The Government’s response:
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Ms Navanetham Pillay was on a week-long visit to Sri Lanka on an invitation extended by the Government of Sri Lanka in April 2011. This invitation is a part of Sri Lanka’s consistent engagement with the UN System.
As is well known, the High Commissioner’s visit to Sri Lanka was extensive, which she herself has described, as the longest ever country visit undertaken in her current position. The GOSL provided unfettered access for the High Commissioner to meet all those whom she sought to engage with, besides providing briefings on the part of the GOSL, on the continuing post conflict developments, a fact that she has acknowledged.
It is significant to note the High Commissioner’s acknowledgement of the true nature of the LTTE, and her call to those in the diaspora, who continue to revere the memory of the LTTE, to recognize that there should be no place for the glorification of such a ruthless Organization.
While noting that the High Commissioner has paid respects “to all Sri Lankans across the country who were killed during those three decades of conflict”, a disturbing fact that emerged during the visit, which had also come up during her media conference, was the surreptitious effort made by the visiting delegation to pay a floral tribute during the visit to Mullivaikkal. It was pointed out by the Sri Lankan side to the OHCHR delegation that if such a gesture needed to be made it should be done at a venue common to all victims of the 30 year terrorist conflict and not on the grounds where the LTTE leader met his death. It is significant that at no point of time during the discussions in formulating the High Commissioner’s programme, that the holding of such an event was indicated. This was brought to the attention of the Government side, only a few hours before the unilaterally scheduled event. On inquiry it became evident that the UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, who represents the UN Secretary General, was unaware of this planned event.
It is noteworthy that the UN side had made it known to the local media that they should not follow the High Commissioner during her field visits to Mullaitivu, as it would impede the confidentiality of her discussions with those villagers she was to meet. However, three international television agencies had been directly invited from Geneva by the spokesperson of the High Commissioner, well in advance of her arrival in Sri Lanka, to cover this floral tribute event in Mullivaikkal, demonstrating selective manipulation of the media in Sri Lanka. Following the GOSL communicating the inappropriateness of this act, based on it being a selective commemoration of victims of the terrorist conflict, and the High Commissioner deciding to cancel that programme, these television crews were granted brief interviews by her in other locations.
The High Commissioner’s sensitivity with regard to important post conflict achievements in Sri Lanka not being sufficiently recognized internationally, even after the GOSL on its own part expending approximately US $ 3 billion, for reconstruction and rehabilitation in the former theatre of conflict is acknowledged. During the meeting the High Commissioner had with the representatives of the Government of Sri Lanka, the importance of economic contentment of the people, in order for the reconciliation process to be viable and sustainable was emphasized. Further, the magnitude of the challenges Sri Lanka faces was outlined, and the need to give due consideration to the brief period of time since the end of the conflict, was upheld. The High Commissioner was also informed that in order to expedite other related aspects of the reconciliation process, an enormous amount of resources is being chanelled to the North and the East.
With reference to the High Commissioner’s assertion that the new Ministry of Law and Order “is at best a partial separation as both Ministries will remain under the President, rather than under a separate civilian Ministry”, it has been explained during the meetings the unacceptability of this position, as it is not in accordance with the established procedures of Sri Lanka, since the Police Department has consistently been under the Ministry of Defence and only briefly under an Interior Ministry. It may be noted that the President derives his position as the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces only by the provisions of the Constitution. The new Ministry of Law and Order is a civilian Ministry, brought under the President, in the same manner as the Ministries of Finance & Planning, and Ports & Highways, which are also civilian establishments. It is inappropriate for the High Commissioner to propose the assignments of Cabinet portfolios of a sovereign nation, which is a prerogative of the Executive Head of State.
The High Commissioner’s often repeated position of war crimes, in this instance not even alleged, and the call for an international investigation, are reflected in her statement as an innuendo, although detailed information was presented on the falsity of these allegations at the meetings she held with the representatives of the Government of Sri Lanka.
With regard to the High Commissioner’s expression of surprise that the GOSL seemed to “downplay” the issue of incitement of hatred and violence against religious minorities, the Government is equally surprised and dismayed at this reaction, particularly, when details of incidents she referred to were requested at the highest political level. Further, much was made by the High Commissioner of having seen a Buddhist flag aloft at Independence Square. It was pointed out to her that only the National Flag and other relevant flags for a national event fly on the main flag post at the Independence Square. Subsequently, it was found that the Buddhist flag under reference was flying adjacent to Independence Square. It may be noted that the Constitution of Sri Lanka provides the foremost place to Buddhism, while assuring all religions their rights. Throughout the country the freedom of practicing a religion of one’s own choice continues, and its manifestation in keeping with the multi cultural and multi religious nature of the people was experienced in full measure by the High Commissioner during her visit. Her disproportionate singling out the flying of a Buddhist flag as an issue is regrettable, given that there are many countries where state and religion go hand in hand, to the extent of religion being invoked even in currency notes widely used for international transactions.
Many of the other issues pointed to in the High Commissioner’s statement, including “disturbing incidents” as referred to by her concerning those whom she met, were raised during meetings with her Government interlocutors, both in Colombo and in the Northern and the Eastern Provinces. It must be noted that although details regards these allegations stated by the High Commissioner were sought by the Government side, to date no information has been forthcoming from the UN side. In fact, some documentation, including maps produced by UN Agencies in Sri Lanka which the High Commissioner was not previously privy to, had to be shared with her by the Sri Lankan interlocutors.
The High Commissioner’s observation that Sri Lanka “is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction” is a political statement on her part, which clearly transgresses her mandate and the basic norms which should be observed by a discerning international civil servant. It also runs contrary to the many assertions the High Commissioner made about the unfettered access she was provided, the freedom people presently enjoy in contrast to the last time she visited Sri Lanka in 2000 and the vibrant political debates and election campaigns of which evidence was seen by her and acknowledged reflecting the political pluralism enjoyed by the people of Sri Lanka. The judgment on the leadership of the country is better left for the people of Sri Lanka to decide, than being caricatured by external entities influenced by vested interests.