UN commissioner challenges Sri Lanka human rights denial

By Savi Hensman
September 1, 2013

At a press conference in Colombo on 31 August 2013, United Nations high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay highlighted serious ongoing concerns, while recognising progress in some areas. Numerous people continue to be denied human rights, in part because so many others are in denial about abuses by state or rebel forces.

In the previous week, she had met government and opposition leaders, human rights activists and families who had suffered. She had visited the north and east of the island as well as the south to see the situation on the ground, and she expressed appreciation for being allowed to go where she wanted.

However she had strong words for those in, or allied with, the government who tried to smear her because of the UN criticisms of human rights violations by the state, as well as for overseas Sri Lankan Tamils who still looked up to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, heavily defeated in 2009 after “a conflict that saw numerous war crimes and other violations committed by both sides.”

“Some media, ministers, bloggers and various propagandists in Sri Lanka have, for several years now, on the basis of my Indian Tamil heritage, described me as a tool of the LTTE. They have claimed I was in their pay,” Pillay said. “This is not only wildly incorrect, it is deeply offensive. This type of abuse has reached an extraordinary crescendo during this past week, with at least three Government Ministers joining in.”

She pointed out that in fact “I am a South African and proud of it” (she was an anti-apartheid activist, using her skills as a lawyer to uphold the rights of political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela).

What is more, “the LTTE was a murderous organisation that committed numerous crimes and destroyed many lives. In fact, my only previous visit to Sri Lanka was to attend a commemoration of the celebrated legislator, peacemaker and scholar, Neelan Tiruchelvam, who was killed by an LTTE suicide bomb in July 1999. Those in the diaspora who continue to revere the memory of the LTTE must recognise that there should be no place for the glorification of such a ruthless organisation. “

She was impressed by the physical reconstruction achieved in the north and east, but “a more holistic approach” is needed. It is necessary to tackle “the curtailment or denial of personal freedoms and human rights”, along with “persistent impunity and the failure of rule of law”. She referred to the experiences of people of various communities who have not been granted justice, including the relatives of the ‘disappeared’, and “expressed concern at the recent surge in incitement of hatred and violence against religious minorities, including attacks on churches and mosques, and the lack of swift action against the perpetrators.”

She also criticised “the harassment and intimidation of a number of human rights defenders, at least two priests, journalists, and many ordinary citizens who met with me, or planned to meet with me.” She was “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.”

No doubt some Sri Lankan government sympathisers will be busy vilifying Pillay and the UN over the next few days, claiming – however implausibly – that they are biased towards the Tigers. Meanwhile those who yearn for the days when the LTTE was free to blow up or shoot civilians, torture or assassinate its critics will probably, for the most part, ignore her blunt words about the terror it inflicted. Psychological denial, either that atrocities took place or alternatively of the human cost, is still all too common.

Yet refusal to face uncomfortable facts about violations of others’ rights by the powerful allows such abuses to continue, in Sri Lanka and internationally. For suffering to be healed and nations to thrive socially and spiritually, truth and justice are vital.

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(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, social justice, welfare and religion. She was born in Sri Lanka and follows development there, and in the region, closely. She works in the care and equalities sector and is an Ekklesia associate.

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