Govt. put on human rights notice

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Sunday, May 21st, 2006

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While the international community put the government on notice last week over human rights violations in the lead up to the Co-Chairs meeting in Tokyo scheduled for May 30, President Mahinda Rajapakse moved to soften the negative fallout by directing investigations into mounting incidents of violence affecting civilians in an effort at damage control.

For a President who in his salad days of politics championed human rights, his first six months in office has been a story of blood and gory with the darker side of the beeshanaya era rearing its ugly head complete with headless bodies put on public display.

The gamay chandiya approach of aerial bombardment after the suicide bomb attack at Army Headquarters which led to thousands of civilians having to flee their homes, the large number of civilian killings including five students in Trincomalee by armed gangs in government-controlled areas and the attack on the Uthayan newspaper office did not help the government's case either, though it may have elicited some whistles from the gallery audience of extremists agitating for war.

Kayts massacre

The last straw of course came with the massacre of 13 civilians including a four-month-old baby and his four-year-old brother and parents in Kayts last week, and with the LTTE quick to launch a propaganda blitzkrieg accusing the navy and the paramilitary EPDP of being responsible, the heat was on.

Thus, given the rising ceasefire violations by the LTTE including the suicide bomb attack in Colombo, the government rather than launch a crippling international campaign against the Tigers to draw unqualified support, possibly even military aid, decided on a macho approach in a bid to keep the more extreme elements in the south quiet, in the process losing much needed ground internationally.

As pointed out in this column on April 23 and 30, rather than use brain in the wake of gross CFA violations by the LTTE, the government leaned on brawn and even hemmed and hawed on the agreements reached in Geneva at the first round of talks, thus cementing the perception in the minds of the international community that not only were the Tigers extremists, but also the government. The refusal to move against the paramilitaries and even deny any involvement did not help enhance the government's credibility either, not to mention the rising civilian killings.

To make matters worse, the JVP, whose support the government is dependent on for survival in parliament, openly called for a declaration of war whilst the government itself leaked a shopping list of weapons submitted to Pakistan following the President's recent visit, once again hoping to keep the southern extremists happy.

And mind you, such actions fitted in perfectly with the hard-line policy platform on which Rajapakse campaigned for the presidency, thereby raising questions on his sincerity and commitment to the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) and the peace process, which he agreed to uphold and respect in the eyes of the international community in Geneva.

Tiger bans

True, the LTTE were outcasts in the eyes of the international community with several countries including the US, Canada, India, Australia and now the EU possibly banning the organisation, but then again, that has not impacted heavily on the Tigers in the past and they have carried on regardless with their campaign for separation, not dependent on any of these countries for aid.

The 1991 ban in India for example did not prevent the LTTE from blowing up the Central Bank or the Kolonnawa oil installation a couple of years later, nor did the US ban in 1997 stop the Tigers from attacking the Bandaranaike International Airport and blowing up several aircraft or killing over 1,000 soldiers and taking over the Elephant Pass Army Camp in the year 2000.

Such developments did not prevent the free flow of funds to the Tigers either and whilst welcoming the ban in the EU and milking it for propaganda value in the south, the government in this backdrop would do well at least now to take a realistic view of the message emanating from the international community through these developments, whatever spin the hurrah boys put on it.

The LTTE unlike the government is not dependent on foreign aid, foreign investors or tourism to keep them ticking whereas the state is totally dependent on such factors not only to keep the economy afloat but even to sustain a war effort. For that a healthy respect for human rights and the rights of the minorities become crucial.

And that was the unmistakable message the international community, particularly India, US and Japan conveyed to the government of Sri Lanka in no uncertain terms last week.

International stance

It is in the same backdrop the possible EU ban has to be viewed because now the international community has clearly signalled to the government they have heeded the call for the LTTE's proscription and it was now upto the government to step upto the plate and deliver on human rights and political autonomy for the Tamil people if their continued support is to be assured.

This message is expected to be delivered loud and clear after the Co-Chairs meeting on May 30 in Tokyo and that is when President Rajapakse will have to face his political ghosts in the south in the form of the JVP at the risk of losing his parliamentary majority.

The EU ban is expected to come into force on May 30 but in that ban may well be a highly explosive landmine the government would have to navigate.

Information coming from Brussels is that the ban when imposed will include the Karuna group as well, thus forcing the issue of disarming the paramilitary group operating in government-controlled areas on the Rajapakse regime.

For, if the government is seen dealing with the Karuna group after the ban comes into force, the Rajapakse administration itself will be reduced to pariah status. This may well be the strategy of the international community in forcing the government's hand on the issue.

Norway has in fact asked the EU whether the ban will cover break-away groups of the LTTE and impact on the workings of the SLMM given that three countries in the monitoring team, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, are members of the EU.

Interestingly, given the hectic diplomacy following reports of the EU ban and the impact it would have on continuing with the peace process, the Royal Norwegian Embassyin Colombo,  on behalf of the EU presidency issued a statement clarifying the factual position.

"At this stage a possible listing of the LTTE is under active consideration by the member states of the EU. This process will be concluded in due course of time by a decision of the council of ministers of the EU members," the statement read.

And with pressure mounting on the EU to list the Karuna group also if the LTTE is to be banned, there can still be many a slip between the cup and lip before the council of ministers meets.

It is to set the stage for this final chance for Sri Lanka that both Japan's Special Envoy Yasushi Akashi and US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Donald Camp visited the country and met with key state actors.

In fact for the first time in several years, the US went on public record calling on the government to uphold the rule of law and address legitimate Tamil grievances in the strongest possible terms. The clear inference is that it was not the case at present.

And after making the expected critical comments on the LTTE, Camp had this to say publicly - "That said, we hold democratic governments to high standards. And when there are killings in areas controlled by the government, it is certainly the government's responsibility to uphold law and order. There need to be investigations, and we have encouraged this on the government and they have assured us that they are carrying out such investigations. There need to be investigations and there need to be prosecutions. That is crucial to what the government is trying to do, which is to reassure members of all minority groups in the country that everyone is equal and everyone is treated equally. There needs to be reassurance and the government needs to address legitimate Tamil grievances."

More important was Camp's response when the Rupavahini interviewer bowled a full toss hoping for a strong message of support to the government, a response President Rajapakse will do well to take note of when considering the war option he is pushed towards by the extremists in the absence of a substantial offer of devolution in the form of federalism for the Tamils.

Camp's views

Asked the SLRC interviewer - "What can the US say to help Sri Lanka during this war of aggression launched by the LTTE, especially if Pirapaharan escalates into full-scale conflict?"

Replied Camp: "Sri Lanka has always known that it has the moral support, the diplomatic support of the United States, and that will continue to be true. Certainly, the LTTE is a terrorist group of the first order. That said, there's no question that the government of Sri Lanka has responsibilities as well. One of those, which the government has certainly acknowledged, is the legitimate grievances of the Tamil people. That includes, of course, dealing with the disturbing number of killings in recent months. This is something the government has said it will investigate. We think those investigations should be carried out promptly and thoroughly. We think it is the responsibility of the government to uphold law and order and that is the responsibility of any democratic government."

It is significant to note that Camp does not speak of military or logistical support but simply moral and diplomatic support whilst putting the ball back into the government's court to investigate civilian killings and address Tamil grievances.

And grievances include in the view of the international community political rights in the form of a federal structure and security.

The EU parliament in adopting its resolution did just that in the qualifying preamble, stating inter alia: "having regard to the Oslo Declaration of December 2002, in which the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE agreed to try to find a federal solution within a united Sri Lanka...."

The EU parliament added the need for compliance with the CFA, promotion and protection of human rights, gender equality and progress towards a final political settlement in the resolution, effectively telling the government to deliver on its commitments if continued support is expected.

The adoption of this resolution coincided with Camp's statement, indicative of the international community working to a common agenda on Sri Lanka.

Hot on the heels of Camp's comments also came a statement from Amnesty International (AI) on the human rights situation wherein the human rights watchdog while welcoming the government's pledge to investigate the Kayts killings had this to say: "...but notes there is a disturbing pattern of incomplete or ineffective investigations by the government with the result that perpetrators of such violence generally operate with impunity."

And then dealing with navy's denial of involvement in the massacre, the AI has this to say - "However, AI has received credible reports that Sri Lanka Navy personnel and armed cadres affiliated with the Eelam People's Democratic Party, a Tamil political party that is opposed to the LTTE, were present at the scene of the killings. The government in turn has suggested that the LTTE orchestrated the attack in order to divest international opinion."

AI statement

Then comes the punch comment similar to the one made by Camp which read as follows - "Regardless of who is responsible for the attacks, the Sri Lanka government has obligations under international law to take steps to prevent such killings to ensure that those who commit them are brought to justice and that the families of those killed are able to obtain redress."

Earlier India too sent a strong message to the government that it was disturbed at the rising incidents of civilian killings in the north east, sentiments Akashi also expressed during his visit.

It is with those tough comments ringing in his ears that President Rajapakse walked into cabinet on Wednesday, May 17 where he discussed the issue of human rights at the very outset even before going into the weekly cabinet papers.

Thus, no sooner he sat down President Rajapakse said the LTTE was getting ready for a massive human rights campaign internationally and the government must be ready to meet the challenge.

"We now have a Human Rights Minister and he must take over the responsibility of responding fast to the charges with an effective campaign and brief whoever and put the record straight," Rajapakse said.

Having said that, the President looked towards UNP's Mahinda Samarasinghe for a response and respond he did, taking a realistic view of the emerging scenario.

Said Samarasinghe, "I can do that and put the record straight. At the same time, if we are going to counter the charges, we must ensure what needs to be done in Sri Lanka is also done properly. You are the President for all the citizens of this country. When incidents such as Kayts happened, you issued a statement promptly and called for an inquiry. That is what people approve."

Continuing, Samarasinghe said calling for investigations alone is not enough but that it should be clean and independent with the culprits brought to book within a short time-frame.

"If we do that, the LTTE propaganda will be thrown out by the international community," he added.

Nodding his assent, the President said that was exactly what he wanted Samarasinghe to do.

Replied Samarasinghe - "I will do it. I will need to meet with you to discuss the strategy."

Samarasinghe's role

Samarasinghe no doubt realised the political implications of his assignment given the role of Mangala Samaraweera as Foreign Minister, who incidentally was not present in cabinet and the Human Rights Minister quickly brought him into the picture as well, particularly given Rajapakse's inclination to lean towards UNPers to pull the chestnuts out of his fire.

The President has already assigned the defence spokesman title to another UNP Minister, Keheliya Rambukwella and the third UNPer in his camp, Rohitha Bogallagma was earlier appointed spokesperson on the peace process - factors not lost on the SLFP ministers.

Thus Minister Samarasinghe said he has already discussed a human rights campaign with Minister Samaraweera and that they decided to revive the permanent standing committee on human rights.

Said he - "It was earlier chaired by Lakshman Kadirgamar. The last meeting was in 2002. Now it will be co-chaired by the ministers in charge of human rights and foreign affairs. It will have the defence chiefs, IGP and the Attorney General. We will go into the various cases and ensure follow up action."

Added Samarasinghe - "I will also chair the inter-ministerial committee and ensure recommendations made by treaty bodies are implemented. Then when we go for the UN Human Rights Council meeting in June, we will be in a position to counter the charges."

Chipped in the President - "Very good. Keep me informed of the progress."

But Samarasinghe was not yet finished. Said he, "At the same time, the Head of State must issue a statement to reassure, punity will not be tolerated against civilians by whomsoever."

Agreeing to the proposal, the President said in relation to the Kayts incident, it was completely false to accuse the navy of involvement but assured the culprits will be brought to book irrespective of who was involved.

Interestingly, Minister Douglas Devananda who was present at the meeting did not utter one word either by way of refuting the charges against the involvement of EPDP cadres or claim it to be the work of the LTTE.

He maintained a stony silence, with the President having already had a fiery exchange of words with him the previous day on the issue.

And to further show his commitment towards human rights in the face of the international onslaught, the President said he would be reconstituting the Human Rights Commission the following day, Thursday.

Ironically, in doing so, he was by passing the constitutional requirement of awaiting the Constitutional Council recommendations but then again given the fact he had already done it with the Police Commission, such legal requirements were no big deal.

Having said that, the President dropped another bombshell which had the ministers under shock and wondering who had fallen prey to a LTTE trap.

LTTE infiltrations

Said the President - "Be very careful about LTTE infiltrations and traps set. Day before yesterday, a minister told me he can contact three LTTE leaders to revive the peace process and sought my approval to meet with them. I did not give him an answer immediately but asked for the three names. Then I forwarded the names to the security council later that day. They checked and said all three are intelligence operatives of the LTTE. Obviously the LTTE is trying to tap our ministers to get information. It is a tactic of theirs. Don't eat their dead ropes."

Butting in quickly albeit somewhat sheepishly was Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, who said, "Yes we have to be careful."

More was to follow with Minister Maithripala Sirisena also having a bone to pick with his colleagues for not rising to his rescue following a LTTE threat.

The Minister said when details of the threat on him surfaced, not a single member of the government spoke about it.

"They should have used it to show what type of ruthlessness the LTTE is capable of. We could have got international mileage out of the incident," Sirisena said.

Offering words of comfort on that occasion was President Rajapakse who told the cabinet, in future if there was such a threat on a minister everyone should speak in one voice.

At the same time, the President also impressed upon the role civic groups can play in issues relating to human rights which can have a negative impact on the government.

He said when Japan's Envoy Akashi first met him, he was in a good frame of mind but later became hostile after meeting with some NGOs.

"They have poisoned his mind. His mood changed completely later. That is the type of campaign that the LTTE is carrying out through some NGOs," the President said.

That the human rights issue was going to dog the government was thus plain to see.

Even in the EU parliament resolution, article 10 said it "recognises that Sri Lanka's recent election as a member of the UN Human Rights Council places an obligation on the government to manifest its commitment to uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights."

EU stance

Interestingly, the previous paragraph made specific reference to attacks on Tamil organisations and newspapers and read thus: "Strongly condemn the particular repression against Tamil language press or Tamil organisations, and calls for a thorough investigation into the murders of Matyilvaganum Nimalarajan and Dharmaratnam Sivaram as well as the two employees of the newspaper Uthayan."

That apart, India is also getting increasingly concerned at the human rights situation and attempts by the Foreign Ministry to sideline it purportedly on the basis of hints made by the US.

In fact, though Akashi called on India to be present at the Co-Chairs meeting on May 30, no formal invitation was extended and India was not inclined to attend.

Instead, India has sent a clear message to the government it was seriously concerned about the civilian killings in the north east and urged urgent measures to bring the situation under control.

The bottom line is, the government has been sent a clear signal it will be held responsible for human rights violations of civilians and should be mindful of that fact in prosecuting even a low intensity war, particularly given the role of the paramilitary groups.

In any event, the battle is on and it remains to be seen what hand the Co-Chairs will deal on May 30 and the LTTE's response to the EU ban.

It was days after Canada banned the LTTE, the suicide bomb attack at the Army Headquarters was carried out and the government will do well to brace itself for tougher days ahead.