Human Rights, Freedoms and a Country’s Dilemmas in
the face of an International Investigation
| by Dr. Siri Gamage
( March 26, 2014, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) A country does not and cannot exist in a vacuum. It exists among other nations that form into a global system. In this sense, international scrutiny of a country’s record in terms of any alleged violations of rights and crimes is a serious step. It is widely believed that the 3rd resolution submitted by the US and co-sponsors to the ongoing UNHRC sessions will be ratified by a majority of countries in the UNHRC including India. It is also now a matter of public knowledge that the resolution will empower the UNHRC to undertake ‘an independent investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka, during the period covered by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, and establish the facts and circumstances of such alleged violations and of the crimes’. If and when this investigation takes place, it is highly probable that hitherto unwilling witnesses to the events will be prepared to provide information and witness statements to the investigators by numerous means.
There are some who believe that the countries supporting the resolution are doing so because of the uneven influence that the Tamil diaspora exert on them. There are others who believe that the turn toward China in terms of the country’s development efforts is not liked by powerful Western countries and the US – perhaps also India-hence this resolution.
What the outcome of a report prepared by the investigators in terms of any changes on the ground within Sri Lanka cannot be predicted so early in the process. However, the government announcements in the media have given every indication that it will not accept such an investigation on grounds that it violates Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and also it is an unnecessary interference in the country’s internal affairs. Meanwhile, during the provincial election campaigns, it is reported that the leaders of UPFA are using the Geneva resolution to garner support from the public by pointing out a potential Western interference. In this context, the dilemma that Sri Lanka faces in the international arena is one that requires further scrutiny –not only from the perspective of international relations but also in terms of the workings of the state apparatus which should be the guardian of civilian security, human rights and freedoms.
There are some who believe that the countries supporting the resolution are doing so because of the uneven influence that the Tamil diaspora exert on them. There are others who believe that the turn toward China in terms of the country’s development efforts is not liked by powerful Western countries and the US – perhaps also India-hence this resolution. There are yet others who point the finger at International and local non-government organisations as appendages of Tamil tiger sympathisers or Western countries –irrespective of the fact that some developing countries are also in the mix. Those who present such arguments generally tend to speak highly of the Sri Lankan government’s record and the plight of the Sinhalese people who suffered a lot during the war years while sacrificing their youths to join the army to fight the LTTE. Another argument advanced is that Sri Lanka belongs to all and no ethnic community has the right to claim traditional homelands or seek self-determination with disproportionate power.
These arguments have some merit as mere arguments directed at respective audiences –local and in the diaspora. Sinhalese diaspora is also not an insignificant one when combined with the power of embassies and other posts funded and maintained by the government. Yet so long as these arguments are constructed from the perspective of a given ethnic community it has limited validity when it comes to a nation’s affairs – not to speak about international affairs. What is at the core is the ‘national problem’ whether we focus on pre-war period, war period, or post-war period. A national problem involving the rights of differing yet distinctive ethnic communities cannot be addressed by using ‘Sinhala politics’ played to a mainly Sinhalese audience and electorate. The Geneva resolution III should provide the leaders of the country an impetus to have a closer and deeper look at the internal structures and processes of governance as well as the politics associated with them instead of utilising it to further divide the nation by constructing artificial binaries.
Sri Lanka’s war was over in 2009 yet the consequences are not yet over. Reconstruction and rehabilitation is a process requiring manpower and other resources, political will, community participation and more. This has been continuing. Yet a significant international voice has emerged about the country’s rights record and alleged crimes as can be seen from the resolution III presented to UNHRC in Geneva. When a war is fought, some degree of civilian casualties is ineveitable, especially when helpless Tamil civilians were used by the LTTE as human shields in the north-eastern corner of the country. Yet if there was mass scale attacks on civilians using disproportionate force during the last phase of the war due to the fact that it was either not possible to distinguish between hard-core LTTE fighters and civilians or the army wanted to finish off the fighting sooner rather than later, it is inevitable that the attention of relevant UNE agencies, INGOs dealing with human rights and violations as well as some countries is drawn to such events.
What is concerning however is the fact that the current issue has been used by some writers and spokespeople to denigrate human rights and freedoms and even those who advocate them. Yet they are universally applicable principles and values that no government, no army, or paramilitary group should violate even under trying circumstances. The state has to protect these in times of war as well as normalcy. What is wrong is not the advocacy of human rights and freedoms of association, expression and life but the messing up of the country’s national problem by successive governments while playing majoritarian Sinhala politics with it. Interests of the majority need to be taken into account but this does not give a state the right to undermine the rights of minorities or even criminalise those who express dissenting voices or behave in a way that the ruling class does not prefer at a given point in time. Rule of law, democracy, human freedoms and rights all can co-exist in a country such as Sri Lanka in an atmosphere of ethnic harmony and respect for the individual. However, being a highly stratified society along caste, class and ethnic lines, it requires a miracle to bring divergent segments of society together by persuation and social engineering rather than by force.
From a national point of view, there are dangers of adopting a Western model of development based on the free market economic principles. Early signs of community resistance to expanding development projects are emerging. Environmental degradation due to the expanding development initiatives is one example of the kind of disastrous effect development can bring about, e.g. water contamination, Kidney disease. Alienation of country’s land to multinational companies is another. Limitations on the access available to public spaces such as the beaches due to expanding tourism is yet another impact. Spread of various vices is another. Whether the country uses Chinese capital and know how or Indian capital and knowhow or even European capital and know how, the country’s population can either be benefitted or harmed by the ill effects of mega development projects. When the Mahaweli development program was initiated, people who lost land were re-settled with compensation. Thus the real focus of the population should be on finding a better, sustainable development model for the country’s needs rather than adopting global neoliberal free market doctrine, which creates more dependencies and destructions to the environment and the welfare of the population. It is even equally important to find a local solution to the country’s national problem in a mutually agreeable manner rather than attempting to impose the will of the victor on a disempowered minority. Irrespective of the Geneva resolution III and any report that the UNHRC may prepare and submit, the country’s leaders need to address these issues together with the relevant communities if there is to be a reconciled nation. In this regard, what is also more important is how the future will be secured more so than how the war was fought. It seems that the approach of the government sharply differs from the approach taken by the international community on this issue, though the question of alleged rights violations and crimes cannot be set aside due to their impact on human suffering.
There will be no future for the country so long as citizens tend to look at each other in terms of their ethnic labels encouraged by communally-oriented politicians. Promoting an inclusive, Sri Lankan identity and an inclusive governance structure are essential in order to bring about reconciliation among different ethnic groups. The project of the extremist, Tamil diaspora groups that seems to perpetuate the dream of an ethnically exclusive Eelam does not contribute to the development of such an identity. The attempt by the leaders of the country to perpetuate a Sinhala-Buddhist identity as the dominant one over everyone else does not contribute to it either. A middle way has to be chosen and promoted by active deliberations if Sri Lanka is to secure its future with a common identity based on the country’s place, human experience, future goals, and inter-communal cooperation. Whether this will happen in our lifetime is quite another issue. Perhaps the energies and synergies produced by Geneva III in the diaspora and within the country may evolve toward the establishment of a reconciled, peaceful nation that respects human rights and civic freedoms not only by words uttered in public but also via acceptable institutional mechanisms and governing processes. Let’s dream together a better future rather than trying to drag the country back toward divisive discourses and actions as existed during the war period.