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Sri Lanka: HRCSL should defend human rights, not the regime


 The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) had submitted to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem, recommendations in order to enhance the powers and mandate of the Commission. The recommendations have envisaged to endow the Human Rights Commission with powers to enact its recommendations by submitting them to the High Court or the Court of Appeal; powers to enact interim orders; powers to conduct investigations into matters of national concern and authority to issue warrants bearing the signature of the Chairman of the Human Rights Commission in the face of warrants being ignored by individuals.
 In addition, under new recommendations, the Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission should be able to intervene in a Court case, if reasonable doubt is cast that human rights are violated during a trial (especially in a criminal tribunal).
 Prathiba Mahanamahewa, the Chairman of HRCSL is himself on record as saying to this newspaper that the country’s Human Rights Act No. 26 of 1996 was obsolete. In a rather bold statement, he had noted that ‘the quality of our human rights should commensurate with the standard of 58 other member States in the Asia Pacific region.
 However, the bitter but stubborn truth is that Sri Lanka’s human rights record is a disappointment. A discourse on the country’s dreaded rights record has been discouraged by the government, which tends to believe that such a discourse goes hand in glove with ‘treason’ and ‘conspiracy’. Those who challenged the government’s version of its human rights record have been labelled as traitors. That had pretty much been the order of the day in the run up to every session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. However, now the chickens have come home to roost and the clock is ticking. British Prime Minister David Cameron had warned he would lobby for an international war crime probe and Downing Street is now considering co-sponsoring another adverse human rights resolution on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC session in March, next year. The room for manoeuvring for the regime in Colombo is shrinking.
 Sri Lanka does not have much to boast in terms of mechanisms that protect human rights of its citizens. Its laws are lax, obsolete and subjected to abuse and manipulation. HRCSL had lost its independence and had its accreditation of the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions (ICC) downgraded for the perceived lack of independence in terms of appointment of members to the Commission.
 The interlocutors of the government could shout from the rooftops that all that was part and parcel of a conspiracy hatched by the Tamil Diaspora, or even by the advanced democracies in the West. They can vouch as to how innocent their government is. However, the fact of the matter is that their international counterparts think otherwise.
 Sri Lanka’s failure to earn respect from its international counterparts has been compounded by the absence of an independent mechanism to ensure human rights of its people. The international community has contested the integrity and the mandate of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. They view it as a mechanism subservient to the regime.
 Therefore, the latest recommendations appear to be a feeble effort on the part of the HRCSL to impress its international counterparts as to how seriously it is doing its job. The new recommendations could give teeth to the largely ineffective HRCSL.
 Therefore, the recommendations are a welcome effort; however, the fact of the matter is that there is a lot more to be done if the HRCSL is to be taken seriously by the international community, especially those in the advanced democracies in the West. First and foremost, HRCSL should assert its independence and make clear in no uncertain terms that it is not an accessory of the regime. The role of the HRCSL is to protect the human rights of Sri Lankan citizens, and not to defend a government that had been blamed for some of the egregious violations of human rights. HRCSL should get that right. Until then, with new laws or no laws, it would not command much respect.


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