Saturday, May 15, 2010

On Commission and Omission

by Dr. P. Saravanamuttu - The first anniversary of the end of the war approaches and we are into a celebratory heroes’ week. Whilst the regime will not fail to remind us ad infinitum of the great service it did us in defeating the fascist and ferocious LTTE and continue to accrue political capital on account of it, there is no denying the widespread relief felt over the defeat of the LTTE and the end of the war. There is no denying either, that this was achieved through military victory by the armed forces and accordingly, there will be gratitude and appreciation expressed to the armed forces and the political leadership for this and the celebration of victory, year in and year out.

It was a bloody, costly war. Soldiers and civilians alike lost their lives, their limbs and livelihoods. Not every one gave them voluntarily for the unity or unitary status of the country or out of unbridled patriotism. Many civilians had no choice and many of them who signed up to the forces may well have done so because of economic necessity. Yet their sacrifice has played its part in the post-war situation we now find ourselves in.

Is the triumphal pomp and circumstance of the march past the fitting memorial to them too? Is there not a crying need to pay tribute to their sacrifice, that of the civilians in particular, through acts of remembrance that do not require displays of military hardware and re-enactments of battle in this our blessed land of all the great religions of the world? Will there be a call from on high for a minute’s silence and for the believers, at least, will religious leaders hold an inter-faith service of remembrance at Independence Square?

Perhaps, not. Perhaps the regime believes that reconciliation and healing is to be pursued through economic development and the latest commission to be announced – that on Post- Conflict Study and Reconciliation. The terms of reference of the Commission are yet to be announced –likewise the members. From what has been made public, it will also look at allegations of violations of international standards and will be comprised of eminent Sri Lankans at home and abroad.

Sadly, commissions and committees are a dime a dozen in Sri Lanka. Set up with much fanfare, they deliberate, recommend and report, only to be consigned to the dustbin of history or some locked drawer in the presidential secretariat. Take the last commission on human rights entitled the Presidential Commission to Investigate and Inquire into Allegations of Serious Abuses of Human Rights, popularly known as the COI to which was the attached the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP). The IIGEP left in frustration and despair, the COI soldiered on and reported to the President and was disbanded in 2009. Apart from what could only have been selected leaks of its findings to the kept press, victims, witnesses and the citizens of this country are yet to be informed of its recommendations and conclusions. Or take the All Party Representatives Committee, the APRC. It has reported. Apparently, end of story.

The international community bought the APRC and COI as evidence of the regime’s bona fides – in the first instance with regard to a political settlement of the ethnic conflict and in the second with regard to reversing the culture of impunity in respect of human rights violations. The settlement is yet to be mooted and the constitutional reform reported to be imminent, is about the electoral process, removing the time bar on the presidential term and a second chamber. The latter may well have some tangential connection to the APRC deliberations, but as sure as night follows day, it is unlikely to be anything beyond a token gesture to power sharing at the centre. As for the culture of impunity, it is very much in place. What of the brutal slaying of the Trincomalee Five and the ACF atrocity? More recently, why is there no police action on the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda or on the alleged PSD assault of a journalist of this newspaper?

Given this record, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that this commission along with the Tissanayagam pardon at this point, and the lifting of certain emergency regulations whilst other draconian ones are reinforced to remain in place, amount to yet another attempt to placate the international community, especially those pompous hypocrites from the West and even across the Palk Straits, who harp on rights and governance and other such irrelevant drivel! National sovereignty and the tenets of the “We did it our way” and “Go to hell” foreign policy aside, salvaging GSP+ and not through litigation as well as staving off Mr Moon’s Panel of Experts, have everything to do with this ostensibly human rights friendly, change of face and heart, by the regime.

Whatever the reason, these developments are to be welcomed if they are serious and sincere. Human Rights Watch has referred to the regime’s game of smoke and mirrors to describe its penchant for procrastination amounting to prevarication on this score. Will the regime pull out of its hat, a “home –grown”- much beloved adjective of regime- speak – plucky, sturdy rabbit of a refutation of this charge? There is some hope and one hopes it lies with the eminent Sri Lankans who will be appointed to the commission and on whose eminence and credibility, the credibility of the commission itself, in large part rests.

Is it too much to ask of them to refuse to serve unless the findings of the COI, for one, are made public and demonstrable action taken to reverse the culture of impunity in respect of, at least, the cases that came before that commission?

This may well be seen as an act of defiance. Yet on this first anniversary of the end of the war and with the post-conflict challenge of peace, reconciliation and unity still ahead of us, this may be all that the ordinary victims and witnesses of human rights abuse have – the courage of the eminent -in the absence of official acknowledgement and effective action in respect of their pain and suffering. What remains is to look beyond our shores for relief, truth and justice and risk the charge of undermining national sovereignty – a crime the Defence Secretary is on record as saying, deserves capital punishment.

© Groundviews

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