By P.K.Balachandran/Weekend Express
Colombo, January 23: With the situation in Sri Lanka coming up for discussion at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on March 3, the Sri Lankan government as well as the Tamil parties have begun posturing either to get off the hook, as in the case of the Sri Lankan government, or to corner the adversary, as in the case of the Tamil parties.
The Sri Lankan government is expecting censure following the report of Human Rights Watch (HRW) for 2021. And the Tamil side is worried as the international community may, as in the past, not walk the talk. The Tamils are trying to rope in India, which is influential among Asian and African countries. They had a meeting with the Indian High Commissioner on January 18.
It was clearly with an eye on the forthcoming session of the UNHRC that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa mentioned the question of ethnic reconciliation in his address to the opening session of the Lankan parliament earlier in the week. He said that the Tamil problem is economic and not political, and that the solution is equitable economic development. He also promised to act on the long standing problem of missing Tamils. And to placate the hounded Muslims, the Gotabaya government informed the Court of Appeal that the detained Muslim lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah could be granted bail. Hizbullah was arrested in April 2020 in the 2019 Easter Sunday suicide bombings case.
Be that as it may, Colombo would find it tough going at the UNHRC. According to HRW, there had been a comprehensive deterioration in the rights situation in Sri Lanka during 2021. The UNHRC had mandated the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to “collect and prepare evidence of grave crimes for use in future prosecutions.”
HRW says: “Under the administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lankan security forces harassed and threatened human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers and the families of victims of past abuses, while suppressing peaceful protests. The government continued to target members of the Tamil and Muslim minority communities using the country’s overbroad counterterrorism law, and policies that threaten religious freedom and minority land rights.”
“After Rajapaksa’s election in November 2019, he withdrew Sri Lanka from a 2015 council resolution agreed by the previous government to promote truth, justice, and reconciliation. Rajapaksa said he would not tolerate any action against ‘war heroes’ and instead appointed several officials implicated in war crimes to his administration. The UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, noted that “Sri Lanka remains in a state of denial about the past, with truth-seeking efforts aborted.”
The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has for decades been used to enable prolonged arbitrary detention and torture. In 2021, President Rajapaksa issued two ordinances that would make the law more abusive. An order issued in March, which has been challenged in the Supreme Court, would allow two years of “rehabilitation” detention without trial for anyone accused by the authorities of causing “religious, racial, or communal disharmony.”
Many prisoners, especially from minority communities, remain in pretrial detention lasting many years under the PTA, or are serving lengthy terms following convictions based on confessions obtained using torture.
UN rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet called upon UN member countries to consider imposing targeted sanctions against alleged perpetrators, and to pursue prosecutions in national courts under universal jurisdiction. The core group on Sri Lanka (the UK, Canada, Germany, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Malawi) at the Human Rights Council successfully led the adoption of Resolution 46/1, which established an international evidence-gathering mechanism, which has now been established as the OHCHR Sri Lanka Accountability Project. However, among Sri Lanka’s key trading partners, India and Japan abstained, while China opposed the resolution. In June, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling upon the European Union to ensure Sri Lanka abides by its human rights commitments under the GSP+ program. However, the EU, like other foreign partners including the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom, was reluctant to publicly call upon the Sri Lankan government to end abuses, HRW said.
The Tamil parties of the North and East have rejected President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s proposal for ethnic reconciliation made on the opening day of parliament earlier in the week. Speaking on the President’s speech in parliament on Wednesday, Ilankai Tamil Arasu atchi (ITAK) MP, M.A.Sumanthiran, said that contrary to the President’s notion, economic development of the Northern and Eastern provinces will not bring about reconciliation. What the Tamils need is meaningful devolution of power based on the concept of self-determination and self-rule, he stated.
Sumanthiran demanded the full implementation of the 13 th. Amendment (13A) of the constitution as it was a bilateral commitment made to India. But the 13A is not the solution to the Tamil question, he pointed out. The 13A safeguarded India’s security, but it was not the solution to the Tamil question in Sri Lanka. The permanent solution lies in a federal structure based on the concept of self-determination and not the 13A which distributes power within the framework of the existing Unitary constitution.
For India’s Security
To rope in India, the leaders of eleven Sri Lankan Tamil parties met the Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, Gopal Baglay, on Tuesday told him that only fully empowered provincial councils in the Sri Lankan North and East can ensure that forces inimical to India, like China, do not get a foothold there.
Although the High Commissioner did not raise the issue of China’s determined bid to get foothold in the North and East, Suresh Premachandran, leader of the Eelam Peoples’ Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), told the envoy that strengthening the Tamils in political and economic terms will enable them to stop the entry of forces inimical to India. He pointed out that without powers over land the Northern provincial council cannot stop any project or foreign involvement desired by the central government in Colombo..
M.A. Sumanthiran of the Ilanka Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) said that under one pretext or the other, the Gotabaya government has been taking over lands which were returned to the Tamils after the end of the war in May 2009. The Tamils feel that such things will not happen if the 13A is fully implemented. The 13A had given powers over land to the provinces but no government has handed over this power to the provinces. Hence the Tamils’ demand for the full implementation of the 13A with land and police powers.
However, the Tamil parties of the North and East do not feel that the 13A is really adequate for the protection of the Tamils because it is embedded in a “Unitary” Sri Lankan constitution. In a unitary constitution, powers handed over to the provinces or any other unit in the periphery, can always be taken away. But in a federal constitution, powers given, cannot be taken back. This is why, in the letter addressed to the Indian Prime Minister, the parties of the North and East gave primacy to the demand for federalism and sought Indian support for it.