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Written by Amali Dissanayaka
Published on Sunday, 01 September 2013 07:51
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Sunday Pol logo*Pillay receives reports from groups from every sector in the country
*Diplomatic community raises concern over Lanka with Pillay

Sunday Politics
With Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema

“To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West — know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history...” – US President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration speech.


pillay visit 410px 31-08-13The response received by the head of the UN Human Rights Commission Navaneethan (Navi) Pillay during her visit to Sri Lanka last week indicate the importance of the outcome of her tour to the country.
As Pillay arrived in Colombo last Sunday, President Mahinda Rajapaksa took off to Belarus on a three day official visit, which the government said had nothing to do with the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s visit to the country.
The irony in this however is that the President undertook a visit to Belarus, a country which has been accused of a large number of human rights abuses, at a time when the High Commissioner for Human Rights was visiting Sri Lanka.
According to New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Belarusian government continues to severely curtail freedoms of association, assembly, and expression, and the right to fair trial. “September 2012 parliamentary elections preserved the status quo, with a victory for parties allied with President Alexander Lukashenko. The opposition won no seats. New restrictive legislative amendments have paved the way for even more intense government scrutiny of civil society organizations and activists. Government harassment of human rights defenders, independent media, and defense lawyers continues, including through arbitrary bans on foreign travel. Belarus detains a number of political prisoners. Allegations of torture and mistreatment in custody persist,” the HRW has stated in its official website.
Be that as it may, Pillay’s arrival in the country was seen as an opportunity by many civil society groups, rights activists and even opposition political parties to make their cases about the human rights situation in the country.
Media organizations made representations to the High Commissioner about the issues faced by the media in the country and the threat to freedom of expression. Attention of the High Commissioner was also drawn to issues faced by other areas in the country including the judiciary.
It was the statement by the head of the UNP Communications Division, parliamentarian Mangala Samaraweera that encapsulated the events that took place last week. The MP said, “Blinded by the jingoism propagated by the Rajapaksa administration, for the longest time citizens of this country were willing to look the other way on lofty matters such as human rights and international humanitarian law, mostly from sheer relief that the war had finally ended. Today, when the shock and horror of Weliweriya and Grandpass are yet to leave the national psyche, all Sri Lankans are beginning to realise that we share a common interest in protecting the inalienable rights we are all heir to, by virtue of being born a human.”
Pillay’s meeting with the Colombo based diplomatic community last Monday saw many concerns of the diplomats had over their host country, especially in the human rights front. The meeting served as an on the ground report to Pillay, who afterwards commenced touring around the country and meet with government officials.

Protests

Pillay’s visit last week saw protests in the North and South for different reasons. In the South, the extremist Buddhist organization, Ravana Balaya staged a protest outside the UN Compound in Colombo. The anti-Pillay protest however was not as powerful and vociferous as expected.
Interestingly, two extremist leaders, NFF Leader, Minister Wimal Weerawansa and his counterpart in the JHU, Minister Champika Ranawaka did not take charge of the role they would have usually adorned when a representative from an “Western imperialist” was visiting the country.2Weerawansa limited himself to criticizing the Rajapaksa government of which he is a member while Minster Mervyn Silva extended a marriage proposal to Pillay.
Weerawansa faulted the government for extending an invitation to Pillay to visit the country saying she would follow her agenda in the country.
Apart from these comments and the Ravana Balaya protest the rest of the government members refrained from making critical comments about the High Commissioner.
However, when Pillay visited the North of the country, the protests that greeted her were of a different kind.
Family members of missing persons staged a protest in Jaffna to urge the Human Rights High Commissioner to demand justice for their missing loved ones on their behalf from the Rajapaksa government.
Due to the tight schedule, Pillay was unable to meet with all the family members of missing persons, which also included wife of senior journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who also joined the protestors in the North to demand for justice for her husband.
The family members who held on to the photographs of their loved ones with undeterred determination against all odds were a picture of human rights defenders continuing with their silent battle.
Also, the Rajapaksa government ensured that Pillay would not witness the presence of a large number of military personnel in the North during her visit. However, reports from the North last week said that the military personnel had returned to their “normal duties” after Pillay left the North.
Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) Delegation in Sri Lanka last week called for credible and transparent investigations into disappearances that are consistent with international standards.
The EU stated that in Sri Lanka, thousands of people disappeared during the war and while many cases date back to the unrest in the south in the 1970s and 1980s, others are much more recent, affecting people across the country, both during and after the war.
“Against this backdrop, the EU Delegation notes the recent appointment of a Presidential Commission to investigate disappearances during the war period. The Delegation hopes the Commission will approach its important and challenging task with determination and independence, helping to ensure credible and transparent investigations consistent with international standards,” the EU delegation noted.
The Delegation called on Sri Lanka to draw on the support of international partners who may be able to assist with this challenging task and encouraged the Rajapaksa government to respond to pending individual cases and to facilitate the request of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances to visit the country.

Under threat

Meanwhile, the main Tamil political party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has informed Pillay that several people who had spoken to her during her visit to the North are now being threatened.
TNA Chief Ministerial candidate for the Northern elections former Supreme Court judge, C.V. Wigneswaran has been reported in Colombogazette as saying that the TNA had communicated this to her when they had a meeting at the Cinnamon Lakeside hotel on Friday.
Pillay during her visit to the North last week met several civilians including relatives of those reported missing during and soon after the war and members of civil society groups in the area.
The TNA had briefed Pillay on the current situation in the north and has expressed confidence that she will issue a balanced report at the end of her visit.
Wigneswaran has also said that Pillay was told that the government had failed to abide by the agreement reached between President Rajapaksa and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in 2009 soon after the end of the war.
Pillay had told the TNA delegation during their 45 minute meeting that she had received a lot of information on the current situation in the country.

Militarization?

One of the key issues discussed by Pillay during her visit was the accusation levelled against the Rajapaksa government of militarization in the country.
The formation of the Public Law and Order Ministry under the purview of the President and assigning the Police Department under it was discussed by the High Commissioner during her meeting with Justice Minister Rauf Hakeem.
The ministry was set up according to a proposal to the effect by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).
Pillay had questioned Hakeem on why the new Public Law and Order Ministry was not taken under the Justice Ministry. Worst of all, the appointment of a retired army major general as the secretary to the new ministry sparked doubts among political circles and rights activists whether it was yet another addition to the Rajapaksa government’s move towards militarizing society.
In addition, Pillay was also informed that despite the new ministry to oversee the Police Department, directives to the department were still being issued by the Defence Ministry.
However, retired Major General Nanda Mallawarachchi on Friday told the media that his appointment as Secretary of the new Public Law and Order Ministry would not lead to the militarization of the Police Department.
He has given this assurance when questioned whether his appointment would lead to the militarisation of the Police Department.
The Mallawarachchi has said he would continue the work carried out by the Defence Secretary and would take measures to change any policies if there was a need for such.
“First I will continue the work of Defence Secretary. If the policies need to be changed, I will do so fearlessly. The police service must be people-friendly so that the people could interact with the police with confidence. It is only then that the police can obtain proper information of misdeeds happening around them. While the good work done by the police is commended, offenders should be punished. The police are not paid a good salary therefore I will study their salary scales and address these issues,” Mallawarachchi was quoted in the media as saying after he assumed office.

New legislations

Justice Minister Hakeem had assured Pillay when inquired about the Right to Information Bill, that the draft legislation has been handed over to the Media insitry,w hcih has to now take the matter forward.
As for the Victim and Witness Protection Bill, Hakeem has said the draft legsilation has been submitted to Cabinet for the second time after some refinement of the Act as suggested by the Attorney General’s Department.
When the shooting incident in Weliweriya was brought up, the Justice Minister had explained about the on ongoing investigations.
“There were also other questions relating to detainees, the abolition of the PTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), regarding which we have stated the Government policy, that we will be compelled to retain the PTA for the time being as we still have national security concerns and that statute will remain in our statute book until we decide that the time is right, if at all, to abolish it forever,” Hakeem told the media after his meeting with Pillay.
He added that government officials had also explained to her about special attention being taken by the Ministry to speedily dispose of pending cases pertaining to ex-combatants, some of whom are already in judicial custody while others are being held under special PTA provisions.
“We have shown her our commitment to try and dispose of these cases as speedily as possible including special courts that we have been able to sanction. I think she was happy with our responses, the fact that we are able to engage with her so freely is a great source of pride to us.”
At the time of going to press, Pillay was at a discussion with President Rajapaksa.
Be that as it may, many have managed to make representations to Pillay in the hope of finding justice and restoration of democracy and human rights.
As Mangala Samaraweera rightfully pointed out, “Whether bombed in the North or shot in the South, every citizen of this country today requires protection from its own government. It is a common threat and in facing this threat, the citizenry of Sri Lanka is bound to pursue a common agenda - to protect ourselves from the evils of a regime on the rampage.”

Last Updated on Sunday, 01 September 2013 07:51