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Keith Noyahr and Sri Lanka’s rejection at the UNHRC


Daily Mirror Opinion ,Monday, May 26, 2008


Keith Noyahr like all journalists in the country carries no weapons. 
He like all in his fraternity believes his only duty to be to address the wrongs taking place in the country. They criticize regimes that deny people their rights and abuse powers over and above they are granted. How do such journalists become the victim of such a horrendous attack like that which befell Keith Noyahr last week?
What justification is there for such defenseless writers to be attacked in this merciless manner when war lords are left in charge of entire provinces in the same country? Isn’t it ironic that the same government that fails to protect journalists, whose only weapon is a pen, endorses the regime of Pillayan who is armed, abducts little children for war and extorts money to fund his group?

What in this scenario provided justification for the government’s demand to be elected to the world’s watch dog on human rights? The United Nations General Assembly (GA) resolution 60/251 requires that “members elected to the Council shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and “fully cooperate”  with the Council. Sri Lanka falls far short of meeting these requirements.

   As numbers of disappeared under several armed gangs, continue to increase with not a single investigation conducted, the culture of impunity is taking a heavy toll on the country. Minority communities continue to be harassed under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It was in such a backdrop that the world rejected Sri Lanka’s bid for the UN seat.

Sri Lanka’s defeat is a victory for the Human Rights Council,” said Lawrence Moss, special counsel to Human Rights Watch. “Because member states enforced the membership standards they established two years ago by rejecting re-election for a country whose rights record has so seriously deteriorated.”

The country’s bid came under the heavy criticism of those in the caliber of Former US President Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu. Tutu charged that “The systematic abuses by Sri Lankan government forces are among the most serious imaginable.

He accused government security forces of summarily removing people from their homes and families in the middle of the night, ‘never to be heard from again.

“Torture and extrajudicial killings are widespread. When the human rights council was established, UN members required that states elected must themselves “uphold the highest standards” of human rights. On that count, Sri Lanka is clearly disqualified,” he added.

Carter maintained that numerous nongovernmental groups have raised concerns about Sri-Lanka’s candidacy due to the country’s deteriorating human rights record since its first election to the Council in 2006.  ‘For example, Sri Lanka has one of the highest rates of enforced disappearances in the world, with little or no discernable commitment to accountability.

“To re-elect states with deteriorating human rights records would undermine the Council at a time when it should be taking steps to shore its credibility as the principal platform for addressing human rights violations”, he asserted. These are very serious accusations for a democratic country to have to bear, and must not be taken lightly.

The Coalition of Non Governmental Organizations itself raised issue  with the global body for any moves to elect the country to a seat.   They maintained that the government fails to meet the membership standards, has “presided over a grave deterioration of human rights protection” since first winning Council membership in 2006, and “has used its membership of the Human Rights Council to protect itself from scrutiny.”

These problems are compounded by the authorities having failed to provide easily accessible avenues enabling victims of human rights abuses to make complaints. Extreme delays in adjudication make it near- futile to pursue such complaints, when made. The absence of a witness protection law and system has led to the harassment and even killing of victims seeking redress and witnesses.

It is also a fact that Sri Lanka did not reply to any of the 12 questionnaires sent by special procedure mandate holders between 1/1/2004 and 31/12/2007, nor to over half of the 94 letters of allegations and urgent appeals sent by special procedures in that period. Sri Lanka has not implemented the principal recommendations of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings. The Special Rapporteur on Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment observed that Sri Lankan authorities impeded his fact- finding, citing “instances where detainees were hidden or brought away shortly before the Special Rapporteur arrived.”

Certainly the warring party LTTE’s own record of human rights in itself is a point of contention. A despicable terrorist group; the LTTE hasn’t at any point in its history showed any form of respect for human dignity. As we speak there are children at the battle front and the group has been responsible for the merciless killing of many independent moderates even within its own community.

It has over and over shown that it holds no respect for human rights or tolerates any dissent. Democracy is a far cry from the terror group. But this cannot be the basis for justification for the State to unleash terror. A democratically elected government has no room to justify violating human rights on the basis that a banned terror group engages in it. It is a sad but undeniable fact that hundreds of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, the highest rate of new cases recorded have taken place. On record are also arbitrary arrests and long-term detentions without charge or trial and the widespread torture of detainees, a charge that has been endorsed by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture.

Various resettlement programs by the government based largely on political agendas, have meant the forcible return of internally displaced persons to unsafe areas. Impressive reports of development and resettlement places that have yet failed to take off ground will not count for a basis for an environment that minority communities feel safe in. The continued complicity with the recruitment of children to the battle field under the Karuna faction will not leave much room for the regime’s acceptance at any international rights body.

It is also ironic that the Rajapaksa regime cries fowl and blames various rights groups for its loss at the UNHRC. History remembers Mahinda Rajapaksa’s bid to force the then UNP government off the Council in 1989 against rampant human rights abuses. It is equally sad that the country is experiencing such a breakdown of rights under Rajapaksa who in the late 80’s was a noteworthy advocate of the same dignities now denied many in their thousands.

The government must come to the understanding that the freedom of expression is a right that must be enjoyed by every citizen of the country. It is by no means a privilege that any government can be seen fit to hand down to the people. The government must know that a poor human rights record is one that will deny it much more than representation in the UN body. It has the capacity to isolate aid dependent countries like Sri Lanka in the international arena.

  Increased violation of human dignities account for far greater economic benefits than Sri Lanka can afford presently. The crucial bid for GSP+ is the most relevant example of this.

Was the merciless assault of Keith Noyahr mere irony or an arrogant message to the world community that the country cared little for global strictures on human dignity? It is hard to ignore that the assault came merely 24 hours after the country lost its bid at the UNHRC. The fear that the assault and immediate repercussions on various human rights activists following the most recent attack has placed, is real. The government’s attitude to the attack, itself exemplifies the total disregard it holds for humanity. The government must be mindful of the fact that till it exercises its responsibility of conducting an impartial inquiry and brings the perpetrators to book, the finger will be directed at it.=

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