Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
It is no matter for jest when the President of a country publicly singles out national oversight institutions for ferocious censure. And without a doubt, it is even worse when that institution happens to be a national human rights institution.
By the very nature of the work that it does and the statutory mandate on which it is obliged to act, it is perhaps the most vulnerable of oversight agencies and needs support by the political constituency as well as by the public.
Profoundly unclear logic in the criticism
This week, betraying all these cautions, President Maithripala Sirisena went for the jugular of Sri Lanka’s National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, alleging among other things, that the deaths of two Sri Lankan peacekeepers in Mali would have been avoided if the Commission had not delayed clearances of members of the military selected for peacekeeping activities overseas.
Put politely, the logic, if any, in the President’s allegation remained profoundly unclear. It appeared that his thinking was that, if the clearances had been accelerated by the Commission, the two soldiers would have returned to Sri Lanka earlier and thus, not have been put at risk. This is, of course, an astoundingly far-fetched claim at best and utterly farcical at worst.
Peace-keeping, by its very nature, involves risks which soldiers are fully cognisant of when they agree to serve on the missions. Linking the two deaths to the vetting procedures adopted by the Human Rights Commission in approving peacekeepers is a reprehensible allegation. It would have been bad enough if these statements had been made by extremist Sinhala nationalists (as in fact, they have been). Even so, that would have been understandable enough given the zenophobic corners that they inhabit.
Are we being pushed to the past?
However when such claims are made by the President himself, the situation becomes far more serious. If his aim is to undermine the credibility of the Commission in the eyes of the public, then this is the precise manner to go about it. Needless to say, that this also rebounds on the credibility of the President himself or what remains of it. We have experienced past examples of such Commissions which openly acted according to political dictates.
Commission members disgracefully held press conferences supporting politicians and declared that the Commission was not interested in collecting data about past ‘enforced disappearances’. Is this then the aim, to reduce the Commission to that despicable level?
The point is that, though some may dismiss these Presidential statements as aberrations, the issue is not so simplistic. This is the Head of State. What is pronounced publicly by him has a consequential impact on society. He must be called upon to reconsider these allegations and as the attack itself has been public, make public that reconsideration.
In a commendably restrained response to the bewildering allegations, the Commission responded this Friday pointing out that the claims were ‘absolutely incorrect’ and that there had been no ‘delays or carelessness’ on its part. It was clarified that upon the military, the police, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Defense, the Commission and the United Nations) had unanimously agreed to adopt a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for the vetting process and that, consequent to the same being adopted late last year, the vetting process had resumed.
Protection of ‘even the rejected’
Observing that it was ‘disheartened and discouraged’ by the Presidential criticism, the Commission also strongly refuted the President’s further claim that it had trespassed beyond its authority in questioning as to why the Special Task Force had been deployed to Angunakolapelessa Prisons. Pointing out that a primary statutory obligation related to the monitoring of the welfare of detainees ( Article 28 (2) of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Act No. 21 of 1996), it was observed that this involved ‘inquiring into the safety of detainees, their basic needs, sanitary facilities, rehabilitation process’ according to national and international guidelines.
In a reminder to the President, (which is regrettable in that the President should not need to be reminded of the same), the Commission went on to emphasize that its duty was to protect even ‘marginalized and rejected’ individuals and that it is ‘a misconception to interpret the Commission presenting facts regarding the rights of prisoners and the types of punishments, in accordance with human rights law, as an attempt by the Commission to protect criminals.’
But there is a greater irony involved which would have been amusing if the context of this dispute was not so grave. This emanates from the fact that the President had also accused the constitutional commissions of not adhering to Standard Operating Procedures in their functioning. But it appears that the adoption of this very Procedure for the vetting of Sri Lankan peacekeepers had been conveniently forgotten by the President when he thought fit to embark on this virulent offensive against the Human Rights Commission. That by itself is worthy of note.
A deliberate pattern in the attacks
Only the exceedingly naive would believe that the pattern of attacks launched by the country’s chief executive and by supportive ‘Pohottuwa Party’ supporters of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa on the Constitutional Council (CC) and the Human Rights Commission is random. A few days prior to the storm involving the Human Rights Commission, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya tabled the criteria followed by the CC in approving persons for high statutory and constitutional offices, including the commissions. This was in the wake of disputes concerning the promotion of judges.
As was clearly seen, this fracas was preceded with a crude attack by a key Rajapaksa propagandist on the floor of the House on ‘Christian’ judges being appointed The criteria tabled by the Speaker where judicial appointments were concerned includes seniority together with professional and public eminence. There is little doubt that, frustrated by the constitutional setbacks that were administered by the superior courts and by furious public opinion last year which resulted in an attempted political coup to capture power outside the electoral process by a combined group of Sri Lanka Freedom Party and ‘Pohottuwa’members being shot down, the focus is now to attack the very premise of independent constitutional institutions.
While no doubt, there are deficiencies in their functioning, these must be redressed through amicable dialogue rather than through a public and savage pillorying as it were. This is true of all oversight bodies who have been established to act as the protectors of citizens. Consequently what has befallen the Human Rights Commission at the hands of the Executive President of the country is not only injust but unsupportable.
It is hoped that sense and sanity will prevail in this regard.