Written by Siddharth Kotian
09 Feb, 2016 | 8:06 pm
In the only interaction given to the press, at the conclusion of his four-day visit to Sri Lanka, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein praised, and gave caution to Sri Lanka.
He described his trip as “a much more friendly, cooperative and encouraging visit” than the one his predecessor, Navi Pillay, had to undergo during her tenure as the Human Rights Chief.
Describing the then attacks against the office he now holds as “vituperative”, he said his predecessor was attacked “because she addressed a number of burning human rights issues that any High Commissioner for Human Rights would have raised at that time”.
He said he was “aware” that a similar welcome had been arranged by “some people” but brushed off the “voices of hatred and bigotry” saying he was glad all voices, including moderates in Sri Lanka, were being heard.
The High Commissioner’s visit has been packed with meetings across the country, culminating in sessions with the President, Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. He also interacted with the relatives of those missing or killed during the three-decade conflict, leading him to admit “I am all too conscious of the suffering and fear that the years of bombings, killings and other abuses inflicted on this society.”
Prince Zeid praised the “several recent highly symbolic” steps taken to bring together communities in Sri Lanka, including the singing of the national anthem in Tamil, and the reciprocal visit by the Northern Province Chief Minister to a Buddhist Temple in Jaffna. He also praised the President for pardoning an LTTE prisoner who plotted to assassinate him.
The Commissioner’s visit was built on the groundwork laid in the past year, not least, the signing of the resolution passed jointly with Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Prince Zeid was full of praise for what the resolution meant, comparing the document to a “reflection” of the “reform agenda” that Sri Lankans voted for. He also dismissed “myths and misconceptions” about the resolution, namely allegations that it amounted to foreign interference in Sri Lanka.
On the contrary, he commended it as the country’s commitment to confronting that past honestly, and likened it to taking out “comprehensive insurance against any future devastating outbreak of inter communal tensions and conflict”.
While encouraging all Sri Lankans to understand the resolution, he said that the text adopted in October last year, was high on the list of priorities in all his meetings in Sri Lanka.
One of the biggest points of contention has been the possible inclusion of foreign judges in the courts to be set up. To this effect the High Commissioner stated “the country’s key institutions were seriously corroded and corrupted during three decades of conflict and human rights violations” and he went on the single out the “draconian” Prevention of Terrorism Act.
He did however have some praise for the country’s judicial system saying “Sri Lanka has many excellent judges, lawyers, and law enforcement officials”.
But it seemed apparent the commissioner will push for the inclusion of foreign judges as he pointed out that “Virtually every week provides a new story of a failed investigation” and even noted that the Prime Minister had accepted the failings of the judiciary in his January the 27, speech in parliament.
However, he stated that “Sri Lanka has come a long way in the past year….The element of fear has considerably diminished, at least in Colombo and the South. In the North and the East, it has mutated but, sadly, still exists.”
Admitting the enormity of the task at hand, he remarked “Repairing the damage done by a protracted conflict is a task of enormous complexity” and posited reasons for this being due to “large parts of the country (being) physically, politically, socially and economically separated from each other”. His solutions would involve rebuilding trust that would “take years of political courage, determination and skilled coordination and planning”.
The commissioner charged that the government must find a way to charge, or release the remaining security-related detainees. He said that after the Prime Minster’s recent announcement that most of the disappeared were likely dead, it was the imperative of the government to find out who was killed, whether their killing was unlawful, and find their remains to give families redress.
“Sri Lanka must confront and defeat the demons of its past”, he said
He voiced concern for “women, people with disabilities, people with different sexual orientations, and other groups suffering discrimination such as the plantation Tamils in Central Sri Lanka” and said he hoped they would now “receive the attention they deserve, not least in the constitutional reform process”.
But he expressed some scepticism saying that “While the Task Force appointed to lead the National Consultation process includes high quality representatives of civil society, there are concerns — including among the Task Force members themselves — that the process is too rushed and has not been properly planned or adequately resourced”.
But as the High Commissioner concluded his remarks, he stressed that “the international community wants to welcome Sri Lanka back into its fold…It wants to help Sri Lanka become an economic powerhouse.”
On the topic of the military he said the international community “wants Sri Lanka’s armed forces to face up to the stain on their reputation, so that they can once again play a constructive role in international peace-keeping operations, and command the full respect that so many of their members deserve.”
But for this, he emphasised, Sri Lanka “must create institutions that work, and ensure accountability.”
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