The Sunday Leader

Pillay’s Report Should Be Devoid Of Subjectivity – Mahinda Samarasinghe

By Nirmala Kannangara

Minister of Plantation Industries Mahinda Samarasinghe speaking on UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay’s visit to the country said that he does not think that Pillay’s visit will have any negative outcome if her view is objective and her report is unbiased and impartial.
“If the report falls short of standards, then we will make every effort to set the record straight which is our right as a country,” Samarasinghe said.

Samarasinghe further added that the time has now come for dialogue between the West and the UNHRC about Sri Lanka’s triumph in defeating terrorism, restoring law and order, the demining process, resettlement drive and rehabilitation programs.

“We have fulfilled most of our obligations within a very small timeframe – the last four years, which is a lesson for the other countries in post conflict situations. There is interest in our re-conciliation initiatives from many countries as well.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: Some feel that Ms. Navi Pillay’s visit to Sri Lanka will go against the government since she may have more negative than positive things to say at the UN Human Rights Council. Would you agree?
A: Well, as I have said on previous occasions, if her view is objective and her report is unbiased and impartial, I do not think her visit will have negative outcomes for Sri Lanka. These are essential facets of the holder of the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights. As far back as 1993 when the UN General Assembly created the post by resolution 48/141, it was decided by the community of nations that the person appointed should:

“Be a person of high moral standing and personal integrity and shall possess expertise, including in the field of human rights, and the general knowledge and understanding of diverse cultures necessary for impartial, objective, non-selective and effective performance of the duties of the High Commissioner”.

Sri Lanka expects no less from this High Commissioner. That said, if the reports made to the Council falls short of these standards, then we will make every effort to set the record straight.

This is our right as the country concerned. Of course we do not expect a report that does not point out the challenges we face and the work that remains to be done to strengthen the promotion and protection of human rights. We are working on these areas having assessed and acknowledged our strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for further improvement. All that we ask is for a report devoid of subjectivity and not supportive of a political agenda extraneous to the promotion and protection of human rights.

Q: Do you think Pillay’s impression of Sri Lanka would change after this visit?
A: As I said we hope for an objective assessment on her part. On our behalf, we have given her every opportunity to see matters for herself. She has had access to the widest range of actors and has had the chance to hear multiple opinions.

This diversity of perspective and outlook which she would witness is an indicator of a functioning and vibrant democracy. This has been our good faith effort as a Government to give her a first-hand look at realities on the ground. I do think that this will have a bearing on her viewpoint. This is why we invited her two years ago to visit Sri Lanka and obtain an impression based on reality, not coloured by propaganda campaigns and biased reporting by those who wish to tarnish the image of the country for their own ends.

Q: Is Sri Lanka prepared to face the UN Human Rights Council next month?
A: This is part of our regular interaction with the community of nations. We always participate in Council sessions with a sense of purpose and the ability and means to place the facts before members and observers at the apex human rights body of the UN System. That has been our modus operandi since 2006 when the Council was formed and before that when the UN Commission on Human Rights was in existence.

Q: Since last March has there been enough progress on the commitments Sri Lanka gave to the Human Rights Council?
A: The only commitments were those made during the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process initially in November 2012 which was adopted in March this year. We accepted 113 recommendations and made 19 voluntary pledges. We also disagreed with and did not accept 91 recommendations. The implementation of many of these positive recommendations and pledges are well on track.

Don’t forget, we have until 2017 to make good on these pledges and commitments. That is when the next cycle of the UPR involving Sri Lanka takes place. That does not mean to say that we will not interact with the UN and the Human Rights Council or that we will not brief our friends in the community of nations on incremental progress made in these areas.

As and when we have something to say, we will take advantage of the sessions of the Human Rights Council and other forums. This has been our consistent practice over the years and I believe we will continue with our approach based on the principle of constructive engagement and dialogue.

Q: Do you feel the time has now come for the West and the UN Human Rights Council to stop discussing Sri Lanka and the war?
A: I think a balanced discourse should take place based on our achievements in defeating terrorism, in restoring security law and order, our exemplary record of demining, restoring normal life, resettling hundreds of thousands of people, rehabilitating ex-combatants, restoring livelihoods and economic activity, rebuilding physical infrastructure and so on.

We will also be ready to openly discuss our challenges and our aims for further improvement. The developments in Sri Lanka in a short four year period since the end of the armed conflict represent rapid gains that other countries in post-conflict situations could learn from.

There is interest in our reconciliation initiatives from many countries. We also regularly interact with UN Treaty Bodies and special procedure mechanisms on a regular basis. A 30 year conflict – a successful fight against terrorism – will continue to have an impact on any current discourse on Sri Lanka’s human rights record.

Our Army and Navy have initiated a regular dialogue with international partners, including Western nations, on our experiences. We have much to share and I do not think that a complete halt of dialogue will be useful. However, we object to unwarranted finger-pointing, false accusations and the practice of naming and shaming based on the propaganda efforts that I mentioned earlier.

Q: Some feel that Pillay should be allowed to open an office here. Is that a requirement?
A: Sri Lanka has made its stand on this issue clear for the last several years. We have had fruitful engagement with the High Commissioner’s representative in Sri Lanka since the post-tsunami period. A Senior Advisor to the UN Country Team has been in place since then. We worked with that official in developing our National Human Rights Action Plan.

There is no requirement to open an office. However when Sri Lanka requires technical assistance with regard to human rights, we may ask for expert assistance on a needs basis. That is our prerogative.
I must say that the visit of the High Commissioner, her objective perspective which we believe will be reflected in her report and the outcomes that flow from our present engagement will open up new vistas for cooperation with the UN human rights system that we will avail ourselves of when necessary.

Q: Will the Northern elections in a way help boost Sri Lanka’s image on human rights and democracy?
A: Of course it will. Remember we have already had elections in the north for Presidential, Parliamentary and local government elections. What is pending is the Northern Provincial Council poll. That too will be realized in the very near future. Our Government has been dedicated to opening up political space, giving people a right to freely choose their representatives – something undreamt of when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) held sway in the North through the force of arms.

The exercise of franchise is part of the sovereignty of the people under the Constitution together with fundamental rights. Now the conditions have improved to an extent that provincial elections can be held.

So, the short answer to your question is yes. Our human rights and democracy will be boosted by free elections in the North. This is not merely an image-boosting exercise but represents real and tangible gains in the democratic empowerment of the people which they never experienced under the LTTE.

Q: The Diaspora is still a major factor on Sri Lanka. What can the government do to change the thinking of the Diaspora?
A: The Government has already taken initiatives to engage the so-called Diaspora. This is not only to counter the separatist agenda of some remnants of the LTTE’s international network. Our President has repeatedly called for members of the expatriate Sri Lankan community to become partners in building a new Sri Lanka for all our people.

We have invited them to invest their time, effort, expertise and resources in this effort. Of course some of those who left Sri Lanka due to genuine grievances will take more convincing than others. In the post armed conflict period, we have facilitated and encouraged people to return and visit; to see for themselves the renewal of areas affected by the conflict. We have been as open and welcoming as we can. Our messaging and communication to these expatriate Sri Lankans also has to be focused and targeted.

Our efforts continue and will be strengthened by the return to normality in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and the rapid development in these areas. Of course the small minority who cannot be convinced of our bona fides, for whatever reason, will have to be countered through positive and proactive communication against misinformation and propaganda.

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