Putting our own house in order
These days, international scrutiny of Sri Lanka's human rights record is high, both in the rarefied atmosphere of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva as well as back at home. The ongoing acrimonious war of words between the Department of the Attorney General and the International Eminent Persons group 'observing' the latest Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Grave Human Rights Violations has exacerbated this situation and the possibility of such international scrutiny intensifying within the coming weeks is now very much 'on the cards,' as it were.
Some issues are clear in this context. While there is no doubt that we are fighting a terrorist foe which is reckless, ruthless and destructive, our own conduct is full of defects; this is specially so in regard to the lack of quick responses to human rights abuses, political interference into inquiries, lethargy -- even corruption -- on the part of the politicians and the police and the deliberate use of terror tactics to combat terror.
We need to seriously address our internal mechanisms of accountability; in the criminal justice system, the prosecutorial system and in regard to the efficacy of 'independent' human rights monitors such as the National Human Rights Commission and the National Police Commission. Whatever short term political advantage that the politicians would have thought, might have accrued by crippling the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, has been effectively undercut by the tremendous condemnation that this has occasioned, both internationally and domestically. Even at this late stage, we need the Constitutional Council to be rejuvenated and the constitutional commissions to be vested with some credibility, both in the procedural manner of the appointments of their members as well as in the actual fulfilment of their constitutional and statutory mandates.
We also need effective prosecutions of human rights violators; not one or two isolated cases and these also, only of the 'sprats' in the forces and the police. As in the case of bribery and corruption, it is the senior officers who participate or condone such activities, (and by doing so, affect the good name of their colleagues), who should be put on the mat and not only their hapless subordinates. The needed changes in the investigative and legal structures to bring about such a result should be speedily effected. If our internal systems of accountability are put in order, as is pointed out elsewhere in this paper in our 'Focus on Rights' column, we will not need more and more fact finding commissions of inquiry or external international 'observers' monitoring our domestic bodies.
That said, the duplicitous nature of the international community (IC)'s response to the perceived sins committed by Sri Lanka is also clear. We are treated in one way while the IC looks at the human rights records of other, more powerful countries differently. The IC dares not to talk of human rights records and the way expatriate labour is treated in West Asia (the Middle East) for instance because they need to placate those leaders to buy their oil and sell their warplanes. Those that refuse to play ball with them, are crushed and judicially executed -- like Saddam Hussein.
In this case, we were under pressure to invite a group of 'Eminent Persons' to observe our own Commission of Inquiry and we did so, automatically conceding thereby that we have no faith in the independent working of our domestic Commission. Now, the observers have strongly critiqued the working of the Commission as well as what they perceive to be a conflict of interest of the role of the Attorney General, (AG) whose officers are assisting the Commission. The AG and the Commission itself have, in turn responded by stoutly denying the alleged conflict.
Moreover, the AG has vigorously criticized an eminent observer and his assistant for exceeding his mandate by ill advisedly walking into the chambers of the magistrate who had heard the case of the 17 aid workers of a French aid agency who were killed in Mutur in August 2006 and which case is also being inquired into by the Commission. In counter-response, the observers have claimed that all that the observer did was to pay a 'courtesy call' on the magistrate and to respond to a request for information made by the magistrate.Even so, what they did smacks of certain degree of impropriety and could have been avoided.
The accusations and counter-accusations flying back and forth guarantee only one result; that Sri Lanka's good name will get tarnished further in the international media and the corridors of power of the IC. The plight of the many Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslim victims, are meanwhile bypassed in the process.
It is time that this destructive cycle is ended and we put our own house in order, and these 'eminent persons' of foreign descent stop exacerbating the situation by word and deed thereby effectively ensuring justice for people of all ethnicities in Sri Lanka.