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This is my Nation


                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Time to review our human rights record

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Right now, the government’s position appears to be that it is doing everything possible to ensure maximum guarantees on human rights for its citizens, and that there is nearly nothing more that needs to be done about it. The implication of that is that those who shout from the rooftops about alleged human rights abuses in this country are either traitors, political opportunists or terrorists.

Now, that shouldn’t necessarily be so and President Mahinda Rajapaksa should be the first to know that: He was in the forefront of the campaign against alleged human rights abuses in the late eighties and was once detained at the airport when trying to leave the country to complain about those abuses

The inevitable happened last Wednesday: Sri Lanka lost its seat at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in what was interpreted by many as a slap in the face for the Mahinda Rajapaksa government.

There was much hype leading to the event. Until the eleventh hour, Colombo was putting up a brave front and maintaining it was confident of retaining its seat in the Council despite a series of reports which provided adverse publicity to the country’s recent human rights record.

In the aftermath of the defeat however, a different tune emerged. There government claimed that there was a concerted campaign within the country and outside it, orchestrated by non-governmental organisations and other interested parties to deprive Sri Lanka of this position, and that this had begun well before last Wednesday’s election.

Surely, for those following recent elections, there must be a sense of déjà vu in all this. Where did we hear that refrain before? Wasn’t it at the eastern Provincial Council elections a fortnight ago, where a different party, the opposition United National Party (UNP) was singing much the same song?

Many will remember that the UNP cried foul over the eastern Provincial Poll, well before a single vote had been cast, saying there were moves by the government to rig the poll. Then, after the poll, it was more of the same moaning and groaning about the misconduct of the elections.

This is not to say that the UNP is not justified in making its claims. It is merely to point out that the UNP had seen right throughout the campaign for the eastern poll that the election would be tampered with. Yet, they were spectacularly incompetent to do anything about it, rather than whine after the event.

And that is precisely what the powers that be in Colombo are now doing over the UNHRC elections. Which must prompt the obvious query from our honourable and indefatigable Minister of Foreign Affairs: did Colombo know what was in store for them at the UNHRC election? And if it did, did it do enough to prevent this humiliating defeat?

There will of course be explanations. Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama seems to take some masochistic pleasure in pointing out that Sri Lanka is ‘encouraged’ by the majority support referring to the fact that 101 countries out of 192 nations voted for it.

Of course, being the eternal optimist that he is, Bogollagama is entitled to see the glass as half full. Others will see it as half empty and point out that 91 countries thought that Pakistan-which is still under military rule despite recent parliamentary elections, and where the President arbitrarily dismissed the Chief Justice-has a better human rights record than Sri Lanka!

No matter what interpretation is given to the final tally of votes, the ouster from the Council can and must prompt only one pertinent question from the powers that be: shouldn’t Colombo review its stance on its recent human rights record?

Right now, the government’s position appears to be that it is doing everything possible to ensure maximum guarantees on human rights for its citizens, and that there is nearly nothing more that needs to be done about it. The implication of that is that those who shout from the rooftops about alleged human rights abuses in this country are either traitors, political opportunists or terrorists.

Now, that shouldn’t necessarily be so and President Mahinda Rajapaksa should be the first to know that: he was in the forefront of the campaign against alleged human rights abuses in the late eighties and was once detained at the airport when trying to leave the country to complain about those abuses.

In recent times, Colombo has been quick to counter claims of alleged human rights abuses with the ready response that the country is fighting a brutal war against arguably the most ruthless terrorist group in the world. That is indeed so. But that is exactly the reason why it must be even more careful of its human rights record, however difficult that may be in a practical context.

In fact, among the happiest at Sri Lanka’s defeat at the UNHRC, will be the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The Tigers will now know that it’s claims of Colombo being a brutal and barbaric regime will sound more credible, and in that sense, they would have scored a significant victory in the propaganda war.

This is precisely why Colombo should review its policies and attitudes on human rights. Specifically, it cannot appear to be incompetent when repeated reports of abductions, assaults, intimidation and even murders are brought to its notice.

This newspaper records elsewhere the harrowing tale of its Associate editor being abducted, assaulted and then abandoned this week. It has been announced that a probe is underway into the incident but surely, a government cannot claim to be ignorant about such acts or appear incompetent in dealing with them. In the eyes of the public who bear the brunt of such abuses, the government of the day is responsible, at least by default.

The time has come then for those in high places to rethink their strategies on their human rights record rather than sing the, ‘we are at war, so what else can we do?’ tune. We may have already lost our seat in the UNHRC but surely, Sri Lanka wouldn’t want to be classified as a pariah state, would it?

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