Thursday, 29 August 2013 00:00
The Sri Lankan Government, in a rare show of restraint, has decided to adopt a temperate approach to the visit of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, granting her unprecedented access and attempting to put its house in order ahead of her mission
The small strip of coast beside the emerald waters of the Indian Ocean, in the Mullaitivu District, was a rapidly shrinking space between February-May 2009. The 12-kilometre beach strip that would become a lasting legacy of Sri Lanka’s protracted conflict lies on the left bank of a large lagoon known as Nandikadal.
Four years after the end of the war, the thick jungles, waterways and blue-green seas of the Wanni remains largely unexplored territory for the average Sri Lankan. But any Sri Lankan, whether a peacetime visitor to the Wanni or not, will speak with intimate familiarity of Nandikadal. In these bloodied and murky waters was found slain the country’s most dangerous criminal, creator of the human bomb, megalomaniac and sworn enemy of the nation, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, who had ruled land, sea and waterway in the Wanni uncontested for years.
Nandikadal has special significance for troops and southern Sri Lankans who never travelled north while the battles were raging. War tourism in the north has boomed since the end of the conflict and Nandikadal is a must-see site. Distracted by the triumph that was the LTTE Leader’s fall, most Sri Lankans have paid little attention to the histories of the little Tamil villages surrounding the lagoon.
No fire zone
It was in this military-designated 12 km ‘No Fire Zone’ between February and May 2009, the UN claims thousands perished in the last battles of a brutal war, many of them residents of the LTTE-controlled Wanni. The coastal strip is also a suspected gravesite, where civilians and combatants killed in the crossfire were buried as the fighting went on. And it is over this tiny strip of land in the final theatre of battle between Government troops and the separatist LTTE that a battle royal is raging, between Sri Lanka and the rest of the world. The history of Puthumathalan, Vellamullivaikal and Nandikadal differs vastly, depending on whether the Government, the UN, pro-LTTE lobby groups or Tamil civilians are telling the story.
Reams have been written at the UN and elsewhere about these 12 kilometres in Mullaitivu where the LTTE held thousands hostage while making its last stand. On Tuesday, the UN’s visiting Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay earned the distinction of being the first high-ranking UN official to step foot in the contentious territory. The area has been off limits even to visiting dignitaries so far.
UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon, who toured the north soon after the war’s end, only took a low-altitude helicopter journey over the No Fire Zone. At the time, the news agency Reuters reported that UN officials had seen “thousands of empty tents, piles of bicycles and other personal items abandoned in a hurry when the masses of starving civilians fled for their lives”.
“The burnt-out buses and cars, uprooted and smashed trees and craters filled with water appeared to provide evidence that heavy weapons were used despite denials from the Government and Tamil Tigers,” the report said in May 2009.
The battle debris remained on site till at least January 2013. But weeks before High Commissioner Pillay landed in Sri Lanka, Tamil and foreign press reports indicated that the Government had launched a cleanup operation of the area. When Pillay toured Puthumathalan and Velamullivaikal, not many scars of the final battle and the last days of horror were visible. But sitting under a tree in the former battle zone, the UN Envoy, clad in a simple red shalwar kameez, still accessed some of the more ineradicable parts of the region’s history. She listened to people’s stories.
There were persistent themes that emerged during her discussions with civilians and civil representatives in the north. Militarisation, the acquisition of land by the State and forced resettlement were major post-war problems for the northern people. But each problem paled in comparison to the torture and anguish of those still searching, four years later, for missing loved ones. In the former battle zones of the north and east, weeping demonstrators begged the UN Envoy to help them locate family members who had disappeared without a trace when the war ended.
Navi Pillay left Colombo on Monday, having been treated to a protest by the Ravana Balaya, a group led by Buddhist monks who appeared to have deliberately misspelled the Envoy’s name to highlight her ethnic origins during a demonstration in front of the UN Compound in Bambalapitiya. Child monks and screaming women at the protest demanded she get lost and leave Sri Lanka alone. As she began her tour of the north the next day, a very different type of demonstration greeted her. Where the south was accusing the UN of interference, Sri Lanka’s north was faulting the international organisation for not doing more to protect the victims of conflict.
Scores of families of the disappeared lined the street outside the iconic Jaffna Library on Tuesday, begging for Pillay to listen to their grievances. Many of them women, the demonstrators came from every region of the north. Attempts to reach the UN in Colombo had been blocked by the Government in March this year. Most demonstrations in the north are set upon by unidentified armed groups and thugs, even when they are organised by political parties. Yesterday, similar demonstrations greeted her as she toured Trincomalee in the Eastern Province. Observers said it was as if the UN High Commissioner’s presence in the former battle zones had given civilian movements the courage to turn out in large numbers and beg for closure.
Given the prominence ‘the missing’ have gained during this visit, it seems apt that the UN marks the International Day of the Disappeared tomorrow, while Pillay is still in Sri Lanka. Speaking to a few representatives from the demonstration at the UN Office in Nallur after her scheduled meetings on Tuesday, the High Commissioner promised to use her office to advocate for victims.
Her decision to travel to Trincomalee, instead of to Batticaloa, where the fighting raged most severely in the Eastern Province, was probably motivated by a desire to inquire personally into two key incidents in the area, analysts say. Pillay, who mentioned both the murder of the five Tamil youth on a beach in Trincomalee and the killing of 17 aid workers in Muttur during a siege in her 2013 report to the UNHRC in March, is likely to have raised both issues with Government representatives in the region.
Government changes tack
Based on the access Navi Pillay has received during her week-long fact-finding mission, it appears that the more politically astute sections of the Government are determined to create the best possible impression of post-war Sri Lanka. Even the regime’s most ardently nationalistic mouthpieces have restricted themselves to the tamest of criticism against the visiting Envoy. Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Ravinatha Ariyasinha, is believed to have played a role in urging a more temperate response to the Pillay visit. The State-controlled media has downplayed the High Commissioner’s mission, employing an infinitely preferable approach to that of vilifying it. The Ravana Balaya protest was a sham, compared to the kind of the crowds the movement has shown itself capable of mustering when it has true intent. The only real snipe at the High Commissioner came not even when Public Relations Minister Mervyn Silva issued a public proposal of marriage, but from JHU strongman Udaya Gammanpila. Gammanpila issued a small-minded criticism of the UN Envoy and former International Criminal Court Justice, when he wrote that she was disqualified to conduct the post-war fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka because she was of “ethnic Tamil origin”.
“Since her graduate studies were sponsored by her community because of her humble background, she has an emotional attachment to her community. In this backdrop, being a Tamil, she has no moral right to be in any fact-finding mission on alleged killing of 40,000 innocent Tamils… Because of her enormous suffering as a minority in South Africa, she has become a sympathiser of minorities,” the JHU Provincial Councillor wrote.
The preoccupation with race, unique to Gammanpila and his ilk, disregards the fact that Navi Pillay’s appointment was ratified by the UN General Assembly comprising 192 countries, including Sri Lanka, that voted for an extension of her term by two years in 2012.
In the past, the Sri Lankan Government has openly criticised Pillay and accused her of being a US catspaw, with its propagandists repeatedly accusing her of being biased towards the world’s more powerful states. Pillay’s predecessor Louise Arbour confronted similar accusations by Sri Lankan Government officials. The criticism is rarely based on fact, but often appears to be the preferred Rajapaksa Government MO against any international figure who fails to see eye to eye with the regime on human rights issues and minority concerns. Oddly enough, Pillay’s extension as Rights Chief was in fact opposed by the US Government which took issue with her positions on Israel and the Palestinian issues. In August 2009, Pillay accused Israel of violating the rules of war with its blockade of the Gaza Strip. One month later, she endorsed a report the following month that found Israel to be guilty of war-crimes.
Yet its usual belligerence cast aside for the moment, the Rajapaksa administration has gone into hyper drive with regard to meeting its international obligations. A hectic race is on to implement – even superficially – key recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s most recent semi-concession in this regard was the creation of a new Law and Order Ministry, under which the country’s Police force will now function.
Two things offset the move in the right direction, firstly that the President holds the new ministry himself, in addition to the portfolio of Defence, and secondly, the fact that he appointed a retired military officer, Maj. Gen. Nanda Mallawaarachchi, as Secretary of the Law and Order Ministry.
With disappearances taking centre-stage during the Pillay tour, the Government has also indicated it is drafting new laws under the penal code to criminalise enforced disappearances. All the house cleaning is taking place in the context of the UN Envoy’s visit and the impending Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November. Any progress on the issues will only truly be measured in the CHOGM aftermath, when international attention moves once more away from Sri Lanka.
The Belarus visit
The Government’s decision to play down the Navi Pillay visit was reinforced by the President’s departure to Belarus just before her arrival in the island. Charges by the main opposition United National Party that the President was deliberately avoiding the UN High Commissioner brought angry denials from the Government.
While the UN Envoy’s meeting with the President was vaguely scheduled, the time and date was only made public by the Presidential Secretariat after the Opposition cast aspersions on President Rajapaksa’s sudden departure. Being a scheduled State visit, the Belarus tour was most likely not an attempted diversion from the Pillay mission by the part of the President’s office. If the administration was having doubts about the Pillay’s meeting with the President, the Opposition allegations set it in stone.
The real focus however will be on Pillay’s meeting with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is set to demand that the UN lifts the confidentiality clause in its Panel of Experts report on the final phase of the war, and tells the Sri Lankan Government the names of its accusers. The defence establishment, which is rankled by access it is being forced to provide the visiting Envoy, believes that it cannot investigate the allegations contained in the Panel of Experts report until it ascertains the credibility of those making the claims.
Needless to say, the proposition will not find favour with the UN High Commissioner. But her handling of the meeting and the reaction to her from this most powerful section of the ruling administration will provide an insight into Sri Lanka’s probable future relations with the UN system. Much like how the President’s recent State visits, in spite of apparent steps to fix major problems at home as advocated by the LLRC and the human rights lobby, paints a bleak picture about the governance ideal being crafted by the Rajapaksa administration and the world leaders and leadership systems it seeks to emulate.