Battling the ghosts of Aluthgama

Thursday, 11 September 2014 01:05 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

In the lead-up to crucial UN Human Rights Council Sessions in March next year, the Government is in overdrive to win over the new top Envoy on Human Rights Prince Zeid, and retain the support of the Islamic bloc in Geneva, despite the long shadows cast by the Aluthgama riots When the Sri Lankan Government pins its hopes too dearly on a particular thing, it is almost a certainty that disappointment, disillusionment and bitter resentment are soon to follow.  Major expectations were placed on Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, mere mortal and new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, successor to Navi Pillay who has pursued and plagued the Rajapaksa Government – or so it believes – with a vendetta since 2009.  The regime has made no secret of the fact that Pillay’s ethnic Tamil heritage has inspired part of this deep mistrust. Jordanian Zeid will be unbiased and professional in his engagement with Sri Lanka, the Government believes. As the UPFA counted down the days to Pillay’s retirement, there was perhaps some hope that the ascension of Zeid would turn a new chapter for Sri Lanka at the UNHRC, where pesky resolutions and investigations are cramping its style. Instead, when he addressed the 47-member UN Human Rights Council for the first time on 8 September, Zeid professed a deep admiration for Navi Pillay, who he said had been the voice and lungs of victims of abuse and atrocities all over the world. He vowed to carry on her work, and with regard to Sri Lanka, Zeid echoed Pillay’s call for cooperation with the probe led by what is now his Office, and raised strong concerns about threats to human rights defenders and religious minorities in Sri Lanka. In short, the bubble seemed to burst early. The players might have changed, but the UN’s top envoy on human rights issues is still singing the same tune. Which is as it should be, even if the Government persists in believing that individuals rather than processes and policies are driving the international agenda on Sri Lanka. When it cannot win over processes and institutions, the Government prides itself on winning over individuals. It manages this in the British House of Commons where Lord Naseby and a handful of others raise dissenting voices against the UK’s Sri Lanka policy. With a significant measure of success, the Government managed to win over Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma, the former Indian diplomat whose faith in Sri Lanka’s judicial system and democratic credentials never wavered, even at the height of an illegal and unconstitutional sacking of the country’s Chief Justice. Zeid hails from a nation which is in turn member of a bloc of countries deeply sympathetic to the Sri Lankan Government. How much is the Government’s euphoria about the Jordanian lawyer’s appointment as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, tied to the belief that pressure from the right quarters could sway his opinions on Colombo and its human rights record? OIC’s crucial role In this somewhat skewed calculation and in ensuring ongoing support from Islamic nations at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) has a crucial role to play. The OIC has been overwhelmingly friendly towards Sri Lanka, to such a degree that Colombo was applying for observer status in the 57-member bloc of Islamic nations. In an unprecedented move, the OIC issued a strong public statement on Sri Lanka following the Aluthgama riots in June this year. In private, its communications with Colombo were even more scathingly critical. The OIC also issued a strongly-worded statement to the Government, expressing its deep displeasure over the violence unleashed against the Muslim community in the island’s south. The OIC reaction to the incidents in Aluthgama on 15 June unsettled the regime far worse than all the diplomatic statements combined on the violence, in Geneva, Colombo and elsewhere. In mid July, President Mahinda Rajapaksa dispatched his presidential advisor on Muslim Affairs, Abdul Cader Mansoor Moulana to the organisation’s headquarters in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for meetings with OIC Secretary General, Iyad Ameen Madani. Moulana sought the meeting to explain to the OIC Chief that the incident in Aluthgama and Beruwala had been blown out of proportion. The assertion came too little too late, since the OIC had already been supplied with extensive documentation and photographs regarding the violence, loss of life and damage to property during the riots. Muslim civil society activists and volunteers mobilised frantically both during and after the Aluthgama riots, compiling situation reports, damage assessments and press cuttings to create awareness both locally and internationally. Armed with that information, Madini was able to counter the Government envoy’s narrative. President Rajapaksa was incensed when his Justice Minister and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Chief Rauff Hakeem held talks with the OIC Secretary General during an Umrah pilgrimage to Mecca in late July. Hakeem is believed to have briefed an OIC delegation extensively on the Aluthgama violence and the ongoing hate campaigns against the Muslim community and its places of worship and enterprises by hardline groups perceived to be linked to the Government. When Colombo reached out to the OIC to arrange a high level visit with Secretary General Madini to discuss these issues, the offer was reportedly spurned. Military mop-up and repair mission Nearly three months after religious riots rocked the southern towns of Aluthgama and Beruwala, a clinical military mop-up and repair mission is almost complete in the region. Fire-damaged mosques, houses and shops in several Muslim settlements have been restored by military personnel whose construction skills have been honed immensely in the post-war phase. The area is prone to receiving VIP visits in the months that followed the 15 June riots. President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself attended the reopening of the Seenawatte mosque in Dharga Town, Aluthgama, which had been badly damaged in the night of violence unleashed largely against the area’s Muslim population. Three weeks after the riots, President Rajapaksa sauntered into the Islamic place of worship barefoot, armed with blithe remarks about religious harmony and foreign conspiracies to sow discord among communities of people in Sri Lanka. Army Chief Lt. Gen. Daya Ratnayake also toured the region to inspect the repair work by his men. Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa has stepped up the propaganda drive to deny his links to Buddhist hardline groups operating in the country. The Bodu Bala Sena and its affiliate hardline organisations appear to have tempered their anti-Muslim rhetoric for the time being, with the group’s controversial General Secretary Galagodaththe Gnanasara now giving media interviews about his romantic past. OIC fact-finders’ visit But in the most unexpected twist yet, a team of OIC fact-finders will visit the island on the invitation of the Government of Sri Lanka for meetings and discussions with Government officials and Muslim groups, the Daily FT learns. Highly-placed sources said the OIC delegation will be dubbed a ‘goodwill mission’ and comprise officials drawn from the Secretary General’s Office. The Secretary General’s office in the OIC has suo moto power to take action on such matters, and may commission such a mission periodically, authoritative sources told the Daily FT. For over a year now, the OIC’s global Islamophobia watch unit has been following the trajectory of anti-Muslim violence and hate speech in Sri Lanka, Ministerial sources told the Daily FT. These units have been submitting periodic reports about the trends in Sri Lanka to the OIC Council of Ministers. The fact-finding mission will also submit its report to Secretary General Madini at the end of its visit. The delegation has expressed interest in visiting the riot-rocked Aluthgama and Beruwala towns, in addition to holding meetings with high level Government officials, Muslim ministers, religious leaders and civil society groups. The delegation has been cautioned to anticipate a stage-managed tour of Aluthgama, where the military-style post-riot clean up has been very effective. Visa approvals for the OIC delegation have already been granted, the Daily FT learns, but dates for the visit are yet to be finalised. The OIC mission will be non-intrusive and aimed at encouraging effective action to curb anti-Muslim sentiment in the island, a top ministerial source told the Daily FT. The Government decision to permit the OIC team entry into the country for wide-ranging discussions with multiple stakeholders spoke to its willingness to ensure transparency and open engagement, which is an important facet in its international dealings, the source added. While some opposition was likely from the Sinhala hardline movements largely credited with having instigated the Aluthgama violence, it was hoped that the Government would not capitulate under this pressure, the ministerial source said. Strangely enough, Muslim community leaders are convinced that the Bodu Bala Sena and other hardline groups will not act out during the visit of the OIC delegation. Ordinarily, such engagement by an Islamic grouping would be seen as intrusive and cause great umbrage within the hardline camp, but observers believe the groups will be on a tight leash during the visit. In light of the Government’s hopes for High Commissioner Zeid, constructive engagement with the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation will be seen as crucial to achieving its international goals. It will perceive the OIC as being an important player in the campaign to win Zeid’s support, even though there is no proof yet that the new High Commissioner will be willing to yield to regional or native influences in his new role. Hope springs eternal however, and the regime will hope that while the OIC continues its support of Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council, its powerful leaders and intellectuals will have some sway over Navi Pillay’s successor. High Commissioner’s appointment Needless to say, this may be a poor assessment, and one entirely lacking in understanding of the politics of the High Commissioner’s appointment. A UN High Commissioner for Human Rights may be appointed for two four year terms. Navi Pillay, who assumed office in 2008, only served six. It is an open secret in the United Nations that Pillay was denied the opportunity to serve out her full eight years because she fell foul of Washington, due to her staunch criticism of Israel. The US conceded to her term being extended by only two years, according to foreign media reports from the UN in Geneva and New York, when she was granted an extension of tenure in 2012. Still, the regime is desperate to believe Zeid is its friend, just as it was convinced Pillay was its enemy;  Zeid is connected to Jordan’s monarchy, and the Government may well believe that the Islamic bloc, so passionate in its defence of Sri Lanka at the UNHRC, will have a degree of influence over the new UN Rights Chief. This may prove a naïve miscalculation: not only is Zeid a passionate advocate of international law principles, but he is widely believed to be Washington’s preferred choice for the sensitive position. In the long game, the Sri Lankan Government can hope to count much less on Zeid’s support at the Council, and much more on the support of the Islamic bloc. Haunted by the ghosts and the legacies of the Aluthgama violence, damage control with this grouping in the lead-up to the March sessions in Geneva will be key.