Saturday, July 03, 2010

Self-deception and waiting for an unidentified enemy

By Shanie | The Island

What does this sudden uneasiness mean, and this confusion?

How grave the faces have become!

Why are the streets and squares rapidly emptying, and why is everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because it is night and the barbarians have not come.

And some men have arrived from the frontiers and they say that barbarians don’t exist any longer.

And, now, what will become of us without barbarians?

They were a kind of solution."

Constantine Cavafy, the Greek poet, wrote Waiting for the Barbarians in 1904. Seventy five years later, it inspired the South African novelist J M Coetzee, to write a novel by the same title, for which he won the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature. The word ’, in its Greek root, is said to suggest an unidentified enemy, anyone who does not speak your language or share your ideals. A literary analyst has commented that Cavafy’s ‘poem is an internal dialogue, reflecting the sense of unreality we all feel as we watch our own national political rituals. Reading the poem, we become like the child in "The Emperor’s New Clothes," seeing clearly what the rituals of power and the ideology of fear seek to hide from us. But the poem’s conclusion should make us ask the question that remains unspoken throughout the poem: Who are the real barbarians here? Who fails to understand what really motivates their actions?

Every empire needs enemies to justify its existence: when one enemy is defeated or simply disappears, it is necessary to create new figures of terror with which to threaten the population. The anxiety that sweeps through the city at the end of the poem suggests this realization; there is no sense of relief that they will not be conquered by the barbarians, only the terror of finding themselves suddenly alone, with no enemy to embody – or solve – their problems. Like Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, the poem reveals the ways in which we depend upon our self-deceptions to protect us from having to take responsibility for ourselves.’

The shrill cacophony that is being orchestrated now in Sri Lanka now is not just tilting at windmills but meant to create new enemies for the public to hate – the international community, United Nations, non-governmental organizations, anybody who is not us’. A cabinet minister wants to surround the UN compound and keep the UN staff as hostages. Chandima Withanarachchi, who editor of the critical Lanka News Web site and who has been living in UK for the last ten Years, now finds himself facing charges and allegedly reported to the Interpol. Prageeth Ekneligoda, another journalist from another web site, disappeared soon after the Presidential Election and has now been missing for over five months and a pro-government journalist suggests that he is actually in hiding! The Defence Secretary wants the former Army Commander and Presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka hanged if he gives evidence against the government. Cavafy’s poem seems to ring so true. The LTTE is defeated and new threats and new enemies have now to be created to find a fear-substitute.

United Nations Panel

We are now on a collision course with the United Nations over the Secretary General’s appointment of a three-member panel on possible violations of international law by the parties involved in the recently concluded civil war. There have been reports that there was a massive loss of civilian lives. The government has denied that its security forces targeted or killed civilians. If that is the position, surely there is nothing to hide and a probe should be welcomed to lay any allegations to rest. It has also been stated that such an investigation is an infringement on our sovereignty. All member-states have not only abide by the UN Charter but also the relevant international conventions to which they are signatories. That is why our Ambassador Palitha Kohona is heading a panel to investigate possible violations by Israel of these conventions. The Israeli Government is also unhappy with that investigation. But such investigations only promote better governance in each country and a better world. No doubt, there would be situations in a civil war where some violations would take place, unintended and sometimes even inevitable. But these would be the exception. Any investigative panel would differentiate between such exceptions and the deliberate killing of non-combatants as has happened in other countries. We should not, as Wimal Weerawansa has done, go hysterical in denouncing the appointment of a UN panel.

Sarath Fonseka has stated that he is prepared to testify before the UN panel if he is allowed to do so. He was the Army Commander at that time and his evidence will be vital. He had stated earlier that he takes full responsibility for the actions of security forces under his command and that he would stand by his men. He has proved to be a man of his word and we have no reason to believe that, despite his fall-out with the President and his brothers, he will bring disrepute to the Army that he commanded.

Indemnity for illegal actions

A study of history is useful for those who take a hysterical stand in matters where the rule of law is challenged or sought to be upheld. Most students of our political history will be familiar with the Bracegirdle Affair that shook the colonial government in the late nineteen thirties. Bracegirdle was a young British/Australian planter who had communist leanings and moved freely with the plantation workers, upsetting the British Raj. The Governor issued an Order to deport him but the newly founded LSSP took up his case and Supreme Court ruled that his deportation order was illegal. The then Governor then wanted the British Government to enact an Order-in-Council indemnifying him from any action for damages. The British Cabinet rejected this request based on the opinion of the Legal Adviser to the Colonial Office: "The present Constitution of Ceylon is, subject to certain safeguards, a form of self-government…To use that power (the safeguards or reserved powers) in defiance of the will of the Legislature in Ceylon, to deprive an individual of his civil rights seems to be unconstitutional and not a proper exercise of the power. Further, I know of no reason why an individual who has suffered a wrong should be deprived of any remedy which he may have in a court of law….To my mind, the spectacle of a Governor or the Chief of Police being made subject to the consequences of an illegal action is more likely to enhance the impartiality and integrity of British rule."

A similar situation arose in the United States over a Presidential Order placing ethnic Japanese in detention camps during the Second World War. This was challenged in the Supreme Court. The Supreme held, by a six-to-three majority, that the Presidential Order was constitutional. Justice Robert Jackson, one of the dissenting judges, had this to say in his judgment: "Judicial construction of the due process clause (of the US Constitution) that will sustain this order is a far more subtle blow to liberty than the promulgation of the order itself. A military order, however unconstitutional, is not apt to last longer than the military emergency…. But once a judicial opinion rationalizes such an order to show that it conforms to the Constitution, or rather rationalizes the Constitution to show that the Constitution sanctions such an order, the Court for all time has validated the principle of racial discrimination in criminal procedure…..I should hold that a civil court cannot be made to enforce an order which violates constitutional limitations even if it is a reasonable exercise of military authority. The Courts can exercise only the judicial power, can apply only law, and must abide by the Constitution, or they cease to be civil courts and become instruments of military policy." Jackson may have been in a minority of three then but his stand has received the vindication of history. The Japanese detainees (or their descendants) were, nearly forty years later, given compensation for the deprivation of their life and liberty.

It is perhaps appropriate to end with a quotation from the writings of Rosa Luxembourg, a leading Marxist intellectual assassinated by state forces in Germany in 1919: "Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for members of one party – however numerous they may be – is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently. (It is) not because of any fanatical concept of ‘justice’ but because all that is instructive, wholesome and purifying in political freedom depends on this essential characteristic, and its effectiveness vanishes when ‘freedom’ becomes a special privilege."

© The Island

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Saturday, July 03, 2010

Rights groups eye Sri Lanka

By Feizal Samath | The National

Thursday was not a good day for Sri Lanka: the United States said it had accepted a labour organisation’s request to probe workers’ rights issues in the country, and the European Union lent its backing to a UN panel examining the country’s human-rights record.

Adding to Colombo’s woes, an EU deadline for the government to provide written guidelines to implement conditions for the extension of zero-duty imports into Europe ended on Thursday.

“It was missiles raining all over,” said a senior economist working at a local think-tank who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The external affairs minister, G L Peiris, had rejected the call for a “written undertaking” from the EU and denounced the UN panel as unwarranted.

The EU ambassador in Colombo, Bernard Savage, said on Thursday that the July 1 date on the written guidelines was flexible. “Even if the government responds by Monday [July 5] we are prepared to accept it,” he said by telephone.

The government has yet to respond to the US decision on workers’ rights, which involves whether Sri Lanka has met the Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) eligibility criteria related to workers’ rights.

The preference system is designed to promote economic growth in the developing world.

Dayan Jayatilleka, a former Sri Lankan ambassador and permanent representative at the UN in Geneva, said of the AFL-CIO, the US organisation that filed the petition, that it “traditionally exercises a huge influence on the Democratic Party, its senators and congressmen.

“If we lose our access to the important US market, on top of losing the EU market, our economy and more importantly our working people and their living standards will be badly affected,” he said in an e-mail.

The US Embassy in Colombo said in a statement that a public hearing is likely to be held next month to discuss the workers’ rights issues raised in the petition, adding that the Sri Lankan government will be invited to participate in the hearing.

The UN Panel on Human Rights appointed last week triggered a furore in Colombo with Wimal Weerawansa, a cabinet minister who represents one of the coalition partners in the government, cajoling the public to surround the UN office in Colombo as a protest against the appointment of the panel. He made the call at a press conference on Wednesday, which drew a response the following day from the government – in a statement – that Mr Weerawansa’s view was his own and did not reflect that of the government.

Also on Thursday, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, issued a statement welcoming the UN Panel and urging the government to fully co-operate.

JC Weliamuna, a human-rights lawyer and executive director at the Colombo office of Transparency International, lamented the lack of diplomacy in Sri Lanka’s dealing with the international community.

“We need to display a sense of diplomacy and tact in our response,” he said. “We need to save both trade pacts with the EU and the US, and we can do it. Unfortunately the president is ill-advised by a set of incompetent advisers and politically motivated persons, and is going by this advise,” he said, declining to name the individuals.

“I am sure if the president gets good advice he can win over the international community like winning the war.”

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s armed forces crushed the Tamil rebels in May last year, ending a 30-year-long battle by rebels to set up an independent homeland for minority Tamils.

Since then, Mr Rajapaksa has come under intense pressure from the West to respond to allegations that there were large-scale civilian casualties during the last stages of the conflict. He has repeatedly denied the claims and rejected any attempt by the international community to launch a war-crimes probe.

© The National

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Saturday, July 03, 2010

Sri Lanka hit by trade suspension

By Toby Vogel | European Voice

European Union trade preferences for Sri Lanka are to be suspended next month after the country's government rejected a demand by the European Commission to make a written commitment by today (1 July) to improve human rights.

The suspension, which takes effect on 15 August, is expected to cost Sri Lanka's exporters – primarily in the textile sector – more than €100 million annually in higher import duties. In 2008, Sri Lanka exported goods worth €1.24 billion to the EU under the preferential trade regime known as GSP+.

The economic impact of the suspension will be significant but not crippling, according to sources familiar with the situation. Sri Lanka's industrial exports grew by 0.3% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2010. Overall economic growth was 3.5% in 2009 and is projected to be double that figure this year.

The Sri Lankan government says that many of the improvements demanded by the Commission are being undertaken but that others are “unacceptably intrusive”.

On 17 June, Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, and Karel De Gucht, the European commissioner for trade, wrote to the Sri Lankan government with a list of demands, around half of them relating to implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The letter suggested that a written commitment by the government to meeting these conditions would prompt the Commission to propose that the trade preferences be maintained.
Strong-arm tactics

The EU's human-rights concerns increased after the government's crushing of Tamil rebels last year, a refugee crisis it triggered, and strong-arm tactics by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in elections in January and April. However, the government relaxed its emergency rule in May and has accelerated the resettlement of Tamil civilians who were displaced in last year's fighting.

In an interview in the Times of India on Monday (28 June), Rajapaksa said that he was “not bothered” by the suspension, calling it “politically motivated”. About the GSP+ status, he said: “If the EU does not want to give it, let them keep it. I do not want it.”

A spokesperson for De Gucht rejected the accusation. “To suggest that any decision by the EU is politically motivated and to link it to the elections of this year is entirely false,” he said.

Ravinatha Aryasinha, Sri Lanka's ambassador to the EU, said the Commission had been “rather clumsy” in dealing with the matter. “It is disappointing and unfortunate because there was a vibrant process of engagement” between the two sides that has now been cut short by the Commission's ultimatum, he said.

The GSP+ gives 16 developing countries access to EU markets with preferential conditions in return for implementing international conventions on human rights, labour standards, sustainable development and good governance.

© European Voice

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Saturday, July 03, 2010

Sri Lanka: East feels left behind as agencies move north

Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)

Communities in Sri Lanka's Eastern Province - a region of 1.5 million people still recovering from civil-war violence - fear they have been forgotten as humanitarian agencies shift recovery efforts to the north.

"There are no jobs here. I have to support my family with what I earn here," said Ravidranathan Valarmadhu, 18, from Pillumallai Village of Batticaloa District.

Her father is unable to work, her mother does odd jobs around the village and her younger brother is still in school, leaving Valarmadhu to work six days a week as a milk collector earning about US$17 a month.

After clearing separatist Tamil Tigers from the east three years ago, government forces moved into the Tiger stronghold in Northern Province, finally defeating them in May last year. Almost 300,000 people were displaced by the conflict in Northern Province, which has been the focal point of assistance.

Closing shop

Several international agencies working in the east have closed shop in the past year, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, which moved out after a government request, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is closing its office in eastern Batticaloa District, where it has been since 2002. The agency will continue its eastern operations from Trincomalee.

"Our work there [Batticaloa] has been shrinking. This was a planned phasing-out," said Jennifer Pagonis, UNHCR deputy country representative in Sri Lanka. "Our office in Trincomalee will oversee this work. There will be no reduction of activity or closing down of any other offices."

Vinyagamourthi Muralitharan, deputy minister for resettlement, said UNHCR on 30 June discussed with him the closure of the Batticaloa office and continuation of UNHCR's work in the district.

"Most of the work that came under the UNHCR is now ending in Batticaloa. Their main workload now is in the north," Muralitharan told IRIN.

Almost all the displaced in Batticaloa have been resettled, according to UNHCR. Only 90 families - 433 individuals - are awaiting the completion of demining activities in their villages before resettling in the next few months.

UNHCR will maintain a small presence to the end of the year to provide non-food items and a 25,000-rupee ($212) cash grant to each returning family.

"There are other agencies that can look after the wellbeing of the people in the east," Muralitharan said. "We need the agencies like UNHCR that help the displaced to focus on the north right now."

Housing needs

"We need to build 346 new houses to replace those destroyed or damaged by the war," said Arumugam Balkrishnan, a government official in Pillumallai.

Vaharai, a village of 22,500 people about 90km northeast of Pillumallai, suffered massively in the 2004 tsunami, but rebuilding was halted when violence erupted in 2007, said Rasanayagam Rahulanayani, the top government official in the area.

"We were building at least 1,700 new houses when everything had to be stopped," she said, adding that now "we need to build at least 2,000 houses destroyed or badly damaged by the war".

More than 22,000 civilians displaced by the war have since resettled in Vaharai, according to the Divisional Secretariat.

Some NGOs working in the east are struggling to get funding for projects.

"We have made requests, but we are not sure whether we will get the funds," said Pon Sundarajan, deputy director of the North East Housing Reconstruction Programme.

"We have been able to complete only 13 percent of 22,000 new houses for the displaced in the district," he said. "There is no sign whether we will be able to complete the full quota."


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Saturday, July 03, 2010

Court blow for Lanka row author

By Aniqa Haider | Gulf Daily News

A Bahrain - based author arrested under Sri Lanka's emergency laws will have to wait another five months in the battle to clear her name.

Sarah Malanie Perera is facing charges over her book From Darkness to Light, which described her conversion to Islam but was deemed offensive to Buddha.

The 38-year-old was detained on March 20 after being accused of "anti-state" activities and having links to Islamic militants.

She was released last month after paying a bail of 50,000 Sri Lankan rupees (BD166).

But during the latest hearing at the Colombo Magistrates Court the case adjourned until November 27.

Ms Perera, who first came to Bahrain in 1985, was arrested for allegedly distributing anti-state and anti-government information across the border.

However, she claims she was simply trying to send copies of her books to Bahrain and has denied having links to extremists.

The defendant has been charged under two sections of a law that makes it illegal to insult the religion of others.

The first carries a maximum 12-month jail sentence, while the second up to two years in prison and a fine.

Ms Perera's sister Mariam yesterday told the GDN the family was still in a state of shock following the court case.

"We were all hoping for good news, but it turned out to be a really bad," she said.

"We didn't expect the court to adjourn the case until the end of this year.

"When I spoke to her yesterday, she was really down.

"She told me that the only question judge asked her was if she is guilty of writing these books and insulting Buddhism or not.

"She agreed to writing the books but not insulting the religion and that was it.

"No other question was asked and no lawyer was allowed to talk in the session."

Bahraini MP Shaikh Adel Al Ma'awda met with India-based Dr Zakir Naik, a Muslim public speaker and writer on Islam and other religions in May, and has raised the issue with politicians and human rights activists in the hope of securing her freedom.

Ms Perera said 13 Buddhist priests, who were asked to check her book's authenticity, converted to Islam after reading it.

Her lawyer Lakshan Dias previously argued the author had no intention of insulting the Buddhist faith and there were no grounds for a criminal case.

However, prosecutors claimed the book was offensive to Buddhists.

The author's family blames global courier firm Aramex for her arrest, believing one of its workers in Sri Lanka reported her to police.

However, the company has denied responsibility saying it had no choice but to forward the materials to Sri Lankan authorities since as mandated by law.

© Gulf Daily News

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