The latest pronouncement of the UN High Commissioner does not bode well for Sri Lanka. The immediate reason for this is the impeachment of the Chief Justice, but if reports in the papers a couple of weeks back are inaccurate, she has been simmering for some time.
It was reported that she had sent a letter suggesting visits by what are termed Special Procedures, but the response she had received had ignored this and simply suggested that she visit us soon. We knew at the last meeting of the Inter-Ministerial Committee to implement the National Human Rights Action Plan that there had been a letter, but what was being done was not made clear.
This seemed a bit hard on Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe who has been the ministerial envoy to the Human Rights Council for well over half a decade now. It would obviously make sense to keep him in the loop, and indeed consult him about our official position but, as I have noted before, coordination is not something common in Sri Lanka.
This is particularly hard on him now, because he has lost his principal ally in recent years in dealing with problems in Geneva. Mohan Pieris began to join us in Geneva in Dayan Jayatilleka’s time even before he became Attorney General, and continued to attend every session since then, including when Mahinda Samarasinghe was not deployed. He was obviously a crucial player when he was Attorney General, and perhaps even more so afterwards, when he chaired the Inter-Ministerial Committee to implement the Interim Recommendations of the LLRC, and now that he has been in virtual charge together with the President’s Secretary of the LLRC Action Plan. However as Chief Justice he will probably not be able to be on the delegation, which will be tough on Minister Samarasinghe.
It is even more important therefore that he be consulted about policies and decisions. If the newspaper report is anything to go by, one stumbling block seems to have been our refusal to invite holders of Special Mandates. This is something that has not happened in the last few years, which is a pity, because we got nothing but positive co-operation from such Representatives as visited us in the nearly two years I was Secretary to the Ministry.
Walter Kalin, the Special Representative on the Rights of the Displaced, came three times, and was extremely helpful. Whilst being quite firm about any shortcomings, he was sympathetic to our position and did not hold with the dogmas that some junior UN personnel were propagating. He did not agree that we could not keep people at Manik Farm, but he said there should be time limits and a plan for returns. Just as he was getting impatient, the process of returns began, and due credit must be given for this to the Presidential Task Force, since there was some opposition at the time from the then Chief of Staff, who has since emerged as a great defender of Human Rights.
The positive approach of Kalin can be seen from the fact that he has practically been ignored in the latest report offered to the UN Secretary General. As I noted in my responses to the UN News Agency IRIN which interviewed me, ‘There is no reference in the main report to the visits of the UN Representative on the Rights of the Displaced, and glancing through the appendices I believe only his December 2007 visit is mentioned. This seems bizarre, when there are allegations about the welfare centres, and we invited him two or three times and did our best to abide by his recommendations. Certainly we stuck by the guiding principles of the Brookings document, and our relations with him were very positive.’
I am not sure though if the Ministry of External Affairs is aware of all this, because they did not follow up on the work we had done when responsibility for Human Rights was handed over to them. This was not the fault of the Minister, who had wanted the services of our experienced Consultant, but the Ministry failed to act and Minister Samarasinghe snapped him up to chair the Sugar Corporation when there was a delay.
He could have told them that there was really no reason to be nervous about Special Representatives, for most of them are academics with no particular political agenda. Of course we no longer had Dayan Jayatilleka, who monitored the situation and could tell us if any would try to move beyond their brief, but it does not take rocket science to work out who would be helpful. The two who came in his time, both Kalin and Manfred Nowak, who was concerned with torture, produced moderate reports designed to help us improve the situation rather than simply point fingers.
I am sure there are others who would be equally helpful, but we seem to have decided that none should be invited. It is possible that this is because we do not have knowledgeable personnel in place who could deal with any queries, as was done by our Ministry and the experienced pair from the Attorney General’s Department, Shavindra Fernando and Yasantha Kodagoda, who had been attending sessions in Geneva from long before Dayan’s time.
Though at one stage a decision was taken to rotate personnel, both of them were present in Geneva last March, and I am sure they can take charge of providing information for any visitors, in consultation with Minister Samarasinghe and the Consultant who is back at work now, though the conditions under which he works could be improved, given the scope of his responsibilities at this difficult stage. Certainly we should be looking at what we can achieve through cooperation, if we also want to be firm about resisting unfair pressures.