Philip Alston - United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.


 On August 12th last year an appalling incident took place in Angulana, when two young men were arrested, and subsequently killed. Even if one refrained from drawing any conclusions about who was responsible, one could say definitely that this was a clear case of extra-judicial or summary or arbitrary execution.   

The case was not however of great interest to Prof Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-judicial or Summary or Arbitary Executions. Perhaps he did not understand the gravity of the incident, though that would be surprising, given the intense interest he has evinced in Sri Lanka of late, and the flood of information concerning this country that he evidently receives. Most recently issued a press release about a video, while earlier in May he was party to a press release that was, not entirely coincidentally, issued at the time when some Western countries were desperately seeking signatures for a Special Session of the UN Human Rights Council before the LTTE fighting force in Sri Lanka was destroyed.   

Those Special Rapporteurs also found it fit to issue, when the Special Session was finally held in late May, a statement that seemed designed to influence the outcome of the Session. When those manoeuvers failed, one Special Rapporteur declared that all was disaster, a judgment that should have led to an inquiry by the Secretary General as to whether she was sufficiently detached to continue to exercise her mandate. Her views seemed to be shared by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who made a pronouncement at the ordinary session of the Council which prompted stern rebukes from member states.   

What is sad about all this is that such blatant affirmation of prejudice takes away from the good such Special Rapporteurs should do. The Angulana murders are case in point, because an inquiry from Prof Alston would have strengthened efforts to expedite action, not only to deal firmly with the perpetrators of the killings, but also to take steps to prevent such incidents in the future.   

In this context I am also disappointed that his colleague, Prof Manfred Nowak, the Special Rapporteur on Torture, did not inquire about the abduction and apparent torture of an SLIIT student, which took place on August 4th. I should note however that Prof Nowak has regularly reported cases of alleged torture islandwide, and unlike his peers has not confined himself to incidents relating to the struggle of the Sri Lankan state against terrorists. Thus, when he does raise questions about such incidents, his credibility is intact, and we know we are dealing with someone who genuinely concerned to fulfil his mandate, and assist us to reduce examples of torture.   

That such exist we know, and government is committed to eradicating or at least reducing them, and ensuring that disciplinary and punitive actions are taken when the need arises. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights has been working on the issue, with the cooperation of the Inspector General and senior police officers. Though progress has been slower than we would have liked, we have recognized the immense burden thrown on the police force in recent years. Now however, with the defeat of terrorist forces, there will be less to distract the force from dealing firmly and expeditiously with human rights abuses and in particular torture.   

In such a context, we can hope, while sympathizing with the victim, that good will come of the SLIIT incident, and that it will instill recognition of the fact that, as Prof Nowak commented, torture may become endemic if firm action is not taken against those who engage in it. It is owed to the many who have striven to do their duty correctly in difficult circumstances to deal firmly with abuse, and prevent the whole force being sullied by what should be exceptional and extraordinary incidents.   

Similarly, we in Sri Lanka should not allow the reputation of Special Rapporteurs in general to be destroyed by the political games played by a few. Prof Nowak has, as noted, generally fulfilled his mandate helpfully, and the other Rapporteur who visited Sri Lanka recently, Prof Walter Kalin, was thorough in both pointing out problems and suggesting how to deal with them through a principled rights based approach. I have no doubt that further visits by him would be immensely helpful in the context of the real problems we face with regard to the internally displaced. Whilst I believe we have done better by them than has happened in similar cases elsewhere, we can certainly benefit from advice based on knowledge of the guiding principles that should be applied, along with the sympathetic intelligence that will take into account the precise context.   

Unfortunately the excellent work of such jurists is vitiated by the selective interventions of Prof Alston and his ilk. I do not know how many of them share the view of their colleague, that the decision of the Human Rights Council was a disaster, but if they do, they should recuse themselves from all activities and pronouncements relating to Sri Lanka. That will allow us to work productively with the few who are concerned with Human Rights, and Human Rights only, and not a political agenda that should have no place in the United Nations.