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International Cover-Up in Colombo

by James Ross, Daily Mirror, Colombo, January 8, 2008

Colombo acts like it is addressing the country's human rights problems, but it's evident that it is nothing more than an act.

It is a truism of American politics that it's the cover-up that gets leaders in trouble, not the crime. Richard Nixon was famously forced to resign not because of a burglary at the Watergate hotel, but because of his heavy-handed efforts to keep the full story from the public. There was Ronald Reagan and the Iran-Contra Affair and perhaps now Bush and the CIA interrogation tapes.

The Sr Lankan government is also facing scandal, though of a different sort. The crime is the government's failure to seriously investigate and prosecute those responsible for the horrific abuses of the past two years – the unlawful killings, the "disappearances," the Karuna group's abduction of children. The cover-up is the government's determined effort to keep the issue off the international agenda.

Colombo acts like it is addressing the country's human rights problems, but it's evident that it is nothing more than an act. Commissions and committees and you-name-it are created with little result – and decreasing expectations of getting results. The government seeks kudos for inviting various United Nations representatives to the country and then, when they express their concerns, lambastes them for being "terrorists" and supporters of the LTTE. And its officials meet with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, but with no apparent intention of reaching agreement to move forward.

The cover-up machinery has been in high gear. After the December session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, the government congratulated itself, proclaiming that it had deterred "anti-Sri Lanka moves." This statement is meaningful only if one views UN efforts to promote human rights as being "against" Sri Lanka. The government understandably does not want to see itself lumped together with international pariah states such as Sudan and Burma, both of which were subjects of UN resolutions. So it is all the more disconcerting to see Colombo respond in the same obstructionist manner as these countries instead of adopting a constructive approach.

Cover-ups work only so long as they can be kept secret, but Colombo's tactics are hard to hide. Exposure is inevitable so long as the government believes that the aim of concerned governments (and nongovernmental groups like Human Rights Watch) is to get UN resolutions condemning Sri Lanka, instead of getting real improvements on the ground for Sri Lankans affected by abuses. Either the Sri Lankan government can unilaterally address the problem – which it has thus far failed to do – or it can genuinely work with the United Nations to do so. That's really what a UN human rights monitoring mission, investigating abuses by the security forces and the LTTE, is all about.

More than a year ago, Sri Lanka talked the major donor states into believing that the Presidential Commission of Inquiry would bring about tough-minded investigations and prosecutions of the worst cases of the past two years, including the execution-style slaying of 17 Action Contre la Faim aid workers, the massacre of the Trinco Five, and the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. Now, not only are the international "eminent persons" on the verge of giving up on this commission, but initial supporters like the United States and the European Union are expressing serious doubts.

Last month the international body that regulates national human rights institutions downgraded Sri Lanka's once prestigious National Human Rights Commission to "observer" status. That's because the govt. appointed commission members in violation of constitutional requirements and because the commission no longer acts independent of the government in addressing such issues as enforced disappearances.

The United States, which has been outspoken against the LTTE, now recognizes that the Sri Lankan government has been stonewalling on human rights. In December, Congress – with no objection from the State Department – voted to suspend US military aid to Sri Lanka until Colombo punishes officials responsible for human rights violations, provides access to humanitarian groups and journalists, and agrees to the deployment of a UN field mission. And the Millenium Challenge Corporation, a US government corporation that provides assistance to developing countries, "deselected" Sri Lanka as a country eligible for funding because it had not met criteria demonstrating a commitment to "political and economic freedom" and "respect for civil liberties and the rule of law."

The European Union is heading in the same direction. Because of human rights concerns it is seriously rethinking current trade benefits granted to Sri Lanka. And in its recent country strategy paper, the EU said all aid would be diverted to the non-state sector if the peace process and treatment of displaced persons continued to falter. One can be sure the EU will again raise the situation in Sri Lanka at coming sessions of the Human Rights Council.

Sadly, in 2007 there was little progress in Sri Lankan government efforts to prosecute members of the security forces and the LTTE for abuses. One can only hope that in 2008 the actors will abandon its practice of attacking UN human rights mechanisms and the constructive efforts of concerned governments. Adopting measures they propose would be an important step in ending the abuses.

James Ross is Legal & Policy Director of Human Rights Watch in New York.


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