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Sri Lanka Cornered Over Human Rights

A woman shouts slogans against United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay outside the U.N. office in Colombo. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS.

COLOMBO, Sep 3 2013 (IPS) - That it would be a visit fraught with diplomatic tension was undoubted. Navanetham ‘Navi’ Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, was into the third day of her week-long visit from Aug. 25 to Aug. 31 to Sri Lanka when her entourage broke into animated discussion. 

They were in the heart of Mullaittivu district in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province (NP), where some of the bloodiest battles in the last chapter of the war between Sri Lanka and separatist rebel group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were fought in the summer of 2009, ending a conflict that had lasted almost 30 years.

The discussion was about media access. Several representatives of international media organisations in capital Colombo had followed Pillay 390 km to the north. At least two had trailed her right up to Mullaittivu, the second leg of her visit after a morning spent in NP capital Jaffna, 117 km to the north. 

“We encourage people to come and see for themselves rather than be guided by propaganda.” -- Sri Lankan foreign minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris

While Pillay’s staff from the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva was willing to allow the media, especially international correspondents, access to her meetings with war-displaced returnees and kin of the missing, officials of the U.N. country team were nervous.

And rightly so, as it turned out when Pillay ended her visit in Colombo four days later.

According to the Sri Lankan government, the U.N. office in Colombo had instructed the media not to follow the high commissioner during her visit to Mullaittivu. Yet they did so, presumably on the invitation of her spokesperson, Rupert Colville, to witness Pillay paying floral tributes to those who had perished in the final battle at Nanthikadal Lagoon in Mullaittivu.

As a Sri Lanka government media communiqué put it, “It was pointed out by the Sri Lankan side to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ delegation that if such a gesture needed to be made, it should be done at a venue common to all victims of the 30-year terrorist conflict and not on the grounds where the leader [of the Tamil Tigers, Velupillai Prabhakaran] met his death.”

As it happened, Pillay never made that floral tribute. She later said she honoured those who died in conflict in every country she visited, and it was not meant as a unique gesture for Sri Lanka.

The visit concluded with no further incident or diplomatic discord. But by the time Pillay left Sri Lanka, the tensions were out in the open. In the five-and-a-half page parting statement she read out to the media just before her departure, Pillay, while lauding the Sri Lankan government for the development work it had initiated in the former LTTE strongholds, also called it to account for the continuing human rights abuse, the persecution of religious minorities and the militarisation of the north, among other things.

Pillay’s Sri Lankan visit was a follow-up on the recommendations of the crucial Mar. 21 U.N. resolution, seeking action from the government on lingering allegations of human rights abuse. And her assessment was scathing. “I am deeply concerned that Sri Lanka, despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant, all-embracing state, is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.”

The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa dismissed it as a political statement on her part, something which transgressed her mandate and the basic norms “a discerning” international civil servant should observe.

“The judgment on the leadership of the country is better left for the people of Sri Lanka to decide, than being caricatured by external entities influenced by vested interests,” the government said in a counter-statement to the media.

“She has her own agenda,” said Ithakandhe Sadathissa, a Buddhist monk and head of the National Organisation of Ravana Power, a nationalist group that held protests outside the U.N. compound on two occasions during her visit. “She has come here to gather facts so that she can go back and criticise the country, the government,” he told IPS.

Others like housing and engineering services minister Wimal Weeravansha and government spokesperson and media minister Keheliya Rambukwella too accused Pillay of having a pre-set agenda.

“We encourage people to come and see for themselves rather than be guided by propaganda,” Sri Lankan foreign minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris had said during a visit to Indian capital New Delhi a few days before Pillay arrived. “We want the world to see what is happening in Sri Lanka.”

In the run-up to that visit, the government had set up a new presidential commission to look into forced disappearances and commenced work on bringing in stricter legislation against it.

The longest of her visits to 60 countries so far, Pillay managed to interact with a wide range of representatives, something she thanked the Sri Lankan government for.

In Jaffna, she met a group of 15 representatives from the 300-odd relatives of missing persons demonstrating outside the Jaffna Public Library. “It has been four years since the end of the war, people need answers to what happened to their loved ones,” said Rev Father Emmanuel Sebamalai, a Catholic priest from the northwestern Mannar district, who was among the demonstrators.

“They came to meet her because they felt that she could give them some redress,” he told IPS.

Apart from her field visits, Pillay also participated in an event commemorating the Day of the Disappeared in Colombo on Aug. 31. “The high commissioner has promised to help us,” Sandya Ekanaligoda, wife of cartoonist Prageeth Ekanaligoda, missing since January 2010, told IPS. “I will continue the search for my husband,” she said.

The concerns Pillay raised prior to her departure are likely to figure in the oral submission she will make to the UNHRC towards September-end. She is also likely to bring up allegations that police and military officials have visited civilians and activists she met and spoke with.

“Pillay’s visit will help keep Sri Lanka on UNHRC’s agenda,” Ruki Fernando, a local rights activist, told IPS.

“Her report to the council will indicate whether the changes taking place in Sri Lanka are superficial or genuine,” Ming Yu, a researcher with Amnesty International, Australia, told IPS.

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  • Lord Shiva

    The Sinhalese and their leaders believe that they are the majority and they can rule the nation that way they want including denial of human rights, rule of law, transparency, justice, R2P to the minority – the Tamils and the Muslims.

    These are simply hooligans and will continue to deny independent free access to media personnel, diplomats, journalists, human rights activists and defenders and already 35 Journalists disappeared since 2005 under this regime. The civilized world take an account of the menace that this regime unleash on the civilian population by intimidating, bullying, threatening, attacking and silencing those seek justice and demand for protection under the law.

    This Sinhala race is only in Sri Lanka who has no clue about the International law,
    norms and democratic values but only believes and practices violence, barbarianism, mockery and full impunity to those commit crimes against humanity, abducting, torturing and murdering dissidents and the civilians.

    Delay in taking action means more and more crimes are committed and more and
    more casualties of civilians. The International community should have an
    independent monitoring ground force to gather information of the ground
    situation and crimes committed and continue the push for an independent
    international investigation as the regimes continues to drag its feet
    and cover up crimes against humanity.

    The International community must put an end to bullying and intimidating tactics used by the regime, branding those who demand for justice as sympathizers of the
    LTTE or in the payroll of the LTTE and maliciously accuse them as agents of the Tamil terrorists and they got an agenda despite they demand for an independent transparent investigation of all crimes committed in Eelam and in Sri Lanka.

  • Kirthi Jayasekera

    Lord or what ever your agenda of installing Eelam in srilanka with the help of international community is only a dream. As you say the Sinhala hooligans have only Srilanka, so they will keep it that way. If the minorities want to live in the hooligan country, be in peace with the hooligans.

  • Obamasal

    Many leaders and media both local and international that are concerned about humanity and human rights made statements and passed two UN resolutions in order to seek redress to those victims of such aggressive activities. How what UN HRC High Commissioner did is diferent is open and frank in her statements of facts and urged the SL government to do something urgently to address the long standing problems. There is no sign that anything will happen to the victims as they are surrounded by a large number of SL security forces that is composed of ethnic majority. The occupying forces see to it that colonisation of the minorities continue unabated.

  • Kirthi Jayasekera

    Why is this human rights issues coming only after the tiger terrorists were defeated and also only at the end of the war. Lets investigate all crimes in the 30 year long war. Where were the human rights saviors at that time when tiger terrorists were anhilating people of all communities irrespective whether young or old but civilians of all hues to fulfill their agenda. The only thing Pillai couldn’t do was to lay flowers for the big terrorist at Nandikadal. You can’t fool all the people all the time. They deserved what they got for the crimes they commited.

  • nandakumar

    Perhaps they should do that. Then they will find out that the Terrorist were the Sinhalese Lankans themselves. Orchestrating various Gulf of Tonkin incidents to win the west over. Ban in place they moved on NAZI style. Now they’ve been found out so they want everyone else to take a hike. They killed the Vedha off, kicked out the Burghers, now decimating the native Eelam Tamils & now working on the Muslims.

  • Jay

    Grave misjudgement and mistakes were made by both, the LTTE and the Government. There were ample opportunities provided along the way to find peace means of coexistence and were never followed through to lack of leadership. What Srilanka need is ” Lee Kuan Yew” ( ex PM of Siggapore) moment to come out , otherwise slide into anarchy.

  • Obamasal

    Yes, we must investigate all crimes in the 30 year war. All the countries banned LTTE, but in the case of Sri Lankan government which is also alleged to have committed HR and war crimes they want just an independent investigation, here, too, they include LTTE. Pillai is not at all worried about “big terrorist” but civilians, reported to be in excess of 70,000 by the UN internal inquiry. Again you are right no one can fool all the people all the time. The very leaders who boasted ‘zero civilian casualty’ was forced to admit ‘9000 deaths’ by the international community. Wait and see, more to come, they cannot bury the truth for ever.
    Will you persuade the government to agree to investigate all the crimes alleged to have been committed by both parties over 30 year period?

  • Kirthi Jayasekera

    Exactly that’s what srilanka needs, and the majority is prepared for it, if the other party leave aside their racist demands, that come one after the othe making it impossible for any head way. Their only aim is separatism by any means. They should think otherwise and live like Srilankans as in other provinces.

  • Kirthi Jayasekera

    Come on where was a war fought and concluded with zero casualties. In your dreams. Why is this war very different to other wars. War is fought to win not to lose, and losers don’t cry foul, and ask for investigations etc.

  • Sinniah Sivagnanasun

    Pillay`s visit will help keep SL on UNHCR agenda Must come true.

  • nandakumar

    It is you people that have a skewed dream. If empires can fall then you so would you fiefdom. We will be free, we will be free, we will be free! “And when the long fight, has been fought and won, We’ll stand in the sun,And we will raise out hands, And we will touch the sky,Together we will dance in robes of gold!”

  • nandakumar

    what sri lanka needs to do is to live in their part of the island of Ceylon. What Eelamites need is their own country in their part of the island of Ceylon.

  • nandakumar

    you people should live in your provinces & leave our country alone. Tamil Eelam is for eelam tamils. You go live in srilanka, which happens to be in the southern part of the island of ceylon… else you can always go back to bengal

  • Guest

    In Tamil Nadu

  • Guest

    Your part is in Tamil Nadu

  • Kirthi Jayasekera

    You can dance anywhere with hands raised or down wearing golden or what ever crap, yes you are free to do it in Srilanka But the best places for such a grand show would be London, Canada or some European capital as there will be the masters to applaud you for a native dance they haven’t seen.

  • nandakumar

    We will never do it in Sri Lanka-that is you country with the appropriately named “Devil Dance”. Our dance will be in our homeland Tamil Eelam. RajaPuka & his Nelum Poka together with all hiss pukas will go up in a big bang & even Keheliya Borukolla won’t be able to save youy. And giving away the puka of the little boy for which are so famous for will not save your arse (get the pun 😉 ) The Europeans that gave you our land.. so they are your masters. They tied our hands for you as you told them pokies about us & banned us & what not… & they are still our masters?? An obvious case where “puk kolla” has got his head up his own arse

  • nandakumar

    RajaPuka stadium,RajaPuka highway, RajaPuka port & his Nelum Puka all go up wonder if you’d still say war has casualties O would you go crying to the west with oh terrorist terrorist… wonder how many times you’d get away with crying wolf? People whose only source of income is renting the PUKA of their children ought not to try pissing people off too much.

  • nandakumar

    Tamil eelam is our homeland. Yours is genocidal Devil land a bit like
    your dance.. is it a coincidence that you all are called the SinHELLa
    race . Tamil Nadu is our neighbour land you lot our enemy land. go away
    puk kolla!

  • Obamasal

    It’s not I or anyone else who dreamed ‘zero civilian casualty’ it was the Sri Lankan leaders who boasted it saying that soldiers carried gun in one hand and HR book in the other. Again it is not the losers that demand investigations but the world body whose rules and regulations were fornulated by the member countries including Sri Lanka. The claims and counter-claims of the government and LTTE supporters can only be verified by investigations. It will have twin edged advantage.

  • Kirthi Jayasekera

    You are brilliant, perhaps Jhon Lennon’s imagine can help you.Imagine there’s no heaven
    It’s easy if you try
    No hell below us
    Above us only sky
    Imagine all the people
    Living for today…

    Imagine there’s no countries
    It isn’t hard to do
    Nothing to kill or die for
    And no religion too
    Imagine all the people
    Living life in peace…

    You may say I’m a dreamer
    But I’m not the only one
    I hope someday you’ll join us
    And the world will be as one

    Imagine no possessions
    I wonder if you can
    No need for greed or hunger
    A brotherhood of man
    Imagine all the people
    Sharing all the world…

    You may say I’m a dreamer
    But I’m not the only one
    I hope someday you’ll join us

  • nandakumar

    You dream all you imagine, we will live ours!

  • Kirthi Jayasekera

    Imagine all the people living as one in the world
    You and we are brothers
    That’s the way we should live
    We will stive to do it
    That’s the vision of Srilanka.

    Imagine…………it goes on

  • nandakumar

    You and your fellow Sri Lankans are brothers & so live together & be happy in your homelands with your strange version Buddhism. Let us Eelam Tamils live in peace in our homeland. Eelam Tamils & Sinhalese are not brothers we never will now or in the future.Dream your imaginations as you please, just leave us alone!

  • Kirthi Jayasekera

    Come on if you are Srilankan it is your homeland too, just like the thousands who live in wellawtte , Kandy etc. they are happy and doing well. All provinces are our homeland as well as Tamils, who are Srilankan. If you can get that concept there is no problem. Actually we are happy to share hope you Tamils too think differently and shed your racist homeland concept and share Jaffna with all citizens in the country just like we have done.

  • Obamasal

    Unless you treat other ethnic communities as equals they do not feel happy and on par. If you force your language on them (Sinhala Only), your religion on them by demilishing their places of worship and build Buddhist viharas everywhere, recruit only Sinhalese to police, army, navy and airforce, elect president, prime ministers and 98% minisers always from ethnic majority they feel being colonised. On top of it display Sinhalese speaking soldiers among Tamil speaking population they feel suffocated and you say to them we are all equal, DO you expect them to believe you?

  • Kirthi Jayasekera

    It is a hard fact that Sinhalese are more than 79% . What can we do about it.

  • Raymond

    Those who preach to live in harmony think others have short memories. What about all the communal riots unleashed against the Tamils. If the Tamils not had a place to go all would have been perished now. Remember the dogs who massacred, burnt alives even young as 1 month old babies. A cruel race called Sinhalese and follows Buddah prechings

  • nandakumar

    well they can be 100% sinHELLese in their own country -so go live in Sri Lanka which lies in the southern part of the island of Ceylon & let us live in peace in our part of the island in our country Tamil Eelam!

  • nandakumar

    look at the woman in the picture – a Sin-Hell-ese woman… how perfectly well she epitomises the yakkas in you all!

  • Kirthi Jayasekera

    She looks more Tamil than SinHellaya.

  • casey

    She is definitely Sinhalese but maybe her great grand mothers were not boinked by Portuguese sailors like the vast majority of coastal Sinhala Pereras, Silvas and Fernandos. ha ha ha

  • casey

    The European colonialists annexed our homeland with the Sinhala homeland, we will make the present day Europeans to correct the mistake of their forefathers.

  • Rajkumar

    Sinhalese are the one and ONLY historic enemies of Tamils.

  • nandakumar

    Live in you land & let us live in peace in ours. Everything else is immaterial. Lion, state sponsored Budhist Nazis, HR, UN, XYZ… who care …. Just get out of our homeland!

  • Kirthi Jayasekera

    It should be the other way around. Please read history. Did Sinhala ever invade Tamil Nadu. If one force in to the neighbors house and try to evict him saying he is the intruder, and call international policeman, nothing can be done.

  • srivanamoth

    The UNHRC should try and educate the SL Government on the UN Charter and on all the laws applicable including outcomes for serious transgressions of such laws. That is key to a better future for ALL. Merely signing international documents for publicity’s and propaganda sake is not enough. There is responsibility to observe such laws to the very letter. If not an equal responsibility is cast on the UN to act.

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