[Political posters using Pope]
Writing to Pope Francis on his proposed visit to Sri Lanka in January 2015 a group of Catholics has elaborated in detail the suppression of human rights in Sri Lanka and urge his Holiness to postpone his visit.
”We humbly request your Holiness to note that already, heavy propaganda is going on, requesting people in Catholic areas to vote for the President as the President is also supported by the Pope. We are a country which is ruled entirely by propaganda of the kind that George Orwell foresaw in his novel 1984. We have now gotten used to not expecting any truth from the government’s propaganda machine and to expect hyperbolic lies all the time. Our fear is that your Holiness’ visit to Sri Lanka will also be used as one more of such hyperbolic lies. . These are not mere verbal lies; they bring misery and wretchedness to our people. We are living in conditions of deprivation and unlawfulness and ending this is what most of the people, particularly the poor in our country, are most desirous of. Under these circumstances, the use of Your Holiness’ name and photographs in order to promote a further term for the same despicable political system is quite painful for us to watch.
We therefore urge Your Holiness to delay to a time when it will not be used as a political propaganda ploy, and when people with peace in their mind would have the fortune to see you and receive your blessings.”
The full text of the letter sent to Pope Francis:
His Holiness, Pope Francis
00120 Vatican City
We are sending you warm and reverential greetings from our motherland, Sri Lanka. We are a group of Catholics whose ancestors have been Catholics for generations. We assure you of our love and greatest respect.
We are, however, writing this to you as we are very perturbed after the announcement of your visit to our country in January 2015. Under normal circumstances, we would have been at the forefront of those who enthusiastically wish to see you on our own soil and to be blessed by you.
Unfortunately, however, Sri Lanka is not living through normal times. We have been living through agonizing times, where lawlessness has become the norm and everything is sacrificed for the benefit of the President of the country and his family alone. Why we are perturbed about your visit is because it has been organized as a ploy to gain votes in a Presidential election in favour of the incumbent President, who, according to universally accepted constitutional principles which are also entrenched in our constitution, should not hold office after the end of his second term.
However, our constitution itself was amended by the President himself to enable him to contest for the same post for so long as he wishes. This move has come under enormous criticism from almost everyone in the country, who unanimously demand that the present constitution, which gives the powers of an absolute ruler to the Executive President, should be abolished and a democratic power model should be introduced before holding any further elections. The demand for the abolition of the Executive Presidency has also been one that has been supported by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Sri Lanka.
We humbly request your Holiness to note that already, heavy propaganda is going on, requesting people in Catholic areas to vote for the President as the President is also supported by the Pope. We are a country which is ruled entirely by propaganda of the kind that George Orwell foresaw in his novel 1984. We have now gotten used to not expecting any truth from the government’s propaganda machine and to expect hyperbolic lies all the time. Our fear is that your Holiness’ visit to Sri Lanka will also be used as one more of such hyperbolic lies. . These are not mere verbal lies; they bring misery and wretchedness to our people. We are living in conditions of deprivation and unlawfulness and ending this is what most of the people, particularly the poor in our country, are most desirous of. Under these circumstances, the use of Your Holiness’ name and photographs in order to promote a further term for the same despicable political system is quite painful for us to watch.
We therefore urge Your Holiness to delay to a time when it will not be used as a political propaganda ploy, and when people with peace in their mind would have the fortune to see you and receive your blessings.
We believe that you are already informed about the extremely authoritarian style of rule in Sri Lanka and the extreme forms of the violations of the basic norms of democracy and denial of all the basic human rights of the people. Perhaps it is appropriate for us to list some of these problems for your easy reference:
1. The country’s system of the separation of powers has been dismantled, making the courts in Sri Lanka and the Parliament completely subordinate to the Executive President. The country’s public institutions, such as the police, Election Commissioner’s Office, civil service, the Attorney General’s Office are all under the direct control of the President and all appointments and dismissals are being done on a political basis.
Two years ago, the Chief Justice of Sri Lanka, Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake, was dismissed from her post without observing any of the legal norms that are followed in circumstances of such dismissals. The entire country viewed this dismissal as a political act by the President, who wanted a Chief Justice who will unquestioningly obey his requests.
The Parliamentary system itself has been derailed with the use of bribery in order to win opposition Parliamentarians to the fold of the government so that the President can ensure for himself an absolute majority in the government. The possibility of having any rational debate has been lost for many years now. People therefore do not have the possibility of resorting to the judiciary or to the Parliament to voice their grievances.
2. Under the overall systemic changes, a free and fair election is no longer possible in Sri Lanka. Everything is so minutely manipulated that the possibility of people expressing their wishes against the government through an election does not exist anymore. The leader of the opposition has quite openly stated this and so have all others who are active in political life of the opposition. The average citizen continues to experience this all the time and therefore any discourse on elections is been treated with cynicism by the ordinary people in the country.
3. The human rights situation is appalling on all fronts.
a. The right to life is the least respected right. Enforced disappearances and extra-judicial killings have taken place on a large scale and the government refuses to conduct credible investigations into any of these killings. Anyone who has an independent opinion tends to live in fear because the intelligence services and security forces work secretly to silence those who oppose and pose a threat to the government’s agenda.
b. The freedom of expression and assembly are being severely attacked. International press agencies and the local journalists’ associations have published long lists of those who have been killed, or subjected to serious physical harm such as breaking of their legs and hands and otherwise subjected to reprisals. Large numbers of journalists are living in exile after fleeing from the country on receipt of serious death threats. There are regular attacks on journalists.
Peaceful demonstrations are constantly being attacked and in some instances, even demonstrators have even been killed. The worst affected in this regard are the students, who are making very legitimate demands for improvement of their hostels or the quality of their education. There have been many attacks on student led demonstrations. This is also the situation regarding the demonstrations by the workers and other poor and marginalized sections of society.
c. Torture and ill-treatment are regularly taking place at all police stations throughout the country, as the use of torture is the means by which crimes are being investigated. Human rights organisations have published long lists of victims of torture, including those who have died in police or military custody. None of these matters are investigated.
During the recent months, many news items have appeared where persons who have been arrested have been killed while in police custody, which is often excused with a story that they have attempted to escape and were shot dead by the police or security forces in self-defence.
d. As you would know, minority rights have been severely curtailed. Both Tamil and Muslim minoritiesand other religious minorities, including Christians, have been subjected to attacks and punishments.
Even after the end of the war, the Tamil minority is living under the control of the military. They do not even enjoy the freedom to talk about their deceased loved ones as even this is portrayed as the promotion of terrorism. Propaganda against terrorism is used all the time in order to suppress the rights of the minorities.
As for estate workers, who are perhaps the poorest section of workers in Sri Lanka, their conditions remain appalling. In a recent landslide, over a hundred persons were submerged in mud and many of their bodies were not even recovered. Earlier, there had been warnings to the company which employs them about the danger of landslides in the area. However, the company had not taken any precautions to provide them with alternative places to go to. This tragedy exposes the conditions of a group of people who never received any Government attention.
As for religious minorities, there have been serious attacks on the Muslim minority, which has led to unrest. Many Christian groups have complained of attacks on their places of worship. While the Police continues to fail to provide the lawful protection to these minority groups in such scenarios, none of these have been credibly investigated. Nor has any legal action been taken against the perpetrators.
e. The protection of women has not been a concern of the government despite much flowery rhetoric spoken about the rights of women. Rape and sexual abuse remain one of the most serious threats to women.. In particular, young girls have been targets of many attacks..
Nearly 10% of Sri Lankan workers go abroad to places such as the Middle East in order to work as domestic helpers, majority being women. They work under extremely difficult conditions, deprived of the basic rights enjoyed by workers throughout the world and they are extremely vulnerable to many attacks. The foreign Ministry has failed to ensure the necessary safeguards for these migrant workers. As illustrated in the case of the young girl Rizana Nafeek, some even suffer death sentences by beheading for offences they have never committed.
f. Tying up all this is the most extraordinary type of corruption that runs into all aspects of life. The misappropriation of State resources, particularly by the President’s family, is a well known fact among the people. The State mechanism and public resources are manipulated to achieve private and political goals. For example, even sports matches are fixed when the members of the President’s family take part.
Transparency and accountability are words that no longer have any relevance to the state of affairs in Sri Lanka. Drugs and other illegal forms of money-making have all been allowed and the young in particular have become victims of the drug trade. Many families lament about the ruin of their young and, despite the warnings by some who were close to the government on these matters, the government turns a blind eye as such trade is lucrative.
The right to property is being seriously challenged as the government uses its power to expropriate citizens’ properties for the benefit of those who are associated with the President’s family. The Commission against Bribery and Corruption has itself been used to promote corruption. Senior politicians who have been accused of large-scale corruption are not being investigated. This Commission is also used as a means for committing reprisals against political opponents.
This list of violations of human rights can go into a great litany. We could provide clarifications and evidence if Your Holiness wishes to receive the same about the issues listed above. However, it suffices to say that people who are affected by such violations and violence have no one to complain to. They have no option but to suffer alone.
Your Holiness’ presence will be used to whitewash such enormous repression, including the sabotage of political, social and cultural rights of the people. Your Holiness shaking hands with the President and others close to the President will be exhibited not only in the State television and newspapers, but in our experience, also in large cut-outs that would be exhibited on roadsides.
We are sure that your Holiness do not intend this visit to bring about that kind of result on the people of Sri Lanka. Therefore, we humbly and earnestly urge that Your Holiness will not comply with the government’s demand for this visit to be expedited. Instead, that Your Holiness may choose the time most appropriate for such a visit in consultation with the Catholic community in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka needs the prayers of Your Holiness so that this country can thrive in a period of peace, democracy and respect for the rights of the people. We ask Your Holiness’ blessing on our country and on ourselves.
The signatures in the original letter posted to Pope Francis on 24th Nov 2014 form Group of Catholics.