The recently concluded visit to Sri Lanka of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay was in pursuance of two resolutions of the UN Human Rights Council in relation to serious human rights problems in the country. The visit enabled the Commissioner to see the country situation at first hand without having to rely on the interpretations of other interlocutors. She met with a wide range of stakeholders, including leaders of the government, opposition, civil society and war victims. In her concluding statement to the media, the visiting Commissioner appreciated the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to give her access to all parts of the country and to all persons she wished to meet, and facilitating her visit in general, which she described as “excellent cooperation”.
But the visiting UN Human Rights Commissioner has now come in for scathing criticism at the conclusion of her visit. This was after she made her final statement in Sri Lanka and made critical comments on the government both for its lack of progress investigating war crime allegations and a general drift towards an authoritarian style of rule. She said she was “deeply concerned that Sri Lanka, despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant all-embracing state, is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.” It would be more unfortunate if the government gets itself into a confrontational stance with the UN High Commissioner as a result. The better way forward would be to address the issues that she raised.
The first half of UN Human Rights Commissioner Navanethem Pillay’s visit to Sri Lanka seemed to go well. But after she had spent a week which she said was the longest she had spent on mission to any country the picture that emerged was more complex, as befits the complex reality that is post-war Sri Lanka. Ms Pillay herself said and there was more she could have done, more places to visit and more people to meet that would encompass the plurality of issues in the country and views on them. She ended her visit by saying that the people were warm and friendly, and they were all Sri Lankans to her. She appears to have been particularly impressed by the Youth Parliament where she listened to the voice of youth who are Sri Lanka’s future.
When I met her along with a small group of civil society activists, in the middle part of her visit, she did not come across as arrogant or with a grudge against anyone, but sober and thoughtful. She came across as being highly educated, with a refined intellect, a former judge of the Supreme Court of South Africa. During her weeklong stay, Ms Pillay was able to see the different facets of Sri Lanka, its ups and downs. Her final media briefing, where she issued a balanced and well crafted statement that accurately captured the complexity of the challenges faced by the country, even if parts of it were hard for the government to accept, but she spoke as well on its positive potentials.
On the positive side, she noted that the government authorities at all levels had been keen to show her how much they had achieved in terms of resettlement and recovery since the war had ended. She gave credit to the government for its achievements in the former war zones of the North and East, where there had been large scale destruction, by pointing to the large number of roads, bridges, houses, medical facilities and schools that had been built or rebuilt, and the electricity and water supplies that had been provided.
However, as a result of her visit, she was also able to get a glimpse into the less visible realities of the country, which escape the attention of even the majority of citizens living in the country. She met with the families of the disappeared. In an interview with the media she is reported to have said that “reconstruction and development is impressive, but the government needs a holistic picture of adding human rights concerns including the counseling of clearly traumatized victims. I have never experienced so many people weeping and crying. I have never seen this level of uncontrolled grief.” These were words from a judge who had presided over the international tribunal on war crimes in Rwanda. She saw the sorrow, mistrust and polarization that continue to exist within the hearts and minds of people, despite the end of the war.
Ms Pillay also got a glimpse into another less visible reality that now routinely affects those who engage in community level work especially in the area of inter-ethnic relationship building and human rights. It was reported to her, and made her very upset, that some of those whom she had met with in the North and East were subsequently visited and intimidated by members of the security intelligence services. While those of us who work at this level in Sri Lanka have come to expect this as normal, she noted that it was “Utterly unacceptable at any time, it is particularly extraordinary for such treatment to be meted out during a visit by a UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.” This behavior of the security forces is indicative of a system that is repressive and suspicious of the people.
In the aftermath of Ms Pillay’s visit the way forward for the government would be to focus on the better implementation of the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Both resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council, which she is tasked with reporting on, called on the government to implement the constructive recommendations of the LLRC, which include measure to ensure national reconciliation in the future through practices of good governance, poverty alleviation and economic development. The LLRC report contains the blue print and, possibly, the best ever thinking produced by a governmentally-mandated group of experts on how to unite the country and its people, and to become a modern democratic state that is able to hold its own in any international forum on the issues of good governance and human rights.
The members of the LLRC were handpicked by the President who has years and years of experience of those who have run the governmental system of the country in the past. Therefore, it has to be the case, that what the LLRC commissioners recommended in their report would be in the best interests of the country. Language committees are being set up in all parts of the country, where the two official languages are being taught to those who wish to learn, and government officials in particular are being encouraged to undergo language training. More recently the government has set up a new ministry of Law and Order under which the police is vested, and has set up a commission to look into the fate of missing persons. These are all in accordance with the LLRC recommendations it has promised to implement.
At present there is no government programme to popularize the LLRC, its findings and its recommendations. The essence of democracy is people’s participation, so that people both know and take part in implementing what is in the national interest alongside the government. But most government officials know next to nothing about the LLRC. If the government is serious about implementing the LLRC, the challenges that are likely to be posed by the reports that Ms Pillay is likely to make can be taken on and surmounted. What is important is the sincere effort a government makes to improve the lives of all people, and this will strike a chord with the representatives of other governments that are members of the UN’s Human Rights Council to whom she will report.