…… I believe that we should urgently resolve our ongoing discussions about the future of a productive relationship between OHCHR and the Government of Sri Lanka.’

As expected the government rejected the proposal to establish an office of the High Commissioner in Sri Lanka and focused instead on technical assistance. This begs the question as to which local institution will receive such assistance and here the High Commissioner’s remarks on the national Human Rights Commission are especially pertinent.

She has expressed her wish to “urgently” resolve the question of the relationship between her office and the government. Does the government share this urgency?

It would be gross irresponsibility on its part if it did not and took the attitude that with the conclusion of the visit of the High Commissioner, it has bought itself time in which it can revert to doing little or nothing. As has been said innumerable times, the issue is of fundamental and pivotal importance for democratic peace and unity in this country and it will not go away. Tragically, it will in all probability get worse as hostilities intensify in the north.

Local and international pressure and advocacy on human rights will be critical in ensuring that this relationship is urgently resolved. It is time that at the council a special session on Sri Lanka was convened in order to focus greater attention on this question. Sixteen countries are required to make this request and it is now time that those states that have brought the situation to the attention of the council move in the matter following the High Commissioner’s visit. The latter in a sense constitutes a benchmark in this respect and now that it has taken place, any inhibitions that may have been there with regard to a special session on the council should no longer apply. In the words of the High Commissioner the matter needs to be resolved “urgently.”

Yet international action alone is not enough. The issue of human rights protection in Sri Lanka has to be taken up in Sri Lanka. It is indeed an indictment of our much trumpeted civilisational and moral values, if we should have to look primarily to international action in respect of strengthening human rights protection at home. It would be a tremendous fillip and a significant expression of unity if religious leaders from all faiths and denominations were to take up the cause of human rights protection and that of the establishment of a field based presence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Such a course of action on the part of all religious leaders will lift the issues out of partisan politics which some detractors have dragged it into in the hope that the issue will not be given the overarching seriousness and importance it both deserves and demands.

In addition to this, the media and political parties too have a role to play in pointing out that an office of the High Commissioner will not be an infringement of our sovereignty but in fact reinforce it by strengthening the human rights protection of all the citizens of this country. The challenge here is not the scoring of partisan political points but rather the demonstration of maturity and responsibility in respect of the fundamental features of governance. In this regard the issue of the reactivation of the 17th Amendment and the Constitutional Council must be given priority by the political parties in order that credibility can begin to be restored to the national institution — the Human Rights Commission in particular, charged with the responsibility for human rights protection.

Sustained commitment and action is required on this score by all stakeholders. It is a test of our commitment to this country and of our humanity.