The much-hyped visit of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay is taking place this week and hers has been the most controversial visit by a foreign dignitary since Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi visited the country twenty six years ago to sign the Indo-Lanka Accord.
Pillay is here on a tour to observe first-hand the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, following two United States sponsored resolutions passed against the country by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in the past two years.
These resolutions call for independent investigations into allegations that human rights violations occurred during the final phase of the Eelam war four years ago. Sri Lanka has been stoutly denying these charges, claiming they were the work of pro-Eelamist propaganda lobbies in western countries.
Although Pillay has been received with characteristic Sri Lankan hospitality during her visit, her presence was not welcome at first. The authorities perceived her intervention as an interference with Sri Lanka’s internal affairs and an insult to its sovereignty.
Pillay herself was not in a hurry to visit Sri Lanka. The invitation to visit the country was extended by the government many months ago but Pillay bided her time. However, the government has allowed her to visit all areas of the country and will allow access to anyone she wishes to see.
At the time of writing, the visit is progressing satisfactorily despite a few peaceful protests against Pillay by nationalist groups that have been incident- free. The High Commissioner has already visited the battle -scarred North and spoken to civilians there and said she has come with an “open mind”.
Pillay is required to submit a report to the UNHRC at the conclusion of her visit. With a review of Sri Lanka’s human rights situation due in September, Pillay has stated she “needs more time” to make an assessment. It is certain to be yet another challenging assignment for the tough talking diplomat.
Seventy-one-year-old Navanethem Pillay is of Indian Tamil origin but was born to parents of modest means in what was then apartheid South Africa. Despite the handicap of her colour, she persevered and obtained a degree in law and faced her first challenge when she tried to practise as a lawyer.
Pillay was compelled to open her own practice as other law firms did not employ her because of her colour. In so doing, she became a relentless anti-Apartheid campaigner, and campaigned for the rights of political prisoners in South Africa including Nelson Mandela.
Later, Pillay was to take time off her practice to read for a research doctorate in Law from the prestigious Harvard Law School in the United States. She completed the doctorate in 1988, twenty five years after obtaining her bachelor’s degree. Pillay then returned to her native South Africa. In 1994, the African National Congress came to power and Nelson Mandela was elected President. He nominated Pillay as the first non-white woman to serve on the High Court of South Africa.
By this time Pillay’s credentials were attracting international attention and she was elected by the United Nations General Assembly to serve as a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. She served for eight years, including four years as president. Pillay’s tenure at the Tribunal earned her a reputation as a tough taskmaster-and a position on the first ever panel of judges of the International Criminal Court. She was to resign her position five years later after being nominated as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Pillay has often been vilified in the local media for bullying smaller countries such as Sri Lanka but being silent about superpowers such as the United States. However, Pillay is no friend of the United States which tried but failed to block her appointment as the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
In fact, the US resisted attempts to grant her a second full term of office after she was critical of US air strikes using drones in Pakistan; therefore, her tenure ends in 2014. Pillay though has also been extremely critical of Sri Lanka, at times commenting prematurely on contentious incidents.
As a result, Sri Lanka took the unprecedented step of questioning her credentials and impartiality at sessions of the UNHRC. Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe was to launch a scathing personal attack on her which, some analysts believed, cost Sri Lanka some support at the international forum.
"Pillay herself was not in a hurry to visit Sri Lanka. The invitation to visit the country was extended by the government many months ago"
Others have argued that being an ethnic Tamil, Pillay, despite her impressive record, has an inherent conflict of interest in investigating the Sri Lankan issue. That she has at times rushed to condemn Sri Lanka in the wake of claims by Eelamist supporters has not enhanced her credibility.
Nevertheless, Pillay’s role in Sri Lanka’s current predicament cannot be discounted. Sri Lanka won a hard-fought war against the most ruthless terrorist outfit in the world. This has hardly been appreciated by western countries, where pro-Eelamist lobbies have disproportionate influence.
However, it is also true that in the aftermath of the war, the country has not been seen to be in a hurry to devolve power to all ethnic groups. And, its recent record in law and order is not one that a democratically-elected government can justifiably boast about.
In such a context Pillay’s visit could not have come at a worse time for Colombo: the incidents at Weliveriya, the spate of attacks on Muslim places of worship, the jailing of an Army commander and the sacking of a Chief Justice do not enhance the country’s or its government’s reputation greatly.
Moreover, the Northern provincial polls are only days away. The Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting is due to be held in a few months. Sri Lanka will be eager to showcase these events as positive developments but Pillay will intensely scrutinise the evidence for this claim.
Whether Sri Lankans like it or not, Navanethem Pillay has become a fact of life for the country in its post-war scenario. She may not be the ideal candidate for the job she has been entrusted to do and the country will be watching whether she really possesses an “open mind” as she claims.