Navi Pillay spoke the truth about Sri Lanka, but will India listen?

Closer home, the government of India should find it morally difficult in repeating its standard lines of equal rights for Tamils, when it knew the ground reality was that of an a majoritarian regime that brooks no dissent.

G Pramod Kumar September 02, 2013 14:39:03 IST
Navi Pillay spoke the truth about Sri Lanka, but will India listen?

The UN-types are not known for straightforward talk unless you are a meek country of half a million people, but on Saturday the UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay proved to be an exception when she delivered a knock-out punch to the Rajapaksa regime in Sri Lanka, that too in its vicious den in Colombo.

In the same breath, she called the LTTE “murderous” and cautioned the Tamil diaspora against glorifying such a “ruthless organisation”.

As in the case of the regular heads of UN missions, Pillay began her end-of-mission statement on an appreciative note thanking the government for its “excellent cooperation during the planning and conduct” of her weeklong visit and for sticking to its commitment of allowing her to “go anywhere, and see anything” she wished to see.

Navi Pillay spoke the truth about Sri Lanka but will India listen

Pillay delivered a stinging indictment on the Rajapaksa regime: Reuters

Normally, such an intro will then get into some specifics and some mildly critical language - usually negotiated with the government - before ending up in some mundane recommendations.

But Pillay’s script was different.

Her introductory remarks would have mightily pleased the Sri Lankan government and the paraphernalia that it had set up for her mission. After stonewalling international inspection for four years, the government said from multiple locations - including New York and Geneva - that it had nothing to hide and was happy that Pillay could see for herself that the allegations against it were loaded.

Obviously, it was so desperate to whitewash its alleged sins before the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo in November.

But when Pillay went into the real substance of her statement after the customary pleasantries, the Rajapaksa regime’s plan began to crumble. It was an exceptional piece of hard talk that one could expect from the head of an UN organisation, that too in Sri Lanka which has the habit of expelling diplomats as persona non grata.

Everything the 72-year old South African of Indian Tamil origin said, reiterated what the rights groups at home and elsewhere have been saying about the 2009-war, the lives of ethnic Tamils, the human rights abuses, and the prevailing atmosphere of terror and fear in the country.

And she went point by point.

Her general picture of the post-war lives of Tamils was poignant: “I have been extremely moved by the profound trauma I have seen among the relatives of the missing and the dead, and the war survivors, in all the places I have visited, as well as by their resilience. This was particularly evident among those scratching out a living among the ghosts of burned and shelled trees, ruined houses and other debris of the final battle of the the war along the lagoon in Mullaitivu.”

And her words on the progress showcased by the government made it clear that Sri Lanka refuses to understand reconciliation: “Wounds will not heal and reconciliation will not happen, without respect for those who grieve, and remembrance for the tens of thousands of Tamils, Sinhalese, Muslims and others who died before their time on the battlefield, in buses, on the street, or in detention. As one wife of a missing man put it poignantly: “Even when we eat, we keep a portion for him.”

She didn’t spare the government on a single issue. She was no holds barred on the militarisation of the north where the army is literally getting into every sphere of socio-economic life - from education to tourism - and is acquiring private land for its permanent stay. She highlighted sexual abuse, particularly of women-headed households (given the number of men died in the war, they should be mostly Tamil), issue of disappearances, need for victims and witnesses protection, and attacks against religious minorities that the country was notorious of.

Of all what she said, the most devastating for Rajapaksa was this single line: “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.”

While getting there, she referred to the tools of surveillance, intimidation and harassment that the government uses - even during her visit -; the impeachment of the Chief Justice earlier this year, and apparent politicization of senior judicial appointments. “The war may have ended, but in the meantime democracy has been undermined and the rule of law eroded.”

Navi Pillay spoke the truth about Sri Lanka but will India listen

The Rajapaksa regime came in for a shock:Reuters

Unsure of the outcome of Pillay’s mission, the Rajapaksa regime had set up its tried-and-tested machinery of proxies - politicians, ministers, nationalists, demonstrators and journalists - to unleash their routine tricks to pre-empt any possible adverse remark from her. Three ministers of the Rajapaksa government called her an agent of the LTTE and accused her of being on the payroll of the LTTE; there were demonstrations on the street against her, calling her names; and bloggers and journalists were on a vitriolic overdrive.

Before and during her visit, there was some apparent sense of calm or reassurance that there could be some PR gain - Rajapaksa even apologised for his ministers’ foul-mouths; but the moment she delivered her statement, his coterie went back to its original ways. And it will continue.

The High Commissioner did appreciate the government’s efforts at the physical rehabilitation of the war-affected Tamils - houses, schools, roads etc - a point that even the Indian government uses to appease groups in Tamil Nadu; but she refused to gloss over the real issue - the wounds of war crimes and other rights abuses that the island nation fails to acknowledge.

What does Navi Pillay’s exceptional speech mean to Sri Lanka?

Its record is still the same. Its last ditch effort to cleanse the taint before the CHOGM has miserably failed and the horrible state-of-play has been reported extremely effectively to the world by a non-partisan Pillay who in equal measure also held the LTTE responsible. She will say the same things, perhaps in more detail, at the UNHRC next month and will write it well in a report next year.

There will be enough ammunition for the the international community to seize the opportunity and push for decisive action.

Closer home, the government of India should find it morally difficult in repeating its standard lines of equal rights for Tamils, when it knew the ground reality was that of an a majoritarian regime that brooks no dissent.

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