Reactions to the Government’s announcement that it would – finally – act on the recommendations of the LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) have been mixed. They range from a US Government statement welcoming the announcement to critics calling it a big bluff laced with dishonesty.
There’s no argument, however, that the LLRC was the outcome of international pressure exerted in the aftermath of the historic military defeat of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) in May 2009. Pressed for an international probe on the conduct of the Armed Forces during that military campaign, the Government managed to manoeuvre itself out of that situation with the appointment of the LLRC.
It may not have been overjoyed with the findings of the LLRC, but the commission in fact provided the Government with an escape route to fend off pressure for an international tribunal, with otherwise hostile foreign governments cautiously welcoming its recommendations.
Initially, the Government appointed an inter-ministerial committee under the chairmanship of the Minister of External Affairs to implement the recommendations. It was a half-hearted, lacklustre approach at first. Arguably, the US-sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC (Human Rights Council) could have been warded off- or defused – or even won – had the Government acted more swiftly and displayed a greater sense of urgency in implementing the LLRC report once it was presented to the President in November last year.
It was bad counsel all along. Firstly, the President was told by his Minister of External Affairs that the US was only ‘shadow boxing’ and would not bring a resolution against Sri Lanka. Then, Sri Lanka spurned the opportunity to meet the US Secretary of State and effect a change of mind. The Government has now done a 180 degree turn on its policy towards these international moves.
This though should serve the country well. The LLRC report has seen the ‘bigger picture’ of issues facing the country rather than the parochial one that the sulking sections of the Sri Lankan Diaspora and some international human rights watchdogs have got their teeth into.
It is no doubt unfortunate to say the least, that the Government has been propelled into action only because of this international pressure now formalised and coming through Geneva rather than of its own volition.
The forthcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UNHRC has been what has spurred the Government to produce an Action Plan on the LLRC report. Still, the end result is what is important.
That the entire exercise was moved away from an inter-ministerial committee to the President’s Secretary is a move in the right direction. The country and the international community will have more confidence in a job being properly done.
Equally, the fallout for non-performance will now lie at the very apex of this Government — the President’s Office. Our Focus on Rights columnist in a strongly-worded commentary last week referred to one of the items in the Action Plan presented to the UPR – the disarming of persons in possession of unauthorised weapons and prosecuting them in six months – and likened it to a fairy tale from Alice in Wonderland.
There are several other proposals in the Action Plan that are vague. For example, one of the major recommendations relates to the appointment of a special commissioner under the Attorney General to probe involuntary disappearances, but the Action Plan relies on the Penal Code provisions; a National Land Commission has been mooted but the Government’s position on it is not clear; the Independent Commissions under the 17th Amendment are ignored; a Grievances Redress Mechanism is in limbo, so on and so forth.
Conceptually, and functionally, there appears, prima facie, a minimalist approach to the LLRC recommendations adopted ignoring the testimony of thousands of people who came before the LLRC. On the other hand, neither does the Government say which of the 248 LLRC recommendations it will not agree to.
A classic case in point is the Right to Information Act that the LLRC has recommended as a useful, modern democratic instrument that empowers the citizens to obtain information that is otherwise locked up in total secrecy when in fact they deal with the funds of the public and the lives of the people.
The Action Plan is plainly deceptive. It is not honest enough to say that this Government will not bring about such a law. Instead, it says the Government will “enact legislation to ensure a right to information. Cabinet to decide the suitable time frame for drafting legislation. The Cabinet office will be the interface for the interaction with the Cabinet of Ministers on the acceptance of the legislation by the legislature”.
It would seem from this that the Government is, to put it kindly, simply prevaricating. Draft laws for a Right to Information Act have been ready since 2004, and were updated by the Justice Ministry in 2010. One could see the Government taking evasive action here. This is why the bona fides of the Action Plan come in for criticism.
In any event, the Government’s exercise, whatever the motives maybe, must not be an attempt merely to buy time and ride over the UPR hurdle and the UNHRC sessions until next year.
Fortunately, there is some wisdom that has seeped into the Government’s foreign policy strategy lately. There seems to be a concerted move to reverse its hostile approach to the international community (the West and India) and adopt a more conciliatory stance with engagement as the fundamental basis for such a policy. A country like Sri Lanka, interlinked so much with the global village cannot afford to make enemies with the world community.
What the Government must understand is that international pressure cannot be easily glossed over. The country is crying out for serious reform in many sectors of governance. The ill-conceived Darusuman report commissioned by the UN Secretary General must not be given a chance of raising its ugly head because of the Government’s own negligence. The Government is not out of the woods yet.