By Namini Wijedasa.
Everywhere he travelled in the North and East, head of the United Nations’ rights body Prince Zeid Bin Ra’ad al-Hussein received letters from ordinary people.
They waited for him on the way to most of his official meetings staging, as the UN calls them, “unplanned interventions”. He took time to speak with all of them and faced no restrictions.
The tenor of the United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner’s visit was relaxed and informative, official sources said. He readily posed for photographs throughout the tour
. The Government considered the visit a success. Prince Zeid was afforded wide and open access to officials and civilians. Despite a tight schedule, he spoke at length with ordinary people and also visited the historic Nallur Kandaswamy Kovil in Jaffna as well as the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.
The visit was remarkably different from the one Prince Zeid’s predecessor, Navi Pillay, conducted. Her tour was marred by demonstrations everywhere she went by groups who were not permitted to have appointments with her. There was only one similar protest during Prince Zeid’s visit.
On the last day, an organisation of Muslims expelled from the North by the LTTE waved placards and shouted slogans outside the United Nations Headquarters in Bauddhaloka Mawatha demanding a meeting with the rights chief. The demonstration took place while Prince Zeid was conducting a news conference inside.
The joint opposition also held a protest at the start of Prince Zeid’s visit. A meeting with Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former president, or other vocal members of the joint opposition, was not on his agenda. It prompted some of them to remark that Prince Zeid only saw one side of the political story.
During meetings with the Mahanayake Theras of the Asgiriya and Malwatte Chapters in Kandy, Prince Zeid was told there was opposition in the country to the setting up of a hybrid court involving foreign judges.
The prelates said measures were being taken to promote reconciliation and unity and that Sri Lanka must be permitted to resolve its problems on its own.
At his news conference—where he delivered a 20 minute statement before taking questions—Prince Zeid indicated that the concept of foreign judges was not set in stone.
“The preference of the Sri Lankan Government has been made known,” he said, in response to a query. “We have a view that we put into the report but, as we discussed this with them, we know they are looking at various options within the limits of what they have defined as their preference.”
“What we’re saying from our side is that it is your sovereign right to make these decisions,” he said. “We can make recommendations but it is your sovereign right. However, in the end, the recommendations or rather whatever you do will be for naught if the victims themselves do not feel that justice is being done.”
“So in the final analysis it’s not whether the UN says this is good or this is not good, this is enough or not enough, it’s not whether others do it,” he continued. “It’s whether the affected communities on all sides, all of those who have suffered loss, suffered losing their parents, their children, their siblings, it’s only they that ultimately can make these determinations and say that the government has done enough in respect of us.
And for that reason the consultative process is so vital and so important for Sri Lanka.”In his prepared statement, however, Prince Zeid was heavily critical of the country’s judicial system.
“Sri Lanka has many excellent judges, lawyers, and law enforcement officials,” he remarked. “But over the years the system they depended on, and which depends on them, became highly politicised, unbalanced, unreliable. The country’s history over the past few decades is littered with judicial failures,” he said.”
“Virtually every week provides a new story of a failed investigation, a mob storming a court-room, or another example of a crime going unpunished,” he said. “Sexual violence and harassment against women and girls is particularly poorly handled by the relevant State institutions — especially when the alleged perpetrators are members of the military or security services — and, as a result it remains all too widespread.”
Prince Zeid paid particular attention during his visit to victims. One of the most moving stories he related during his news conference was about a woman who had suffered sexual abuse during the JVP insurgency.
“I met one woman carrying the emotional scars of her rape by security forces nearly 30 years ago during the JVP insurgency,” he said. “Her pain, and that of all these victims and their families is terrible to behold, and it is cruel to prolong it if ways of alleviating it are available.”
Asked by a journalist whether this meant the ambit of his office’s focus would now extend back to the time of the JVP insurgency, Prince Zeid said his point was that victims do not forget their pain easily.
“When I was meeting this lady, and she was a very dignified lady who expressed in heartfelt terms and in detail, sort of horrifyingly, how she was abused, and she was weeping,” he narrated. “And one realizes that for victims of any such violation time collapses very quickly.”