By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha
The 2010 Human Rights Report on Sri Lanka issued by the BUREAU OF DEMOCRACY, HUMAN RIGHTS, AND LABOR of the US Department of State is potentially a useful document for Sri Lanka, since it brings together several cases which need to be pursued. Seven cases are cited of deaths in police custody, one involving four persons in Trincomalee, and another two in Moratuwa. These are disgraceful, and they should not only be investigated thoroughly, but action should be taken against the perpetrators if unnecesssry violence was used. In only three of the instances are there even allegations of provocation, and those too do not seem entirely plausible.
We know that all over the world police can sometimes react violently to what they perceive as criminality. It is not excuse however to cite precedent. We all know for instance of the Rodney King incident in the United States, and that the perpetrators were acquitted, despite clear visual evidence. However they were brought to trial, which at least provides a deterrent against further such abuses. We in Sri Lanka must ensure that action is taken, and it is sad that it is left to the Americans to continue to maintain records of such cases. This also shows up the selectivity of journalists and others who claim to be defenders of Human Rights. Though there was dramatic reporting of, for instance, the case of the two youngsters killed in Angulana, there has been little follow up. I believe some action was taken at the time, but there has been little attention to follow up. Equally appalling is the lack of concern about what is reported as ‘the March 2009 deaths of four persons in the Trincomalee area who were in police custody in connection with the killing of a schoolgirl.’
Unfortunately the reality is that most so-called Defenders of Human Rights are more concerned with the political mileage they can get from their pronouncements than with the victims. Though it should not blind us to the real concerns raised by the US report, the same seems to be true of its American authors. In addition to clearly being dependent on local observers they will not identify, though they anxiously assert several times that these are independent, they engage in some sleight of hand that reveals their predilections. Two of the instances they note with regard to what they call ‘Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life’ (and six of the eleven individuals killed) relate to 2009 rather than 2010.
Equally significantly, mixed in with these are assertions about alleged killings by government supporters. A long paragraph points fingers at Pillaiyan and Karuna, erroneously lumping them together in the TMVP, as well as at Douglas Devananda. Only one example is cited for all of this, the death on December 31st 2010 of ‘Ketheeswaran Thevarajah’. The paragraph that is used for justification of the vicious attack on government ministers who repudiated terrorism and entered the democratic process is worth citing in full – ‘On December 31, unidentified armed men entered the home of Ketheeswaran Thevarajah near Jaffna and killed him. He recently had posted photos of illegal sand excavation on his Facebook profile. Many local Jaffna residents suspect EPDP subsidiaries were illegally mining sand in the Jaffna region, causing environmental damage.’
That this paragraph is the sole justification for denigration of the most solid opponents of LTTE terrorism makes clear what is obviously a forceful element in the inspiration behind the report. It is desirable therefore that our Ministry of External Affairs call in the American Ambassador and formally but politely raise questions about the methodology involved. She herself is not I believe a supporter of terrorists, even those masquerading as recent converts to democratic practice, but what I hope is her less prejudiced approach has been set aside in such paragraphs.
What is particularly outrageous about the manner in which the report is written is that it unequivocally associates Pillaiyan and Karuna and Devananda with criminal characteristics. Though the paragraph notes that the number of what is termed extra-judicial killings dropped significantly, the manner in which, with a twisting of language which would have impressed Orwell, government ministers are likened to criminals is vicious, and should be taken up by the Ministry of External Affairs.
Again, with what seems a political agenda, the report moves straight from the death in Jaffna on December 31st 2010 to the killing of the ACF workers in Mutur in 2006. It notes that there has been no public report of the Commission of Inquiry, but refers to reports that that report blames ‘ACF for allowing its workers to be in an unsafe location, at the same time exonerating all government security forces from any possible involvement in the killing of the aid workers.’
I have no idea what the report says, but this is a highly simplified version of what I hope makes clear the strange behavior of ACF not in ‘allowing its workers to be in an unsafe location’ but in sending them in to what other humanitarian agencies knew was a highly dangerous situation from which they all – with the exception of ACF – were withdrawing their workers. The failure of ACF to follow international guidelines of procedures (which then UN Under-Secretary Sir John Holmes kindly sent me), their refusal to testify properly before the Commission (indeed their hasty flight when hard questions were being asked) suggests a conspiratorial element too in the effort to stampede the world into believing Sri Lankan security forces were responsible. It is noteworthy that the contribution of the then Head of the SLMM involved breaching the provisions of his contract, as was granted by his successor, General Lars Solvberg, whom I found admirably conscientious.
It is sad then to find the US Department of State falling in with this strange conspiracy, and not rather using its moral authority to get ACF to pay proper compensation to the relations of the victims it had sent into danger. But, at the same time, we must realize that this sort of attack is made easier by our failure to make public the findings of the Commission. It is true that, from the perspective of an informed but inexpert observer, I believe that in one of the cases considered by the Commission, individuals behaved improperly. If this is the case, it needs to be addressed. However, in most if not all of the other cases, I believe no blame can be attached to government forces, and that position will be less contentious if we do admit to errors where they have occurred, and that internal mechanisms are perfectly capable of addressing such problems.
Similarly, we should ensure that there is proper closure on the Mahanama Tillekeratne Commission to look into disappearances etc, and we need to pursue more carefully the investigation into the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga. I have pointed out previously that those who immediately found Defence forces guilty were in fact inhibiting investigation, and that the approach of the Civil Rights Movement was much more positive: that made it clear, if I recollect aright, that investigation was important, and that if such investigation led nowhere, it suggested a lack of professionalism on the part of the police. If this is the case, we cannot continue complacent, but must ensure remedial action. Similarly, there must be more concerted effort with regard to investigation of a killing which the US Report links to Member of Parliament Duminda Silva. Naming him here, and adding a reference to a rape case, again seems to indicate the political purpose of the report, though in this case too Government should ensure a more professional approach on the part of the police.
Just before that final paragraph, the US report makes reference to the 2009 Channel 4 video, and refers to Philip Alston’s argument that this was authentic. Though the report notes contradictions that have emerged with regard to the video and what was claimed to be its continuation, shown in November 2010, and also the Government evidence that the video was a fabrication, it makes no reference to our arguments against Alston’s conclusions based on his own chosen experts. This is possibly because we have not put down our refutations in writing officially. I have made a detailed critique, but unfortunately I have no official status, and indeed my capacity to respond to Alston was vitiated by officials of the Ministry of External Affairs way back in 2009. Had they substituted someone more effective, I would have been delighted, but it seems that this matter has only been dealt with verbally, which is what permits continuing authority to Alston’s highly prejudiced approach – including his belittling of the findings of his experts, that throw doubt on the video. I hope that, since this along with the White Flag story are the main components of allegations against our forces, we will show how riddled they are with contradictions and malice.