South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

By Easwaran Rutnam

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay – who concluded her seven-day visit yesterday – said she was happy about post-war developments, particularly in the North but sounded rather pessimistic about the government’s progress in issues related to accountability.

After a series of meetings with representatives of the government, the opposition, civil society and families of the disappeared, she made a statement to the press yesterday. Later this month, she will also make an oral submission at the UN Human Rights Council, which would be followed up with a detailed report in March.

In an interview to The Sunday Leader, she said the government should waste no time in addressing concerns of the people who suffer day after day.

Q.You had been persistently calling for an international independent investigation in Sri Lanka. Has your position changed following your visit to Sri Lanka?

A. In my very addresses to the Human Rights Council, this was early 2009, I reported to the council on what was happening and I urged that there be an international investigation because at that time there was nothing. But as soon as the government responded by setting up the LLRC, I felt the national investigations must be given priority and must be assisted and this is where I stayed back from calling for an international investigation but rather calling for a credible independent investigation.

Q.So you are saying the LLRC process was effective?

A. I’m on record to say it (LLRC) doesn’t cover all the accountability issues. And this is not just me but this is the expectation of the human rights council. This is why the first resolution calls on the government to address all accountability issues. So even though the LLRC mandate falls short of what was required, my office offered to assist the process.

Q. You had also once called for the setting up of an office of the High Commissioner For Human Rights (OHCHR) in Sri Lanka. Is there still a need for one?

A. It’s a fact that we can be more helpful if we are on the ground. For instance we have an office in Colombia with 140 staff, and we have been there for quite a few years. We can only setup an office with the consent of the government. We did have a presence here in the past, but now for the last six years we just have a single person – a human rights adviser working with the UN country team. It’s ideal if we have a full office. We do have such offices in many parts of the world.

Q. So did you make a proposal to the government on opening an OHCHR office here?

A. I did not but the government is fully aware that its part of the United Nations that they can just ask for such assistance, and we are ready to provide. In the meantime I’m really happy that they have allowed the presence of a human rights adviser here.

Q. What was your take of the situation in the North when you met civilians in the area?

A. The people are grateful for the immediate changes such as roads, which now give them access to the hospitals or the temples. They said that to me. They are very grateful for the roads he has provided. But people who I spoke to — rice farmers in their own paddy fields or fishermen — are completely distraught that they have been cut away from that. Sure, they have been given good housing now which they never had before. However you cannot imprison farmers or fishermen on little plots of land where they can’t grow their own food. A woman heading a household asked me how she is going to support her children. I met people who are in IDP camps as well as people who are in communities. I also had complaints of the surveillance and monitoring by the military. So they are very aware that the military is there. So, mainly the land questions trouble them. So they raised these matters. This is why I said reconstruction and development is impressive, but the government needs a holistic picture of addressing the human rights concerns including the counseling of clearly traumatised victims. I have never experienced so many people weeping and crying. I have never seen this level of uncontrollable grief.

Q. On the issue of threats faced by those who spoke to you, how will your office ensure that they are protected?

A. It’s very difficult for our office to actually protect people except by constantly checking on them and reporting to the government. I of course have the power to report to the international forum of the human rights council.

Q. The Tamil Diaspora often claims “genocide” is taking place in Sri Lanka. During your visit have you come across anything to back such claims?

A. Well nobody used that word to me. Not in authorities or civil society. Genocide is particularly a legal word. There has to be proof of an intent to destroy in whole or in part a nation, a group. This is what happened in Rwanda. That is a clear case of genocide. However it’s not for me to judge. It’s only after proper investigations the judges can conclude weather and what crimes were committed.

Q. Are you expecting the government to set a timeframe by when it should conclude human rights related investigations?

A. The important thing is the timeframe for the people. They are suffering day by day. Timeframe is to do it as quickly as possible to address the concerns of the people. I am encouraging that it comes as a principle position of the government. It should not be because I am reporting in March (to the human rights council).

Q. As of late several commissions have been formed in Sri Lanka. Do you think this is just to buy time, as some say?

A. Sri Lanka has a dismal record in holding these commissions. I personally had a very good discussion with Chief Justice Bhagwati who was on that last commission in Sri Lanka (International Independent Group of Eminent Persons or IIGEP). He was disappointed at how close they came to settle many issues, and then it was suddenly dropped or interfered with.