The human rights record of the hand that is admonishing Sri Lanka

Monday, 22 February 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 

The Human Rights Watch report presents an abysmal record on human rights issues in the US and it certainly is not in a position to lecture Sri Lanka or for that matter any other country on human rights issues. While some specifics are attributed to the Donald Trump term in office, many others appear endemic to a long and sad record on human rights violations in the US


Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you – Matthew 7:1,2

The entire world needs to respect human rights. That should be a just and natural phenomenon that all human beings should practice. Unfortunately, it is not. Some do better than others while many preach love but practice the opposite. 

The UNHCR seems to be a pulpit from which some preach to the rest of the world, and often the preacher is a nation whose own practices should shame itself and the rest of the world if it understood the meaning of the word shame. The unfortunate consequence is that the selective application of human rights violation censuring, diminishes the credibility of the world body that is tasked to defend the rights of those who do not have the power to defend themselves. 

It is that unfortunate and helpless segment of the world population, which happens to be the majority in the world, that continues to suffer when nations calling the shots, openly and behind the scenes, do so not to promote and defend the rights of fellow human beings, but to further their strategic political interests under the guise of advancing human rights.

The following are some highlights from the Human Rights Watch report of the human rights record of the USA (https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/united-states. The Sri Lankan Government and the public in Sri Lanka are encouraged to read this report, and others published by the US State Department, Amnesty International, the Human Rights Watch on the human rights record of the Core Group that is sponsoring the latest resolution relating to human rights issues in Sri Lanka. The Core Group consists of Canada, Germany, UK, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Malawi.

While the USA is not in the UNHRC, many analysts are of the opinion that it is the hand that is manipulating the Core Group to pressurise Sri Lanka. They also contend that pressure is being exerted through this group as firstly, it is not in the Human Rights Council, and secondly in pursuance of another interest, a strategic political interest, arising from Sri Lanka’s closeness to China and their growing influence in the country. 

It has been reported in the media that Sri Lanka has asked for India’s support to either prevent this resolution coming up for a vote, or for help in defeating it should it come to a vote. Sri Lanka surely has to be wary about seeking India’s support, as, should they support Sri Lanka, they would do so at a price detrimental to the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. This is simple logic considering what both India and the US have an enemy in common; China, and its growing presence in Sri Lanka. India would be like the ‘Kapati Arakshakaya’ or the cunning saviour who first instigates others to pressurise Sri Lanka, and then offers to help save it from the instigators, but, at a price.

Looking at the record of the Core Group on human rights, especially that of Malawi, it is a joke that such a group could lecture Sri Lanka on human rights violations. While countries like North Macedonia and Montenegro, who also had and still have human rights issues to contend with, they seem to have taken several steps to improve their own weaknesses in human rights issues. It appears they have not taken into consideration steps that have been taken in Sri Lanka to address any lingering issues. 

Neither have they taken in to account the background and the environment in which Sri Lanka had to contend with when the country fought to defend their people and its sovereignty when confronted with the most violent and virulent terrorist organisation in the world, the LTTE. So labelled by the world, not Sri Lanka.

The Core Group has also not recognised that every country, including their own, would have human rights issues arising from time to time, and that they need to be addressed by the countries themselves. The Core Group is not a pristine Snow White group who are suited to preach to others. Worse, it should not be a group that lends itself to being manipulated by any powerful force in its own strategic political interests.

No doubt there are areas where Sri Lanka has to get its house in order, but it cannot and should not countenance being pressurised by this so-called Core Group that is acting on behalf of a country which is pursuing this issue not because of human rights issues but to advance its own strategic political interests. It is not to India that Sri Lanka should turn for support on this issue but other members of the Human Rights Council who have been similarly pressured by interests pursuing their strategic agendas. 

The Human Rights Watch report presents an abysmal record on human rights issues in the US and it certainly is not in a position to lecture Sri Lanka or for that matter any other country on human rights issues. While some specifics are attributed to the Donald Trump term in office, many others appear endemic to a long and sad record on human rights violations in the US. 

The HRW report on the US begins by stating, “In 2019, the USA continued to move backwards on rights. The Trump administration rolled out inhumane immigration policies and promoted false narratives that perpetuate racism and discrimination; did not do nearly enough to address mass incarceration; undermined the rights of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people; further weakened the ability of Americans to obtain adequate health care; and deregulated industries that put people’s health and safety at risk. In its foreign policy, the Trump administration made little use of its diminishing leverage to promote human rights abroad; continued to undermine multilateral institutions; and flouted international human rights and humanitarian law as it partnered with abusive governments.”



The epitome of freedom, justice and human rights

The full report referred to above paints a grim picture of the country that parades itself as the epitome of freedom, justice and human rights. Besides this report, in the area of foreign policy, the duplicity of the US in supporting countries like Saudi Arabia, an unabashed leader in human rights violations, especially against women, Israel, which has consistently abused the rights of Palestinians and snubbed all attempts by international bodies to defend the rights of Palestinians, is well known. US involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Egypt to defend justice and freedom while killing millions of people, and prior to that in Vietnam and Laos, to defeat what they termed ‘evil communism’, again, killing millions of people, are not exactly good examples to demonstrate their respect for other human beings. The HRW report is a telling indictment of life at home in the US and the love and respect they show for their own citizens and hapless refuges. Following are some extracts from the HRW report:

The US continues to have the highest reported criminal incarceration rate in the world, with 2.2 million people in jails and prisons and another 4.5 million on probation and parole as of 2017. In several states incarceration rose, as did the incarceration rate for women, which grew by 750% from 1980 to 2017. 

Stark racial disparities still exist in the prison population. While the overall imprisonment rate was down, among black women it was nearly twice as high as among white women and the rate for black men was almost six times the rate for white men. For younger black men, the disparity was even larger

Poor people accused of crimes continue to be jailed because courts require money bail as a condition of release, forcing people not convicted of any crime to stay behind bars for long periods of time awaiting trial and resulting in coerced guilty pleas. 

On any given day, approximately 50,000 children are held in confinement. In the juvenile justice system, 2,200 are imprisoned for ‘status’ offenses—noncriminal acts that are considered violations of the law only because the individuals in question are under 18 years old.

Additionally, all 50 states continue to prosecute children in adult criminal courts. According to the Citizens Committee for Children, roughly 32,000 children under 18 are admitted annually to adult jails. The Sentencing Project reports there are approximately 1,300 people serving life without parole 

Racial disparities persist at every stage of a person’s contact with the law, leaving children of colour disproportionately in juvenile justice systems across the country; in 37 states, rates of incarceration were higher for black children than for white, according to The Sentencing Project.

Stark inequalities in wealth exist throughout the United States, and poverty intersects with crime, which is used to justify more aggressive policing in poor, often minority communities. 

Rather than address problems of poverty—including homelessness, mental health, and gang involvement—with services, support, and economic development, many US jurisdictions simply add more police and effectively ‘criminalise’ poor communities, a vicious circle that fuels high rates of incarceration.

According to the ‘Washington Post’, police reportedly shot and killed 783 people in the US in 2019 as of mid-November. Of those killed whose race is known, 20% were black even though blacks make up 13% of the population.

In September, the Census Bureau released a study showing that income inequality in the US had hit the highest level in five decades. About 40 million people live in poverty, many of them members of households with at least one wage earner making at or near the federal minimum wage of $ 7.25 per hour.

At time of writing, over 55,000 asylum seekers had been returned to often dangerous and unliveable conditions in Mexico, with significant barriers to obtaining legal representation and a fair hearing. This included asylum seekers with disabilities or other chronic health condition. 

The number of immigrants in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody reached a record high of 55,000 people per day.

These are but a few of the shameful record of the human rights violations in the US that is noted in the HRW report. 

Within the Core Group, Amnesty International has noted gross human rights violations in Malawi in its 2019 report. Https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/africa/malawi/report-malawi/

It says, quote “2019 was an election year for Malawi. There were incidences of protests in Malawi around elections, and the government used the law to silence civil society leaders and organisers of peaceful demonstrations. Some civil society leaders were threatened with death and their property was destroyed by ruling party activists. 

Persons with albinism continued to live in fear as ritual killers murdered at least one person with albinism. Persons with albinism continued to be targeted for their body parts: in many of the cases persons with albinism have been killed for ritual purposes and a superstitious belief that their body parts would bring luck in business and politics. In January, 60-year-old Yassin Kwenda Phiri was murdered in his house in Nkhata Bay while his nine-year-old son George watched helplessly. Two men cut off his father’s arms with a knife and removed his intestines with their bare hands. Goodson Fanizo, 14, was abducted in February. Although six suspects were picked up by police, neither the child nor his body had been found by year’s end.

Following the May general elections, opposition parties and civil society organisations were unhappy with the outcome, alleging electoral fraud. The Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) organised protests against alleged mismanagement of elections by the Malawi Electoral Commission. The state responded by deploying members of the police service and the military and applying for court injunctions to stop protests.

Human rights defenders and activists remained under threat as the country prepared for its May general elections. HRDC activists who organised and led demonstrations against alleged electoral fraud after the May elections were attacked by ruling party youth cadres, intimidated, and targeted for prosecution by the authorities. Timothy Mtambo, Chairperson of the Human Rights Defenders Coalition and Executive Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), increasingly received death threats through text messages and was attacked by unknown people. In October, at around 11 p.m. unknown gunmen fired six shots at Mtambo’s vehicle as he drove home from a meeting in Lilongwe.

On 25 September, unknown youths hacked human rights activist Billy Mayaya and several other activists in Blantyre. Mayaya sustained serious injuries to his head. Instead of protecting activists from attacks, police tear-gassed demonstrators. 

Excessive use of force, unlawful killings and torture persisted with impunity. In February, Buleya Lule was arrested in Lilongwe on charges of abducting a child with albinism and appeared in court in February, jointly charged with five other people. Bulela Lule later died in a police cell. 

The post-mortem report released on 12 April revealed that Bulela had been electrocuted and sustained injuries to his head, buttocks and stomach

In September, one of the post-election protesters, Justin Phiri, died in custody of infected wounds that were not treated. He had been severely assaulted by soldiers and the police did not take him to a hospital. Human rights issues included extrajudicial killings; torture; arbitrary detention, the preceding abuses all committed by official security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison and detention centre conditions; criminal libel; corruption; lack of investigation and enforcement involving cases of violence against women, including rape and domestic violence, partly due to weak enforcement; criminalisation of same-sex sexual conduct; and child labour, including worst forms. 

There were reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. Media reported that, between January and August, 43 suspects had died at the hands of police. For example, on 16 June, after police arrested 11 persons in Blantyre, four individuals, Humpfrey Sakhumwa, Dave Sembele, Dave Gondwe, and Ashbu Daiton, were separated from the group to be transferred to another facility. Later that day officers dropped their bullet-riddled bodies at the local hospital mortuary. A reputable nongovernmental organisation (NGO) and the United Nations carried out a preliminary investigation into several of the deaths that included interviews with family members and witnesses and found the allegations generally credible and warranting a more in-depth inquiry” unquote. 

In advocating that Sri Lanka should not succumb to pressure from the US or India or the Core Group and should harness the support of other members of the Human Rights Council to defeat any move to censure the country through stealth, it does not automatically mean Sri Lanka could pretend it has a Snow White record on human rights. 

Going back to the war against the LTTE and issues that arose upon its conclusion, there are unresolved matters that need addressing. The LLRC report and its action plan that has been sent to a cold room could be activated and followed through as Mahinda Rajapaksa began doing before the change of Government in 2015, and the scuttling of it by the Sirisena/Wickremesinghe duo. The same applies to the Paranagama commission on Missing Persons, again initiated by Mahinda Rajapaksa and the scuttling of that report once again by Sirisena and Wickremesinghe. 

The current Government owes it to all people of the country to implement the recommendations of those two reports, as they were hailed by many as sound starting points to address genuine concerns that arose in regard to the dark days of the LTTE terrorism and the State’s role in some questionable issues. One needs to identify any shortcomings in those reports and act to address them, but it is common sense that it can best be done once the available recommendations are implemented. 



The Emperor without clothes

Sri Lanka cannot defend itself by being the Emperor without clothes. It needs to build itself to be a beacon for the rest of the world in ensuring the unalienable rights of all Sri Lankans are respected and assured. A country that calls itself the citadel of Theravada Buddhism and the defender of Buddhism, should not do any less unless this defence of Buddhism is also a façade to protect the strategic interests of the Buddhist institution which in turn serves the interest of politicians and vice versa. If one lives by the Dhamma and the original teachings of religious leaders like Jesus Christ and the Prophet Mohammed, Sri Lanka can be that beacon which would put many other countries to shame. 

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