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Confronting The ‘Banality Of Evil’

| Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena
Courtesy: Sunday Times, Colombo 

( October 26, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) During last year’s Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was so bold as to state at a news conference broadcast around the world that Sri Lanka has a legal system and "if anyone wants to complain about human rights violations, whether it is torture, whether it is rape … we have a system…we will take action against anyone. So we are open. We have nothing to hide."
The truth however belies the brashness of this claim.

Unforgivably asinine state repression

If this Government has nothing to hide, why it is so afraid of its own shadow as to arbitrarily and suddenly enforce restrictions on the travel of non-Sri Lankans to the North? Why did its agencies think it fit recently to disrupt a wholly innocuous commemoration event for perhaps the North’s best known human rights defender, Dr. Rajani Thiranagama who, as irony would have it, was assassinated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) when she spoke out against injustice? Could there be a better instance of unforgivably asinine state repression than this?

And why are dissenters regularly subjected to death threats when they cross the unwritten line in challenging this regime? Are these actions of a Government which ‘has nothing to hide’? One cannot surely think so.

On that same argument, why does this Government send its representatives to international forums to engage in prevarication if not outright lying on the State’s record in terms of our own law and the Constitution? This was disconcertingly evidenced earlier this month during consideration of Sri Lanka’s Fifth State Party Report by the United Nations Human Rights Committee under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Indeed, abstaining from participating in these treaty procedures may be more strategic in the long run.

Coping with the most astonishing claims

As this column has previously discussed, this particular State Party Report was bad enough, containing misrepresentations as well as errors in law. Granted, counsel from the Department of the Attorney General appearing before the Committee were tasked with a bad brief as they strenuously attempted to defend an ill prepared report. But the limit of ridiculousness is reached when scarcely an eyelid is blinked even as the most astonishing claims are made.
For example (and this is just one of many), it would be funny if it was not so tragic to hear state representatives protesting that the emergency regime has been dismantled while glossing over the unpleasant fact that the far more draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act still holds Sri Lanka in its iron grip?
Several Tamil detainees including mothers who protested against the disappearances of their children have been detained for years under this obnoxious law without any charges being brought. The law is also routinely used to threaten dissenters in the South while allowing those adept at hate speech such as the members of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) to escape without punishment.

Simple statistics do not lie

Similarly unacceptable are state claims that the fundamental rights protection mechanism and the habeas corpus remedy of the appellate courts are thriving. One does not have to go far to show that this is far from the case. Simple statistics relating to judicial performance under the Rajapaksa Presidency will show this in no uncertain terms.

Both remedies are of primary importance when it comes to disappeared persons. Yet both mechanisms have been rendered of no practical value. Citation of old precedents by honourable Sri Lankan judges during infinitely saner times when we had a functional justice system cannot detract from this fact. Let us be clear about this.

This issue merits detailed scrutiny when the Committee issues its Concluding Observations on Sri Lanka next week along with the other countries whose reports were also considered at this month’s sessions, namely Burundi, Haiti, Israel, Malta and Montenegro. For the moment however, it may suffice to ask if this Government believes that every lie it utters will be believed without dispute? Perhaps it has the colossal arrogance to think that it does.

The anguish of human beings affected by state abuse

Just a year before active fighting ceased in the Wanni, a medical professional of Tamil ethnicity came to meet me regarding the disappearance of his father-in-law, a senior academic who had been ‘disappeared’ while attending a seminar in an elite Colombo neighbourhood designated as a High Security Zone. The poignancy surrounding this incident came from the fact that the son-in-law, a skilled eye surgeon, had been operating on the eyes of wounded Sinhalese soldiers in Colombo’s Eye Hospital at the very time that his distraught wife informed that his father-in-law had ‘disappeared.’

Even to this day, one can recall the anguished manner in which he lamented that ‘we only want to know what has happened to him because death rituals are an important part of our culture and we need to carry them out.’ Up to now, this incident remains among Sri Lanka’s unresolved disappearances. And how can state complicity not be inferred when we remain such a highly policed and militarized society? This is still the same question that is relevant six years down the line when journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists and academics are threatened and assaulted.

As Hannah Arendt remarked in regard to the actions of Germany’s Nazis, it is the banality of evil in our midst that we should fear the most. The nature of Sri Lanka’s state security apparatus, always brooding, always threatening, has changed post-war so as to render individual liberties close to non-existent.

President Rajapaksa’s ambitious claim that his Government has ‘nothing to hide’ therefore only bears a marked resemblance to that well loved fable regarding the Emperor who had no clothes. Sri Lanka’s minorities realized this painful truth quite some time ago. Now it is the turn of the Sinhala majority to experience the ramifications of this hideous reality.

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