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Minister Mervyn Must Be Condemned for the “Indecent Proposal” Made to UNHRC Chief Navi Pillay who was so very Deeply Hurt

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N. Sathiya Moorthy

Mervyn Silva MP

Mervyn Silva MP

At the end of the day, the much-publicised and equally important week-long visit of UNHRC chief Navaneetham Pillay to Sri Lanka will be remembered for two wrong reasons. One is for Navi Pillay’s observation that Sri Lanka is moving increasingly towards ‘authoritarianism’. Coming from a senior UN diplomat, it is bad enough. By his own standards, Minister Mervyn Silva set a new bottom-line for crudity, when he said what she had said.

It’s likely that the UNHRC chief was so very deeply hurt by what Minister Mervyn said that she turned her attention to three other Ministers who had claimed she was biased and partisan in adjudging the Government’s handling of post-war issues. Others too may have dubbed her a ‘Tamil tigress’. Navi Pilay’s mentioning of such criticism at the end-of-the-visit news conference reflected the kind of sensitivity that international diplomats are seldom known to display. It is the kind of sensitivity with which she also undertakes the task at hand.

Minister Mervyn has to be condemned for the ‘indecent proposal’ (that is the mildest term applicable). In the era of ‘Arab Spring’, the UNHRC chief cannot escape criticism for her hasty propositions to the world at large on ‘authoritarianism’ in Sri Lanka. Suffice it to point out that at election-time the Opposition UNP is wary of wanting to exploit the Navi Pillay statement nearer home.

The Opposition got silenced in the last months of the war when the EU in particular mounted a similar campaign. The campaign proved to be distasteful in the country. It is not without reason. Going beyond the immediate context then – and to a lesser extent now – Sri Lanka has never been a model for ‘western democracy’, with new values being added to the long list at every turn, as development brings with it progressive thoughts to those nations.

At times, they are seen as camouflaging the West’s economic priorities, but that is a fact that nations have to learn to live with for the foreseeable future. For instance, the GSP-Plus facility ensures exports and jobs for beneficiary nations. It also ensures quality goods at constant prices for the importing nations without interruption in the long term. It comes with a ‘feel good’ factor when you deny jobs to the locals, whose wages, expectations and lifestyles are much, much higher.

It is thus she took exception to being referred to as a ‘Tamil tigress’; her critics in Sri Lanka referring to her ‘Indian origins’. Politicians have domestic constituencies the world over, and as an international diplomat, she should have known better. She deals with a UN Council, not a local government council. Where her reports and recommendations matter such name-calling does not matter.President Mahinda Rajapaksa could have done better than apologising to Navi Pillay when she called on him.

Yet, the President of the nation having apologised to her, Navi Pillay too should have had the grace to leave it at that. Her personal references thus distracted from her observations on specifics. Post-visit, the internal political bickering in the country has focussed not on those specifics, but on the less than palatable parts thereof.

Exceeding the brief?

It looks as if Navi Pillay had exceeded the Council resolution(s) on Sri Lanka, which had sort of bench-marked future references to the LLRC Report. It is likely that her oral submissions to the Council later this month, and written report for the March session, when alone a vote is possible, could be more substantive, specific and contextualised.

If nothing else, before going public, ‘Natural Justice’ demanded that the UNHRC chief stuck to the golden rule and referred allegations to the Government for its comment on police/military agencies trying to find out from interviewees what they had told her earlier. For obvious reasons, she need not have dropped names. She could still have sent across the signal that her office was watching. It has not been clarified if the office went through the motion and did not get any encouraging feedback.

Sri Lanka has smarted under the belief that the international community (read: West), and even the UN system, has been taking unilateral decisions made on unproven allegations of the nature. The Government’s position on the Darusman Report, in terms of context, composition, content, process and leakage, are all too well known.

The earlier UNHRC recommendation to the Council was based on a Report contested by a member-State that Sri Lanka is. The recommendation was based on what the latter claims is a biased and partisan report made without being referred to the Government, hence Navi Pillay’s current statements seem even more controversial.

No Government has ever accepted or even acknowledged UN reports that criticise them. What made Darusman Report stand out was that it was proposed as an internal working paper for the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, otherwise unauthorised by the Council. It was leaked without prior reference/consultation with the Sri Lankan Government. Later, Ki-moon forwarded the very same ‘unauthorised’ Report to the Council. Sri Lanka has since been saying the Report also suffers from ‘backward legitimisation’.

Doubt vs. Suspicion

The international community doubts Sri Lanka’s commitments on post-war promises – promises that were made during the months and years of decisive ‘Eelam War IV’. Whether the world would not have stood by Sri Lanka to smash LTTE terrorism in the post-9/11 global climate otherwise is the question that they should be asking themselves. But Sri Lanka cannot assume the answer and act – or, not act – accordingly.

Sri Lanka suspects the international community in turn. It has not forgotten the human rights pressures brought on the nation as a whole (as perceived internally) at the height of ‘Eelam War IV’. It may not have forgiven the world for the EU-sponsored UNHRC resolution draft, brought forward just 10 days after the successful completion of the ‘humanitarian operation’ (as was branded, convincing none).

Colombo should ask itself what had happened to the counter-resolution which alone got past the Council at the time – the what, how and why of it all, and answer the questions itself. It could, and should, still act on those same answers with the vigour it has shown in countering international criticism.

Inadequate appreciation

It is sad but true that the global community has been short on acknowledging – leave alone praising – Sri Lanka for its achievements on the post-war reconstruction and development efforts in the war-torn North and East. It looks as if the international community is acknowledging what it has been seeing, only because others would also be seeing the same – not possibly otherwise.

The vigour is comparably bountiful when it comes to criticising the Sri Lankan State, Government, and the present leadership on ‘accountability issues’ and other episodes of ‘HR violations’. It is one thing for the international community and institutions such as the UNHRC to come up with positive criticism, with specific suggestions to rectify specific situations arising out of specific complaints, reports, etc. It is entirely another thing for responsible institutions of the UN system, starting with the Secretary-General’s Office, to be accused of bias, partisanship and absence of ‘Natural Justice’.

Maybe, the two sides can sit down and begin tallying, for instance, the number of dead and missing persons. The Darusman Report put it at 40,000, but a subsequent Government study claimed it was much lower at 8000-plus. The Government, after possibly becoming wiser by the earlier folly, does not talk any more about ‘zero-casualty war’, and hence may be more responsive to the need of the hour.

There may be truth and justification in its current Government claims that a substantial number of those ‘last-hour’ deaths could be LTTE cadres’. Otherwise, it would mean that Prabhakaran died without friends and cadres. It is neither the truth, nor would the Tamil community want to believe it was so.

Otherwise, yes, the Government can display the same kind of enthusiasm to initiate early action on specific cases against the soldiers for war-time offences, as it had shown more recently in the ‘Weliweriya episode’.

It is another matter that facts in the war-related case are not as clear-cut and readily substantiated as in the latter. The Government need not, for once, stick to the last day of the four-year deadline it has set itself for the purpose.

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation)

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