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The rights and wrongs of attending CHOGM

By attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka, the Australian government has sacrificed a commitment to human rights, writes KISHALI PINTO-JAYAWARDENA.

( November 20, 2013, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s claims that Sri Lanka is a country where a lot of progress has been made post-war are a gross misrepresentation of practical realities.

Contrary to the Prime Minister’s statements, which came during the weekend's Commonwelath Heads of Government Meeting, things are not better for Sri Lankans.

The country has been transformed into a formidably militarised society with power as well as significant control over a massive percentage of public funds remaining in the hands of the President and his two brothers. One brother is the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and the other, a senior Cabinet Minister. The third brother is the Speaker of Parliament.

The judiciary has been undermined by the arbitrary impeachment of the Chief Justice resulting in her being thrown out of office earlier this year. The Supreme Court under a ‘new’ Chief Justice has publicly withdrawn from its constitutional role of protection of liberties.

In fact, Sri Lanka’s rule of law has been eroded for the majority Sinhalese as well as the minority Tamils and Muslims. In particular, minority Tamils face high surveillance and constant monitoring in the militarised northern peninsula. The Muslim minority has also been under attack with mosques and business places being targeted by extremist groups who appear to enjoy state patronage. These attacks not are properly investigated or brought to courts of law.

Sri Lanka is currently facing a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) which is centered on the implementation of the recommendation of the government’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).

Issuing its report two years after active fighting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and government forces ended, the LLRC castigated the Government for the breakdown of the rule of law.

It mandated that arbitrary arrests and detention by the armed forces should cease and that abductions and enforced disappearances should be effectively dealt with by law. These recommendations dramatically contradicted government spokespersons who had declared that post-war abductions and disappearances were non-existent. Importantly, the LLRC stated that the police – responsible for torture, deaths and disappearances should be de-militarised. It recommended that an effective witness protection law and a right to information law be enacted.

However many hard-core LLRC recommendations still remain un-implemented.

For example, de-militarisation of the police has not occurred – rather, there is a cosmetic shift through which the Department of the Police has been shifted to a new Ministry of Law and Order. Yet this new Ministry is manned by a former army man.

Moreover, the Defence Secretary - unarguably the most powerful man in the military hierarchy - routinely makes statements which indicate that he is still in control of the police. One recent example is his statement that police powers would not be devolved to the provinces.

Two years from the LLRC Report, Tamil mothers are still searching for their sons and wives still searching for their husbands. Last month, a draft witness and victim protection law was announced, but concerns persist as to its clauses and the independence of the proposed protection division. A right to information law remains in limbo in contrast to Sri Lanka’s neighbours in South Asia.

Where implementation of the rule of law is concerned, Sri Lankans are worse off than during the war.

It is therefore unfortunate that the Australian government – despite claims to the contrary – is lending unconditional support to the Sri Lankan government. While inter-country cooperation in addressing people smuggling operations need to be acknowledged, this should not be at the cost of sacrificing fundamental Commonwealth values.

Yet this is precisely what the Australian government appears to be doing, to the detriment of the Sri Lankan people and ultimately to the detriment of the Commonwealth itself.

Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena is a Sri Lankan lawyer and columnist for Colombo's The Sunday Times who is visiting Australia on the distinguished visitors program at the ANU Research School of Asia and the Pacific.

Article courtesy:  http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/
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