The government, which received many a laurel in for the mode of its engagement with the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), got a brickbat for the first time after the fact- finding mission of Special UN Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-terrorism Ben Emmerson.
Mr. Emmerson charged that Sri Lanka continued to use torture against people detained on national security grounds, and its progress on human rights, reforms and justice remained woefully slow.
During his stay in the country, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe confronted the UN Rapporteur on this. It was the first time a minister of the government took on a visiting UN dignitary though it was quite common during the former rule.
Minister Rajapakshe remained singled out as a result. Against this backdrop, it was taken up at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting with the Ministers expressing divided opinion on his confrontation with Ben Emmerson.
Foreign Affairs Minister Ravi Karunanayake is reported to have rebutted Minister Rajapakshe being hard and harsh on the UN official who came here as part of Sri Lanka’s engagement with the UNHRC. The Foreign Affairs Minister’s views were widely asserted by Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera. Minister Samaraweera, as the then Foreign Affairs Minister, committed Sri Lanka to the implementations of the provisions of the UNHRC resolution. He reportedly told the Cabinet that harsh criticism and ill-treatment of UN officials would not bode well for the country. He said the present govt needed a departure from the manner in which its predecessor dealt with the UNHRC process.
More than two years on, progress seems to have ground to a virtual halt. Sri Lanka must honour its international commitments to ensure lasting peace, establish a meaningful system of transitional justice
However, there were many other Ministers who defended the position taken by Minister Rajapakshe. Those included Ministers Patali Champika Ranawaka, Navin Dissanayake and Nimal Siripala de Silva. They all opined that the UN officials should not be allowed to make unfounded allegations bringing the country to disrepute in the eyes of the international community. When making their remarks on the matter at hand, some of them even questioned the double standard of the western world regarding human rights issues.
President Maithripala Sirisena also intervened and asked as to who had permitted the Special Rapporteur to visit the LTTE suspects held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The President did not rebuke anyone in this case. It was finally found that the Foreign Affairs Ministry had given permission in this regard.
In its regular news briefs, the UNHRC put out a media statement on Tuesday based on the fact-finding mission concluded by Mr. Emmerson in Sri Lanka. It quotes Rapporteur Emmerson, as having said the torture continued in Sri Lanka unabated.
He said, “These included beatings with sticks, stress positions, asphyxiation using plastic bags drenched in kerosene, pulling out of fingernails, insertion of needles beneath the fingernails, various forms of water torture, suspension for several hours by the thumbs, and mutilation of the genitals.”
Mr. Emmerson said 80% of suspects arrested under the anti-terror legislation in late 2016 had reported torture and other physical ill-treatment. “Despite the shocking prevalence of torture, I note the lack of effective investigation,” he added.
He said a dozen prisoners had been detained without trial for more than 10 years under the Anti-terror Act, and 70 others for more than five years. “These staggering figures are a stain on Sri Lanka’s reputation,” he said, urging immediate release of the 81 suspects and announcing a dialogue with the govt on the shape of proposed Draft Legislation which is due to replace the Act.
Mr. Emerson said he recognized that Sri Lanka had faced “tremendous security challenges” in recent years, but said progress towards reform, justice and human rights was at a virtual standstill despite govt’s promises.
“The Govt has committed itself to ending the culture of impunity, ensuring accountability, peace and justice, achieving lasting reconciliation and preventing further human rights abuses. These steps were set out in a Human Rights Council resolution.
“But more than two years on, progress seems to have ground to a virtual halt. Sri Lanka must honour its international commitments to ensure lasting peace, establish a meaningful system of transitional justice and urgently reform the security sector,” said the UN Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-terrorism.
He welcomed small signs of progress but said failing to deliver justice and reform risked prolonging grievances and even reigniting the conflict.
“It seems some small steps are now being taken in the right direction. The Govt and people must not allow the process to be diverted by retrograde elements in the security establishment and their allies in Govt, Mr. Emmerson concluded.
There is still ambiguity whether the government will conduct the local authorities’ election. Be that as it may, the President announced that the local bodies would have new elected representatives by February next. However, there is some certainty regarding the elections to the Eastern, North Central and Sabaragamuwa Provincial Council as the law is clear. Their terms will expire on October 1, giving powers for the Election Commission to proceed with the elections.
In anticipation of these elections, the main political parties have already started preparing for the polls. Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), the new political party formed with the blessings of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has completed the formation of its different wings. Recently, it established its woman and youth wings. Also, it created its teachers ‘union.
As the next step, the party is heading for another membership drive next month.
Likewise, the United National Party (UNP) is positioning itself to face any election. The party’s Working Committee discussed this matter and decided to reach out to the electorates in gearing up ground political mechanisms in view of elections.
Alongside, Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) headed by the President has undertaken some work to contest the polls separately. It is learnt that the UNP and the SLFP will contest separately though they are together in the government. After the elections, they are planning to explore the possibility of forming joint administrations even at provincial levels.
The Joint Opposition finds it difficult to reach common position regarding its participation in the constitution making process. Currently, its MPs Dinesh Gunawardane and Prasanna Ranatunga attend the meetings of the Steering Committee.
Nonetheless, the National Freedom Front (NFF) led by MP Wimal Weerawansa, as an ally of the JO, insists that that it should disengage from the process forthwith. After some public utterances by MP Weerawansa, the JO leaders discussed the pros and cons of this matter at length at a meeting this week, chaired by MR. The NFF viewed that the govt proceeded with constitution making regardless of proposals by the JO and as such its further presence in the process would serve no purpose. Also, it said the JO should listen to the call by Mahanayake Theras. Another section of the JO believes that continuous participation is needed at least to know what the government is up to. Besides, the leftist allies of the JO argue that it should never forget the constituencies in the north and the east demanding constitutional reforms. Therefore, they stress the need for the JO to be with the Constitution making process.
In the overall context, each point carries a degree of validity making it impossible for the JO to work out a common stand. Finally, it was left for the individual parties to decide on its own rather than criticizing others in public. Accordingly, the NFF announced in writing to Speaker Karu Jayasuriya that it would not be party to the Constitution making process.
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