UN talks tough on Sri Lanka again: Will India seize this opportunity?

The frank “oral update” of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay at the 24th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva on Wednesday, which followed her statement in Colombo end of last month, is yet another opportunity that the international community, particularly India, should seize.

Speaking in Colombo on 31 August, at the end of her week-long mission to the country, for which the government had adopted its trademark strategy of window-dressing and hate-propaganda, Pillay had highlighted how the situation was still bad in Sri Lanka for Tamils, other minorities as well as human rights defenders.

In Geneva on Wednesday, she was more pointed and specific. And this time, it’s part of the UNHRC proceedings.

Perhaps it’s time that the international community pressed for a “truth seeking mechanism” that Pillay had earlier proposed and the UNHRC had endorsed. Pillay had suggested it as an “integral part of a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to transitional justice.” She mentioned it again in her update.

 UN talks tough on Sri Lanka again: Will India seize this opportunity?

High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. Reuters

Ahead of Pillay’s presentation to the UNHRC, the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa was defiant in his speech at the UN headquarters in New York and reportedly planned a Twitter Q&A at the time of her update. But nothing can take away the seriousness of the points that Pillay has raised.

She did credit the Sri Lankan government with a lot of reconstruction, infrastructure and rehabilitation work. But that’s the way the UN reports - one does start with good things, but moves on to the real hard stuff before winding up on a positive note again.

The crux of what she said is this: there has been a lot of physical reconstruction, rehabilitation and establishment of infrastructure, but little has been done to remove the fear from the minds of Tamils and human rights defenders of an overbearing military presence in civil administration in the North; rights abuses, constant surveillance and harassment of returnees, rehabilitates and detainees; and the high vulnerability of women and girls to sexual abuse.

She said there was a high level of military presence in the Tamil areas. Many barriers were removed before her visit, but were restored later. She noted the vulnerability of women and girls, particularly from women-headed households, to sexual abuse and harassment at the hands of the military as a specific concern. She wanted zero tolerance to sexual abuse.

The military was involved in what civilian administration ought to be doing - economic activity, education, agriculture and even tourism. She called for “demobilisation, disarmament and discouragement” of the army.

It needs to be seen how far the government will respond to Pillay’s oral submission because the situation hasn’t improved despite two reasonably strongly worded resolutions against the country at the UNHRC in the recent past and PIllay’s end-of-mission statement in Colombo. The government has been defiantly dragging its feet for four years - on LLRC recommendations as well as other areas that the UNHRC resolution advised it - and it is unlikely that it will mend its ways unless there is drastic international pressure. Curiously, the least pressure came from India.

From Pillay’s statement, Sri Lanka, or at least parts of it, appears to be a military-ruled country. In the North and East, it’s engaged in “compulsory acquisition of private land for installing military camps and other installations in Trincomalee, Mullaitivu, Jaffna and Killinochi. The government explains it as a move to regularise earlier acquisitions and provide appropriate compensation.

The defence secretary’s justification for the army presence is equally strange - transitioning a large number of army personnel into other economic activities. But why only in Tamil areas?

The military air of the government is also visible in the fact that the NGOs are handled by a secretariat under the ministry of defence! This is a post-war development and will ensure that the scope of operations of international and national civil society oraganisations will be under constant surveillance, and their activities severely curtailed.

Pillay also mentioned how the rule of law and democratic institutions, including the judiciary, has been undermined.

And everything that she highlighted in her update, including the latest attacks on Muslims and communal hate-speech, has been routinely reported from Sri Lanka, which was either scornfully dismissed by the government or its handpicked spokespersons.

The High Commissioner said she is “convinced that the continued attention of the HRC to the human rights situation in Sri Lanka remains critically important and will be making recommendations in March on appropriate ways it could continue that engagement.”

She also expressed the hope that “the government will take this opportunity to issue further invitations to Special Procedures Mandate holders to assist in this task, particularly the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances and Independent expert on minorities.”

Will Sri Lanka agree?

Almost certainly not, when it has friends such as Russia, Iran, Belarus and China.

She reiterated that the OHCHR was ready to provide technical assistance to implement the LLRC recommendations.

Amnesty International echoed Pillay’s words. In a statement it said: “Sri Lanka has still not taken genuine, substantial measures to meet important human rights obligations. It has done little to end impunity; serious human rights violations remain ubiquitous. Since the Human Rights Council (HRC)'s adoption in March 2013 of Resolution 22/1 on ‘Promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka,’ the government, has made some new promises to investigate alleged violations and to implement more of the recommendations made by its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, but it has made little progress implementing the reforms it had already promised.”

The most significant part of Navi Pillay’s statement that India should seriously pursue is on the recently elected North Provincial Council (NPC). She asked the government to work with the NPC for “participation needs assessment” to develop new oversight mechanism for reconstruction and development programmes. It should also ensure participation of minorities and civil society.

If India is serious about the devolution of power to Tamils, as it always claims - particularly to publicly assuage the DMK - it should at least take the lead in taking this idea forward.

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Updated Date: Sep 26, 2013 14:22:18 IST