“Some party hack decreed that the people had lost the government's confidence and
could only regain it with redoubled effort.
If that is the case, would it not be simpler If the government simply dissolved the people and
elected another?” - Attributed to Bertolt Brecht, "The Solution" ["Die Lösung"] (c. 1953)
( August 7, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The shooting of unarmed civilians in Weliweriya and Balummahara by army soldiers equipped with T-56 assault rifles, armoured vehicles, and bullet-proof vests, is of unusual gravity for the consequences it will certainly have on the confidence placed by the ordinary citizen on those in power.
What confidence can people have in a State that uses live ammunition against its own unarmed citizens, whose peaceful protest for drinking water cannot by any stretch of imagination be compared with participation in hostilities in an armed conflict situation? They were only exercising their fundamental democratic right to organise and to protest. Their demand was for the basic right to clean drinking water and closure of the export-oriented glove-manufacturing factory Venigros Ltd owned by Dipped Products PLC, a subsidiary of Hayleys Group allegedly responsible for contaminating ground water by disposal of dangerous chemicals. The company must also assume responsibility for the tragedy if it failed deliberately to take timely action to respond to the legitimate concerns of the people.
Why did the members of the Government, and local authorities in charge, fail to take action, and to prevent escalation by ensuring that the company fulfils its responsibilities, despite the matter having brought to their attention?
Can things be the same again?
A number of other pertinent questions arise.
- · Who gave the army orders to intervene and deploy as it did?
- · Who gave the army orders to fire?
- · Did the law enforcement authorities exhaust all other means available to them before calling in the army?
- · Did those who directed the operation identify an external enemy or a lethally armed internal enemy to justify army intervention?
- · Who decided to impose the unofficial curfew, electricity blackout, curtailment of telephone transmission, and stoppage of transport along the Colombo-Kandy road?
- · Why were representatives of the media deliberately targeted?
- · When the military spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya seeks to justify army action by arguing that a certain group had attempted to “fish in troubled waters” and denies, despite evidence to the contrary, the attack on journalists, does this reflect the position of the Government?
- · Even if the claim by the Ministry of Defense is true, that a political group was indeed involved in organising the protest action, since when does that give the army the right to fire live bullets at unarmed civilians? Such actions are neither morally nor legally acceptable. They must be repudiated through clear condemnation and an independent, impartial inquiry that makes responsibility for the tragedy clear.
- · The people also have a right to know the truth. How many have been killed? How many injured? How many arrested? How many disappeared?
The fundamental principles, rules and standards that should govern every organised State in the world today, whatever form that State may take, were violated last Thursday, on 1 August, in Weliweriya and Balummahara when army soldiers fired on unarmed villagers, killing several, among them two schoolboys. News reports allege more, with injuries to numerous others, of whom three are in a critical condition under intensive care, and also assaulting of journalists as well as youth.
It cannot be stressed enough that the role and responsibility of the armed forces of a State is to defend the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of the country and people against external threats, an external enemy (international armed conflict) and to deal with internal (non-international) armed conflict situations. Ensuring law and order within the territorial borders is the responsibility of the law enforcement authorities, primarily the police force.
Law enforcement operations in situations other than armed conflict are conducted by the police or security forces and are governed by the human rights obligations of the State. During such operations, law enforcement officials must pay utmost attention to their obligations to respect and protect the life and security of all persons.
When armed forces are required to come to the assistance of civil authorities to deal with internal disturbances and tensions, they must play a reinforcement role, subordinated to civilian authorities.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) lays down that the only time a government may take measures derogating from some of its obligations is “in time of public emergency which threatens the life of the nation and the existence of which is officially proclaimed. (emphasis added).”
The right to life, the prohibition of torture, the right to recognition as a person before the law, are among the non-derogable rights.
In Weliweriya, the authorities clearly failed to abide by the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality and precaution, violating the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials (BPUFF), as well as the standards for law enforcement practices that are consistent with provisions on basic human rights and freedoms, as set forth in the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials (CCLEO).
While extending our solidarity and support to the residents of Weliweriya and Balummahara and other affected areas of Gampaha, we would like to note that in this mobilisation, the people of Weliweriya and Balummahara are exercising their fundamental right to organise, mobilise and to take direct action for drinking water, the supreme right to life, without which all other human rights would be devoid of meaning.
While it is the responsibility and duty of the State to create the conditions favourable and necessary for the exercise of all human and democratic rights, the role of law enforcement authorities is to guarantee those rights. It is understandable that the President has publicly refrained from apportioning blame on anyone prior to a comprehensive inquiry, but a public statement from him condemning the incident and promising severe action against those found responsible for the deaths and other excesses would have helped a great deal in reassuring the hapless victims of Weliweriya that the State would not shirk its responsibilities towards its citizens.
But is the role of the army in Sri Lanka now being distorted at the cost of human lives?
Are Weliweriya and Balummahara a foretaste of what is in store for those who exercise their right of democratic dissent? Katunayake in May 2011, Chilaw in February 2012, Weliweriya in 2013, on top of numerous events in the North during this period, amount to more than coincidence, with so many instances of workers, fisherfolk, and villagers paying the price. Who’s next? Is Weliweriya a turning point? Is the Government going to protect and promote the interests of a privileged few, at the expense of the toiling multitude and the citizens at large, with grave consequences for democracy, in which sovereignty resides collectively with the « demos » i.e.« the people ». Is it not immoral to actively encourage the construction of a 38-storey casino when the regime is not committed to the provision to 10,000 modest families of clean drinking water?
We must recognize that, without assuming all provocative acts are by external agents, there are those within the State too who wish to provoke and polarize. But the vision they propagate, of domination rather than consensus, of violence for elimination of opposition rather than discussion, will inevitably provoke similar extremism in others – as we found to our cost over the last several decades.
Popular mobilisation is never without reason. There is still time to awaken from our collective stupor and take our destiny into our own hands, to build a society in which we can all live together, as equals, in peace and harmony, enriched by our cultural differences, in a united Sri Lanka.
It is Time for Indignation! Let us take collective action to ensure respect for the rights and dignity for all!
Tamara Kunanayakam, Economist, former Permanent Representative/Ambassador of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in Geneva & the Vatican, and in Havana; Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema, Journalist/President, Sri Lanka Journalists' Trade Union (SLJTU); Dr. Sarath Buddhadasa, Management Consultant; Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, President/The Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA); Amar Gunetilleke, Consultant; Vajira Gunawardena, Artist; Dr. Manoranjana Herath, Sculptor/Lecturer, University of the Visual and Performing Arts; DBS Jeyaraj, Journalist; Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, former Permanent Representative/Ambassador of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in Geneva, in Paris, and UNESCO; Sanja Jayatilleka, Accountant; Dumith Kulasekera, Artist; Sanjeewa Kumara, Artist; Kamal Nissanka, Attorney-at-Law, Secretary General/Liberal Party, Member of Rule of Law Committee, Bar Association of Sri Lanka; Subramaniam Nagendra, Engineer; Dr Newton Peiris, Vice-President/Liberal Party; Selyna Peiris, Attorney-at-Law, former Chair/Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats Youth; Wasantha Samarasinghe, President/Inter Company Employees' Union (ICEU); Dr. Ranil Senanayake, Systems Ecologist; Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Artist; Dr. A C. Visvalingam, President/The Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance – CIMOGG; J.C. Weliamuna, senior lawyer and anti corruption activist; Priyantha Udagedara, Artist; Rajiva Wijesingha, MP; Javid Yusuf, Attorney at Law; M. H. Mohamed Hisham, Former Convenor (2007-2009),SriLankanYouthParliament; Supipi Jayawardena, Lecturer, Monash College Sri Lanka; Fr. Vimal Tirimanna, CSsR
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