SRI LANKA: Need to prosecute political leaders for acts of gross hr abuse — a reply to Ms. Dilrukshi Handunnetti

(Sunday Leader December 31, 2006)

I am writing this to clarify misinformation contained in an article entitled ‘Targeting CBK and LTTE’s southern gift’, by Dilrukshi Handunnetti, which appeared in your newspaper on December 31, 2006.

This article contains misinformation on two issues: regarding the allegation made by the AHRC against Chandrika Kumaratunga (CBK) to UNESCO and a distortion of a letter alleged to be a ruling of the NGO Committee of the UN Human Rights Commission.

The author states “…the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) raising allegations against former President Chandrika Kumaratunga with regard to her prosecution of the war…”  We do not know what war the author is speaking of as the government of Sri Lanka has not admitted the existence of any war.  To our knowledge CBK herself has never stated that she was waging any war.

The issue we raised with UNESCO was relating to a rule which was authoritarian.  We quote from our letter to UNESCO: “If Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines or Suharto of Indonesia had been given such a post there would have been international outrage.”  When our complaint was published there was some protest on the basis that such comparisons were unfair as CBK was elected to power democratically.

The AHRC replied:

“What distinguishes a dictatorship?–neither the absence nor presence of elections, certainly. As has been demonstrated throughout the world over last century, dictatorship is just as likely to be accompanied by a ballot as it is to be found without one. True democrats guard against both elected and unelected despotism.

Rather, dictatorship is characterised by the accumulation of powers, however they have been obtained, in the same hands. It is this that Suharto, Marcos and Bandaranaike had in common.

The 1978 Constitution is a dictatorial constitution. J R Jayawardene promulgated it in order to concentrate powers in the executive presidency, at the expense of the judiciary and legislature, and ruled accordingly.

Bandaranaike promised to abolish the executive presidency. She did not do this. She instead retained the dictatorial constitution and used its provisions and institutions for her own purposes. As the longest serving executive president of Sri Lanka she also has been its longest serving dictator.

One of the most serious consequences of her rule was the degrading of Sri Lanka’s judiciary. Courts are the final bulwark against the excesses of the executive power. In Sri Lanka, they have lost this role. Their independence has been undermined. A heavy pessimism has pervaded the judiciary and with it, a sense among the public that there is no point in fighting for rights through legal avenues. This, above all else, is the evidence of dictatorship.” (This reply was published in several publications).

The basis on which the AHRC made its intervention with UNESCO was that UN agencies are bound by their mandate to follow and promote international norms and standards in all aspects of their work and ensure that human rights are respected at all times.  Accountability is a fundamental principle that no government or international body can circumvent.  It is unfortunate that the notion of accountability still remains alien to the political culture of Sri Lanka.  Furthermore, a head of state remains responsible for whatever human rights abuses that may have occurred while they are in office for the remainder of their lives.  Being a head of state is not just a job you do one day and then shift into something else the next day.  If there have been gross human rights abuses during the office of any head of state during their time in office they remain accountable forever.

The maintaining of an authoritarian system of government which CBK promised to abolish before she came to power was immensely destructive to democracy.  Thus, she is responsible for the continuing destruction caused by the system of authoritarianism on all aspects of institutions and life in Sri Lanka.

While she held the position of a head of state for a long time she failed to conduct investigations into gross human rights abuses, such as the mass disappearances which took place in the south under the previous regime.  As a head of state she had all the resources available within the state to deal with problems of gross human rights abuses and crimes.  Her failure to do so amounts to abdication of command responsibility by a head of state.

The issue of specific allegations whether they relate to murder, personal enrichment of the head of state itself or those who are close associates and acts which may have caused serious harm, including death, and the prevention of inquiries is that once they are publicly made there is an obligation on the part of persons so accused to answer such charges.  This is not merely a question of personal liability but a matter of importance to the public because they have a right to the truth.  When an author, by a publication which has been widely distributed such as Choura Raegina published by Victor Ivan makes chilling accusations the public has a right to have an answer.  This responsibility of providing an answer lies with the former head of state, so accused, as well as the government in power.

The AHRC is based in Hong Kong.  Our experience within this small administrative region is that anyone who faces public allegations such as the ones faced by CBK would either have to give plausible explanation regarding such allegations or suffer prosecution.  Many people have gone to jail here or been forced to resign their posts for allegations which are much less serious in magnitude.  It is not possible to maintain rule of law without prosecution of anyone irrespective of the positions they hold or have held.  The AHRC stands for holding the rulers, bureaucrats and everyone else responsible for what they do as much as other citizens.  We admire the resilience of the people of Chile who for decades struggled to prosecute their dictator, Pinochet for causing gross abuses of human rights during his rule.  There are many such examples from all over the world.  Unfortunately political leaders in Sri Lanka enjoy immunity similar to feudal monarchs.

The author of the article published in your newspaper creates the impression that to put the country’s leaders into scrutiny amounts to aiding and abetting terrorists.  That is an argument behind which many a dictator has tried to hide.  Within this perspective all political and critical activity should cease in order to assist leaders “to prosecute the war”.  The silencing of entire nations under the pretext of anti terrorism and war is not a new game.  However, to kill the whole nation under the pretext of prosecuting a war is what the AHRC has witnessed in several countries.  The notorious Burmese military regime is one such example.  Corruption needs subtle forms of propaganda that sounds plausible to people at least for a time in order to fool them.

Regarding the alleged ruling by the ECOSOC NGO Committee this is a complete distortion of a letter which was just one of a series of exchanges and events.  The sequence is as follows:

On April 12, 2002, Maria Francisca Ize-Charrin, Secretary of the Commission on Human Rights informed the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) of a complaint by the Permanent Mission of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka alleging that the ALRC had distributed some documents of the AHRC.  The ALRC and the AHRC are sister organisations based in the same headquarters and sharing similar objectives, the difference being that the emphasis of the ALRC is on legal research, reforms and UN representation while the AHRC engages in open advocacy for the protection and promotion of human rights.  As the ALRC’s function is to attend relevant UN meetings it has sought and obtained ECOSOC status.  It was neither necessary nor required for the AHRC to also apply for this.  However, both organisations produce documents in common.  The Sri Lankan delegation by alleging that the ALRC distributed AHRC documents was raising a senseless issue.  Thus, when the information on the complaint was communicated to the ALRC, the ALRC immediately reputed the argument and raised the question as to if the Universal Declaration on Human Rights printed by the AHRC is distributed by the ALRC at a UN meeting would that be a breach of a rule?

The ALRC also wrote to Hon. Tyrrone Fernando, the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, on June 11, 2002 informing him of the baseless allegation made by the Sri Lankan delegation.

On December 12, 2002 Ms. Hanifa Mezoui, Chief, NGO Section / DESA informed the ALRC that: “The consideration of your organizations response to the incident at the 58th session of CHR will take place during the 2002 Resumed Session of the Committee on Non Governmental Organizations in New York to be held from 8-24 January 2003. The special reports are scheduled to be discussed starting on Tuesday, 14 January 2003.”  Accordingly on January 7, 2003 the ALRC through a letter to Ms. Hanifa Mezoui sought a clarification:

“How does the declaration made by the Sri Lankan representative constitute a complaint that the rules stipulated in ECOSOC resolution 1996/31 have been violated? If it does not constitute such a complaint, under what circum stances should this declaration be subject to any further discussion?

ALRC submits that the said declaration by the Sri Lankan representative does not constitute a complaint in accordance with the rules stipulated in ECOSOC resolution 1996/3 1 and should not give rise to any further discussion or action.”

The ALRC sent three delegates for this meeting held in New York.  They were: Sanjeewa LIYANAGE, Ali SALEEM and Emiko FURUYA.  The government delegation was lead by H. E. Mr. C. Mahendran, Ambassador/Permanent Representative.  However, at the meeting after making a preliminary remark Sri Lanka withdrew the complaint.  That was the end of the matter and there was no ruling of any sort or any apologies by the ALRC.

On January 21, 2003 I wrote a letter to the head of the Sri Lankan delegation H. E. Mr. C. Mahendran, which was also published as an Open Letter, where among other things I stated as follows:

“I am writing to you as a citizen of Sri Lanka, both to protest and request an explanation from you for your attack on me at the United Nations Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations, during its official deliberations held on 20 January 2003 in New York, when you falsely alleged that I have distributed “documents containing politically motivated and unsubstantiated material against Sri Lanka”. This is an extremely serious allegation you have made against me while acting in your official capacity as a representative of the Government of Sri Lanka.

Your statement contains two accusations: first, that I distributed politically motivated material, and secondly, that its contents were unsubstantiated. I categorically deny both of these accusations. I observe that when making this statement on behalf of the Government of Sri Lanka you failed to produce any of the said material allegedly distributed by me. As a citizen of Sri Lanka I now demand that you produce this material upon which you have based your accusations. I assert that you are unable to do so as in fact no such material exists. Your statement was a pure fabrication, the motives for which I do not wish to attribute. It is in itself unsubstantiated and appears nothing more than an attempt to distract the international community and people of Sri Lanka from the real issues.”

Thus, for Dilrukshi Handunnetti to represent the letter dated April 12, 2002 as a ruling of the UN NGO Committee is contrary to the facts.  The entire documentation referred to in this reply is enclosed herewith for perusal by the editor for verification.

Had the Sunday Leader sought an explanation from us about the purported ruling of the NGO Committee we would have gladly provided this entire series of letters at the very first instance.  These letters will be made available at the website

Thank you.

Yours faithfully,


Basil Fernando
Executive Director
Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong

Document Type : Open Letter
Document ID : AHRC-OL-001-2007
Countries : Sri Lanka,