Sri Lanka’s presence in the UNHRC dock is a serious affront to the nation’s image as Asia’s oldest democracy
t is the time of the year when nations convene in Geneva to assess the world’s human rights situation. Can a nation escape scrutiny by saying “the rules of fair play do not apply in love and war”? But what English poet John Lyly first said in his romantic novel Euphues in the 16th century does not apply in modern times where human rights purists argue that not only war, but even love needs to be regulated.
A nation’s degree of civilisation is determined not so much by its history, however illustrious or long it is. A nation will shine as a beacon of civilisation only when it is built on human rights. We are born free, with right to life. To be free from fear and hunger is everyone’s fundamental right. Freedom of expression and assembly and the freedom to worship whoever or whatever are rights we refuse to part with. Every human being has dignity which is as inviolable as the relics, places or days we hold sacred.
The state has no right to usurp or restrict our rights, unless we ourselves willingly surrender some of the rights to the state on an understanding that it is for the greater good of all. The rights thus surrendered to the state are a trust. Therefore, the state has no right to resort to extrajudicial killings and be tyrannical or indulge in corruption and deception. Good governance and transparency are part of the rights-based social contract, upon which the state is built.
Human rights, therefore, are the essence of good governance. But a question arises if the state’s existence is threatened by a rebellion or if some of its citizens lose hope in the state and decide to carve out a separate state. If human rights had been observed to the fullest and the state had acted in a just and equitable manner towards all its citizens, irrespective of their ethnic identities, a rebellion would not have arisen in the first place. A rebellion arises when there is oppression or injustice.
Sri Lanka’s Tamil separatism was an outcome of the successive governments’ failure to uphold the social contract. What could have been remedied by state-level measures to ensure human rights and justice was allowed to spread like a canker which eventually manifested as a bloody war, bringing in its wake untold suffering to every citizen of this country for thirty long years and thereafter. Unable to act and think like statesmen, our politicians became so vile that they, like scoundrels, found refuge in communal politics to achieve their selfish ambitions, instead of seeing communalism as an aberration to enlightenment and eradicating it.
As a result, Sri Lanka is in the dock at the United Nations Human Rights Council. Just like a suspect who goes to a police station once a week to sign a book as part of his bail condition, Sri Lanka has been going to Geneva since 2009 to explain the progress it has made in furthering human rights and addressing the war crimes allegations.
Sri Lanka’s presence in the dock is a serious affront to the nation’s image as Asia’s oldest democracy. Before the war broke out in 1983, Sri Lanka walked with its head held high as a well-respected member of the world community.
"President Maithripala Sirisena is considering the country’s withdrawal from the co-sponsorship of the 2015 UNHRC resolution that calls for, among other things, a war crime probe with international participation"
We need to regain our pride. For this, we need to address the allegations of human rights violations, not because the UNHRC wants us to do so, but because that’s the right thing to do. After all, the people who suffered are our own people. We owe justice to them. The 30-year war is not a war between two nations; rather it was a war between communities within the country. We were the aggressors and we were the aggrieved. Our biggest failure since the end of the civil war was the lack of progress in genuine reconciliation.
Many a factor that led to the 30-year war still remains unaddressed. The language policy is not being implemented as it should be, and in the north, the police force in is largely manned by officers from the South.
The Sunday Times recently published a news items based on a Central Bank report on the Northern Province. According to the report titled ‘the Master Plan for an Economic Development Framework for the North’, in the ten years since fighting ended, job creation has been poor, while the Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi districts record the nation’s lowest monthly incomes. Indebtedness has soared. There is an increase in suicides and attempted suicides. Child nutrition levels have plunged, and, in the labour force, women’s participation is well below the national average.
Adding to this socio-economic underdevelopment, a likely recipe for a rebellion, thousands of people grieve over their missing relatives. True, despite criticism from communal forces, the Government has set up an Office of the Missing People and the Office of Reparations, moves that received some praise this week from Britain, one of the co-sponsors of the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka. But Britain also points out the slowness in addressing alleged war-time excesses.
"Human rights, therefore, are the essence of good governance"
The international community needs to understand the dilemma the government faces. It will be politically disastrous for the government, especially at the upcoming elections, if it goes ahead full throttle in addressing war crimes allegations, although that is what it should be doing. But it will only make the hardline parties to gain and win the polls. At least the present government has made some progress in addressing some of the human rights issues. The international community needs to be mindful of the situation becoming worse if the hardliners are returned to power.
In an apparent prelude, President Maithripala Sirisena is considering the country’s withdrawal from the co-sponsorship of the 2015 UNHRC resolution that calls for, among other things, a war crime probe with international participation. The President’s proposal could be counterproductive, for it will exclude Sri Lanka’s consent in any future steps the international community may take. These steps are likely to be punitive rather than concessionary.
The United States, one of the main sponsors of the resolution, has withdrawn from the UNHRC, slamming the UN body as a cesspit of political bias. The US withdrawal raises a question with regard to the validity of the resolutions it has sponsored. This gives Sri Lanka some space to wriggle out of the UNHRC net.
But this does not exonerate the government from its moral obligations towards the victims. As a way-out, a general amnesty to the wrongdoers on both sides of the conflict is being mooted. But this should be deemed morally right only if it is accompanied by a confession process in keeping with restorative justice principles.
No such amnesty should be given to troops for crimes committed outside the warzone. The country’s law should be applied and the perpetrators punished, irrespective of the suspects’ ranks in the armed forces, for the crimes such as the abduction and disappearances of 11 boys, the killing of Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickremeatunga and the disappearance of cartoonist Pradeep Ekneligoda.