The zero status of citizens

When all legal entitlements are deprived to citizens their formal rights are insignificant. Anything can be done to them and no consequences will follow. Today every Sri Lankan citizen is a legal non-entity in this sense. Their entitlements on statute books but have no actual relevance. Abysmal lawlessness and individual rights cannot coexist.

The situation in Sri Lanka at present demonstrates this fact with great clarity. Even senior persons suffer from misunderstandings about this fact until they themselves are made victims of it. For instance, in several video clips Dayan Jayatilaka, a former ambassador to Geneva, talks about his removal from his post. He states that Sri Lanka has no foreign policy, as if it should be a surprise to learn that there is anything other than the abuse of power. He talks about his removal as irrational as if it should come as a surprise for the Sri Lankan state to act irrationally. In fact, everyone there is treated irrationally all the time. The concept of merit in appointments and rationality in decision-making is absent. The 17th Amendment failed for this reason. The parliament made an attempt to acknowledge merit in appointments, dismissals and transfers of civil servants. It did not succeed. The principle now is that irrationality in appointments, dismissals and all such matters is normal.

Why is it that many people still do not grasp that the system in the country has gotten so warped that it is not capable of rational behaviour? Here the notion of zero status requires further explanation. The word here is used in the sense that Solzhenitsyn used it in his masterpiece on repression, The Gulag Archipelago. Millions of Russian citizens were turned into zeroes just by somebody knocking on their doors or telling them that they were under arrest. Many citizens began to expect such a call at any time. However, the group that was surprised when such a call came and would never understand it, even after being brought into prisons, were the privileged sector that belonged to the party. Solzhenitsyn devotes an entire chapter to describe the plight of these people, who could not grasp how the system could treat them so irrationally. It never occurred to them that the rest of the country was treated far more irrationally all the time. They had participated in the creating of a society of zeroes and were shocked to find that they too were counted among those with no status or value whatsoever.

This is why the irrationality of the entire country escapes the attention and comprehension of those from the more privileged sections of Sri Lankan society, who still think that they have some kind of status by virtue of their positions in the hierarchy and relative wealth. The problem for them is that when society is reduced to a zero through the devaluing and destruction of public institutions, then the rights on which the system is premised too have no meaning, and no more for them than for anyone else.

The murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga, a prominent journalist, can be used to illustrate. Wickramatunga was the chief editor of The Sunday Leader. Two gunmen shot him and one of the newspaper’s senior journalists on 8 January 2009, as they went to work; the second man was wounded. 

Wickramatunga was a prime target of the government and particularly the Secretary of the Ministry of Defence, Gottabaya Rajapakse, which had earlier tried to have him arrested. Thereafter a group of unidentified persons attacked and burned his paper’s printing press; they were never arrested. It is widely believed that the ruling party sent the group, and that it was probably from some section of the armed forces.

Just two days earlier about 20 unidentified attackers raided the premises of Sirasa TV and caused huge damage to equipment. The group assaulted the staff and left a large Claymore mine. Sirasa TV is the most important centre for the independent media in Sri Lanka. The opposition leader said that the government was responsible for the attack and that members of a military unit carried it out. The attack provoked protests from journalists and opposition also from foreign embassies. Following the attack the AHRC issued a statement (“The attack on Sirasa TV an early warning of worse things to come”, 7 January 2009), which predicted:

The massive attack on the Sirasa TV station brings gloomy predictions of things to come in the very near future to a country, which is already bedeviled by lawlessness, violence and corruption. However, there is no rational basis to expect things to become any better but in fact reason to believe that worse things are yet to come. If there was to be political assassinations of opposition leaders, trade union leaders, journalists, human rights activists and others who stand for democracy, rule of law and human rights it would be the natural course of things arising out of a build up which has already taken place.

In less than 48 hours this prediction unfortunately proved true. Globally Sri Lanka has been declared as the second most dangerous place for journalists, the first being Iraq. It is also among the most dangerous places for anyone that the government suspects to be an opponent, as shown in the case of Ranga Bandara, an opposition parliamentarian whose house was attacked and burned on 6 October 2009. Shortly after he gave a recorded interview to the AHRC, of which the following is a summary:

A group of people entered my premises on Sunday night, October 4 after breaking the decorations outside. They arrived in two vans. After entering my premises they spread highly inflammable liquid throughout the premises and set the premises on fire. The spread of the liquid had been done very carefully to ensure that they could raze the premises to the ground in the shortest possible time. Then they left the premises.

I was away attending to election work on behalf of my party at the time. I learned that the neighbours gathered immediately but were afraid to go in because they were aware of recent experiences where bombs were placed inside when this type of attack is done. The people tried to throw water from outside to stop the fire. It was only after one of my employees, a lady, rushed to the place and entered the premises that others also entered and tried to put out the fire. However, they could not do much to stop everything from being destroyed.

My house and office are situated next door to each other. All the documents relating to my work as a member of parliament was inside both premises. I also had five computers for the purposes of my work. There were many other pieces of equipment that were also used for communications. And there were also the household goods. All has been burned down and the total damage in monitory terms is about Rs. 11 million.

Immediately when the news about the fire had been spread the police were informed and they in turn informed the fire department of the Negombo area. The head of the fire department and the chairman of the provincial council were also informed. Initially, the fire department asked for Rs 15,000 as costs for putting out the fire. The police informed that they will pay the money but the order had not been given for the fire department to move. So, they did not come at any time to deal with the fire. In fact, during this same time the vehicles used by the fire department were seen in the roads in Negombo being used for putting up flags for the ruling party.

The police in the area of Negombo also have water bowsers but none of these were sent despite of the information that they had to help in putting out the fire.

After I arrived at the place with several others I received a lot of detailed information about who was involved. It is a member of the provincial council who had given orders to the group of people who attacked my house. According to the information I received they will be protected because he, the provincial council member, received these orders from high above. I have also been told about the names of several of the persons who participated in this attack. I have also got to know the number of one of the vehicles that were used for this attack.

However, there is a big problem. The people who confided in me and gave me this information are mortally scared. They don’t want to take the risk of coming forward to give evidence in these matters because it means very serious trouble for them. Of course the fear is real and everybody in the country would understand that kind of fear.

Among those who talked to me were two police officers. They gave me a lot of information about whom and how this attack was carried out. However, the also told me that they simply have to keep quiet because if they try to do their duty in terms of the information they have received, they will lose their jobs. Once again this is not a surprising revelation.

A complaint about the incident has been made to the police and three witnesses have given statements regarding what they have seen at the initial stages of this incident. The police have said that they will also record a statement from me. I will make that statement. However, I do not have the least amount of faith that there will be any sort of credible inquiry. It is not simply possible for the police to do that kind of inquiry in Sri Lanka now because of the political directions that they have to work under.

So here we have evidence about who did this act and how, but what is the use of that information? The police are not going to do what they are expected to do under the law on the basis of such information. On the other hand these people who come forward to give information would be put at very great and real risk. That is the situation that I am facing about the investigations into this system and regarding that I do not know what to do.

I have no doubt at all that this is a completely political attack directed to ruin me completely, politically and otherwise. Now all that I had is lost. Even the basic equipment I used for my work has been burned down. I do not have any money at all to buy any of these things back.

Now I have been reduced to a position below zero.

The political environment of today is such that opposition politicians are first exposed to such attacks to ruin them from engaging in their political activity. On the other hand there are constant death threats. My possible assassination by this regime is a very real threat. I have been under threat all the time. Earlier there were two occasions on which bombs were planted at my political offices in my electorate. On one occasion as I received information earlier I was able to get the bomb squad to disarm the bomb. However, the second one exploded on the same day.

While such attempts are made to intimidate me as a member of the opposition there have also been constant attempts to buy me over. This has happened at the very inception of my political career nine years back and it has continued until now. Persons coming on behalf of the present regime have offered me huge sums of money and positions if I join the government. A deputy minister approached me and offered me up to Rs. 20-50 million if I joined the government and also offered a deputy minister’s post. Then another politician close to the president approached me with similar terms. Then there is a family known to me in Colombo. The lady who had connections approached me and offered me the same terms. I have informed all this to the leader of the opposition. I have also mentioned these things to some newspapers in the past.

Today, the existing political environment is a very dangerous one. The opposition political party members are not only prevented from doing their jobs but even the media is afraid to give us any space. Several media channels that earlier invited me to attend various public broadcasts no longer invite me. The media does not report what we say properly. Sometimes when the media try to do their jobs properly I was told they are called by someone from the top and severely warned to desist from giving such publicity.

I have a wife and three children. My son is 16 years old and my daughter 14 years old and they are both at school. The youngest child is very small. It is the political culture today to assassinate the wife and children if you cannot destroy the person who is your target. I am afraid that my family will be exposed to serious threats to their lives merely to teach me a lesson. That is how bad things are.

For years I have been writing to the international bodies of parliamentarians and the international bodies of the UN complaining about the threats I have been facing. I have copies of all the letters written to them. The file containing all these letters is now about one and a half kilos in weight. Despite of all such threats I had to face this arson attack and the threats to my family, my supporters and I.

I can do nothing but to appeal to all those people in the international community to come to my assistance and ensure protection to my family and I. There is no one else to appeal to. So I appeal to all persons with good hearts in the international community on this occasion for understanding of this situation and also to take steps for protection.

Another person targeted in 2009 for opposing the government was Stephen Suntharaj, 39, who had been working for Centre for Human Rights and Development (CHRD) since March 2008 as a program officer. He formerly worked for the Child Protection Authority in Jaffna, where he took up so many cases of child abuse that he was threatened and ultimately had to leave the area.

In early March, a group of armed men in uniform took him from the front of the CHRD office in Aloe Avenue Kolpity, Colombo. A colleague witnessed the event. Immediately, CHRD sent its lawyer to nearby police stations and found Stephen at Kolpity police station. Stephen was kept at the Kolpity station for two months, under a detention order. During this period Stephen’s wife and his lawyer had regular access, and he told them that he was treated decently but that the CID had interrogated him. On May 7, the Supreme Court (Halstrup) ordered his release and he went with his lawyer back to the office. Later Stephen’s wife and three children joined him there, and a colleague volunteered to take them to her house. Since the Kolpity police had withheld Stephen’s passport and national identity card, they went to the station and collected the documents. At this point the lawyer left.

But some minutes later the lawyer got a call from the colleague who had accompanied Stephen that a few men in uniform abducted Stephen in a white van. The car that carried Stephen was stopped by a motorbike just close by the Buddhist Ladies college (near Turret Road junction), with one man holding a pistol at the driver’s side, while another man in uniform opened the side door, dragged Stephen out and then pushed him into a white van parked by the side of the car. There were many bystanders and Stephen’s 8-year-old son begged the man in uniform not to hurt his father. Stephen’s wife and others saw the men’s faces, except for the man on the motorbike, whose face was fully covered. All were in uniform and armed with pistols. Despite this, the abduction remains unsolved.

There is no reason to believe that those who abducted Stephen were acting on any other instructions other than those from the people who authorised his detention in the first place. The entire responsibility for this abduction lies with the Sri Lankan government, as with those of tens of thousands of other victims of recent decades.

The zero status of Sri Lankan citizens today has perhaps best been illustrated in the detention camps created completely outside the law to house hundreds of thousands of persons whose lives have been constantly and tremendously disrupted by civil conflict. If detention centres within the framework of the PTA had some form of legality, the new detention centres, by contrast, have no legality of any sort. The internally displaced people are completely outside legal jurisdiction—a fact that even the former chief justice, Sarath Silva, acknowledged in June before a gathering at a new court premises, just prior to his resignation.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva responded to international concerns, stating that there was absolutely no problem with humanitarian access to the camps. He added that the high commissioner’s offer of assistance would be accepted as soon as her office was “regionally a far more representative and transparent body”. He further said that Sri Lanka is a sovereign country and would decide the degree of access it grants.

By the chief justice’s own declaration, the people in the camps have been held completely outside the domestic law. By the invocation of “sovereignty” they have also been kept outside the purview of international law.

After the chief justice spoke, members of a Sri Lankan family who lost their home in the fighting and were among those in a tent camp filed a case with the Supreme Court, asking that their rights as citizens—including the right to freedom of movement—be respected. The petitioner claimed that these people had relatives and friends who were willing to take them into their homes, but the Sri Lankan authorities were holding them by force inside the squalid camps. The court granted leave to proceed with the case and posted it for November. In the same month it was announced that the remaining 135,000 occupants of the camps would be permitted to return home by January.

In another case, the AG’s department objected in court to an application by a family divided in four camps to be united. The family moved the court to allow a 13-year-old girl suffering from injuries to be examined by a specialist doctor. Despite the AG’s claim that she had already been taken to a hospital, the court allowed the girl to be taken to a specialist.

It is not clear on what legal grounds the department objected to the family’s application to be united, but what is clear is that refugees and displaced persons are those who choose to leave their homes due to life-threatening dangers. The decision to leave, and later to seek government help for an alternative place to stay, is their choice, though compelled by circumstances. Anyone in such circumstances has the choice to seek refuge or to live by his or her own resources.

No government has the right to keep people forcibly in refugee camps if they choose to leave and find their own means of living. No government has the right to force people to live under conditions to which they do not consent. Just as all citizens have the right of consent regarding what they do, whom they marry and under whom they work, they have the right of consent regarding their living circumstances. The only exception is people who have violated the law. Internally displaced persons are not criminals and therefore no government is entitled to treat them as such.

The Sri Lankan government pledged before the United Nations Human Rights Council that it would resettle internally displaced persons within six months. However, this has not been possible, and nor was it seriously expected to happen, not only because of the lack of means to resettle people but because the government’s approach to the people has been to treat them as the enemy. It has continued its militaristic methods, motivated by security fears, even though the security threat that the LTTE formerly posed no longer exists.

More importantly, the chief justice, the highest judicial officer of the sovereign nation of Sri Lanka, stated categorically that the internally displaced people are outside the legal jurisdiction of Sri Lanka. This raises questions on the meaning of the word “sovereignty” as used with regard to these people. The position of the Sri Lankan ambassador to Geneva on sovereignty is problematic, given the chief justice’s forthright statement that he and the law he represents have no jurisdiction.

What defines sovereignty is the law. Anything that is outside the purview of law in Sri Lanka and outside the jurisdiction of the courts is outside its sovereignty. The tent people in Sri Lanka have been, by the very declaration of the chief justice himself, held through naked political power that does not subject itself to the law. The high-sounding claims to sovereignty as a defence against international intervention are nothing more than abdications of responsibility for protection. Protection is guaranteed only within a framework of law. When the law does not exist, claims of sovereignty are nothing but rhetoric to justify neglect.

The neglect of citizens also is not an attribute of sovereignty. If a state claims that it has a sovereign right to neglect its people, if it wishes to treat them as zeroes, this is a corruption of the use of the word sovereignty.

Sovereignty does not exist by the mere counting of heads. It is not within the power of a majority of people, for example, to say by raising their hands that murder or rape will cease to be crimes in their country. The decision to starve or deny facilities to one section of the population also cannot be decided in this way. Perhaps under the present conditions the government may even be able to get the majority of people to say that prosecution for crimes committed against the opponents of the government is unnecessary. Would that be considered an exercise of sovereignty?

The Sri Lankan government has extended its disregard of the law to the international sphere. By arguing that human rights and humanitarian assistance should remain within the purview of sovereignty, it has made a mockery of the international process.

Not only were international monitors and agencies denied access to the camps, but also elected politicians have also encountered difficulty in getting access to them. The People’s Liberation Party complained that access to the camps was restricted and that even handing over aid donated for people in the camps was proving difficult. The leading opposition party, the United National Party, had also repeatedly had to demand access to the camps and it has condemned the continued restrictions on their populaces.

The government argues that when compared to the risk to national security, the sufferings that internally displaced persons may have to undergo are of no importance. This is unsurprising, as it reflects their zero status as citizens in a country where public institutions also have fallen to zero. Whereas for centuries even the poorest people in Sri Lanka had learned to put up safe roofs over their heads when the rainy season arrived and live comfortably with warm cups of tea and homes arranged with their modest means, now even that much has been deprived to those in the camps.

This tragic drama of the camps is also a metaphor for the tragedy of all people in Sri Lanka, living without roof or comfort under a political system that demolishes the institutions that should afford some sort of protection and relentlessly rains down all manner of injustices. Devoid of avenues through which to have genuine complaints genuinely heard, all that Sri Lankans can do is suffer. Abysmal lawlessness is the handmaiden of citizens’ zero status; it offers no refuge or relief.

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