The Fallout and Lessons Learnt from HRC and UN September 2021 Sessions

srilanka refugees

The 48th UN Human Rights Council’s sessions has evoked much interest for Sri Lanka’s Human Rights activists and Government coupled with mixed signals from the Human Rights Commissioner.

While the Commissioner appreciates Sri Lanka’s moves which are apparently opportunistic and face saving farcical measures, she has also issued a warning to Sri Lanka that it will remain in the watch list while calling upon the member nations to exercise vigilance and attention to developments in Sri Lanka in relation Human Rights, Accountability and Justice.

President Gotabaya’s promises to set up an Internal Investigative Mechanism along with the statement that he “will not hesitate to release the prisoners” are all mere sugar coated pills for instant consumption as he failed to commit specifically that he will release all the prisoners but only expressed the pessimistic possibilities of release which are ostensibly bleak.

Gotabaya’s other statements that he would invite and involve the Diaspora Tamils in any political settlement talks is simply a hollow statement without any substance and also unrealistic when one views his earlier and pending ban on more than 300 Tamils’ Organizations and Tamil activists including Muslims as supporters of terrorism.

This is like asking a person to speak after taping and sealing his mouth.

Human Rights Commissioner’s appreciative comment on the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP) is fair enough in so far as it has been set up and functioning as a lame duck without full powers to deal with the thousands of forcibly disappeared persons but only collecting information as to the missing persons during the civil war but without any powers of investigations as to how, when and where those disappearances took place and under whose custody they happened while identifying the security personnel involved in those enforced disappearances.

The irony of the OMP is that it exempts prosecutions as well as civil and criminal liability for those involved and identified in the commission of disappearances.

The government has thus taken care to sustain and nurse it’s system of entrenched culture of impunity which is in full swing since 1958.

Another President’s statement to offer a meaningful solution for the underlying problems is another hollow goodwill gesture made to suit the occasion and location which is the UN and its Secretary General (UNSG).

President Gota’s mindset, commitment and quality of recognition of the Tamils as a distinct race and his commitment to solve their grievances are well-known when he proclaimed himself as a “Sinhala Buddhist President voted by the majority of Sinhala Buddhists”.

His brazen discarding of North and East during the election campaign confirms that deep-seated hostile approach to the Tamils and their grievances including the nil value of Tamil votes.

President Gota’s conciliatory toned statements are purely damage control exercises to cool and placate the UN, Secretary General and International Community and at the least temporarily to douse the fire, put a break and forestall any harsh measures which could spring out in the future.

President Gota’s sudden gestures are to be viewed in this context and it won’t be surprising that these promises will vanish in thin air in Sri Lanka sooner or later when the President will assert the defense of sovereignty of Sri Lanka and it’s rights to reject any foreign involvement in its internal affairs as earlier reinstated by the wobbling Foreign Minister G L Peiris. However, it is a fact that Sri Lanka can never function solo and segregated from other nations as the present world of nations is firmly interconnected with the UN as the orbit.

President Gota’s stated on August 03, 2021 at a Zoom meeting with “Sri Lankan Collective for Consensus” that “We are committed to work with the UN to ensure greater accountability, Human development to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation” and his statement on September 24, 2021 “committing to work for meaning for meaningful resolution”.

However, the recent two incidents, one of them on September 12, 2021 when a state minister Lohan Ratwatte entered the Welikada prison with gun and threatened to shoot the Tamil prisoners after ordering them to kneel down and the manhandling and arresting of Member of Parliament Gajendran on September 24, 2021 when he attempted to light a lamp in Jaffna in memory of a Tamil who died after fasting until death calling for the settlements of Tamils’ grievances bear proof and testimony as to how the brutal authoritarian system is in operation in Sri Lanka.

As far as the Tamil parties and Leaders are concerned, they are all united to speak out loudly calling for unity among themselves while continuing their internal strife as to who should be the leader to lead the leaders instead of leading the people as demonstrated by them when they recently sent four separate Resolutions to the Commissioner of the UN Human Rights Council. They have so far failed to involve and organize mass agitations and launching ground actions. Instead, they are busy releasing fresh statements, holding conferences, interviews and discussions detailing what has happened in Tamil lands or happening in Tamil lands instead of taking timely steps to prevent the happenings like the land appropriations and Buddhization which have been going on aggressively since 2012.

It is better late than never for the Tamils’ leaders to forge at least a semblance of unity to show their solidarity with concrete ground actions like the Member of Parliament Gajendran’s courageous act of lighting a lamp at the memorial statue of Theleepan at Nallur on September 23, 2021 in the presence of several police and security personnel.

It has to be stated that even if an internal investigative mechanism is set up, it would be manned by Commissioners and Officials supportive of the government and will naturally end up as a whitewash as the perpetrators of crimes, the government and the security forces will only don both the roles of Judges and Jury shielding accountability and preserving the culture of impunity for the alleged offenders.

In this respect, James Balwins’ statement is well worth quoting:

“I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do”.

and also what Meenakshi Ganguly (South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch) stated:

“Less words and more action is now the right path”

 “Actions only matter and speak louder than words which only chatter”

Thambu Kanagasabai LLM (London), Attorney at Law, Former Lecturer in Law, University of Colombo.


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