Jayatilleke de Silva
Last week was one of hope and despair. Hope because a group of academics came out boldly in defence of the Chairman of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) who was unjustly accused of being “an agent of the Tamil Diaspora”, “an LTTE agent” and ‘a traitor”.
Despair was on account of the emotionally charged and politically motivated attack on the academics, the Chairperson of the HRCSL and all citizens who differ in their opinion. That is shown in the rejoinder sent by Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera turned politician sent to the media.
The Chairperson of the HRCSL Dr. Deepika Udagama has in a press interview clarified the position of the HRCSL in this regard. The two statements –one by Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera and the other by Dr. Deepika Udagama stand out clearly in contrast. The former is emotionally charged, politically motivated, unrestrained and far from polite while the latter is an unemotional intellectual and restrained response. The two statements differ even in their tone and language, the latter being more decent and diplomatic than the former.
The main allegation against the HRCSL and its Chairperson is that they were disrespectful to the members of the Security Forces who sacrificed life and limb to save the motherland from the grip of terrorism and are dancing to the tune of the Tamil Diaspora. It was Sarath Weerasekera’s opinion that such persons are traitors and should be punished. Punishment for treason is death. In other words, it was a veiled death threat to a public servant for performing duties entrusted to her officially. This is not a personal threat to Dr. Deepika Udagama. It is a threat to all public servants performing their duties, which in the opinion of the ilk of Sarath Weerasekera, amounts to be agents of the LTTE. Further, any citizen with dissenting views could become a “traitor” according to their definition.
What has happened for him to bring out this allegation? He says that the HRCSL is vetting members of the security forces that are selected for UN Peace Keeping Missions abroad prior to their departure and often there are delays and obstructions by the HRCSL.
Allegations of war crimes
This vetting was in response to a request from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which thought that the best authority to do so is the HRCSL. In fact, it has been done earlier by a UN body and this is the first time a national body was engaged for the task. Sarath and Co. should be happy that it is a local body, not a foreign one that is vetting our soldiers’ credentials and record. Ironically they are the very people who call for a local judicial mechanism concerning allegations of war crimes in the last stage of the civil war in the country. What they actually are no investigation at all, whether local or foreign.
Members of the security forces should receive open indemnity and should not be touched by the law enforcement officials. Just imagine what a boost it would give crime. Already dozens of security forces personnel are indicted in the courts of law over various charges of assault, rape, murder and financial crimes. All of them would go scot free. Punishing miscreants is not a vindictive measure against the armed forces. In fact, it would enhance their prestige when its stables are cleared of such parasites. Indeed it is the practice of all civilized nations.
There were, however, delays on account of unforeseen circumstances as well as procedural causes. They were explained by the HRCSL. One was to ensure a proper vetting which would enhance the country’s prestige in the international arena and reinforce the confidence in Sri Lankan judicial processes, a vital necessity in implementing the decisions agreed upon at the United Nations.
Another allegation was that the HRCSL is for the repeal of the PTA. It is not the HRCSL but the Government of Sri Lanka that has promised to repeal it. Of course, it is to be replaced by a new law that ensures human rights. In fact, a draft law that was presented to Parliament was sent back to the Cabinet for revision. Perhaps Sarath Weerasekera being a latecomer in politics may not know that the PTA was originally brought and approved by Parliament as a temporary legislation for one year and later extended for another year. That means even its original authors knew about its Draconian nature.
All parties in the then Opposition opposed it and the SLFP walked out of the House in protest when it was brought in. Former Prime Minister Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike was among those who demonstrated outside Hyde Park, Colombo squatting on the road junction. According to Sarath Weerasekera, all of them become traitors!
According to the PTA, anyone could be arrested on mere suspicion and kept in detention without being produced in a court of law. The place of detention could be any place desired by the Minister. It entailed strict conditions that further limited the human rights of victims.
Office of Missing Persons
The law does not respect ethnicity or religion. Thousands of Sinhala and Tamil persons, as well as representatives of Muslims, were also arrested and kept in long periods of detention. Detention did not end after 18 months. It continued under Emergency Regulations for an indefinite period until freed or indicted in courts. Detainees could appeal to the Review Board which was a toothless paper tiger and its recommendations ended in the dustbin of the relevant Ministry.
Torture was rampant under the PTA. Many were the numbers arrested on the flimsiest grounds. Some were taken up due to a mix-up of identities. No bail was available by law though it has been breached by the courts for some elite recently. Who would want such a law in the permanent Statute Book but a fascist or a dictator?
Incidentally, the other objections are also to measures the Government has taken half-heartedly after much delay with regard to the provision of transitional justice to the victims of the 30-year old fratricidal war in the country, viz., the Office of Missing Persons (OMP), reparation mechanisms etc.
It is apparent that if such persons who intransigently hold on to politically motivated emotionally charged opinions of who a patriot and who a traitor is according to their own whims and fancies without any rational basis, there would be a witch-hunt against all who dissent with their opinion. There would not be any right to dissent. We could only say with Bertrand Russel that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”.