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Commonwealth, Member Responsibilities and Human Rights

| by Laksiri Fernando

“While people talk of a commonwealth, every man seeks only his own wealth”
– Thomas More (Utopia, 1516)

( November 15, 2013, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) It is always easy to criticise, but difficult to be relevant and responsible. This applies not only to human rights but also to all facets of governance or more pertinently to ‘good governance.’ Didn’t the Heads of Government of the Commonwealth unaware of the ‘human rights record’ of Sri Lanka when they decided to have the next summit in Colombo at the last summit held in Perth in 2011? They did.

Of course people are free to change their minds on any matter on earth, but could that be considered responsible when it comes to international relations and diplomacy of the highest order? It could hardly be the case if and when facts were clear from the beginning, however controversial. Sri Lanka should have a fair go, whatever the weaknesses or violations of the present regime and the government, because the matters pertinent to the Commonwealth are supposed to be the matters of the common people more than of the government.

If the present summit decides not to handover the leadership of the CHOGM to Sri Lanka for the next two years, it would be a slap on the face of the people of the country more than the government. It is also not the politically correct policy for a multilateral organization like the Commonwealth. Not that I am speculating that it would be the case, or would happen even by accident, but that is what some of the agitators are furiously advocating even at this last moment.

I saw this morning on ABC TV (Australia) Gordon Weiss, author of The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, exactly doing the same and even distorting some facts for that advocacy in the name of investigating war crimes. If any international investigations are conducted on the last stages the war, in my opinion, Weiss should be on the dock and not a ‘state witness’ as he has appointed himself to be at present. I had occasion to criticise him during his UN tenure in Sri Lanka at the last stages of the war and in fact pointed out his irresponsible behaviour that eventually led to the innocent Tamil civilians becoming human shields of the LTTE and targets of the military bombardments, conducted purposely or otherwise.

When the government announced its intentions to siege the LTTE stronghold in Kilinochchi and asked the civilians to move to the government held areas, as the most responsible officer of the UN on the ground at that time not only Weiss didn’t support the move, but on the contrary, he very clearly expressed that it is up to the civilians to decide. If the UN, its agencies and the NGOs had taken a firm decision to ask the civilians to move into the government held areas at that juncture, in my opinion, many of the civilian casualties that claimed to have occurred could have been avoided.

Whatever we say and do about human rights, primary responsibility is to save lives and not to score points for this or that cause of ideology or self-preservation/promotion.

There is no question that obvious violations have happened during the last stages of the war. This is common sense to believe. But those have nothing much to do with the scheduled CHOGM summit in Colombo, except for those who don’t make a distinction between ‘head and tail.’ It is also Thomas More who said that “while you are intent upon the cure of one part, you may make worse the malady of the other parts.” There are different mechanisms to address human rights violations nationally and internationally. No multilateral organization would come to a country to castigate the host country. If those could be raised with the host country at the summit, and castigate the country thereof, then the Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper should have been the first to come for the Colombo meeting.

Indiscriminate castigation of Sri Lanka in all international forums particularly by some Western advocates, knowingly or unknowingly, has serious implications of hangovers from colonialism and even ‘racism’ that the Commonwealth has opted to denounce very strongly in the Harare Declaration (1991) as well the previous Singapore Declaration (1971). Of course human rights, good governance and independence of the judiciary and such noble principles are fundamental beliefs in the Commonwealth fraternity. But they are always dealt with proportionality unless a country steps outside those norms completely.
There are many other matters on the agenda and the CHOGM meeting is supposed to address them with understanding, cooperation and solidarity. Commonwealth is in fact a very slow moving animal and there is no point in browbeating without understanding the realistic situation. It is true that in the past, the Commonwealth has taken some ‘brave steps’ in criticising Apartheid (but not imposing sanctions), military coups in Pakistan and Fiji and alleged electoral fraud in Zimbabwe. But those steps were taken not by going to their own countries and castigating them. The opposite possibility defies the common sense.
There is no question that Sri Lanka should be accountable for its human rights record both nationally and internationally. But the Commonwealth is not the forum to get it done and human rights should not be a panacea slogan for all grievances and/or criticisms. From what the Channel 4 and other sources have revealed, however distorted or exaggerated they may be, at least there are very clear prima farcie (at first sight) cases, for example, of the killing of Velupillai Prabhakaran’s young son, one of the eastern LTTE commanders, ‘Colonel’ Ramesh, and the LTTE TV announcer Isaipriya, among possible others, after they became the prisoners of war (POWs). If the facts are correct, these are blatant violations amounts to war crimes. But who is responsible is yet unknown.

But from a broader perspective, and also to learn correct long term lessons for the country and for its future generations, I may agree with the President Mahinda Rajapaksa who has stated, “Let’s discuss all 30 years of war and not just 2009” (The Island, 14 November 2013) in terms of human rights violations, war crimes or crimes against ‘humanity’ or more precisely, crimes against the Sri Lankan people. But the question is how to go about it?

If any balance sheet is drawn for the period, in my dispassionate opinion, the LTTE atrocities might loom larger than what the government or the armed forces have committed. There were constraints for the government or the armed forces in indulging in violations, but in the case of the LTTE, there were almost none at all, and not even rudiments of common moral imperatives. This has nothing to do with the Tamil people or their legitimate rights. Human rights violations, the most horrendous ones in this case, cannot be justified on the basis of a ‘liberation struggle’ or any such ideological basis. This is something that many of the human rights advocates at present, both local and international, do not admit or address as if the past and, in this case, the sequentially relevant recent past, has no relevance.

The above should not absolve the government, however, from its human rights responsibilities for the present or for the past. As the Associated Press has reported (13 November 2013), the President has stated at the eve of the CHOGM summit that “If anyone who wants to complain about human rights violations in Sri Lanka, whether its torture, whether it is rape, we have a system.”

There is of course a system composed of the National Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court based on the Fundamental Rights Chapter of the Constitution and other Enactments. In addition, Sri Lanka is party to a number of UN human rights instruments. But it is doubtful whether that system is completely operational and competent given the executive encroachments to the judicial system damaging its independence as recently evident by the impeachment saga.

The President has also stated that “If there is any violations, we will take actions against anybody, anybody. I am ready to do that.” If the President is truthful of what he has said about the possibility of complaining about human rights violations and also punishing the perpetrators, then there are two possibilities or avenues open in the country on this matter.

First is the government initiating its own inquiries against the alleged violations impartially and independently to punish the perpetrators. Army inquiries so far conducted are not sufficient or credible on these matters. As I have highlighted before, the killing of Prabhakaran’s son, ‘Colonel’ Ramesh and Isaipriya are, in my concerned opinion, prima farcie cases. As these have allegedly happened within the army, the rooting out of those violators is important to maintain a disciplined army in the country. It is obvious from the Channel 4 and other videos that those have been given or even sold by some of the army personnel themselves. Otherwise Channel 4 didn’t come to shoot them. It is quite possible that these must be the same persons who perpetrated the alleged crimes.

Second possibility is the human rights organizations making the complaints to the Human Rights Commission or the Supreme Court or both regarding the above and other violations. It is unfortunate in Sri Lanka that people hardly make formal human rights complaints as much as they make allegations, criticisms or agitations on those matters. When the President highlighted the availability of human rights systems, he was possibly referring to the alleged violations by the army in the North aftermath of the end of the war or recent past. Not only the formal human rights organizations but also the Tamil political parties i.e. the TNA should seize the opportunity of what President has said and make the formal complaints. Otherwise, their allegations are not worth the salt. If proper investigations or inquiries are not conducted, then that is a subsequent matter to deal with.

To make my main point and approach clear in this article, human rights should not be utilized any longer to recreate a new violent conflict in the country on ethnic lines or even otherwise. The country also should beware of those international agitators who would consciously or unconsciously exacerbate the already existing ethnic divergence between the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims and religious communities.
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