A Sri Lankan Rights Commission Goes Nowhere

In January 2007, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse, under pressure from human rights activists around the world, did what politicians always do when they want to pass the buck. He created a body with the cumbersome name of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to Investigate and Inquire into Alleged Serious Violations of Human Rights.

Known simply as the Commission, it was doomed from the very start, as numerous commissions of inquiry have been over decades in Sri Lanka, to investigate human rights abuses. None of them ever produced anything.

Rajapakse had the sense to realize that there was a credibility problem with this latest one, so to convince people of his good intentions he set up the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (the IIGEP). The IIGEP was a group made up of jurists from around the world, each a leading figure in his field. This group was given the job of overseeing the commission, making sure that it was doing what it was supposed to be doing and that everything was open, above-board and transparent.

The problems started almost immediately. None of the victims or their families wanted to give evidence before the commission for fear of possible retaliation by the perpetrators they might identify. The IIGEP raised the question of witness protection in one of their first interim statements. This annoyed the president immensely. No one had given them permission to issue reports, interim or otherwise. The government, through the Attorney General's Department, denied the validity of the IIGEP statement and that set the ball rolling for the jurists’ eventual departure, in April 2008.

Why did all this come about? There has been an international outcry about human rights abuses in Sri Lanka for decades. Rajapakse’s regime is not the first to ignore calls for accountability and an end to what appears to be state-sanctioned impunity. But what made it different for this regime was calls by the United Nations for a UN Monitoring Mission to be set up in the country. The response from the regime was that Sri Lanka was quite capable of handling its own human rights violations, thank you very much.

However, with the departure of the IIGEP and its damning condemnation of the commission, which included the statement that Sri Lanka didn’t appear to have the political will to investigate human rights abuses, the president’s claim that Sri Lanka could do the job appeared to be less than accurate.

Thus calls for a UN monitoring mission continue, as does the regime’s refusal to consider it. International condemnation by persons none other than Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu and other notables continued and eventually led to Sri Lanka being forced out of the United Nations Human Rights Council, an organization the country had belonged to since its inception. And yet Sri Lanka continues to claim that it is capable of handling its own human rights problems.

There is of course the question of sovereignty. No country wants an independent international organisation peering into day-to-day goings-on and it does not help that several western countries are not so squeaky clean either. And, while no argument can excuse human rights abuses taking place with impunity, Sri Lanka’s statement that the international NGOs should take a look at the US, Great Britain and Australia before condemning Sri Lanka is perhaps valid. It simply does not help the international argument for human rights monitoring when a country like Pakistan allows the Americans to carry out renditions of Pakistani citizens, especially when very few voices are raised against it. Certainly the US, Great Britain and Australia have plenty to answer for in the past. The message is quite clear: clean up your own back yard before pointing the finger at us.

But the regime of President Rajapakse is missing one essential point. It does not matter who is carrying out renditions with impunity, it does not matter who is turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in the name of the war of terror, the fact is that human rights abuses and the protection of offending state agents is wrong and must be stopped. Whether this is done with the help of international monitors or by the Sri Lankan state itself does not matter. What matters is that it must be done, and done quickly.

Stewart Sloan is a Hong Kong-based human rights activist.