Friday, September 06, 2013

Sri Lanka: UN's Navi Pillay Fails To Dispel Charges Of Bias

By Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

SINGAPORE (IDN) - Giving a press conference at the end of seven-day visit to Sri Lanka, United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) head Navi Pillay, a South African, said that she was highly offended by comments in the Sri Lankan media accusing her of bias because of her Indian Tamil ethnicity.

“Some media, ministers, bloggers and various propagandists in Sri Lanka have, for several years now, on the basis of my Indian Tamil heritage, described me as a tool of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). They have claimed I was in their pay, the ‘Tamil Tigress in the UN’. This is not only wildly incorrect, it is deeply offensive,” said Pillay at the beginning of the press conference on August 31, 2013.

In the same vein, she added, “the LTTE was a murderous organization that committed numerous crimes and destroyed many lives . . . those in the diaspora who continue to revere the memory of the LTTE must recognize that there should be no place for the glorification of such a ruthless organization”.

These comments have not stopped the Sri Lankan media and the blogosphere continuing their attacks on the perceived bias of both UNHRC and its head for allegedly overstepping her mandate to attack the Sri Lankan government from its own soil.

In a hard-hitting editorial, the government-owned Daily News the day after she left Sri Lanka, said that “the UN High Commissioner’s prejudices have long been clear, but they have never been clearer than after her recent visit to this country”.

The editorial went on to argue that the reaction at the end of her tour was expected and in fact, President Mahinda Rajapakse himself predicted it the day before. “He told her at Temple Trees (President’s official residence) that the people of this country think that her report to the UN at the end of her tour of duty will reflect her prejudice,” the paper disclosed.

Welcoming her comments on the ruthlessness of the LTTE, the Daily News said: "We may very well be able take her at her word that she has no truck with the Tamil Tigers, but if anybody on the streets gets that impression she has only herself to blame for it." It pointed out that without informing the government in advance she had tried to lay a wreath in Nandikadal, the location of the final battle in which the LTTE was annihilated. The army officials on the location stopped her from doing it.

During her meeting with President Rajaakse, Pillay was reported to have told him that it was good she was able to come to see the developments in the country and it was “very visible” to her that the government has invested a lot in reconstruction work in the North.

Yet, the pro-LTTE TamilNet said that according to informed sources in Jaffna when the Northern Province Governor Major General (retd) G.A. Chandrasiri was showcasing the development work in the area, she told him that she was more interested in witnessing what had been achieved on the human rights front. She also questioned whether the people on the ground had been consulted in designing the ‘development’ projects that were being displayed to her.

'Double standards'

In addition to her perceived ethnic Tamil bias, a lot of criticism in the Sri Lankan media and websites has focused on what are considered as her double standards in demanding an independent war crimes investigation on the final days of the war against the LTTE in Sri Lanka, while being silent on U.S. and NATO actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and currently in Syria.

Writing in LankaWeb, veteran journalist M.L.D Mahindapala argued that Pillay has worked hand in glove with the European Union to accuse Sri Lanka of war crimes. “As early as May 2009 she has fired a broadside with regards to human rights violation which ran on parallel lines to the EU resolution tabled at UNHRC,” he pointed out.

“On what criteria did she confine her condemnation of Sri Lanka to the last five months of war, leaving out selectively 32 years and 7 months of the longest war in Asia in which the Tamil Tiger terrorists used every conceivable weapons of war, including chemical warfare?” asked Mahindapala.

The independent Island newspaper reported that the Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse has told Pillay that the United States had no moral right to move a resolution targeting Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. He has questioned her silence and argued that it reflected the difficulties experienced by the UNHRC in dealing with atrocities committed by U.S.-led Western powers.

When Pillay was asked this question at the press conference, she merely said that UNHRC release a report on every country each year and last year the U.S. had to respond to 19 queries. But, she avoided saying anything more about these queries or why she has not articulated it publicly as she has done with Sri Lanka.

“The bottom line was that Mrs Pillay would remain as UN rights chief as long as she didn’t antagonise the U.S.,” Defense Secretary told the Island.

Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Prof G.L Peiris has reiterated during a meeting with Pillay in Colombo that it is important to have an objective approach and extend equal treatment to all countries when fulfilling the assigned mandate of the UNHRC. The Minister added that Sri Lanka accepts constructive and justified criticism, but resents vicious and baseless positions, which are incessantly repeated.

He had explained to her the difficulties encountered in identifying the perpetrators of human rights violations due to the conditions prevailing at the time of incidence, with regard to a number of cases UNHRC has raised that occurred during the war. He drew a parallel with the case of the assassination of the former Foreign Minister late Lakshman Kadirgamar (by the LTTE), where conviction has not been possible due to the lack of evidence. In cases of missing persons, he outlined the difficulties in identifying the missing due to instances involving persons having migrated to other countries holding multiple identities, and those host governments not divulging their details.

It was indicated to UNHRC head that the repeated use of baseless and arbitrary figures in respect of disappearances, eventually lends authenticity in the face of the massive propaganda that is being carried out against the Government of Sri Lanka. Regarding comments made by the High Commissioner on the PTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), the Minister stated that some of the countries that criticize, have provisions in their domestic legislation far beyond those of the Sri Lankan PTA.

He advised Pillay to look at the human rights situation in Sri Lanka from a more broader perspective and pointed out the impressive development indicators in the country since the war ended in 2009. He gave her information on the enormous amount of resources being channeled to the North, which has resulted in a 27% growth rate in that region, as against corresponding national figure of 7%. In this context, Minister had also informed her that there are 225 bank branches and 76 finance and leasing companies that have been established in the Northern Province since 2009.

Pillay is due to make a report to the next UNHRC sessions in October on Sri Lanka, but, many commentators in Colombo tend to believe that it will not be fair to the country.

Cautioned on ethnic bias

However, political columnist D.B.S Jeyaraj of the Daily Mirror newspaper has warned against using the “ethnic bias” argument to discredit Navi Pillay’s report. “The proponents of this ethnic bias argument are in effect playing into the hands of those seeking an impartial international investigation into charges against Sri Lanka,” he argues.

“The line pursued by those who desire an international investigation into alleged war crimes during the final phase of the war against the LTTE is that Sri Lanka would not be able to conduct an impartial investigation into those matters because of the ethnic factor. The predominantly Sinhala Govt. would not conduct a free and unfettered probe into allegations against the predominantly Sinhala armed forces is the crux of the argument,” notes Jeyaraj.

“Colombo however, invokes the concept of sovereignty and counters such demands by saying that Sri Lanka as a nation is above ethnic considerations and is capable of conducting an impartial probe,” he adds.

“What the denigrators of Navi Pillay on grounds of ethnicity fail to take note of is that their campaign against the UN High Commissioner is strengthening the hand of those seeking an international investigation into Sri Lankan affairs,” he warns. “If Navi Pillay is deemed unsuitable because of alleged partiality due to ethnicity then the same argument would be applicable to Colombo too," he adds. [IDN-InDepthNews – September 5, 2013]

Photo: Navi Pillay | Credit: Wikimedia Commons