Human rights have always been a contentious issue in Sri Lanka. During the address to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, the Government took pains to reassure the international community and outline steps that have been taken to normalise the lives of Internally Displaced People (IDPs).
At first glance, the points stressed upon by Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samaraweera ring positive. However, there are still several points that the people, especially those of the Tamil community, are concerned about. Despite the war ending almost two years ago, Emergency rule remains. While it has been relaxed, there are many questions as to why it is allowed to continue if normalcy has returned to Sri Lanka on the level the Government says that it has.
Intentions are laudable only when they are put into practice. Minister Samaraweera told the Council that the phasing out of Emergency law will happen in a timely and appropriate manner – exactly what this means in practical terms remains to be seen. Precisely what changes need to happen before the Government deems it safe enough for Emergency rule to be ended needs to be specified so other communities can have confidence in Government policies.
Despite the lapse of many months, clear ideas to deal with the ethnic issue have remained in the shadows. Tamil political parties having discussions with the President is positive but there must be clear communication with the people to show what progress the discussions are achieving. In a country that is long familiar with prolonged discussions with no results, few people will have faith in this process otherwise.
The United Nations Human Rights Council aside, the Government has a duty to clarify its intentions to all communities. Simply expecting economic development to smooth the causes that resulted in the three-decade conflict is optimistic at best and considerably foolhardy at worst. Finding solutions to the main grievances including disappearances, finding livelihoods for the resettled and promoting transparency and accountability must go hand-in-hand with economic growth.
Even though the Government has initiated the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), it has to implement tangible results if the people are to believe in the sincerity of the Government. It cannot suffer the same fate as the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) that handed over its final report to the President, not to be heard about afterwards. Many promises were made and few have been fulfilled. While it is accepted that all these issues cannot be solved overnight, 22 months is long enough to have at least made a start.
Concentration of efforts on development cannot be the only focus. If the Government wants credibility, then it must be prepared to work for it. Infrastructure development elsewhere in the country cannot be divorced from reconstruction of flood-affected areas, particularly in the east where a lot of the new bridges and roads have been washed away. In this continuous process, a holistic approach encompassing human rights and growth is what will result in sustainable development.