By Jehan Perera
So far, it appears that the implications of the resolution on Sri Lanka passed at the UN Human Rights Council last week against the Sri Lankan government’s objections, have been taken with a pinch of salt. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena’s reaction to the passage of the resolution by a 22-11 margin was to take note that 14 countries had abstained and, therefore, a majority of the countries had not given their support to the resolution. Two of the countries that abstained, India and Japan, are powerful and important ones to Sri Lanka, as indeed they are in the world, which makes them well suited to play a bridge-building role in the future within the UN Human Rights Council. The relative equanimity with which the passage of the resolution was received within the country as a whole would be on account of the upbeat assessment of the situation by the government. The majority of the population who voted the government into power continue to feel that it is looking after the national interest where this issue is concerned.
From the perspective of the general public, whose attention is presently gripped by other pressing matters, such as the cost of living, the passage of the UNHRC resolution posed no significant cause for alarm, especially as the government, they have voted for, has expressed confidence in having the support of a majority of countries. Further, the resolution itself carries no punitive sanctions. It provides recommendations about what the government should and should not do in terms of ensuring accountability for human rights abuses, preventing new ones from occurring, caring for war victims, increasing the space for civil society to work, and reducing the role of the military in governance. There are no punitive measures mentioned directly in the resolution. Therefore the people believe the government when it says it can deal with the evolving situation.
However, there is a difference between domestic politics and international realities. The fact that there is no immediate adverse fallout from the resolution needs to be considered carefully. There are three serious problems that can arise in the future. First, the resolution specifies that Sri Lanka will be on the agenda of the UNHRC for the next one and a half years. As this body meets three times a year, this means that Sri Lanka will be under regular scrutiny by the international community. It is liable to suffer reputational damage if critical observations against it are being constantly made which can impact negatively on the country’s attractiveness as a location for economic development projects. As the government is focused on economic development it would be in the national interest to make the Geneva process a constructive one that gives confidence to potential investors about the future of the country.
Second, the previous UNHRC resolutions on Sri Lanka were limited to getting the Sri Lankan government to act in accordance with the recommendations of the international community. Even when the last resolution, which was co-sponsored by the former government, had accepted a role for foreign judges, it was the Sri Lankan government that was to be in charge of the special courts. The onus was on Sri Lanka to be the party to act and to be in charge. However, the present resolution gives the power to act and to be in charge also to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The significance of the resolution is enhanced by the fact that it empowers the High Commissioner’s office to look also at the present and ongoing situation in the country and not limit itself to the issue of war time violations and immediate post-war violations only.
This resolution gives the High Commissioner’s office the authority to set up a special unit to gather information and evidence on human rights violations taking place in Sri Lanka. That is to “strengthen the capacity of the Office of the High Commissioner to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in Member States, with competent jurisdiction” (operative Clause 6) and a budget of USD 2.8 million to implement it.
The possibility of punitive action is implicit in the fact that the recently passed resolution welcomes the report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, which was released in late January this year, set out facts from a perspective that indicates that Sri Lanka is heading in the direction of contracting space for political freedom, weakening of checks and balances in governance and increased conflict between ethnic and religious communities. The recommendations given in the UN High Commissioner’s report range from freezing of assets, travel bans and targeted sanctions against public officials suspected of human rights violations and referral of such cases to international tribunals including the International Criminal Court and an invitation to individual countries to take action under the principle of universal jurisdiction.
Third, if Sri Lanka is seen as not complying with the resolution, another sanction could be the loss of the European Union’s GSP Plus tariff concession currently given to Sri Lankan exporters. As the EU is Sri Lanka’s largest export market, the denial of the GSP Plus would have a negative impact on the country’s economy and on employment opportunities. When Sri Lanka lost its GSP Plus concession in 2010 due to allegations of human rights, it resulted in a loss of export revenues of an estimated Rs 150-250 billion till its reinstatement in 2017. Especially in a context in which there is an economic downturn in the aftermath of the first and second waves of the Covid pandemic, the loss of the GSP Plus needs to be strenuously resisted. One of the conditions of granting the GSP Plus concession is that human rights violations should cease and the Prevention of Terrorism Act should be replaced with a counter terrorism law that is in conformity with international standards.
None of these worst case scenarios need to come about if the government looks at the recommendations in the resolution and makes a good faith effort to implement them. In the run up to the vote on Sri Lanka in Geneva, a European ambassador said that regardless of the way the vote went, their relations with the Sri Lankan government would continue as before. This was followed by a discussion in which a balanced assessment was made of the problems of democratic politics worldwide where nationalist forces are getting increasingly powerful. In Europe, for instance, there are political parties that espouse nationalism against ethnic and religious minorities who are seen as interlopers. Those from the international community who are self-critical will have an appreciation about Sri Lanka’s own challenges of governance.
Sri Lanka’s encounter with nationalism has been central to its existence as a democratic polity. Sri Lanka has not been able to relegate nationalism to the margins as Western countries have done, and which many East European countries have still failed to do. This may explain the European ambassador’s affirmation of a continued constructive engagement with the Sri Lankan government regardless of the outcome of the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka. But the best answer will come if the government, together with the Opposition meets the Geneva challenge. It is encouraging that leader of the main Opposition party, Sajith Premadasa, has made this constructive offer. Similar offers by leaders of the ethnic and religious minority parties and an acceptance of the same by the government are called for. We need to reform our polity to ensure fairness in governance not so much for the sake of Geneva or future Geneva, but to be at peace with ourselves to develop our country and its people.
Farewell to Angela Merkel
With six minutes of continuous, warm and heartfelt applause; out on the streets, on balconies, through the windows, and from all portals imaginable, the whole country of Germany applauded, irresistibly, a woman who is a spectacular example of leadership and a stickler for the defence of human dignity, when she stepped down from her position of Chancellor/Prime Minister of Germany.
Around 18 years ago, the Germans elected Angelica Merkel to lead them, and she led 80 million Germans for 18 years with competence, skill, dedication and sincerity. She did not generally utter nonsense and there was no meaningless political rhetoric. She did not appear in the alleys of Berlin to be photographed. She was dubbed “The Lady of the World” and even graphically described as the virtual equivalent of six million men!!!!
During these 18 years of her leadership authority in her country, no transgressions of political power were ever recorded against her. She did not assign any of her relatives to a government position. She did not claim that she was the maker of glories. She did not get millions of euros in commission payments, nor did she hire or compel anyone to cheer her performance. She did not receive charters and pledges and, she did not fight those who preceded her. In 2021, Merkel elected to step down, not attempt to get a fifth term as the Chancellor of Germany, left the party leadership position and handed it over to those who came after her, with Germany and its German people in the best condition ever.
The reaction of the Germans was unprecedented in the history of the Country. The entire population went out to their balconies of their houses and clapped for her spontaneously for six continuous minutes. A standing ovation nationwide. Germany stood as one body bidding farewell to their leader, a chemical physicist who was not tempted by the fashions or the fancy lights and who did not buy real estate, cars, yachts and private planes. She was always well aware of the fact that she is from former East Germany.
She graciously elected to step down from her post while leaving Germany at the top. She left and her relatives did not claim any advantage. Eighteen years and she never changed her wardrobe. At a press conference, a female journalist asked Merkel “We notice that you’re wearing the same suit, don’t you have any other?” She replied “I am a government employee and not a fashion model”. The entire German populace prayed that God be upon this silent leader.
At another press conference, they asked her “Do you have housemaids who clean your house, prepare your meals and so on?” Her answer was “No, I do not have servants and I do not need them. My husband and I do this work at home every day”.
Mrs. Merkel lives in a normal apartment like any other citizen. She lived in this apartment before being elected Chancellor of Germany. She did not leave it and does not own a villa, servants, swimming pools or gardens. Once a journalist asked “Who is washing the clothes, you or your husband?” She answered “I arrange the clothes, and my husband is the one who operates the washing machine, and it is usually at night, because electricity is available and there is no pressure on it. The most important thing is to take into the account the possible inconvenience for the neighbours. Thankfully the wall separating our apartment from the neighbours is thick”. Then she followed it up with the quip, “I actually expected you to ask me about the successes and failures of our work in the government?”
After losing a devastating World War II, in the early 1940s, Germany was slowly built on the ashes of the Nazi Regime of Adolf Hitler by very many statespersons, the latest of whom is Angela Merkel. They showed a dedicated commitment to the welfare of that country and its people. Their untiring efforts made Germany to be the one it is now; the largest economy of the whole of Europe.
Angela Merkel is the exact opposite of most of our politicians in the Paradise Isle. The latter lot have all the qualities and attributes which are those of precise antipathy to the admirable and fabulous characteristics of former Chancellor Angela Merkel. It is most lamentable that this resplendent isle has so far not seen the arrival of a person of such commendable talents, abilities and statesmanship to guide us out of a 73-year long abyss of perpetual self-destruction. —
(Extracted from https://sgtalk.org/mybb/Thread-Germany-bid-farewell-to-Merkel-with-six-minutes-of-warm-applause)
COVID-19 lockdown: Too little, too late
After dragging its feet to heed the advice of medical professionals, starting well before the Sinhala New Year, the government has finally clamped down on a lockdown, banning movement of people, from province to province. The argument, on the government side, is that a full lockdown affects the economy, but this does not take into account increasing Covid patients and the resulting increased health costs incurred by the Government to treat these patients. It is a case of choosing between death or hunger. People are accustomed to complete lockdowns, as it happened last year, about this time. The question remains whether such a partial lockdown is effective in controlling the spread of Covid. My own suggestion is to go for a complete lockdown of the country, for at least two weeks. Imposing night time curfew is ineffective since people to people transmission takes place during day time when people flock to do shopping and to attend to various other chores.
People in this country are not disciplined to wear face masks and practice social distancing. They wear the mask, only at the sight of a policeman. The enforced partial lockdown, at present, will not curb the spread of the disease, especially in the provinces where people attend to their business as usual. In crowded market places, in particular, there is scant regard for health guidelines. It may be appropriate to include someone uthorized in human behavior, in the COVID task force. The Health Ministry epidemiologist has gone on record saying that the present escalation of Covid patients is mainly due to the Sinhala aurudhu season where people were travelling all over the country, specially to places such as Nuwara-Eliya and Kataragama. Media were reporting uthoriz frolicking in Nuwara-Eliya without any consideration of health guidelines and where the Mayor, himself, was involved in uthorized a festival for holidaymakers. The result is all the traffic policemen, on duty, in Nuwara-Eliya, got Covid and they had to be replaced by officers from other stations. Similar incidents have taken place at Kataragama where large crowds gathered. It is a well-known habit that people travel to these places during the New Year period. Had the government listened to the health professionals, instead of its own advisors, this could have been avoided.
In India, which is facing a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions, ignorance of people is the main cause in spreading this virus, just like here. Political consideration takes precedence over health and even some provincial elections were held during the pandemic. Also, religious activities, such as mass poojas, with complete disregard to health guidelines, are another main reason for the spread of Covid in India. Even in Jaffna there was a pooja attended by a large crowd where none wore face masks. . The famous Indian writer, Aurunditha Roy, was blunt in venting her anger and frustration, even asking Prime Minister Modi to step aside. Similarly, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the Covid Task Force, in the USA, urged Prime Minister Modi to go for a total lockdown, at least on two occasions. This Indian variety is the most contagious and a WHO official said on Monday (May 10) that it is reclassifying the highly contagious triple mutant Covid variant spreading in India as a “variant of concern” at the global level. This is known as B.1.617, which has been found to spread more easily than the original virus and there is evidence that the currently available vaccines are ineffective against this virus mutant. Recently an Indian Professor from the Rutgers University, USA, who was an expert on infectious diseases, who travelled to India, died of the corona virus and this was after getting both vaccines in the USA. This is alarming because this virulent Indian variety was found in Sri Lanka from an affected Indian citizen. How many Indians came to Sri Lanka in recent weeks should be investigated and they should be properly isolated and quarantined. The question arises as to who uthorized the entry of Indians to our country when most governments have banned the entry of Indians into their countries. In April alone, statistics of the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Board (SLTDB) reveal that a total of 4,168 international tourists have arrived in Sri Lanka during and most of these arrivals were from India followed by China and Kazakhstan. It is shocking to see some ministers still talking about a tourist bubble to bring in Indian tourists. Doctors at the Sri Jayawardenapura University also reported that the British variety of the virus originated from the tourist bubble of Ukranian tourists. This was first revealed on April 8th by the same group and despite this warning the government thought it fit not to go for a complete lockdown during the New Year period.
Health professionals, too, has a role in taking a more positive stand, instead of talking vaguely about provincial lockdowns which are not going to work. Why cannot they ask the President to completely lockdown the entire country? Recently, Malaysia enforced a complete lockdown of the country to tackle the problem. New Zealand controlled the pandemic by strictly enforcing lockdowns, even when one positive case was found. The USA has been able to control the pandemic through mass vaccinations and over 50% of the total populations has been vaccinated so far, as opposed to 3% in Sri Lanka. It is the only way to fight this invisible enemy. There is no other alternative but to enforce a total lockdown if we have to come out of this dire situation.
Prof. O. A. Ileperuma
Geographical Information Maps for Covid-19 control
Around six months ago, the issue about lack of spatial information about the whereabouts of Covid-19 patients, came up, but, unfortunately, it has not been resolved yet. At that time the GMOA gave an ultimatum to the Ministry of Health that it will withdraw from the Technical Committee for Covid-19 control, if analyzed Geographical Information System (GIS) maps of Covid-19 patient-locations will not be made available. Although most don’t agree with the GMOA with some of their actions, on this matter I was more than 100% with them. The GMOA is an organization, which has many knowledgeable specialists in the areas of epidemiology, disease control and Information Technology, and I believe their knowledge, attitude and valuable inputs made it easy for the control teams to prevent the escalation of this epidemic.
The geographical maps are valuable tools to the MOHs, PHIs for their control work, and also to the general public to know of the locations of the patients, at least at the street level, so that they can avoid such areas. I think the Presidential Task Force also should be shown these maps, if they have not seen it yet, to make informed decisions. This week again, the President of the GMOA stated, over a private TV channel, that they, in fact, put up a GIS room next to the Director General of Health Services’ room, and that is a right move. He vented his frustrations when he came out with the difficulty in getting the maps done through the Epidemiology Unit to get this genre going. To fight a war there should be a central command and control room, and maps are a very important tool. Even 30 years ago, the officers in the field sent in the data about the spread of diseases, or they took samples, such as of stools of cholera patients, but they never got the analyzed reports, as someone was keeping them in the centre to write a paper to a journal.
Twenty years ago, when I was the Chief Medical Officer of Health of the CMC, realizing the value of GIS maps, I used them for dengue control in Colombo; and it provided great information to plan and implement control measures. We could see clusters of patients, and the gradual movement of the cluster into newer areas with time. My maps were used by at least the Peradeniya University to train Medical Officers in Health Mapping. I was also invited as the keynote speaker, by the Geographical Information Society. Many came to me from the Ministry of Health, KDU and other institutions to learn what we had done. Since then, the Ministry has trained some doctors who are now experts in GIS mapping, and they could be used to map the patient locations, show high, medium and low risk areas and also put in other information. The Public Health Department of CMC gave Geographical Position System-GPS training to Public Health Inspectors those days, to send in the information from the patient’s location to the GIS centre at the Town Hall, where all such information was collated. We then prepared the maps and sent them out to the MOHs and also discussed the situation at meetings.
I hope they have continued that work and, if so, they also should put out the maps of present patient locations in the CMC website, so that the people in Colombo will also know which areas in the city they should avoid. Colombo city was the centre of transmission of Covid-19 in the country a few months ago as nothing materialised. It is a pity that I can’t even get any information about Covid-19 patients in the CMC area, although I am the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Health and Sanitation at the CMC. The system I built up has come to a standstill, and sometimes even after eight months, I can’t get any answers to my questions given at Council meetings. Frustrated, I even wrote to the Epidemiology Unit asking for information about patient locations to better plan our prevention programmes, at least to prevent patients dying at home. But after listening to the GMOA President, yesterday, I now know it is a futile exercise. Information is power, but why not give it at a time of national crisis for the greater good of the people?
Technology should be used in disease prevention as much as possible, especially in this case, but the people in top positions are scared to use newer technology mostly because they don’t know about such technologies, or do not know how to use them. When PCR testing was started, a few leading private firms wanted to donate the latest automated PCR machine, but it was turned down by the people who were to use it, as they wanted a machine that could be used manually. That was my personal experience. There are other interests involved, too. Now I believe only the Sri Jayewardenepura University has an Automated machine which is 4-5 times faster in giving results.
Similarly, through GIS mapping we can put together a lot of information in a short time, and the analyzed information can be made available to the people who make decisions, and those in the field. Seeing the ground situation with one’s own eyes, is better than seeing some numbers. I hope the President, the Ministers and the Presidential Task Force will seriously take note of this, as this is very valuable public information that can be used to control this epidemic, at this critical juncture. For example, the information through maps could be used at least to know whether we should lock down a city or a district, or a province, or a few of them, etc., to prevent further escalation of this Covid-19 epidemic. There could be even a working sub-committee set up to do this work. Please do not put away this information in cold storage as someone’s private property. Let saner counsel prevail.
Dr. PRADEEP KARIYAWASAM
Chairman, Standing Committee on Health/CMC
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