Human Rights Still An Issue

by Ashanthi Warunasuriya

Brito Fernando, Nimalka Fernando and Ruki Fernando

The country is once again preparing to celebrate the liberation of the country by defeating the LTTE terrorists after a war that devastated the country for nearly 30 years.

However, it is still questionable as to how much freedom we still enjoy despite the war  coming to an end. This is a topic that has been focussed on by many human rights activists.

Are the people’s human rights assured? This is a question that has received mixed responses from various groups. If one were to ask the politicians of today, they would claim that human rights is definitely secured now, but on the other hand there are many who still claim that they have been deprived of their most basic human rights.

The Sunday Leader spoke with two leading Human Rights Activists regarding their opinion of the current human rights status in Sri Lanka.

According to Brito Fernando, President of the Families of the Disappeared, we can be happy that there are no more killings, shootings, bombs exploding etc. However, he said the government has still not addressed the core issue that led the Tamils to take up arms. He said the government is only focussing on economic factors and not the crux of the issue that led to the conflict. He said one simply cannot be satisfied with the government’s reconciliation programme either.

Meanwhile, human rights activist Ruki Fernando said the human rights situation anywhere should be measured in terms of compliance with international and domestic human rights laws and principles, not in comparison to situation of war or different time or different country.

“In this sense, major human rights concerns remain in Sri Lanka to date, despite some improvements that have been there since the end of the war and change of government in 2015.”

In response to our query on what the major concerns of human rights activists today are, he said, “Human Rights concerns in today’s Sri Lanka are too numerous to mention – but major concerns would include those related to the war – such as truth, justice and reparations to families of those killed and disappeared, justice to political prisoners, return of land occupied by the military, de-militarization, especially from civilian activities such as pre-schools, farms, hotels, transportation, shops, tourism industry etc. Establishment of transitional justice mechanisms as committed by the government and ensuring they are effective an independent, repeal of the draconian prevention of terrorism act (PTA) and ensuring right to memorialization and commemorate those killed and disappeared are key concerns that remain unaddressed even 8 years after the end of the war and nearly 2 and half years of the new government. Human Rights concerns in today’s Sri Lanka are too numerous to mention – but major concerns would include those related to the war – such as truth, justice and reparations to families of those killed and disappeared, justice to political prisoners, return of land occupied by the military, de-militarization, especially from civilian activities such as pre-schools, farms, hotels, transportation, shops, tourism industry etc. Establishment of transitional justice mechanisms as committed by the government and ensuring they are effective an independent, repeal of the draconian prevention of terrorism act (PTA) and ensuring right to memorialization and commemorate those killed and disappeared are key concerns that remain unaddressed even 8 years after the end of the war and nearly 2 and half years of the new government.

Then there are broader human rights concerns, such as rights of different communities such as people with different sexual orientation and gender identities, Malayaha Tamils in the hill country, free trade zone workers, migrant workers, asylum seekers and refugees coming to Sri Lanka. Violations of socio-economic rights due to mega development projects such as port city and uma oya, threats to right to health and education due to privatization, discrimination based on gender and caste, discriminatory personal laws such as the MMDA are some other major concerns. A new constitution with strong bill of rights, that includes justiciable socio-economic rights and substantial power sharing will be a key in addressing some of these concerns.”

When asked if human rights activists have full freedom to operate, he said, “Most rights activists in Colombo appear to have more freedom compared to Tamil activists in highly militarized North, who are still are subjected to surveillance, intimidation and threats. Northern Tamil activists like Balendran Jeyakumary continue to be subjected to harassment and investigation for more than three years, while activists leading protests against military’s land occupation have also been subjected to intimidation and reprisals this year. I have also been subjected to intimidation and questioning in the North, at the airport and investigation against me under anti-terror laws and court order restricting my freedom of expression continues for more than 3 years.”

Elaborating on whether human rights activists are part of the government discussions in drafting policies he said, “Rights activists led the government’s consultation processes on a new constitution and transitional justice mechanisms, at national and also district level. Many other activists including me, also participated and contributed to both processes. Final reports have been published. But whats sad is that during the process and afterwards, the President and the Prime Minister appears to be not taking ownership of these processes and not taking seriously what people have said. The consultation processes were empowering and positive initiatives, but it seems it was more of an eye wash. On very critical matters like replacing the PTA with new counter terrorism laws, there has been zero consultation with the public or activists, unless the government has consulted in secret with some of their favourite activists.”

In his view on what more should the international community do with regards to the human rights issue involving Sri Lanka, he said, “The international community should recognize the cries and aspirations of survivors and victim’s families, support them in their struggles including highlighting their situation and demands, without sacrificing and compromising them for trade, investment and better relations with the new government. Together with Sri Lankan people, they should hold the government accountable to commitments made and not fulfilled, and have more principled engagement with the government, based on human rights standards, unlike what appears to have happened in the case of latest draft document for counter terrorism act, which appears to be license for human rights violations, with endorsement of the UN and EU.”

Meanwhile, Leading human rights activist and Attorney At Law, Dr Nimalka Fernando told The Sunday Leader in response to the question of whether  the human rights situation in Sri Lanka has seen a drastic improvement since the end of the war, said, “Since 8th January 2015 reported incidents related to white van abductions, attacks by unknown groups on demonstrations, assassinations of journalists who are critical of the President, Prime Minister and family members like what happened to Lasantha have not been the experience of this country. Nonetheless we have not been able to deal with continuing incidents of torture in police custody, removing persons for investigations without any information being provided to family members and killings. We have had to intervene and bring incidents of harassment of family members of the disappeared who join in our activities by police and CID personnel. Compared to the regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa people in Sri Lanka today are enjoying  freedom like never before. However,  the question is has the government been able to provide the environment for victims and those involved in raising issues related to accountability issues related to the last stages of the war to espouse their cause further. Whether the state structures have fully absorbed the meaning of the vote people gave to President Sirisena for change was based on a trust and confidence that he will bring necessary legal and security sector reforms which will assist in achieving justice. Just because there are no daily incidents to report or escalation of attacks does not mean Sri Lanka is robustly following a human rights agenda. Those living in the north and east continue to live and act in a surrounding of surveillance by known and unknown persons. As long as prisoners remain with no charges being brought against them in long detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and now under the threat of the proposed Counter Terrorism Act which is drastically challenging the spirit of the Unity Government to end impunity, promote human rights and uphold the rule of law , I remain as a very troubled and concerned human rights activist. How can we say the human rights situation has improved when we read the frightening sentences of the proposed CTA which was published in a Sunday newspaper recently?” she asked.

Expressing her views on what the major concerns of human rights activists today, she said, “There are many. The unresolved issue of political prisoners, the refusal to share the Commission Report related to the death of Roshan Chanaka, the anti-NGO fervour, the delay to establish mechanisms for truth and justice. The pseudo-events for peace which does not reach the shores of Pudumathalan or Kankasenthurai, reports and policy papers written in English getting piled up somewhere without reaching the affected communities are among them. However, the two biggest concerns are the failure to set up the Office of the Missing Persons and the proposed Counter Terrorism Act. It is almost nearing 12th month since we passed the OMP Act in the parliament. OMP will help us focus on the grief of parents to bring closure to the continuing grief of the missing and the disappeared. This is about the future of thousands of women in our country. They are only asking a simple question. Help us to know what happened to our family members. The setting up became shrouded in a political debate promoted by shadow boxers of MR. Why must President Sirisens become an unpopular leader by not executing the legislation passed in the legislature? Is he not going to help these women to find out what happened to their children? Why should this government take the blame for stopping investigation to ascertain the truth about the disappearances which happened under the former regime ? Even Mahinda became popular getting involved in the campaign against disappearances. He helped mothers of the disappeared by promoting mechanisms like setting up of commissions and inviting WGIED to visit Sri Lanka. President Sirisena cannot fail to address this request of the mothers any more.

The next is the shocking draft (leaked to the press recently) of the draft policy framework of the CTA. No matter who drafted this they want Sri Lanka to become a horror and failed state. Given all the gossip I hear who is responsible and behind the scene ultimately the Prime Minister who is a senior lawyer well respected for his principled position related to ICCPR will have to take the responsibility. I hope he realises that the present draft violates the basic fundamentals of the ICCPR. Several eminent persons have already stated how nauseating this piece of legislation is. Some catch words have been introduced like “women must be arrested by female officers, receipts must be issued” to hood-wink us and the world. It is important to refer to the framework proposed by the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while Countering Terrorism who “Calls upon States to ensure that measures to combat terrorism and preserve national security are in compliance with their obligations under international law, in particular under international human rights law, and do not hinder the work and safety of individuals, groups and organs of society engaged in promoting and defending human rights;” Furthermore A/HRC/29/L.17 reaffirms that terrorism cannot and should not be associated with any religion, nationality, civilization or ethnic group; Urges States to ensure that measures taken to counter terrorism are not discriminatory, and not to resort to profiling based on stereotypes founded on ethnic, racial or religious grounds or any other ground of discrimination prohibited by international law; recognises the work carried out by the special procedures of the Human Rights Council on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism; acknowledges that the active participation of civil society can reinforce ongoing governmental efforts to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.

“I demand that this ridiculous piece of document be subjected to public scrutiny and discussion and reformulated . The proposed law should come to us as a white paper. Make it available in Sinhala and Tamil. Citizen’s have the right to participate in the debate of formulating laws and strategies to counter terrorism. This is the best guarantee against terrorism and extremism. Laws are limited mechanisms which could also be misused against minorities and political opponents. We in Sri Lanka experienced this bitter reality. Every citizen must be engaged in countering terrorism and extremism because we want to preserve the right to be equal, enjoy diversity and freedom of belief. The creation of forces for reconciliation and lasting peace should be the only force to counter violence and terrorism in Sri Lanka,” she said.

Expressing her views on whether the  human rights activists are part of government discussions in drafting policies, she said “There have been consultations and involvement of the English speaking academics and civil society activists in drafting some policy documents. I observe a lack of participation of the Sinhala and Tamil activists in policy making processes and even in forming advisory committees. Then there is another activists category whom they keep at bay because the political leaders know `deals’ are not possible with us. There is a phobia of the civil society in the minds of political leaders . This is an unfounded fear. It is regrettable to hear words like ` I will not be dictated by NGOs’ coming from very high political leaders. We must remember that both political leaders signed MOUs with representatives of civil society to promote democracy, good governance, human rights because I believe they recognised the contribution of these groups, organisations and individuals to build a new political ethos. The two leaders are well aware how some of us faced persecution, death threats and abuse under the previous regime. I am sure we have a government because of this struggle. Politicians were wavering while civil society came together to form the broadest alliance. Unfortunately we are hardly consulted.

As a result of the formation of the Constitutional Council with three civil society representatives a new trend have emerged to include representatives of civil society into independent commissions but this is not enough. This is also a transition government which has a mix of people. Those who value the contribution made by us and others who  hate us. So the inclusion and exclusion of human rights activists and civil society representatives depend on the political colouring or the choice of the Minister or the bureaucrat. Ofcourse we have been a formidable force and it is natural that corrupt politicians and those who abused power do not wish to involve us in the reforms process. We have not bowed our heads before any ruler nor served any politician for favours. Naturally they are wary of us as we keep an eye on the processes. We have worked on principled positions in the past and will continue to do so in the future,”  Nimalka Fernando responded.

To the question on what more the international community should do with regards to the human rights issue involving Sri Lanka, she said it was  a wrong question. “We are part of the international community as a member of the Commonwealth and United Nations. We endorse standards of human rights promoted by the United Nations as treaties are negotiated. We have endorsed most of the them like the ICCPR and ICESCR. We have addressed the issues pertaining to the deterioration of our international obligations as a result of the continuing ethnic conflict, insurgencies in 1971 and 1989 and subsequently the war in 2009. The international community provided solidarity to victims,supported refugees and the internally displaced through humanitarian means. The other side of humanitarian law is human rights. The international community is walking along with us journeying in this path to restore the lost glory of this country due to abuse of power and corruption.”

“We assisted Japan once after the second world war to become a member of the UN. Japanese people still remember this assistance. We give solidarity to the struggle in Palestine. Madam Bandaranaike called Indian Ocean to be made a Peace Zone. This meant we called for a nuclear free Indian Ocean. She gave leadership to the region. This is how international and regional engagement in countries get formed and defined. Some people are misconstruing the interest of the international community in Sri Lanka. Look at China and Russia’s response at the international community now. They now support Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council. It is we who decide what we want and not them. They supported MR and now they are supporting MS. So I do not much care about the international designs. It is our vote that brought MS to power. Sri Lankan have to ask the hard question. Do we want to end impunity? Do we want to address the past gross human rights violations  the and killings of innocent civilians and disappearances? Do we want to destabilise the country and make it an economic disaster?” she asked adding that the making or breaking of a new civilisation for our children is in our hands and not in the hand of the family who refuse to give up the dual citizenship they enjoy.

2 Comments for “Human Rights Still An Issue”

  1. What Mr.Sumanthiran ans TNA CO are doing???
    only supporting the GOSL thats all they can do?
    If they cannot do their job thez can retire from politics

    nadarajah rajendra
    Germanz

  2. Robert Croos

    Deep scars never disappear – Most Tamils who lost families and homes are seething in anger; but they are scared to express it; It is only matter of time before we have another blood shed.

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