Wednesday, February 11, 2009

UN Experts on Criticism, Impunity and Suicide Bombing

Media Release
10 February 2009

The Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights regrets very much a recent statement of 10 UN Experts that is supposedly about the ‘suppression of criticism, impunity’, but which deals at length with the current situation in the North of the country, in which government forces are engaged in a struggle against a terrorist movement. An advance version of the release spoke of ‘unabated impunity’, and was sent to the Sri Lankan Mission in Geneva shortly after a LTTE suicide bomber killed civilians trying to escape from LTTE held area to the safety of government areas.

A later version of the release included condemnation of the suicide attack, but seems to have had no impact on the vision the Experts have about what is happening in Sri Lanka. It is particularly unfortunate that the Experts seem to think that conflict in which innocent civilians are killed by LTTE suicide bombers is simply something that deflects attention from ‘the impunity which has been allowed to go unabated throughout Sri Lanka’. They do not seem to realize that death and wanton destruction are serious.

Impunity also is serious, but the Experts, some of whom are responsible for food and health and housing, may not understand that there may be several reasons for what seems impunity. It is possible that a government is not interested in investigating or prosecuting crimes. It is also possible that investigations – and interrogations – are inadequate, and the same could apply to prosecutions.

It is also possible that a judiciary could deliver decisions which seem to international experts unfortunate. This is not an area in which governments can interfere, and Sri Lanka has drawn attention to an infelicity in a recent letter of a UN expert which implied that there might be a problem about a particular judge, who had given two judgments acquitting the accused in two government prosecutions relating to cases of alleged torture. Sri Lanka regrets that it cannot go down the path of questioning its own judiciary, in particular when there are no detailed arguments showing judicial inadequacies in any judgment.

The Expert in question has not replied as yet to our letter in this regard. That letter however confirmed that Sri Lanka too believes that greater professionalism in interrogation, investigation and prosecution would be useful, and has already initiated action in this regard. It is sorry that, despite the ready assistance offered by the Rapporteur on Torture, Prof. Manfred Novak, during his visit to Sri Lanka in 2007, assistance has not as yet been forthcoming due to administrative delays. It took the appointment of a new very helpful United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights to reverse the policy of denying assistance to Sri Lanka in the absence of an office of the High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, and now the first long awaited training programme for police has been delayed mainly because of the requirements of the UN bureaucracy.

We continue to be grateful, however, to Prof. Nowak for his continuing engagement, and also to Prof. Kalin, who is the Expert on the Human Rights of IDPs (and who has not been associated with this release). We regret the failure of Prof. Philip Alston to continue his engagement with Sri Lanka.

He should also remember that, while his initial report had a lot of helpful suggestions, it was leaked before being publicly released to various representatives in Geneva, although not given to the Sri Lankan representative. Sri Lanka has accepted that Prof. Alston was not responsible for the leak. The failure to investigate that leak, and the suppression of the UNDP Stocktaking Report on the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission, to which too assistance was denied contrary to the suggestions of that report, are also indicative of an approach not predicated on the principle of “constructive engagement” between the UN and a sovereign member state. The present statement also falls short of that standard of interaction.

Sri Lanka however has sought to continue with its policy of constructive engagement through its participation in the Universal Periodic Review process in 2008 and its ongoing dialogue with members of the Human Rights Council, regional and cross-regional groupings in Geneva. Sri Lanka took on board several recommendations made during the UPR and also made several voluntary pledges and commitments in the sphere of promotion and protection of human rights. These, together with the recommendations of the various special procedures and mechanisms that we have engaged with, form the core of our National Action Plan for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights that is currently being prepared with UN assistance.

In this spirit, Sri Lanka is still willing to engage with Professor Alston, and hopes he will reciprocate. Sri Lanka also recognizes the concerns of some other Experts and believes it important to work together with them to reduce what the High Commissioner for Human Rights describes as the corrosive effect of conflict.

However the UN Experts should also register the horrors of that conflict and the ruthless advantage taken by the LTTE of efforts at humanitarian assistance, as exemplified in the suicide bombing. It is surprising that the Experts do not even reflect the concerns expressed by the Secretary-General who in no uncertain terms identified the LTTE as being responsible for grave violations of human rights when he called on the LTTE to allow civilians in the conflict zone to move to where they feel most secure, including areas controlled by the Government.

Confusing the two issues of the general human rights situation on the one hand and the military operations to combat terrorism on the other, will not help us to improve the situation, because it raises questions about the objectivity of such statements which seem to pay scant attention to the current tense situation in the North of the country. The Experts should recognize that, where ruthless terrorism may strike at any stage, with massive loss of life to civilians, it makes no sense not to recognize where responsibility for the plight of civilians lies. Sri Lanka regrets the failure of the UN to have asserted long ago (on the grounds that it had to concern itself about possible threats to its own workers) the need for the LTTE to release these civilians, and it trusts that the Experts will remedy this situation, even while helping Sri Lanka with the measures it is trying to take, in the midst of so much difficulty, to improve the Human Rights situation in other respects.

Professor Rajiva Wijesinha
Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights