The Unfortunate American Approach To Human Rights
The BBC Sinhala Service, in asking for comments on the 2010 US Report on Human Rights in Sri Lanka, gave me little notice, and suggested I could just glance through the synopsis with which the report began. As it happened, I was able to look through some of the rest, which was good, because I discovered a mismatch between the introduction and the rest of the report. The former engaged in sharply critical generalisations, and predictably the introduction alone was used in The Sunday Leader. The rest of the report was more circumspect, and did not bear out the harsh generalisations.
In fact, some of the points made should be looked at carefully by the Sri Lankan government. In particular, the few cases for which details are given should be addressed. Some names are mentioned in part a) of the first section of the report. These, significantly, give the lie to a generalisation in the introduction, that ‘a disproportionate number of victims of human rights violations were Tamils.’
I am sorry about this, because it contributes to the confrontational approach that still bedevils work to improve the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. The government recognises problems, and has worked on an Action Plan, which should soon come before Cabinet. When there was a Ministry, we could concentrate on this but, with the abolition of a dedicated Ministry, there was uncertainty about responsibility for all this. I thought the Ministry of External Affairs would be in charge, and some of the staff who worked with us were transferred there, but it became clear this was not appropriate, and the Secretary told me they were not equipped to cope with internal matters.
Fortunately, just when I was beginning to feel despair, the Attorney General, despite his other work, took the matter up, and we have since moved reasonably swiftly. The lack of a dedicated Ministry also slowed down a couple of things we had pushed for, namely police training and more effective monitoring with regard to women and children. In this regard, we had excellent cooperation from the police personnel deputed to serve on the Committee I chaired. They indeed pointed out the need for better training in professional aspects as well as in human rights awareness.
They also accepted the need to establish Women’s and Children’s Desks in all stations, with particular attention to the North and East, but unfortunately the system we envisaged, of close cooperation with psycho-social support systems, has not materialised. Recently, at the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on National Languages and Social Integration, I drew attention to statistics of Probation Officers, Women and Early Child Development Officers and Counsellors in the North, pointing out how many gaps there were. I hope the Ministry will be able, as suggested, to undertake the task of coordination.
All this indicates we believe human rights problems should be approached in a holistic fashion, with as much emphasis on reducing recurrence in the future as on providing remedies. Unfortunately the American report seems rather to pursue a political agenda, with efforts to denigrate the government rather than deal seriously with human rights issues. This is a pity, because American cooperation will help us to improve the situation, and there are persons in the American government, and even in the State Department, who would like to help. Again however, as with the person who slipped in something about using rape as a weapon of war into a speech by Hillary Clinton, the confrontationists seem to have won.
This would explain the third sentence in the report being ‘The government is dominated by the President’s family; two of the President’s brothers hold key executive branch posts as Defense Secretary and Minister of Economic Development, while a third brother is the Speaker of Parliament.’ This is not mentioned elsewhere in the report, which makes it clear that this is nothing to do with human rights problems. It is also sad that the writer does not mention that two brothers were elected to Parliament.
The second paragraph of the introduction is a wholesale indictment of Sri Lanka, and seems designed to serve a political purpose, given the more balanced picture presented in the report as a whole. The technique resembles that of Human Rights Watch earlier, when they issued a press release belied by the report they had put together: both HRW and the State Department know that most people read only introductions, and that this will be used for political purposes by those opposed to the Sri Lankan government.
The harsher statements of the report suggests where America thinks its interests in Sri Lanka lie. It says, ‘Independent observers generally characterized the presidential and parliamentary elections as problematic,’ and again, ‘Election law violations and government influence created doubts about the fairness of both the presidential and the parliamentary elections,’ without noting that even the most hostile of independent observers did not suggest that the results did not represent the democratic will of the people. It says, ‘Many independent observers cited a continued climate of fear among minority populations’ without noting the relief amongst most Sri Lankans, including minorities, at the destruction of the LTTE – nor did it mention the number of minority parties that support the government.
All this gossip and prejudice is unfortunate because, whereas we could be working together with others to improve our situation, this report will be grist to the mill of those who dislike the United States. Meanwhile I can only hope that the report was not intended primarily to provoke, in marked contrast for instance to the manner in which the State Department treated a country like Uzbekistan when it was thought to be a faithful ally of the United States as well as Israel.
Assuming even a modicum of understanding of the Sri Lankan situation, one would be surprised at this performance now. But I have long realised that, even where such understanding exists, it can be trumped by parochial considerations.
To look in detail at the first section of the Report, it is certainly useful for 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 should be investigated thoroughly, with action against perpetrators of unnecessary violence. 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 react violently to what they perceive as criminality. It is no excuse however to cite precedent. In the Rodney King incident in the United States, the perpetrators were acquitted, despite clear visual evidence; but they were brought to trial, which 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 those here 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 ‘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 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 true of its American authors. In addition to clearly being dependent on local observers they will not identify, though anxiously asserting often that these are independent, they engage in some sleight of hand that reveals their predilections. Two instances they note with regard to what they call ‘Arbitrary or Unlawful Deprivation of Life’ (and six of the 11 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 Pillayan and Karuna, lumping them together in the TMVP, as well as at Douglas Devananda. There is just one example for all this, the death in December 2010 of Ketheeswaran Thevarajah. The paragraph used to justify 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.’
This unreasonable attack on the most solid opponents of LTTE terrorism makes clear a forceful element behind the report. The Ministry should then call in the American Ambassador and politely raise questions about the methodology involved. She may not support terrorists, even those masquerading as recent converts to democratic practice, but her less prejudiced approach has been set aside. The report unequivocally associates Pillayan and Karuna and Devananda with criminal characteristics. Though it notes that the number of extra-judicial killings dropped significantly, language is twisted to liken government ministers to criminals.
Again, with what seems a political agenda, the report moves from the 2010 death in Jaffna to the killing of the ACF workers in Muttur in 2006. It notes there has been no public report of the Commission of Inquiry, but suggests 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.’
This is a highly simplified version of what may refer to the strange behavior of ACF in actually sending its workers into what other humanitarian agencies knew was a highly dangerous situation. The failure of ACF to follow international guidelines of procedures and then to testify properly before the Commission suggest a conspiratorial element in the effort to stampede the world into believing Sri Lankan security forces were responsible.
It is sad then to find the US Department of State falling in with this conspiracy, and not rather urging ACF to pay proper compensation to the relations of the victims it endangered. But we must realise too that this sort of attack is facilitated by our failure to make public the findings of the Commission. Even if, in one of the cases considered, individuals behaved improperly, in most if not all of the other cases, I believe no blame can be attached to government forces. That position will be less contentious if we admit to errors where they occurred, and show that internal mechanisms are capable of addressing such problems.
Similarly, we should ensure proper closure on the Mahanama Tillekeratne Commission to look into disappearances, and pursue more carefully the investigation into the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge. I have noted that those who immediately found defence forces guilty were inhibiting investigation. Now it should be noted, as I told the BBC, that if there are suggestions that Sarath Fonseka was involved, Sri Lanka would have to face yet more criticism. Even though, many months back, I was given, at the British High Commission, a note suggesting Fonseka had squads engaged in illicit activities reporting to him, any confirmation of this now would be met with howls of disbelief.
At that stage it made no sense to look at what was an anonymous type-written sheet, but the British seemed to take it seriously at the time. More recently however there is so much concern about Fonseka that anything implicating him would seem to be off limits as far as they are concerned. Nevertheless, we should investigate all such crimes assiduously. Similarly, there must be concerted effort too with regard to investigation of a killing which the US Report links to 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 paragraph, the report refers to the 2009 Channel 4 video, and Philip Alston’s argument that this was authentic. Though the report notes contradictions with regard to the video and its supposed continuation, shown in November 2010, and also the Government evidence that the video was a fabrication, it ignores challenges to Alston’s conclusions based on his chosen experts. This may be because we have not put down our refutations in writing officially. I made a detailed critique, but it seems that officially this matter has only been dealt with verbally, which permits continuing authority to Alston’s prejudiced approach. 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.