Thursday, March 13, 2008

Why are they all ganging up on Sri Lanka

By AMEEN IZZADEEN (Dateline Colombo)

EITHER the world is ganging up against Sri Lanka or there is something wrong in the country where President Mahinda Rajapaksa is at the helm of affairs. In recent weeks, the International Commission of Jurists, the Amnesty International, the Human Rights Watch and top UN officials fired salvo after salvo on Sri Lanka, putting the government on the back-foot to defend itself.

The international human rights community’s attacks were too much for a government which is fighting a lone battle against what it calls a ruthless terrorist group which is waging a violent campaign to set up a separate state for Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils living in the north and the east.

While the security forces fight a valiant battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and make slow but steady progress in their march towards the rebel heartland, government politicians and diplomats are also fighting an equally tough war to defend the country’s human rights record at world fora. While Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe last week went to Geneva to participate at the annual Human Rights Council sessions where he faced a series of allegations based on case studies and well-compiled reports, International Trade Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris left for Brussels and London on Sunday to plead for duty concessions for our exports.

The concessions granted under the European Union’s GSP+ (Generalised System of Preference) policy to Sri Lanka is up for review and it will be renewed only if the EU is satisfied that the Rajapaksa government is committed to good governance, which includes a commitment to respect human rights.

However, reports from Geneva and Brussels say that Sri Lanka is facing an uphill task. Human Rights Minister Samarasinghe made a frantic telephone call from Geneva to President Rajapaksa to tell him that the case against Sri Lanka was strong. Even Britain, which usually was sympathetic towards Sri Lanka, was up in arms this time, with its Foreign Office Minister Malloch Brown raising questions regarding disappearances, extra-judicial killings and violence against journalists.

Brown said UN Human Rights Chief Louise Arbour who made a visit to Sri Lanka in October last year was shocked by the weakness of the rule of law and the prevalence of the culture of impunity. He charged that those who were responsible for human rights violations remained free.

UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowark in his report to the HRC said torture was widely prevalent in Sri Lanka though there were legal steps available to eliminate the inhuman practice.

Making Sri Lanka’s task in defending itself tougher, the New York-based Human Rights Watch released a 241-page damning report to coincide with the ongoing Human Rights Council sessions.

The report titled “Recurring Nightmare: State Responsibility for Disappearances and Abductions in Sri Lanka,” placed the responsibility for the human rights abuses squarely on President Rajapaksa.

HRW’s deputy director Elaine Pearson said, “President Rajapaksa, once a rights advocate, has now led his government to become one of the world’s worst perpetrators of enforced disappearances.”

The fact that a government-appointed one-man commission had absolved the security forces of all responsibility for thousands of disappearances said to have taken place in Sri Lanka after Rajapaksa assumed office was lost on the international community.

The commission chairman, Mahanama Thilakaratna, a retired judge, noted that unidentified groups were blamed for the incidents and most of the disappearances were to do with private disputes, money transactions, love affairs, adultery and even cases of stage-managed incidents to gain foreign visas.

But the international community appears to be not impressed.

There was further evidence that the international community was not taking a serious note of government measures in improving its human rights record when a panel of international independent eminent persons (IIGEP) headed by former Indian Chief Justice PN Bhagwati announced last week that they were terminating their operations in Sri Lanka.

The panel was set up at the invitation of Rajapaksa in the aftermath of the massacre of 17 local aid workers of a French aid group in the northeastern Mutur area in August 2006. The eminent persons were to ensure the impartiality of a presidential commission probing 16 incidents of extrajudicial killings alleged to have committed by both the security forces and the LTTE.

The eminent persons said, “there has been and continues to be a lack of political and institutional will to investigate and inquire into the cases…”

Also last week, the International Commission of Jurists issued a strongly-worded statement, accusing both the government and the LTTE for numerous violations of international law and universally-accepted human rights norms and practices.

It is true that international law recognises the international community’s right to question human rights abuses and their right to intervene in a limited manner in the affairs of a country when there is a humanitarian crisis. But what is unacceptable is the manner in which the international community exercises this right and contributes towards sanctions on less powerful countries.

The United States stands accused of committing gross human rights in Iraq and adopting despicable torture methods such as waterboarding. President George W Bush on Saturday spurned the human rights community’s concerns and protests when he vetoed a bill that would have banned the CIA from employing waterboarding and other coercive interrogative methods to gain information from terror suspects.

It’s true, the international human rights community would issue strong condemnations on Bush, but they will stop at that. If, for instance, Rajapaksa had taken a similar horrendous measure, the international community would go beyond the condemnation and call for sanctions on Sri Lanka.

The rich and powerful — like the United States and Israel — escape with only condemnations but the poor and the weak are punished.

One wonders whether Rajapaksa was right when he told his Human Rights Minister, now in Geneva, that there was an international conspiracy against Sri Lanka. But one also wonders whether Rajapaksa is inadvertently playing into the hands of the conspirators by giving them room to find fault with Sri Lanka’s human rights practices.

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