SRI LANKA: “Should we take the High Commissioner’s statement seriously?” A comment on a TV discussion

By Basil Fernando

A discussion on the statement made by the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner (HC) for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, at the 48th Session of the UN Human Rights Council on 13th September 2021, was held on the same day in a television programme, and it is now available on YouTube.

The moderator of this programme started the session with a rather facetious question: “Should we take this statement of the High Commissioner at all seriously!”. Obviously, he did not mean to insult the High Commissioner.

Perhaps, the question that should have preceded this was whether what the High Commissioner had pointed out was true. On that, the moderator and the panelist all agreed, including the young lawyer representing the Ministry of Justice.

A short list of problems pointed out by the High Commissioner in her speech is as follows: “There is a corrosive influence of militarization and the lack of accountability that continues to have an effect on fundamental rights, the civic space, democratic institutions and sustainable development.” Even the lawyer for the Ministry of Justice did not disagree with the assessment of the High Commissioner.

The HC further pointed out that the newly declared emergency regulations are very broad and may further expand the rule of the military in civilian functions. No one said anything against that either.

She went on to say that the surveillance, intimidation, and judicial harassment of human rights defenders, journalists, and families of the disappeared have not only continued but has broadened to include a wider spectrum of students, academics, medical professionals and religious leaders critical of Government policies. She further went on to say that several peaceful protests and commemorations have been met with excessive use of force, and the arrests or detention of demonstrators in quarantine centers. Against this, not even the lawyer for the Ministry of Justice made any comments to contradict these statements.

She mentioned many other matters such as interferences on a number of judicial proceedings. In particular, she mentioned the decision not to proceed with the charges against former Navy Commander Wasantha Karannagoda. It was the case of the enforced disappearance of 11 persons. The Presidential pardon of Duminda Silva who was convicted of murder was also mentioned. The lawyer for the Ministry of Justice openly stated that in his view, the power of pardoning should be removed.

Matters regarding torture and custodial deaths, legal provisions allowing for arbitrary administrative detention up to 10 years without trial convictions under the problematic Prevention of Terrorism Law, were also mentioned in her statement. Regarding these matters also, there were no disagreements among the panelists. They expressed strong comments about these failures on the part of the Government.

What was even worse was that no one among the panelists seemed to believe that the Government would make efforts to make things better.

If all the matters that the High Commissioner has pointed out are true and her concerns point to very serious problems affecting the people of the entire country, to ask whether that should be taken seriously seems rather funny. However, it appears that the question has a rather a nationalist twist. The use of the word ‘we’ was perhaps meant to give that nationalist twist. What does ‘we’ mean in this question? Does it mean the Government or the people in the country, particularly those who have directly suffered human rights violations such as family members of the disappeared persons, people who have been tortured, survivors of attempted custodial killings, those who have been exposed to many forms of repressions due to the exercise of their freedoms of association, assembly, and expression, those who have to work within a system of justice which has been undermined in every possible way, those who become the victims of a collapsed criminal justice framework, people of minority groups, those who are treated in a way other than which they deserve to be treated as equal citizens and every other person who feels that their rights are violated?

Attempts to create an impression that ‘we’ are being victimized not by those who violate our rights, but by those who express their concerns about such violations and try to contribute to their resolution is perhaps no different to the tricks that are played to manipulate public opinion against those citizens who have grievances. The nationalist twist always goes in that direction.

However, there is something worse. That is to separate many crises that the country is suffering as separate ones and not as a connected whole. Thus, the United States Dollar crisis is taken separately from the many crises that the economic system suffers from, and the problems of the economy are separated from the many problems bewildering the political system, both economic and political crises as separate from the crisis of the legal system, all the problems besetting the human rights system as separate from all other crises mentioned above. Within that context, the violence surrounding everything in Sri Lanka is treated as a completely separate issue. Symbolic of all that is the management crisis relating to Covid-19, which is again treated as a problem that stands on its own.

The typical attitude developing in all these problems is summed up in that question, should ‘we’ take any of these things seriously. The inability to take any problems, however grave, with appropriate seriousness with a view to resolve them, seems to the attitude reflected in the discussions on all these matters.

That the whole country is entangled in a web of crises that has created the present situation of Sri Lanka seems to be a matter that the Sri Lankan minds refuse to admit. This was reflected aptly when the present Minister of Finance started his first budget speech quoting from a folk poem which tells about a man who is threatened with three deaths, eating honey.

That attitude of ignoring all crises and trying to lick some imaginary honey comes from a mindset that cannot take anything seriously including threats to its own existence.

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-047-2021
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Administration of justice, Corruption, Democracy, Human rights defenders, Institutional reform, Rule of law,