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Take steps to move in democratic direction in aftermath of UN visit

| A statement issued by the National Peace Council

( September 2, 2013, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The recently concluded visit to Sri Lanka by UN Human Rights Commissioner Navanethem Pillay was in pursuance of two resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council in relation to serious human rights problems in the country. The visit enabled the Commissioner to see the country situation at first hand without having to rely on the interpretations of other interlocutors. She met with a wide range of stakeholders, including leaders of the government, opposition, civil society and war victims. In her concluding statement to the media, the visiting Commissioner appreciated the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to give her access to all parts of the country and to all persons she wished to meet, and facilitating her visit in general, which she described as “excellent cooperation”. It was most unfortunate therefore that unwarranted and unsavoury criticisms were directed against this internationally respected UN official.

On the positive side, we note that the government set up a Commission of Inquiry into war time disappearances in the North and East, recommenced investigations into the killing of five students on Trincomalee beach, and removed the Police Department from the purview of the Defence Ministry and instead vested it in a newly formed Ministry of Law and Order. While welcoming these positive actions on the part of the government prior to the visit of the UN Human Rights Commissioner to the country we urge the government to ensure that these are not mere token gestures to lull the International Community and, on the contrary, are measures in earnest arising out of convictions. Her warning that she was “deeply concerned that Sri Lanka, despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant all-embracing state, is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction” needs to be taken seriously.

As a civic organization that works closely with community groups, the National Peace Council is gratified by the Commissioner’s strong disapproval of the questioning and intimidation to which some of those who met with her in the North and East. She observed that it was extraordinary that such activities would take place during the very visit of a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and noted that it has never happened in any other country she visited. The harassment of some or anyone who met with the Commissioner is evidence of the culture of the exercise of power of the military and the police untrammeled by any law or democratic norms, which has arisen since the end of the war. Hallmarks of this system of repression are invasive methods of intelligence gathering, which those who work at the community level now experience on a continuing basis, and the use of military force to control civilian protest, as have occurred recently and on a continuing basis. Therefore NPC welcomes the High Commissioner’s suggestion for removal of the military from civilian governance which continues to prevail in the North and East.

The role of the military is to defend the country against external enemies. It is the removal of grievances and genuine reconciliation that will remove any possible internal enemies from arising in the future. The ethnic and religious minorities will feel at ease only with re-establishment of democratic checks and balances and the Rule of Law through an independent police and judiciary, which have been overridden at the present time by a system of repressive control. It is important to bear in mind that any repressive system of control that prevails at the expense of its people and their democratic freedoms can lead to the danger of authoritarianism, as warned by the visiting Commissioner. It is also important for the government to note how its effort to present the positive side of the country’s post-war development was undermined by its system of repressive control.
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