The Sunday Leader

The International Community Becomes A Check And Balance Locally

By Dr Jehan Perera

The use of Buddhist extremist groups to march into events that are critical of the government and disrupt them was seen last week in the manner the meeting of the Families of Disappeared Persons from the North was prevented from taking place.  About 30 family members of those who went missing in the period of the war in the North had congregated at the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) in Colombo.  The centre, which was established by the late Fr Tissa Balasuriya to champion social justice in the country, is located in precincts of Fathima Church, a large Catholic Church in the centre of the city, in close proximity to government ministries and major commercial establishments.

The meeting which was convened by the Right to Life Human Rights Center sought to give voice to the sentiments of those who had lost their loved ones over five years ago.  While the larger society may be willing to forget what happened during the war time and enjoy the fruits of peace, those who lost their loved ones cannot so easily forget, especially when they are unsure as to the fate of their missing ones.  The timing of the meeting was strategic, as it coincides with the appointment of three international advisors to guide the proceeding of the presidentially appointed commission on missing persons, which has recently also had its mandate expanded.

Unfortunately the meeting, which was attended by civil society activists, media and foreign diplomats, could not proceed for long as it was disrupted by a group led by Buddhist monks.  They claimed that the meeting was to provide secret information to the international community and also that it was not providing information on those who went missing due to the activities of the LTTE.  The first allegation was not true, as the meeting was being conducted with a large number of people present, including the local media, so there was nothing secret about it.  As for the second allegation, if the group had asked for equal time from the organisers, they would most likely have been granted it.

Police inaction

A statement issued on behalf of the Centre for Society and Religion by Fr Rohan Silva after the event made the point that the “CSR is the social justice arm of the Oblate religious order and has always championed the cause of the poor and the marginalised, whatever be their race or creed. It has fearlessly raised its voice on behalf of the voiceless victims of injustice during more than 40 years of its existence. CSR’s unwavering concern has always been the liberation of the poor and marginalised people and it always remained open to whatever was good and true irrespective of its source.

Its discussion forums on vital issues have always been open to diverse views. Freedom of expression has been one of CSR’s hallmarks. Since its inception, the Centre has been an open forum for all ethnic communities and religions, a haven for opinion makers and academicians, and politicians of all hues to express their views and be heard on the most crucial issues affecting the Nation and her people.”

The break-up of the meeting of the Families of the Disappeared was not prevented by the Police even though they came swiftly to the scene.   In the case of forcible disruption of events, especially by extremist Buddhist groups that are seen to be linked to the government, it has become the unfortunate practice of the Police to ensure that the event is abandoned and the parties dispersed, with both sides being summoned to the Police Station to lodge their respective complaints.

The Police regularly fail to protect the rights of freedom of association and of speech, especially of those who are critical of the government and who are non-governmental.  The need to make the Police, and other key institutions of the state, independent of the political authority and vest them with integrity was the purpose of the now defunct 17th Amendment to the Constitution.

Instead of defending the right of those who had called the meeting at the Centre for Society and Religion to gather freely and speak freely, as befits a functioning democracy, the Police requested the organisers to halt their programme and accompany them to the Police Station.

In this context, in which the domestic and national system of checks and balances has been weakened to the point of non-existence, the role of the international community has become more important.  The international community, of which Sri Lanka is a member, has come to play the role of checks and balances through their presence in Sri Lankan affairs.


International presence

The embassies of France, Germany, UK, US and Switzerland strongly condemned the disruption of the meeting on the theme ‘Sharing and listening session with families of the disappeared’ organised by Families of the Disappeared at the Centre for Society and Religion.  They urged the government to enforce the rule of law and permit all citizens to exercise their most basic human rights, including freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.  In their statement the embassies, who had their representatives present at the meeting, said that all those present felt that their security was under threat and the inadequacy of the Police response.

It appears that the government does not wish to be at the receiving end of more such strictures, especially when there is an ongoing UN investigation into human rights failures during the war.  This may explain why a follow-up meeting at the same venue three days later on the issue of “Police Torture” was able to take place without a similar disruption of the event.

The problem of torture by the Police is not limited to the period of the present government or to Sri Lanka.  A visiting Indonesian expert said that it is estimated that 85 percent of those detained by the Police in Indonesia undergo some form of torture.

Even in advanced countries such as Australia, great efforts have been taken to limit the possibility of torture.  But the Police still find ways to engage in that practice, both to find out information and convict the accused person, and sometimes to give pretrial punishment as just deserts to the accused.  The accounts of Police torture at the meeting at the CSR were harrowing.

It is a testament to the brutality within human beings that some of them are capable of such cruelty, and on a continuing basis, to other human beings. Mothers, fathers and siblings wept as they spoke of what their loved ones had undergone, and the impunity that the offenders have enjoyed.

One of the main features of the second meeting was the participation of the Human Rights Commission (HRC) in the discussion.  Human Rights Commissioner Dr Prathiba Mahanamahewa made a presentation outlining the work done by the HRC to improve the human rights situation in various situations.  He gave examples of investigations undertaken and recommendations made.  His willingness to participate in a meeting where there was a tense atmosphere, owing to what had transpired three days earlier, was a positive act.

The investigations and recommendations of the Human Rights Commission need to receive more media attention. They also need the support of civil society groups to ensure that there is genuine follow-up, implementation and monitoring thereof. Even though each may have reservations about the other, such as the foreign funding of NGOs, and the arbitrary selection of the Human Rights Commissioners by the President at his pleasure, both these institutions seek the same end, which is the well being of Sri Lanka’s people.

2 Comments for “The International Community Becomes A Check And Balance Locally”

  1. Sylvia Haik

    What is wrong with these monks? Disruptions of this sort on legitimate freedom of speech gains them nothing except provide our enemies with ammunition to throw brickbats to tarnish our image as a tolerant society. These monks must be following their own version of Buddhism because Lord Buddha’s teachings was for tolerance among other things. Please let them call their version by another name as they are harming the good name of Buddhism.

  2. Manuelpillai

    The behaviour of the Police is not understood.The whole world is fully aware of what is happening. The misbehaviour of those Budhist Priests is not to be questioned by the Police. What can you expect in this blessed land?

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