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Opinion

Address issues posed by Geneva togetherax

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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.

 

SERIOUS PROBLEMS

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.

 

CONSTRUCTIVE EFFORTS

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.

 

 



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Opinion

The faithful Lankan matriarch from Negombo

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(UCAN) Every day around 7pm, octogenarian Sembuwalage Mary Hariyat faithfully recites the rosary and litany from her old prayer book with lightly frayed edges and irregular-shaped pages.She is never alone as she settles before the statues of Mother Mary and the saints at home. Among those around her are some of her growing brood of 24 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren, not to mention her eight children.

“My prayer book and rosary are my weapons in times of joy and sorrow,” says the 82-year-old from the tourist village of Negombo, known as the “little Rome” of Sri Lanka because of its predominantly Catholic population.

The majority of some 150,000 Catholics in Negombo depend on fishing, just like many other coastal communities in the island nation. Despite a life hit hard by poverty, thousands of Catholic mothers like Hariyat are considered important in building up the local Church.

Hariyat never forgets to neatly arrange a small dish of raw white flowers and light an oil lamp before her prayers at home. On some days, she will burn incense sticks according to traditions passed down from generation to generation.But above all, Hariyat loves to teach the kids prayer rhythms and styles.

Her son Liyanage Samantha said: “It is our mother who taught us rhythms of all prayers. We learned every prayer from her. Now she is teaching our children and their children too,” he said. Her sons, daughters and their families credit her for teaching them how to live their Catholic faith.

“All my eight children and their children and grandchildren are devout Roman Catholics,” Hariyat proclaims with pride.

“I stay with one child for a week. That’s how I divide my time among all my eight children, week after week. If a family member is sick, I stay longer to help and serve in that house,” she says.Every word she utters hints at how grateful she is to God for everything she’s got.

“God has abundantly blessed me and all the members of my large family,” she saiys.

In February 2021, Hariyat suffered a severe heart attack and had to be hospitalized.  She says God and Mother Mary “stayed close to her during the terrible time” and if not for their blessings she would have been long gone. Like a true Sri Lankan Catholic, whenever she or a member of the family faces a problem, Hariyat takes a vow to visit national shrines on a special pilgrimage.

Most of the time it is Our Lady of Madhu, a Marian shrine located in a dense forest in Mannar district, some 220 kilometers from Negombo. The shrine is considered the holiest Catholic site on the island.Hariyat has been attending the August festival at the shrine since she was 20 years old. She even visited during the height of the Sri Lankan civil war, when the shrine was surrounded by refugee camps and shelled many times.After recovering from the heart attack, Hariyat accompanied by the family of one of her sons visited Our Lady of Madhu last June.

Her son too had recovered from a major illness even though the doctors had said he could not be cured. He could not stand or do any work and suffered unbearable pain that prevented him sleeping. Doctors said some tissue lining his spine was torn and could not be rectified.Hariyat recalled praying to Mother Mary for months to heal him. She believes that Mother Mary intervened at her request.

“My son had a major operation and the doctors wanted about 600,000 rupees (US$ 1,715) to carry out the operation. His children decided to hold a lottery to find the necessary amount,” she said. “I continued to pray to God, Mother Mary to heal him and vowed to bring my son” to Madhu and Kattara churches in Mannar diocese.

Hariyat said no operation was required and even the doctors were surprised with her son’s miraculous recovery.

“For more than fifty years, I have been going to Madhu and Kattara churches with my children. I have experienced many miracles in my life,” Hariyat said.

She remains as enthusiastic as ever about the pilgrimage to Hiniduma Calvary shrine and joins other Catholic faithful in walking around the small hill on which the shrine stands overlooking St. Anne’s Church and the Gin River quietly flowing beside it.Hariyat’s house is located in a beautiful village called Pitipana nestled between the sea and a lagoon. It is a village of fishers and except for a few families, everyone else is Catholic.

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Opinion

Evening with Julia Cameron

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We were treated to a Sri Lankan cultural feast on Sept. 9. It included old photographs, old paintings, glimpses of the old sculptures, temple paintings – together a cultural heritage most of our countrymen are ignorant or have little knowledge of. However prevalent Buddhist fervor has given some knowledge to the average Buddhist about the temple paintings that are a part of this heritage. Fortunately, the audience present at the film that evening comprised people familiar with what was on offer and continue their quest for more knowledge.

The evening was an ode to the life and times of Julia Cameron, who was born in India in 1815, but chose to make Sri Lanka her home. She lived for some time in the Isle of Wight in high society making friends with many famous persons like Lord Carlyle, Lord Tennyson and Sir John Herschel, the British astronomer, among them.

Julia, from a young age was interested in photography but it was rather late in life that she took to it seriously. Apparently encouraged by her friend Sir John (Herchel), she in her late forties went on to become one of the most famous photographers of the 19th century, best known for her soft focus photography. She is today considered one of the greatest photographers of all time. The short film screened on Sept. 9 was indeed a treat and revelation.

This was followed by another short film on the 43 Group. That included Lionel Wendt, well known to most Lankans. I don’t think he had the same international reputation that Julia Cameron did but enjoyed seeing his work again. Then came a series of pictures of paintings by our best known artists: Keyt , Ivan PIeris, Daraniyagala and Manjusri to name a few. The 43 Group had a great reputation at that time but are almost forgotten now. Its last member, June Somasunderam died a few years ago. Seeing these pictures was a pleasure, like seeing old friends. They are hardly seen today and maybe many are in private hands here and abroad.

There was also a short clip on a dance form making you aware of the many dance forms Sri Lanka has: up country, low country, ritual dances including one to drive away the devils and one to intervene between God and the supplicant in time of illness or bad times. Few people are familiar with these rituals, but they are not that many. Thanks to the Kandy Perahara, most people are familiar with the Kandyan dance form.

The creator of this lovely film didn’t forget the lowly kite which rose in splendor to the sky at the end of the film.We owe this pleasurable evening to two people whose intrepid research and study documented our cultural heritage for posterity. Thank you Ismeth Raheem and Martin Pieris.

Padmini Nanayakkara

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Opinion

PEOPLE’S FRIENDLY POLICE

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The Sri Lanka Police has come a long way from where it started having celebrated 155 years of its existence this year. I thought of adding my perception of how the police have changed from being people’s friendly force to one that has gone down in many ways.

Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) having been a colony under the British gained independent status in 1948 as a Dominion. We adopted the Westminster system of government and all other good things that the British were used to at that time. Even the police force was similar to the British counterpart in that they acted impartially without interference from the politicians. The officers in charge of police stations and their subordinates would carry out their duties without fear or favour. They never curried favour with the politicians and the politicians did not interfere in their duties.

However, all these changed after 1977 and the rot set in. Thereafter, the bootlicking started. Now most of the transfers and promotions began to take place according to the whims and fancies of the political leaders. Even when it came to the appointment of the Inspector General of Police (IGP), on many an occasion, it was a person who curried favour with the political leaders who got the position.

Sometimes the persons so appointed had got the promotion over more deserving and honest officers senior to them, who refrained from stooping to low levels. While the honest police officers did a job of work according to their conscience, there were the others who stooped low to get their promotions and perks.

For a long time as I remember there were nine Superintendents of Police (SPs), one in each province, and four Deputy Inspectors Generals (DIGs). Each province had a few gazette officers – One SP and a few ASPs. I believe it was President DB Wijetunga who got the cadre of senior officers increased with a view to accommodating more favorites.

It has come to a stage now where a Senior DIG is subjected to manhandling by the people for the wrong things he had done. This has never happened earlier. This happened because the people were frustrated and angry that the police who are supposed to look after the safety of the people turned a blind eye when political goons attacked peaceful protestors.

I wonder whether we will ever get senior police officers like Mr. WB Rajaguru. When he was a DIG, he used to go to the fish market which was at Saunders Place then, in a pair of shorts to buy the requirements for his home. Usually this is a task entrusted to a police constable by such senior officers, as in the Army where the batman must attend to these matters.

I have read a few memoirs of senior police officers (who never stooped to low levels to seek promotion) after their retirement and some articles in the daily newspapers where they have indicated how the standards of the Sri Lanka police have deteriorated so badly that they seemed to be ashamed to state they were officers in the police force at one time.

At least after celebrating the 155th anniversary, we hope that there will be change in the attitudes of the police in carrying out their duties. Of course, this will depend on the political leaders who must change their ways first.

HM NISSANKA WARAKAULLE

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