By SANJA DE SILVA JAYATILLEKA
The UN Human Rights Council’s first session of the year 2021 to be held from February 22 to March 23 is the most important because it opens with the participation of member states at the Ministerial level, known as the High-Level Segment. Often, Foreign Ministers, Ministers of Human Rights, Justice Ministers and others of similar rank speak at the Council on behalf of their countries and take up issues of human rights around the world.
As in the other two sessions held later in the year in June and September, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights presents her own reports of the work commissioned by the Human Rights Council. In addition, experts appointed by the Council on thematic issues known as Special Procedures also present their reports on their country visits and studies of human rights situations in the countries designated for scrutiny.
The report of the High Commissioner on Sri Lanka contains a devastating and unprecedented critique of the handling of human rights in the country, and its recommendations have escalated the possible interventions of the Council beyond anything that has been proposed to the Council to date.
The logic of this escalation is based on the High Commissioner’s conviction of an accelerated deterioration in civic, political, minority, religious and other democratic rights under the present administration which she explicitly states needs the UN Human Rights Council’s “urgent attention”.
The High Commissioner will also be presenting her findings to the General Assembly in New York through the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in furtherance of her mandate specified in General Assembly Resolution 48/141. In this context, some of her recommendations assume an added significance.
There are recommendations that she makes to the member states that Sri Lanka should not ignore. One is that member states may consider the referral of the Sri Lankan case to the International Criminal Court. This is unprecedented. A reading of the report clearly suggests that this was occasioned by what she perceives as the early warning signs of a dangerous trend: rapidly escalating militarization and the closing of democratic space by the present Sri Lankan administration, rather than as a response to the Tamil Diaspora lobbyists’ long-standing demands.
Another recommendation is the application of the principle of Universal Jurisdiction, which was first proposed by previous Human Rights High Commissioner Zaid-al-Hussain.
Universal Jurisdiction enables a state to claim criminal jurisdiction over a person accused of a crime regardless of their nationality and place the crime was allegedly committed. Former President of Chile, Augusto Pinochet was arrested in London in 1998 on a Spanish warrant charging him with human rights violations in Chile during his time in office. He was extradited to Spain and was tried in a Spanish court under the principle of “universal jurisdiction”. His claims of immunity were rejected by the British Courts on the grounds that torture and crimes against humanity did not form part of the “functions” of a head of state.
No member state acted on High Commissioner Zaid-al-Hussain’s urging with regard to Sri Lanka, agreeing to let Sri Lanka investigate alleged violations of human rights through local processes. The context in which it has been suggested this time is significantly different from previous years with High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet emphasizing the current practices of the Sri Lankan government which she describes as “trends emerging over the past year, which represent clear early warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation and a significantly heightened risk of future violations, and therefore calls for strong preventive action.” Such language during peacetime in Sri Lanka is a cause for concern all round and warrants serious attention
The Sri Lankan Government will have to respond. If it doesn’t do so effectively, it will have an impact not only on the government but also on individual officials, because the High Commissioner also recommends “possible targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans against credibly alleged perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses”. The current Army Commander has already had a travel ban imposed on him, and as such these should not be regarded as empty threats.
In addition, she recommends the application of “stringent vetting procedures to Sri Lankan police and military personnel identified for military exchanges and training programme”. Sri Lanka has already faced the consequences of this form of punitive action where members of the Sri Lankan military were denied opportunities for training. Furthermore, the report calls for continued review of Sri Lanka’s contribution to UN peacekeeping operations.
Even if Sri Lanka were to ignore the contents of the High Commissioner’s Report, it will still have to deal with the consequences of its recommendations, if any of the member states or indeed individuals decide to act on them. An effective response will be essential if Sri Lanka is not to be seen by possible investors as a place likely to deteriorate into violent conflict and widespread human rights abuses. That is not an attractive climate for investment decisions.
The Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs has claimed that Sri Lanka is a peaceful country 12 years after the end of the war and to be accused of human rights violations was “unfair”. This will not be a good enough defense in Geneva where the issues brought up in the report have little to do with peace now but with lack of progress on accountability for alleged incidents of war crimes, failure to establish credible local processes, reducing space for democracy, increasing militarization, and surveillance of civic actors and journalist, to list a few.
Asserting that no one has the right to dictate to us about democracy contradicts the logic of the UN Human Rights Council that all member states of the UN have a duty to speak on any concerns regarding human rights, including political and civil rights. There is in fact an open agenda item called “Any other matter requiring the Council’s attention”. During the war years, Sri Lanka was brought up often under this agenda item even if it was not formally included in the agenda. Sri Lanka needs a far better strategy of engagement which takes that into account.
Three Special Procedure mandate holders of the Human Rights Council issued a joint appeal to the governed of Sri Lanka on January 25, 2021 urging the government to stop what they termed “forced cremations”. This issue will surely be brought up at the Council and the language of the joint appeal indicates the form it will most likely take.
The Special Rapporteurs attribute the government’s decision to disallow burials of Covid fatalities to “discrimination, aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism amounting to persecution of Muslim and other minorities in the country”. This is very strong language and the Rapporteurs were hardly detained by the peaceful nature of the country at present. A Government Minister’s protest that they will be guided by the WHO and local experts will inevitably fail to convince the Council due to the fact that both WHO guidelines and a stellar committee of local experts appointed by the Prime Minister, recommended both burial and cremation as safe options for Covid-19 fatalities.
The Secretary/External Affairs fears that the North will hijack the agenda of the Council to target Sri Lanka. The Human Rights Council does not have any veto-wielding members and membership is based on equitable geographic distribution. This means that there are fewer member states from the global North and more from the global South.
Sri Lanka was already placed formally on the agenda of the upcoming session as per earlier resolutions which requested the High Commissioner to monitor and report on its progress to the Council at this session. Her latest report on Sri Lanka is presented in that context.
It has been revealed that the External Affairs Ministry is awaiting the draft of a resolution on Sri Lanka being proposed by UK, Canada, Macedonia, Germany and Montenegro. It is expected to be a ‘consensual resolution’. The Foreign Secretary stated in an interview with the Daily Mirror that this was “the only thing on the table”. If this is the case, it is an important fact.
Consensual Resolution requires a consensus between the parties by definition. If it fails to achieve that or is challenged by Sri Lanka, it will be presented to a vote at the Council. It is then that the 47 member states of the Council will support or oppose the resolution which will be adopted if a majority of countries vote in support. However, all member states of the UN and ECOSOC registered NGOs, if they inscribe their names to speak on the matter, are able to present their views before the vote, to persuade the voting members either way. The Global South can have its say as much as or even more than the Global North.
While this administration withdrew from previous resolutions which were co-sponsored by the earlier regime, this resolution will need the Government’s full engagement through our diplomats in Geneva if it hopes to persuade the Council of its position on Human Rights in Sri Lanka. Given the tone and tenor, Conclusions and Recommendations of the High Commissioner’s Report on Sri Lanka and the perception of the Special Rapporteurs of Sri Lanka’s motivation in its public health decisions on Covid-19 deaths, the Government of Sri Lanka has its work cut out for it.
(Sanja de Silva Jayatilleka is the author of ‘Mission Impossible-Geneva: Sri Lanka’s Counter-hegemonic Asymmetric Diplomacy at the UN Human Rights Council’, Vijitha Yapa, Colombo, 2017.)
President picks up the gauntlet
by Jehan Perera
By proroguing parliament President Ranil Wickremesinghe has given the parliamentarians, and the country at large, a reminder of the power of the presidency. There was no evident reason for the president to suddenly decide to prorogue parliament. More than 40 parliamentary committees, including important ones concerning public finances, enterprises and accounts have ceased to function. The president’s office has said that when parliament reconvenes on February 8, after the celebration of the country’s 75th Independence Day on February 4, the president will announce new policies and laws, which will be implemented until the centenary celebrations of Sri Lanka’s independence in 2048. Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew transformed Singapore from a relatively underdeveloped and impoverished agrarian society into one of the world’s most developed countries in the same 25 years that the president has set for Sri Lanka.
President Wickremesinghe has been getting increasingly assertive regarding his position on issues. Recently he attended a large gathering of Muslim clerics, where he was firm in saying that society needs to modernise, and so do religious practices. He has also held fast to his positions on reviving the economy and resolving the economy. There have been widespread protests against the tax hikes being implemented which have eroded the purchasing power of taxpayers. First they had to absorb the impact of inflation that rose to a rate of 80 percent at the time the country reneged on its foreign debt repayments and declared bankruptcy. Now they find their much diminished real incomes being further reduced by a tax rate that reaches 36 percent.
But the government is not relenting. President Wickremesinghe, who holds the finance minister’s portfolio, is going against popular sentiment in being unyielding on the matter of taxes. He appears determined to force the country away from decades of government policies that took the easy route of offering subsidies rather than imposing taxes to use for government expenses and development purposes. In Sri Lanka, the government’s tax revenue is less than 8 percent, whereas in comparable countries the tax revenue is around 20 to 25 percent. The long term cost of living off foreign borrowings rather than generating resources domestically through taxation has been evident for a long while in the slow growth of the economy even prior to the economic collapse.
Another area in which the president appears to have taken the decision to stand firm is the issue of finding a solution to the ethnic conflict. This problem has proven to be unresolvable by governments and political leaders who give deference to ethnic nationalism. Being an ethnic nationalist in the context of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious divisions has been a sure way of gaining votes and securing election victories. No leader in Sri Lanka has to date been able to implement the compromise solutions that they periodically arrived at, the last being the 13th Amendment. Earlier ones included the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1965 which could not even be started to be implemented.
At the All Party meeting that he summoned to discuss the ethnic conflict and national reconciliation, President Wickremesinghe took the bull by the horns. He exchanged words with ethnic nationalist parliamentarians who sought to challenge his legitimacy to be making changes. He said, “It is my responsibility as the Executive to carry out the current law. For approximately 37 years, the 13th Amendment has been a part of the constitution. I must implement or someone has to abolish it by way of a 22nd amendment to the constitution by moving a private member’s bill. If the bill was voted against by the majority in the House, then the 13th amendment would have to be implemented. We can’t remain in a middle position saying that either we don’t implement the 13th amendment or abolish it.”
The 13th Amendment has not been fully implemented since it was passed by parliament with a 2/3 majority in 1987. Successive governments, including ones the president has been a member of variously as a minister or prime minister, have failed to implement it in a significant manner, especially as regards the devolution of police and land powers. When parliament reconvenes on February 8 after prorogation, President Wickremesinghe will be provided the opportunity to address both the parliament and the country on the way forward. Having demonstrated the power of the presidency to prorogue parliament at his discretion, he will be able to set forth his vision of the solution to the ethnic conflict and the roadmap that needs to be followed to get to national reconciliation.
It is significant that on February 20, the president will also acquire the power to dissolve parliament at his discretion. By proroguing parliament, the president has sent a message to both parliamentarians and the larger society that he will soon have the power to dissolve parliament with the same suddenness that he prorogued parliament. On February 20, the parliament would have been in existence for two and a half years. The 21st Amendment empowers the president to dissolve parliament after two and a half years. Most of the parliamentarians belonging to the ruling party are no longer in a position to go to their electorates let alone canvass for votes among the people. Under these fraught circumstances, they would not wish to challenge the president or his commitment to implementing the 13th Amendment in full.
On the other hand, the taming of parliament by the president does not guarantee the success of an accommodation on the ethnic conflict and a sustainable political solution. The ethnic conflict evokes the primordial sentiments of the different ethnic and religious communities. Political parties and politicians are often portrayed as the villains who led the country to decades of ethnic conflict and to war. However, the conflict in the country predates the political parties. In 1928, in response to demands from community leaders in Ceylon as it was then known, the British colonial rulers sent a commission to the country to ascertain whether it was ready for self-rule. The assessment was negative—the Donoughmore commission wrote that the representatives of the biggest community held to the position that their interest was the national interest. All the representatives of the smaller communities who were divided one against the other were united against the biggest.
An important role therefore devolves upon civil society not to fall prey to the divisions that come down the years. There is a need for enlightened leaders of civil society to work with commitment to explain to the people the need for a political solution and inter-ethnic power sharing that the 13th Amendment makes possible. There were signs of this during the height of the Aragalaya when the youth leading the protests called publicly for equal citizenship and non-discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion and caste. They pledged not to be divided by ethnic nationalist politicians for their narrow electoral purposes. It is ironic that the government led by President Wickremesinghe has made these enlightened youth leaders the target of a campaign of persecution instead of making them a part of the solution by constructively engaging with them and issuing a general amnesty.
Privatisation of education and demonising of students of Lanka
by Anushka Kahandagamage
Sri Lanka is trapped in debt due to decades of corruption and short-sighted economic policies. To come out of the trap or, I would say, escape the moment, the government is seeking loans from the IMF, or anybody else who is willing to lend, no matter the conditions. To this end, under the IMF’s tutelage, the government is seeking to privatise education, aware that it will face the wrath of the people. In this setting, to suppress the protests, the government has adopted a strategy of demonising students, in the public education system.
School children as “drug addicts”
A media empire, which has strong ties with the current Lankan regime, recently sent shockwaves through schools, and their communities, by reporting cases of school children hooked on harmful narcotics. Following these reports, there were many write ups, social media content and stories published on the menace of drug addiction, among Sri Lankan students. That media network even released a video, interviewing two schoolgirls who claimed to be addicted to harmful substances. In the midst of the media frenzy, the police carried out surprise checks in schools, searching students’ bags. The state humiliated and terrified school children by using the police to conduct surprise checks in the schools and peek into the students’ backpacks, instead of investigating the avenues through which dangerous drugs enter the country. After a week, the Minister of Education claimed he was unaware that the police were conducting surprise checks in schools, with sniffer dogs, adding that there was no need to deploy the police force for this purpose. If the Minister was not aware that the police raided schools, it is not surprising that the state would also turn a blind eye to how narcotics enter the country. While there is a risk of students addicting to dangerous drugs, the state cannot place all the blame on students. Instead of taking responsibility for the state of affairs, and acting to keep harmful substances off the island, the state places the burden on schoolchildren and simply refers to them as “drug addicts.”
Bhikku students as “alcoholics”
The next example is from the Buddhist and Pali University, in Homagama. Similar to the first story, the same media network reported some irregularities occurring in the University. Those irregularities included the student monks forcing incoming students, also monks, to consume weed, liquor and party. Following this news report, some investigations were conducted in the University and empty liquor bottles were found in an abandoned well. Then we witnessed several press conferences where University authorities questioned the student monk leaders. While one cannot and should not disregard students’ violence upon another student, it is interesting to note the way the government is taking up the particular incident, at this particular point of time. There was a massive social media campaign to show that the student-monks are immoral and unworthy of education. It cannot be a coincidence that the student monks, at this University, were actively involved in the Aragalaya. In other words, the government was trying to defame the University, and the students, by labelling them as oppressors and alcoholics.
The Rajapaksa regime continuously used Buddhist monks, in their political operations, especially to incite conflict and win elections. The state has frequently deployed Buddhist monks to further its nationalist agendas. When the state used monks for their agendas, including to instigate violence, the monks were not framed as ‘immoral.’ The higher Buddhist authorities did not take action against groups, like Bodu Bala Sena, or Ravana Balaya, or their violent activities. It is ironic that the Government seems to be concerned about the ‘morality’ or ‘discipline’ of Bhikkus at this moment when many student Bhikkus have joined hands with the people to protest against the state.
University students as “terrorists”
The last example is the most pressing at this moment. On 18th of August, 2022, the police arrested Wasantha Mudalige, the Convenor of the Inter-University Students Federation, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Along with him, the authorities detained Hashan Jeewantha and the convener of the Inter University Bhikku Federation (IUBF), Galwewa Siridhamma Thera. The state labelled the politically active university students as “terrorists”. Again, this cannot have happened by chance; we all know the Aragalaya against the Rajapaksa dictatorship was heavily influenced by the Inter-University Students Federation and the Inter University Bhikku Federation. The student unions were the muscle of the people’s protests against the oppressive and corrupt regime. The Ranil-Rajapaksa regime labelled the student leaders’ terrorists and started arresting them.
The state’s stamping of University students as terrorists is a folly. If the state labels its own youth as “terrorists,” it means that the state has failed miserably because it is its own actions that have pushed them toward what is labelled as “terrorism.” The state should take a step back and reconsider its decisions.
Privatization of Education
The government and the government-validating media demonize students, labelling them as drug addicts, alcoholics and terrorists. The government undermines and defames the country’s student body. By doing so, the government is strategically isolating the students from the larger society and eroding public faith in them. Ironically, drug addicts, alcoholics, and terrorists are all confined to the public school and state university system, not private educational institutions. The media propagates the idea that students enrolled in the state education system are ‘immoral’ and ‘disobedient’. Meanwhile, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the puppet President of the Rajapaksa allies, proposes a new economic system which he thinks will counter the current balance of payment crisis. The proposal includes establishing an educational hub in Sri Lanka, which promises to privatise higher education in the long-term.
The state agenda of privatizing education is not a recent one, but it has been reenergized by the Ranil-Rajapaksa government in the context of crisis. Well before demonising the students, in the public education system, in June 2022 the government, national education commission, came up with an education policy framework.
Biased towards Rajapaksa ideologies, the national education commission that developed the policy, proposed to expand the privatization of higher education. In their report, the committee presents a table demonstrating how Sri Lanka allocates less money on higher education compared with the other middle-income countries. The next section outlines the way Sri Lanka relies more on government grants for higher education than other middle-income countries, which is confusing and contradictory, perhaps reflecting the grossly inadequate overall investment in higher education in the country. Then the report goes on to analyse how the poor school education system creates an unskillful student who is unable to think critically. It finally recommends promoting private participation in higher education, not only through funding but also by matching the curricula to fit the market and increase the “employability” of students. While on the one hand government pushes for privatising higher education, on the other, it demonizes the students in the public educational system. The State has seized the problem by its tail. The government is unable to perceive its own flaws in short-sighted policymaking, law enforcement, and corruption, and instead accuses and defames students, to distract them from its concerted effort to privatise education.
Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.
(Anushka Kahandagamage is reading for her PhD in the School of Social Sciences, University of Otago)
Janaka…Keeping the Elvis scene alive
For the past three years, local performers have certainly felt the heat, where work is concerned, beginning with the Easter Sunday tragedy, followed by Covid-19 restrictions, and then the political situation
Right now, there seems to be a glimmer of light, at the end of the tunnel, and musicians are hoping that, finally, the scene would brighten up for the entertainment industry.
Janaka Palapathwala, whose singing style, and repertoire, is reminiscent of the late Elvis Presley, says he was so sad and disappointed that he could not reach out to his fans, around the world, because of the situation that cropped up in the country.
However, he did the next best thing possible – a Virtual Concert, early last year, and had this to say about it:
“The concert was witnessed by so many people around the world, in 12 different countries, and I take this opportunity to thank all those who showed a great interest, around the world, to make the show a mighty success. Lasantha Fernando of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in the USA, went out of the way to pull a huge crowd, in the States, to make the concert a massive success. Lasantha, by the way, has done many shows, in Minnesota, including a concert of mine, four years ago.”
Toward the end of 2022, the showbiz scene started to look good, with musicians having work coming their way – shows, sing-alongs, events, overseas tours, recordings, etc.
Janaka added that the Gold FM ’70s show was back after six years, and that the music industry is grateful to Gold FM for supporting musicians with such an awesome event.
“Also, the unity and the togetherness of the Sri Lankan western musicians, scattered around the globe, were brought together, once again, by the guidance of Melantha Perera.
“The song ‘Baby Jesus Is Fast Asleep’, written, composed and directed by Melantha, was a true Christmas gift to people around the world.”
Referring to his career, Janaka said that these days he is involved in a mega video production project.
“I intend to do a road show for a total Dinner Dance Promotion package, titled ‘Janaka with Melantha and the Sign’.
“Phase One of the project is already completed, and we are now heading for the second phase, where we plan to get Sohan Weerasinghe, Clifford Richards and Stephanie Siriwardane involved in the cast”.
Janaka also spoke excitedly about his forthcoming trip to the USA.
“I’m so excited to tour the USA, after three years. The ‘Spring Tour USA 2023′ is going to be different.
“I’ve done formal concerts, in the States, but this Spring Tour will be a series of Dinner Dances where I would be seen in action, along with the top ranked DJ of Washington D.C., Shawn Groove, and some of the best domestic bands in the States, and I can assure all my friends, and fans, in the US, that this new venture is going to be doubly exciting.”
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