What culture, Mr. Foreign Minister?

Thursday, 17 February 2022 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Within days of the commencement of the UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva, the Foreign Minister has pleaded for the international community’s understanding and an ‘unbiased’ approach towards Sri Lanka. Prof. G.L. Peiris, Sri Lanka’s erudite Foreign Minister says that “any long-term solution to reconciliation and human rights-related problems must be compatible with Sri Lanka’s culture and its people”.

Herein lies the fundamental problem in dealing with human rights in Sri Lanka, where there is hardly a ‘culture’ of addressing human rights violations. For too long the State has carried out untold atrocities and violations of rights of its own people that there is in fact a culture of impunity prevailing right across the whole spectrum of governance and administration. A good example of the Sri Lankan State’s ‘human rights culture’ was displayed the same day Prof. Peiris made the above appeal at a press conference. That morning a group of unidentified individuals attacked the house of a senior journalist who had recently been critical of the Government. On that same day, a young activist calling for justice for the victims of the Easter Sunday attack was ‘arrested’ by the Police in mafia-style abduction. Policemen in civilian clothes, in an unmarked white van, abducted the activist allegedly over a statement he had made at a press conference. 

These are just events of this week. Sri Lanka’s distasteful human rights record is long and uniquely shameful. No other democracy in the world has so many unresolved cases of violations. In 1971 at least 10,000 individuals were extrajudicially killed or subjected to enforced disappearance by the Sri Lankan State. That number is at least 60,000 for the 1987-89 period according to Commissions of Inquiry established by successive governments and can be as high as 100,000 according to more reliable estimates. A presidential commission of inquiry established by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa recorded more than 23,000 disappearances in the north and the east during the ethnic conflict while the final tally on enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings can be much higher.

There has hardly been any justice for these victims. In fact, the Government of Prof. G.L. Peiris has reversed even the minuscule gains made towards addressing human rights violations. Within the last two years, the independence of the judiciary and the credibility of the Human Rights Commission have eroded, mostly as a consequence of the 20th amendment to the constitution which was very much backed by Prof. Peiris. A soldier convicted by the highest courts in the land for the cold-blooded killing of eight Tamil civilians, including children, was pardoned by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He has also appointed a rabid monk involved in provoking religious hatred among communities as a chairperson of a presidential commission that is tasked to reform personal law of ethnic and religious minorities.

The judicial processes into the murder of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, the enforced disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda, and the abduction, holding to ransom and killing of at least 11 Tamil and Muslim men by personnel attached to the Navy have been deliberately derailed. In fact, a presidential commission looking into political victimisation has not only exonerated many of those accused in these crimes but has recommended action against officers of the state who investigated and prosecuted these cases. With this abysmal record, what Sri Lankan culture on human rights is Professor G.L. Peiris talking about? As his own Government has proven within the last two years, the only Sri Lankan culture towards human rights violations is that of a State that acts with impunity without an iota of accountability or consequence. There is neither a sign of this ‘culture of impunity’ changing any time from within nor any genuine attempt by the State to do so. 

In fact, the only impetus towards any changes by the Sri Lankan State in recent times has been international pressure, be it the UNHRC mechanisms or the EU conditions on retaining GSP plus concessions. In this context, calling for the adherence to an elusive local ‘culture’ in dealing with outstanding human rights issues is intellectually dishonest, hypocritical and frankly contemptuous. Professor of Law G.L. Peiris should surely know better.