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Interview  

'A UN mission is imperative'  


Mano Ganesan

The prevailing human rights situation requires direct intervention of the international community to curb violations that often target the Tamil ethnic minority and in this regard, a UN human rights monitoring mission is a dire necessity says Colombo District Parliamentarian, Mano Ganesan.

The leader of the Western People's Front (WPP) and Convenor, Civil Monitoring Commission (CMC), Ganesan in an interview with The Sunday Leader said that international surveillance on the island's fast deteriorating human rights situation was a necessity. He blamed the authorities for lack of investigations, failure to apprehend suspects even when sufficient evidence was available and complicity that had led to a serious erosion of public faith in the law enforcement authorities.

Ganesan who was recently honoured by the US government for his role as a human rights defender said that he wished to dedicate the award to all like minded Sri Lankans, local and foreign organisations and individuals including the truth seeking media who supported CMC efforts and pledged to expand the scope of the CMC's activities to the northeast in the new year. Excerpts:

By Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Q: Can you explain the recent progress made by the CMC?

A: A significant decision is to expand CMC activities to the northeast in the new year. We have had discussions with the Bishop of Jaffna and sought support from both the local and foreign agencies in this regard.

The government loves to say that abductions, disappearances, extortions and extra judicial killings have ceased in Colombo which is far from the truth. Also, government ministers and the police try to shamelessly take credit for this. I pose a single question to them - who is willing to account for those who are already missing? How can they explain their plight?

Obliviously, abductions and extortions have been suspended, not stopped. Such incidents occurred because there was government complicity and the wrongdoers enjoyed immunity. The suspension of the barbaric series of extortions and abductions stopped due to the CMC's pressure, work of other civil organisations and activists, the media and the concerned international community. We feel it is time to expand our work now.

Q: You intend expanding CMC activities to the northeast. Initially you said the CMC work was confined to Colombo for it is difficult to monitor incidents in the northeast. Has the situation improved for you to work there?

A: I commenced this from Colombo because I am primarily a parliamentarian representing Colombo. I am a citizen who continues to live here and took up an issue that became significantly important to the Colombo citizenry.

If I were a northeastern representative, with due respect to all my parliamentary colleagues from the northeast, I wish to state that I still would have launched something like this. That's just the way I am.

I believe that monitoring work in the northeast would prove daunting and challenging. But we are now prepared to tackle the difficult terrain. It is part of Sri Lanka and we believe expanding our scope of work would help improve the human rights situation there.

With the assistance from the international community and the fair-minded southern political and social forces, local and foreign human rights groups and activists, we are ready for this new challenge.

The UN Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbour in her report has also highlighted the need for credible documentation on human rights violations whilst recognising that the situation was bad and needed to be urgently addressed.

The CMC now wishes to take up this challenge of preparing credible documentation so that our monitoring facility covers the entire country. That will fill the current void in securing credible information in certain parts.

Q: In the CMC reports, there have been recorded instances of abductors/extortionists being identified by victims' families. What progress has been achieved regarding such instances?

A: We have recorded such instances but sad to say, even one year after the culprits being arrested, the police have failed to take action against the perpetrators. The perennial excuse is continued investigations.

In one instance, there are three people who identified the same person as the extortionist to whom payments were made to secure the release of their loved ones. The abducted never returned home despite money being paid for their release. We have to acknowledge there is absolute police complicity and connivance or else why is justice being delayed?

There is an overwhelming effort to go soft on certain suspects. There is a breakdown in the law and order situation and people no longer have confidence in the law enforcement agencies due to such reasons. This is one of the issues the IGP is answerable for.

Q: One of the less reported aspects of abductions is the kidnapping of aid workers, both local and foreign. Do you view Sri Lanka as a safe place for aid workers and why is this aspect paid less attention to?

A: We have to admit that this aspect has not been addressed much. And no, I think the situation is quite trying for both locals and foreigners.

However, there is new interest generated on this aspect with their increasing vulnerability. Some racial elements have portrayed relief workers, particularly those funded by foreign governments or agencies as being pro-LTTE which is a terribly wrong perception. Their presence had been necessitated by our failure to cater to civilian needs in troubled areas and particularly where neutral organisations are needed to intervene and work with both sides.

What we should not forget is that Sri Lanka even during ancient times dabbled in international trade and there is ample evidence to prove it. Why try to live in a vacuum now? We have had foreign assistance too when the need arose. It is regrettable that both local and foreign relief workers who perform a vital task in our fragmented country are being targeted in this manner.

Q: Large numbers of Tamils were recently taken in for questioning. While activists and some politicians opposed this, the defence authorities call it a security measure. How do you think security needs could be met without compromising the civil liberties of an ethnic minority?

A: I am all for security in the city from terrorism and attacks of any kind. As a citizen of Colombo, I would certainly want Colombo thoroughly protected from all possible acts of terrorism irrespective of the origin.

We know there is violence unleashed by various parties including government forces, the LTTE, TMVP and other armed organisations.

What is unacceptable is the arrest of people simply based on their ethnicity. That is thoroughly uncivilised and a breach of their collective rights as citizens. It sent out a terrible message to them that they are treated as suspects at all times.

The alternative as I see it, is for the police to develop its capacity and the intelligence network to prevent infiltration of Colombo by terrorist elements and not to harass civilians in this manner.

I challenge the police that had issued conflicting reports on these arrests to prove that they have identified a single true LTTE suspect from that operation. The police first spoke about LTTE suspects and we hear no more about it now. What happened to their grand claims?

What happened was a political attempt to punish Tamil civilians for the sins of the LTTE, which is quite unfair. That is not the role for any government and certainly no way to curb terrorism.

Q: The extortion racket targeting Tamil and Muslim business persons has now subsided. The government claims it was artificially created.  Was this so?

A: It is not well documented. But these activities are suspended too, not just abductions.  The extorted paid large sums of money. They have spoken to me and I withhold making the information public for their safety. We took extortions as a general issue for we could not provide security to all these people who were coming under threat. Someday, when sanity prevails and we are more civilised, we will release the names of victims and give exact details. That will happen only when we are satisfied that they are safe.

Some businessmen - small timers still receive threatening calls and letters. Extortions happen, but these are by small gangs making hay while the sun shines. They use the prevailing fear psychosis among Tamils to extort them.

Q: Do you accept the government's position that the spate of abductions has ceased following the arrest of Nishantha Gajanayake, a kingpin with alleged associations to powerful politicians?

A: There are two categories of abductions we recorded - political and economic. Sometimes, people seem to be getting picked up for being vocal about the rights of the Tamil community. Not only that, non Tamils who speak on minority rights, equality, express anti war sentiments and even advocate power sharing are also under threat. They tend to get identified as terrorist elements and are being systematically eliminated.

Naturally there is a fear psychosis amongst Tamils living all over the country. Strangely, there is a lot of tension in those residing in Colombo, away from the theatre of war.

This fear is also being used by certain other elements. They take advantage of the vulnerability of a community that has been always at the receiving end. This is how the ransom taking occurs. In answer, I still insist political abductions continue. We even had family members of TNA parliamentarians being abducted just days before the final vote on the budget. That's a new dimension to the abduction culture we witnessed.

As for Gajanayake, he was only a small man in a network that is wide and headed by powerful elements. The real culprits are out while Gajanayake in now in CID custody.  He was used for one category of abductions, that is the abduction for extortion aspect.

When Gajanayake's involvement in abductions was mentioned in parliament by Lakshman Seneviratne, this government rejected the claim and even brought a censure motion on the MP for having stated the truth!

These activities are now suspended because of the glare of publicity and the monitoring work we did and certainly not due to the arrest of an individual. There was no way out for the government and they had to do something. Gajanayake was a mere scapegoat. It must be a world record that Gajanayake has been kept in CID custody with charges not being framed against him whereas the authorities are quick to pack others off to the Boossa detention camp within hours of being taken in.

Q: With the government claiming improved human rights conditions here, do you think that there is no need for a permanent UN mission to monitor human rights violations?

A: I completely disagree with the government position. Government agencies from the Human Rights Ministry to the Mahanama Tilakaratne Commission have failed. The commission report is being released in parts to suit the political needs of the country.

The IIGEP report was severely critical of the HR situation here. The Human Rights Commission today is only a registration office where complaints are recorded and receipts issued. Is that a functioning mechanism people can trust? As the government has miserably failed the people, it is only fair to invite international assistance. We demand that this need be addressed.

To begin with, we would like to have the human rights mission in Colombo strengthened. These concerns were shared by Louise Arbour as well.

There is no denying that the government is in complicity with the human rights abusers that have ruined the country's reputation. That's why there is such reluctance to allow entry for a UN mission.

Q: You were recently awarded the US Freedom Defenders' Award. What was the reason for bestowing this honour on you?

A: I am happy to be the recipient of this award for two reasons.

Firstly, it has brought recognition to the CMC's campaign on a range of human rights violations such as abductions, disappearances, extortions and extra judicial killings.

Secondly, it confirms that the Sri Lankan human rights situation needs serious improvement and brings in international focus. However, I do not wish to restrict this award to the CMC or to myself. I share it with like-minded people and the 'truth seeking' media in this country.

Q: But the SLFP, the main constituent party of the ruling alliance in its official newspaper Dinakara has identified you with the LTTE and allegedly labeled you as an arms dealer and a drug dealer. What is your response?

A: This shows that the government not only dislikes the recognition but also wants to portray me as a LTTE sympathiser and make me more vulnerable to threats. That is because our work embarrasses the government that has failed to secure the rights of all communities.  I urge government agencies to prove the various accusations. For my part, I am suing Dinakara for libel.

Q: Your security was significantly slashed on December 18. As a leader of a political party, aren't you entitled to more security?

A: The security entitlement to the best of my knowledge is not professionally handled. No specific rules exist. MPs have a minimum of two security personnel. Party leaders get more.

There are instances when non-party leaders and non-parliamentarians get security. For example, those taken away from me have now been assigned to a politically influential monk. He has much more than most of us do. He is not a party leader and has never been a legislator. I had my security enhanced on December 1, 2006. In the aftermath of Nataraja Raviraj's killing, I left Sri Lanka immediately. When I returned, there were more security personnel assigned and waiting for me at the airport.

But I had no prior intimation when my security was mysteriously withdrawn on December 18. Does the IGP believe my security situation has improved and I am no longer under threat?

The independent opinions I have received is that my security has seriously deteriorated. On many occasions the MSD has informed me that I am under grave threat.

Q: Has the government informed that this was done following risk assessments and that you are now placed at a lower risk?

A: I have never been officially informed of the reasons for the security withdrawal. I think my award could be the closest reason.

Security is provided based on a risk assessment conducted by the police. But as we all know, risk management is assessed on a political basis. When they want to slash, as in my case, the report would state that the situation has improved. When they want to give security to those they favour and in their good books, the reports would be favourable.  All I can say is such indirect threats or direct threats will not stop my work.


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