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Respect the dignity of the defenceless

By Shanie
Courtesy: The Island

(March 27, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) "The lesson from (our) 125 years of experience is simply that, whether on the national or international scale, it is only through respect for human dignity, including that of the fallen enemy and the defenceless person, that we can hope to find again the humanity lost to fighting. The vicious cycle of violence must be broken by spreading the antidote of humanitarianism. May governments and individuals, those who are in power and those who struggle for it, hear this essential truth and live up to it."

Founded in 1861, the International Committee of the Red Cross is recognised the world over - except perhaps by the protagonists in armed conflicts who do not wish the ICRC to be neutral - as a neutral intermediary that seeks to alleviate suffering during armed conflicts. The above quote is from a report issued by the ICRC in 1986 on violence against defenceless persons during internal disturbances and tensions. The report was quoted in a statement issued by the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka in September 1989. The ICRC identified internal disturbances or tensions as having the following characteristics: mass arrests; many security detainees; prolonged administrative detention; probable ill treatment, torture, or physically or psychological detrimental conditions of detention; prolonged incommunicado detention; repressive measures against family members; suspension either in law or in fact of judicial guarantees; large scale restriction of personal freedoms; allegations of forced disappearances; increase in acts of violence which endanger defenceless persons or spread terror among the civilian population.

The ICRC report stated that violence against defenceless persons may be committed by individuals, armed insurgents or pro-government groups or even by the security forces – the army or police themselves. Such acts of violence affect civilians, both individuals (arbitrary detention, hostage taking, assassination) as well as groups (displacement of large masses of civilians, relegation, expulsion, massacres). Sometimes these take a form which is difficult to detect, such as various types of intimidation and harassment which, apart from their direct effect on the victim, perpetuate a sense of latent apprehension in the community.

Whichever form this violence takes, its perpetrators use the most widely used pretexts to justify their unjustifiable acts – military necessity, state security, last resort of oppressed people, etc. The ICRC sees the spiral of violence as generating even more hatred and more revolt, dehumanising those who practice and tolerate it, and in the end dehumanising the society exposed to it.

The dangers arising from violence against defenceless persons – dehumanising the victim and the perpetrator as well as the community exposed to such violence – is still and will always continue to be present, unless the media and civil society make a concerted effort to change our culture of violence. Violence always begets more violence, until in the long term it consumes not only the victim and but the perpetrator as well. The State has a particular responsibility to ensure that the rule of law is observed, even in times of emergency.

Commitment to civilised norms

The statement of the Civil Rights Movement in 1989 at the time of the second southern insurgency recognised the responsibility of the state to maintain law and order. It recognised that the state security forces then faced grave and horrific provocations. But cloning the methods of the armed subversives was not the formula for restoring law and order or for defending democratic and civilised values. But that sadly was the position the civilian population faced then and have continued to face. The disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda, the arrest and detention of Sarath Fonseka and the threats and intimidation of journalists of the opposition and civil society activists do little to inspire confidence that we as a nation are committed to democratic principles and values, and to the rule of law.

It was not long ago that a state web site posted the names of lawyers appearing in fundamental rights application before our courts. In 1989 too, lawyers handling habeus corpus applications received death threats. In fact, some of them were actually killed. One of them was 28 year old Kanchana Abhayapala who was then also working for Sarvodaya. In 2003, K C Kamalasabayson, the former Attorney General who added distinction and dignity to his office, delivering the Kanchana Abhayapala Memorial Lecture paid tribute to Abhayapala as ‘a young lawyer who had the courage to accuse the State agencies of abuse of power and violence. He represented the underprivileged and the poorer segments of the society who were victims of such abuse and violence and sought justice on their behalf in our Courts. It was an era when many lawyers were reluctant, through fear, to undertake such tasks.’

Police Investigations and the Rule of Law

Kamalasabayson went on to lament that there were so many unsolved crimes. While stating that there many reasons for this, he acknowledged that the ordinary layman felt that many of them could have been solved and it was not done because of the ineffectiveness of the investigators or ‘for reasons best known to them’. The result was that the public began to lose confidence in the system. And he stated, "What I wish to emphasize is that unless the object of our criminal justice system is properly translated into reality, viz. in that the actual offender is expeditiously tried and punished, there could never be a just society in which law and order would prevail…. I will only pose a simple question. Is it more important in a civilized society to build roads to match with international standards, spending literally millions of dollars, rather than have a peaceful and a law-abiding society where the rule of law prevails?"

Those were candid words from a person who was then still holding the office of Attorney General. There is no doubt that all what the vast majority of our people want is a peaceful and orderly society where the rule of law prevails. They do not want selective justice. This week, the public watched in horror as goons arriving in a state-owned vehicle proceeded to attack the head office of a private media organization in broad daylight. The Police arrived in due course and took sixteen persons into custody. They were all released on bail the same day while "police investigations are proceeding". This is not the first time that this organization has been subject to violence. What became of police investigations into the earlier cases?

In January 2009, the Depanama studios of this same media organization was attacked and destroyed by goons obviously enjoying protection. A few days later, the outspoken newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunga was gunned down again in broad daylight on a major road in the suburbs. No progress was reported by the Police in their investigations – the only arrest they made was that of a person who allegedly stole Wickrematunge’s mobile phone after the tragedy. Now, after Sarath Fonseka’s defection to the opposition, a breakthrough in investigations is being served for public consumption. If there was a breakthrough, one would have expected some confidentiality until investigations were completed. But we have regular leaks about Fonseka’s associates being arrested and questioned. Could the public be blamed for treating all this with cynical scepticism. Have we to await another defection to the opposition for a "breakthrough" in investigations into the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda in January 2010?

Restoring faith in the democratic process

In this context, we can do no better than quote from another statement issued by the Civil Rights Movement in May 1989. It was a UNP government that was then in power but it has the same relevance today when a UPFA government is in power: "The CRM stresses the need for the government to give serious attention to the need to restore faith in the democratic process among those who have lost it, and to create it in the minds of those members of the younger generation who have, through no fault of their own, grown up without ever having gained it. Both the Presidential Election of December 1988 and the General Election of 1989 were gravely affected by the violence in the country; they were also marred by blatant instances of misuse of power by the ruling party. This is no way to encourage use of the ballot instead of the bullet, and must be now a serious drawback in seeking the co-operation of the parliamentary opposition in matters of common concern.

The government also needs to re-define its attitude towards the media, towards the public’s right of information, towards criticism and dissent, and towards non-governmental organisations. The one-sided news and views expressed in the state-controlled press, radio and television, the paucity of genuine news, and the pitiful absence of any real, lively debate on the issues of the day, is surely self-defeating. What attraction does this manifestation of the ‘democratic process’ offer to those who are constantly being exhorted to join it?

Then again, at times, suggestions, criticisms, or even legitimate queries by law-abiding non-governmental organisations are either ignored, or treated with hostility, instead of simply being dealt with on their merits. This does not mesh with the concept of the democratic process, in which all are free peacefully to question authority, and which those wielding the gun are now so earnestly being invited to join."

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