Human rights in Sri Lanka take center stage at the United Nations

Sri Lanka, pictured from space, had been a model of democracy but a new report on the country's human rights record finds the country heading in the wrong direction. (Photo courtesy of NASA.)

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse’s United People's Freedom Alliance introduced a bill last week impeach the country’s Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. On Monday, hundreds of people, including lawyers and opposition leaders, protested the impeachment in front of the Supreme Court in Colombo.

The bill was introduced on the same day that Sri Lanka underwent a regular review of its human rights record as a member of the United Nations — a review that goes on every four years.

"It's ironic and telling that on the very day that Sri Lanka's case is heard before the Human Rights Council that the government chooses to launch an impeachment process against the chief justice," said Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka Project Director at the International Crisis Group. "That tells you both how arrogant they are and the degree of contempt they have for international institutions and their own institutions as well."

Since the end of the island’s decades-long civil war in 2009, human rights organizations say that the country has made little progress in ameliorating pervasive human rights violations such as extrajudicial killings, disappearances and the weakening of checks on executive power through media freedom and judicial independence. A high court judge was assaulted in early October after complaining about executive interference in the judiciary.

Keenan has been researching human rights and humanitarian work in Sri Lanka for almost 13 years. He explained by phone from London why last week’s review was so important and why the world should care about where Sri Lanka is headed.

What are some of the major concerns of Sri Lanka human rights watchers?

The basic picture is that after the end of the war the machinery of repression and intimidation -- all of that machinery used to win the war -- has continued to function. So you continue to have repression of the media, attacks on the independence of the judiciary, significant numbers of enforced disappearances. You continue to have the military effectively run the Tamil areas of the northeastern provinces. You continue to have large-scale corruption and you have impunity for the thousands of cases of extrajudicial killings, disappearances and, likely, war crimes over more than two decades of war.

Those who watch and care about human rights in Sri Lanka, both in and outside the country, see a collapse of basic democratic institutions: the judiciary, the media and the ability of civil society to challenge those in power. All of those institutions that were badly damaged during years of war have not recovered in the years after. In fact, there has been a drive to further centralize power in the Rajapakse family and to intimidate, harass and force into exile anybody who poses a challenge to that power.

The hope was that after the war there would be a relaxation of controls in the media, controls on humanitarian organizations, and there would be greater space for real research and open discussion. Unfortunately, it continues to be quite dangerous to do real human rights activism and research.

The United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review of Sri Lanka has generated a lot of conversation on Twitter. This isn’t the first event where Sri Lanka’s human rights record after its civil war ended has been questioned. Why do you think the issue is resonating now?

There's two factors that make Thursday's session particularly important. It is the first of these reviews since the end of the war. It's a full-scale, intense review where organizations all around the world and the government itself report back to the Human Rights Council and say, this is what we've done. And then the Human Rights Council compares the record based on these different views with the promises made by the Sri Lankan government four years ago. So you have a benchmark against which you can compare their actual behavior and actions. It's an unusual situation and it gives organizations like ours and human rights organizations in and out of Sri Lanka a chance to show the huge failures and the alarming lack of progress, and even backward movement that has happened in Sri Lanka.

The other reason this is an important event is that it comes four months before the next session of the Human Rights Council in March, 2013, where the lack of progress that Sri Lanka has made in implementing a resolution from March 2012 by the Human Rights Council will come up for discussion and debate. So it's the first salvo in a larger battle -- the battle to define and get international recognition of the situation in Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately, the international community has not spoken out enough on this issue. In particular, I think development agencies like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and International Monetary Fund, which fund development in the north and east, should be speaking out much more about the inability to do not just human rights work but the basic needs assessments and information gathering necessary to good quality humanitarian development work.

Why should the world care about what happens in Sri Lanka?

I think things are going from bad to worse in Sri Lanka, in a slow way the world doesn't quite understand. It's a small country -- there's only 20 million people – and there isn't a war now. There are low numbers of people killed especially compared to 2009 at the end of the war. But it's still worrisome.

Let's put it this way: Sri Lanka was quite impressive for its ability throughout decades of war to maintain a relatively robust practice of democracy. There was still debate and active competition at the electorate level. There was a sense that people didn't just do what they were told. What's changing now is that the Rajapakses are trying to impose a model of politics that's quite alien to Sri Lanka. It's a more East Asian model of obedience and centralized control, the facade of democracy in exchange for economic progress and economic development. It's a Singapore model with a friendly face, or perhaps a China model with a less friendly face.

The question is whether there's enough life left in the remnants of democracy in Sri Lanka to resist the efforts of the Rajapakse family to enforce this new wave of anti-politics. I think that's what the battle is really about. What is happening in Sri Lanka sets a precedent for other countries to move away from democracy, even if they preserve the facade of elections and judiciary and the outward appearance of the kinds of institutions that are acceptable in the international community.

Alan Keenan is on Twitter @akeenan23.

Further Reading:

International Crisis Group reports on Sri Lanka

International Commission of Jurists report on impunity in Sri Lanka

Twitter comments about the United Nations Periodic Review using the hashtag #uprlka were archived by the news site Groundviews

Introductory statement by H.E. Mr. Mahinda Samarasinghe, Minister and Special Envoy of the President / Head of Delegation

U.S. statement to the United Nations in Sri Lanka’s review

View the entire United Nations Human Rights Council periodic review of Sri Lanka (3.5 hours with navigation)