Call for OHCHR field office: SL Peace Official Replies - 10th December 2007

Call for OHCHR field office: SL Peace Official Replies
by Rajiva Wijesinha

From Peace in Sri Lanka : The Official Website of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP)

A few weeks back Ms Louise Arbour, High Commissioner for Human Rights, claimed in an interview given in Afghanistan that she had publicly suggested while in Sri Lanka that a Field Office of her office be established in Sri Lanka. This was not actually the case, and the Minister for Disaster Management and Human Rights who had facilitated her visit expressed some surprise at her claim. Her response was that she continued to be convinced that such an office, 'reporting to me' as she put it, was desirable.

Though the Sri Lankan government was surprised by her claim that she had been saying this all along, others were not. The Sri Lankan opposition had claimed earlier that the UN wished to impose a Monitoring Mission and that nothing could stop it. This was the position in websites and pronouncements of organizations associated with the LTTE, and also of various human rights organizations in Sri Lanka and elsewhere that claim to be objective. More sadly, some awareness of Ms Arbour's position may have underlain the pronouncement, at the session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva last September of the Ambassador representing the EU when he requested the government of Sri Lanka to agree to such a presence.

The EU ambassador in Geneva was however circumspect in his statement, unlike his counterpart in New York who was harshly critical of Sri Lanka, in a manner that even the EU ambassador to Sri Lanka granted was 'not helpful'. It was reported that he was simply stating what he had been asked to by Brussels. This again is not surprising in a context in which the European Commissioner for External Relations had last year criticized the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister for having the LTTE banned in Europe. His comment that the decision had been taken by the European Commission, doubtless for good reason, went unheeded. The claim of the Commissioner, no doubt intended in good faith, was that the ban had taken away her opportunity to confront the LTTE in person.

She may have been under the impression that her remonstrations would have converted them from terrorism to good democratic practices.

Such sentiments seem to have underlain the claim of Ms Arbour that she was sorry the Sri Lankan government did not permit her to go to areas under LTTE control, so that she could have told them what she thought of their practices.

She may not be aware that she could do this without actually visiting the LTTE leader, and allowing him to claim, as he has done with many dignitaries in the past, though none perhaps as distinguished as Ms. Arbour, that this is an example of the international community dealing with a de facto government.

Unfortunately, whilst some of their governments have conducted very aggressive campaigns against terrorism, which have involved suspension of certain civil liberties hitherto thought sacrosanct, some individuals, as represented by these otherwise admirable ladies, seem to believe that a little maternal finger wagging would do the trick. Going hand in hand with this belief is a continuing tendency of the UN and some other international agencies in Sri Lanka to refrain scrupulously from criticizing the activities of the LTTE.

Though it is claimed that they have made clear their abhorrence of terrorism, there has been a stunning silence about particular acts of terrorism that contrasts with criticism of each and every act of what they elsewhere may categorize as more terroristic terrorists.

Thus, though it has been well known for the last year that the LTTE engages in forced conscription, the UN has never highlighted this in its reports. When the head of the UN in Sri Lanka was asked about this, he claimed that there were reports, and then granted that this was in internal documents. Though he promised to remedy this, when asked a few months afterwards why he had not done so, he claimed that the UN had given information to reporters.

This is simply not good enough, when taken in conjunction with recent revelations of direct UN assistance to LTTE adjuncts which have clearly promoted terrorism. Most recently it tranpired that the LTTE Peace Secretariat had posted on its website adulatory pictures of suicide cadres meeting with their leader, Mr Prabhakaran, before being sent off to their deaths.

The ambassador of the Royal Norwegian government, which had provided funds to the LTTE PS (with the acquiescence of successive Sri Lankan governments, in their belief that this would promote peace), had the courage to call the LTTE PS and suggest they remove these photographs - though of course they have not done so. However the head of the UN in Sri Lanka, though requested to do the same, does not as yet seem to have done so.

Meanwhile, though he cannot be blamed for this in a context in which his predecessors do not seem to have followed basic norms of accountability, he has as yet not answered several questions concerning a UNDP grant to the LTTE PS. His counterpart who heads UNICEF is only now conducting a detailed audit of Rs 100 million given to the TRO, an aid organization now under investigation in several countries more consistent in their fight against terrorism, for using their funds to purchase and transport weapons after the Ceasefire was signed. An earlier request to the previous UNICEF head for detailed accounts and a statement of outcomes was ignored, and it was only after a parliamentary question by an opposition member of parliament that UNICEF has decided to do an audit. Meanwhile UNICEF has promised disciplinary action against its officials in Sri Lanka who engaged in anti-government activity that their terms of employment specifically forbid. Again when the current head of UNICEF was asked why this inquiry follows a parliamentary question, and was not taken six months ago when the offences first occurred, he could only say that he had no idea.

Current UN officials in Sri Lanka cannot be faulted for the untoward indulgence, carelessness or sheer incompetence of their predecessors. As requested by them, in the memorable words of the Beatles, they will be given time and 'a chance'. But unless and until such UN agencies, headed in Sri Lanka by individuals from nations that seem to have previously reached a consensus on increasing Ms Arbour's presence in Sri Lanka, improve their performance, it would be unwise for a government struggling against one of the most ruthless terrorist movements in the world to multiply the entities with which it has to be firmer than it has been in the past.

This does not of course mean that human rights can be ignored. The Sri Lankan government continues to ask for assistance to improve both its institutions and personnel engaged in the field. It has been granted, by the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission amongst others, that the record of the army in this regard is much better than it was.

Certainly we are light years away from the eighties, when the then Sri Lankan government received almost unstinted support from nations and agencies that are now concerned, and it was only the Indian government that raised questions about the treatment of minorities.

However much more needs to be done, for instance with the police, who interact more often with the public, and whose training has been comparatively neglected. At its simplest training in other languages, to ensure that language rights are upheld positively in any interactions, is vital but government requests in this respect have gone unanswered. Again, training in investigation and interrogation techniques would help to professionalize the force, but apart from some sterling support in this regard from the Swedish government, and some still basic assistance with community policing by the British, little has been done.

It is extremely regrettable that, though there was a Senior Adviser on Human Rights from the office of the High Commissioner, none of this was taken forward. Instead there are records, including from the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission, of steadfast refusal to assist. It is perhaps no coincidence that the previous holder of that position arrived in Sri Lanka along with Ms Arbour and, almost before his visit began, declared that he thought an increased presence a good idea, if only - 'not to criticize his colleagues' as he engagingly put it - to make up for the incompetence of other UN agencies in this field. However his own record in the three years in which he was supposed to make a difference suggest that, far from outputs being important, it is simply the process that he favours.

All this should also be taken in conjunction with what, as one American observer put it, may be characterized as 'an unhealthy obsession' with a previous government. The UNDP project that assisted the LTTE PS was signed by an earlier Secretary to the Prime Minister, who was a political appointee who continues a close adviser of the Leader of the Opposition. He has also been the Chair, or a member of the Board of, various Civil Society organizations that benefited enormously from foreign assistance during the tenure in office of the Prime Minister he served. Not perhaps coincidentally, it was the Executive Director of one of those organizations who chaired the Committee that dished out grants through that project, while the UNDP failed to appoint either the National Coordinator for that project, nor the high powered Steering Committee that should have included senior government officials. Instead it used the services of one of its own local employees who had previously worked for another of the organizations in which the Secretary to the Prime Minister was prominent.

This system of interlocking directorates as it were, all benefiting enormously from the aid that flooded in during the initial stages of the Peace Process, perhaps explains the vociferous demands for an office reporting to Ms Arbour to be established in Sri Lanka. The government of Sri Lanka has now realized that is must ensure a thorough audit of the funding and outputs of such organizations. Meanwhile it will do its best, through a more judicious use of aid than in the past, to ensure development of its own national institutions that safeguard human rights, welcoming international advice and assistance on how to ensure the credibility and effectiveness of these.

Prof Rajiva Wijesinha Secretary General Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process