[Photo courtesy Business Today]
by Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu-
Recently, the media reported that the Defence Secretary held a meeting in the Defence Ministry with a number of NGOs who had worked with the GOSL and the Commonwealth Foundation on the People’s Forum which was part of the activities of the 2013 Colombo CHOGM. These NGOs included representatives from the National Peace Council (NPC), the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) and Sarvodaya amongst others. It was also reported that at this meeting the Defence Secretary had divided NGOs into three categories along the lines of those who did developmental work, engaged with the government and those who criticized the government both nationally and internationally.It was also learnt that the Defence Secretary would like to engage the latter category and that the civil society organisations at the meeting did not raise any criticisms of the regime’s record regarding human rights protection and reconciliation, ostensibly on the grounds that the meeting was to be the first of many.
More recently, it has come to light that the University of Sydney and its local partner the Centre for the Study of Human Rights at the University of Colombo are to hold a conference in Bangkok from 15 -17th September as part of a larger project on the use of torture in post-war situations. Over a hundred Sri Lankan police and security force personnel are to attend and invitations have been extended to Sri Lankan civil society organisations working in this field – Right to Life, Rights Now and Janasansadanaya – as well. International human rights organisations have also been invited.
Last week, the University of Sydney wrote to Rights Now and to Right to Life asking them to withdraw from the conference because they had been informed by the GOSL that the representatives of the Sri Lankan police and security forces would be withdrawn from the conference if these organisations attended. The rationale provided was that the Sri Lankan security establishment would brook no dissent and criticism of their conduct at the conference. The University of Sydney maintained that the withdrawal of the Sri Lankan police and security forces would make the conference “unviable” and in effect disinvited Rights Now and Right to Life. Adding insult to injury, the University of Sydney asked the two organisations to write to them voluntarily, withdrawing from the conference!
Engaging with Civil Society
A number of questions arise.
1.Is the Defence Secretary seriously and sincerely interested in engaging with organisations critical of the regime’s human rights record? Surely, it is safe to assume that in the tightly controlled national security state no one would dare take this initiative of announcing a withdrawal of representation at an international conference without his direct instruction or sanction?
2.If he is seriously and sincerely interested in engagement, why the boycott threat regarding the Bangkok conference?
3.Is the message being conveyed that to be at the same conference as critics would only “legitimize” and give credibility to critics?
4.Does he – so self- consciously and self -aggrandizingly powerful as he is – understand the role of civil society in governance and public policy in the 21st century?
5.Indeed, is he aware of the national and international commitments of the GOSL in this respect?
6.What is the security establishment afraid of in respect of criticism? Surely they do know that there is plenty of criticism of them in the public realm, in the media both print and electronic and on the net?
7.How does this square with the professed desire/interest in engagement?
Questions arise too in respect of the willingness and ability of the Universities of Sydney and Colombo to uphold fundamental principles of the independence and autonomy of universities and fundamental freedoms. It is clearly naïve in the context of contemporary Sri Lanka, to expect the University of Colombo, in particular its Centre for the Study of Human Rights and the academics in decision-making positions in that institution, to search their individual and collective conscience with regard to participation in this conference and continued partnership in this programme. In the face of the courage and resilience of critics and dissenters alike, from the families of the disappeared to victims of torture to civil society activists, this is nothing short of supine capitulation to the high-handed blackmailing tactics of a regime for whom such a modus operandi has become standard operating procedure. Amnesty International and Janasansadanaya withdrew, as did the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.
This begs the question of civil society engagement with the regime. There is no denying that engagement is good and to be encouraged in order to accomplish mutually beneficial, shared objectives. However there is no denying too that most importantly there should be agreement on the basis of that engagement – surely it cannot compromise or undermine the very values and principles which those engaging stand for and receive their legitimacy from?
It is also instructive to ask as to whether polite engagement so far has yielded anything other than the regime’s disdain, even contempt? Is it the case that on the human rights and reconciliation front, polite engagement led to the Commission of Inquiry and the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP), the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), the Action Plan to implement it, the Missing Persons Commission et cetera, et cetera? Or was it exposure, dissent and criticism expressed locally and at some risk, leading to pressure in the international arena? Are any of the organisations that have so engaged with the national security state going to escape the dragnet of the impending NGO legislation or is this a non-issue in these cases anyway?
Civil society is not a monolith and most certainly should not be. However, at the same time it is vital that those who profess to be like-minded on issues of human rights, reconciliation and governance, hold true to the principles underpinning them. Engagement or non-engagement is a choice to be made by each organization, critically though on the basis of a common understanding of these principles and the need to uphold them at all times to the best of one’s ability. It is also about conveying this unequivocally in engagement.
It is worth citing some extracts from UN HRC Resolution A/HRC/4/L.24:
“Recognizing the important role of civil society at the local, national, regional and international levels, and that civil society facilitates the achievement of the purposes and principles of the United Nations,
Reaffirming that special emphasis should be given to measures to assist in the strengthening of a pluralistic civil society, including through the strengthening of the rule of law, social and economic development, the promotion of freedom of expression, the right of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, and the administration of justice, and to the real and effective participation of the people in the decision-making processes,
Recognizing the crucial importance of active involvement of civil society, at all levels, in processes of governance and in promoting good governance, including through transparency and accountability, at all levels, which is indispensable for building peaceful, prosperous and democratic societies,
Mindful that domestic legal and administrative provisions and their application should facilitate, promote and protect an independent, diverse and pluralistic civil society and, in this regard, strongly rejecting any acts of intimidation or reprisals against civil society.
Perhaps the Defence Secretary is aware of the above?
And most importantly, most of civil society too!