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Govt. puts on best face ahead of CHOGM, Pillay visit


 Ranga Jayasuriya
With two crucial events in its political calendar, the government is trying to put on its best face to the world. It has vouched to retrain itself as it braces for more troubles.
The two events are the forthcoming visit by the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay, later this month and the Commonwealth Heads of the Government Meeting (CHOGM) scheduled for November this year.

A visit by Pillay, who has been vocal in her criticism of the government’s human rights record, has been on the card for years since the end of the war. However, her office had been noncommittal. An invitation extended to Pillay by the Government of Sri Lanka has been pending since April 2011. However, the Office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner believed that such a visit would only render legitimacy to an intransigent regime, which would use the visit for its propaganda.

Instead, her office demanded unrestricted access to special procedure mandate holders. There had been eight outstanding requests made by the Office of the High Commissioner for the visits by UN rapporteurs on minority issues; freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; freedom of opinion and expression; extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; enforced or involuntary disappearances; human rights defenders; independence of judges and lawyers; and discrimination against women in law and practice.

The government, which turned down those requests, insisted that Pillay herself visit the island.

According to the sources familiar with the government’s handling of the office of the Human Rights High Commissioner, it was a stalemate. Neither side wanted to cave in.

And in February this year, Pillay fired a series of salvos against the government in the report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on advice and technical assistance for the Government of Sri Lanka, on promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka, which was delivered at the UN Human Rights Council. A month later, Sri Lanka lost a second vote at the UN Human Rights Council; a US-sponsored resolution, which the Rajapaksa regime vehemently opposed, demanded access to the visits by the special mandate holders.

Int’l isolation

However, things cooled down since the government gradually came to the realization of its growing international isolation.

In May, the OHCHR accepted the long pending invitation. Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations High Commission in Geneva, Ravinatha Ariyasinghe, then issued a media statement confirming Pillay’s visit to Sri Lanka.

Last week, the OHCHR formally announced that UN Human Rights Commissioner, Navi Pillay, would be visiting Sri Lanka from 25 to 31 August.

“The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, will make an official visit to Sri Lanka from 25 to 31 August 2013, at the invitation of the Sri Lankan Government,” it said in a media statement.

Pillay will call on President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and meet government ministers and officials.

She will also hold talks with senior judicial figures, members of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and the committee monitoring the National Plan of Action on the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). She is also expected to meet with representatives of the civil society and undertake field visits to the North and East of the country.

At the end of her visit, on Saturday 31 August, the High Commissioner is due to hold a news conference in Colombo.

The forthcoming visit by the UN Human Rights Chief has already caused a ripple effect within the government’s apparatus. Even the Head of State is not spared. Last week, the President appointed a three-member commission to investigate the cases of disappearances and abductions in the Northern and Eastern Provinces during the war.

Three members are: Former High Court Judge, Maxwell Parakrama Paranagama (Chairman), Dimingu Badathuruge Priyanthi Suranjana Vidyaratne and Mano Ramanathan.

Both Paranagama and Vidyaratne, the latter a former Deputy Legal Draftsman and former a member of the Monetary Board of Sri Lanka, also served as members of the LLRC.

According to the statement issued by the President’s Secretariat, the Commission ‘has been given the authority to conduct inquiries and investigations necessary, and submit a report to the President within six months.’

It also said the President has also ‘stressed the necessity to identify the person(s) responsible in cases where abductions or disappearances are found to have taken place and to take legal action against those person(s)’.

Authority to probe

The statement also added the inquiries are being conducted in the interest of public security and wellbeing and in order to determine what measures should be taken to prevent such incidents from occurring in the future.

The President has also directed all public officers and other relevant persons to provide their full support and assistance to the Commission to carry out the work, the statement concluded.

Accordingly, the Commission is expected to begin sittings in the coming weeks and would travel to the North and East. The Commission in its investigations would be assisted by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) as well.

The initial recommendation to appoint a Commission of Inquiries on Disappearances was made by the LLRC. However, the recommendation was initially turned down by the government, which argued the existing government agencies are capable of doing the job.

What caused about the face on the part of the government is too obvious.

Pillay’s visit is crucial. As part of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution on Sri Lanka, which was passed in March, the OHCHR will present an oral update to the UNHRC at its 24th session, and a comprehensive report followed by a discussion on the implementation of the present resolution at its 25th session. Pillay’s report at the 25th session would be crucial, in terms of deciding the future course of action on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC.

Pillay, during her visit, would also meet Defence Secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who has told a weekend Sinhala newspaper that he would enlighten the UN Human Rights Chief about the ‘true picture of disappearances and security in Sri Lanka.’ He, however, added that it would be up to Pillay, a respected legal luminary and the first non-white woman in post-Apartheid South African High Court, to believe it or not.

International probe

The UN Human Rights Commissioner has been persistent in her call for an international investigation into the allegations of human rights violations and alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka.

“I have called for an international investigation; to investigate the root causes of the conflict, what happened during the last days of the war and to ensure the rights of the victims to the truth and the right of victims for reparation is ensured,” she said last June speaking to the BBC.

Pillay would also meet the commissioners of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, on 29 November.

Commissioner, Dr. Prathiba Mahanamahewa, said the Commission would brief the UN Human Rights Commissioner on the progress achieved so far in the National Human Rights Action Plan of 2011-2016.

If the Pillay’s visit has prompted the government to clear up its rot, the forthcoming CHOGM is more the reason for extra caution on the part of the government. The government has said that ‘over 85%’ out of the 54 Commonwealth nations have confirmed participation. This includes the Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird, who earlier said he was ‘appalled’ that Sri Lanka was hosting CHOGM and that Canada did not get involved in the Commonwealth to accommodate evil.

“Canada didn’t get involved in the Commonwealth to accommodate evil; we came to combat it. We are deeply disappointed that Sri Lanka appears poised to take on this leadership role,” he told the Guardian as recently as April. That was after the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) – which has the mandate to suspending States that are violating human rights and commonwealth principals – disregarded Canadian calls for the CMAG to act against the interference of the Judiciary in Sri Lanka by the government in the wake of the controversial sacking of Chief Justice, Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake. CMAG decision to turn the blind eye was compelled by influence exerted by India, which came to the rescue of Colombo.

Canada’s participation

Foreign Minister Baird would represent Canada in the light of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to shun CHOGM in Colombo.

According to the government, at least 6,500 hotel rooms would be required to accommodate the foreign delegates, including foreign businessmen or women.

Ministries would also reap a bonus. The vehicles that would be imported for CHOGM are expected to be released to government ministries, corporations, Central Bank and other government institutions.

The government’s CHOGM Secretariat has also announced that 12 heads of State have been confirmed as speakers of the Commonwealth Business Forum (CBF) 2013 that will take place alongside the CHOGM in November.

All confirmed speakers, barring Malaysia, tiny St. Kitts and Nevis and Trinidad & Tobago are from Africa. They are: John Dramani Mahama, (President of Ghana), Thomas Thabane, Prime Minister of Lesotho, Joyce Banda, President of Malawi, Dato Najib Razak, Prime Minister of Malaysia, Armando Guebuza, President of Mozambique, Hifikepunye Pohamba, President of Namibia, Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, H.E. James Michel, President of Seychelles, Dr. Denzil L. Douglas, Prime Minister of St. Kitts and Nevis, Jakaya Kikwete, President of Tanzania, Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago and Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda.

As it is struggling to rehabilitate its image in the eyes of the international community, with little results so far though, the government is also racing against the clock to renovate its crumbling infrastructure, the latter with notable results.

The construction of the Colombo-Katunayake Expressway is expected to be completed next month, well ahead of CHOGM. The city is being given a facelift as new pavements are laid and new structures are hurriedly built and old ones renovated.

Also, refreshingly, white vans have not resurfaced for some time. And, surprisingly, there had been some action on the part of the government, after the Security Forces shot and killed three bystanders and wounded several dozen others in Weliweriya. A military panel is investigating the conduct of the Security Forces.

Caution appears to be the operative word of the government.

Last week, at a press conference, Chief of Defence Staff, General Jagath Jayasuriya, echoed those sentiments.

Four events

The office of the Chief of Defence Staff would be occupied with four important events he said.

CHOGM comes the first. His office will directly handle security and accreditation and coordinate transport, he said, in addition, providing assistance to Heads of States and Foreign Ministers.

Second comes the visit by Pillay. Then a fresh session of the UN Human Rights Council is forthcoming.

“These four events have a direct connection to Sri Lanka. It is important to maintain the image of the country and the image of the Security Forces, he said. The Tamil Diaspora is signing letters, demanding the British Prime Minister not to attend CHOGM.

“Media can do a lot of things. You can build or destroy a politician. But when it comes to security you cannot compromise it. If the security is compromised, law and order cannot be maintained. Next few months will be crucial, because there will be a lot of unrest. That is my personal opinion. This would aggravate and it is unlikely to cool down in the coming few months. There are plans to sabotage. Therefore, we are also planning to handle our Forces carefully, so there won’t be any issues. However, there will be a lot to reports in the coming months.

“I need to maintain the image of the Security Forces. Many things can happen. As you know today, there are a lot of social problems and economic problems. (Some) people are waiting to grab an opportunity in order to tarnish the image of the government and the Security Forces.

“Politics. No problem. But when it comes to security, you have to be very careful. If Security Forces lose credibility, it will be difficult to maintain law and order.”

- Ceylon Today

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