When one looks at the situation in Sri Lanka with regard to human rights, one key feature comes to mind. That's the notion that Sri Lanka, as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and formally functioning democracy, albeit with flaws, is under serious threat at present. The directions of the threat are institutionalized militarization, the near collapse of the rule of law, and the culture of impunity with respect to human rights violations and rising religious intolerance.
At the present moment, the policy of the government with regard to governance in general is very much a focus on economic development which is highly centralized and in which any kind of discussion or relevance of civil and political rights in particular is seen as irrelevant at best and subversive at worst. This is seen particularly acutely in the north of the country, the province in which the last phase of the war was fought.
In this respect, the government's attitude toward reconciliation is very much an attitude of economic development and of forgetting and moving on. As some people argue, it is an attempt to build reconciliation on concrete, with a reference to a heavy emphasis on economic infrastructure.
Indeed, with regard to that emphasis on economic infrastructure, it is highly centralized. Mega economic development projects are designed and implemented from the centre, by the centre, without the participation or consultation of the civilians whose lives they directly impact. They see themselves somewhat as hapless bystanders in the decisions that affect their daily lives. This was attested to very firmly in the results of the Northern Provincial Council election on September 21 when the government's campaign, based on economic development, was roundly and soundly defeated. The Tamil National Alliance won 30 out of the 38 seats in the provincial council.
As a consequence of all this, Sri Lanka is very much in what I would call a post-war situation, as opposed to a post-conflict situation. My definition of the latter is one in which the roots of conflict are not being sustained and certainly not being reproduced. Unfortunately, as I mentioned to you, with institutionalized militarization, with the collapse of the rule of law and the culture of impunity, and growing religious intolerance, there is both the sustenance of the roots of conflict as well as their reproduction.
Let me briefly take each one in turn.
The argument with regard to institutionalized militarization is one that has relevance across the country. The military is involved in the economy. It is involved in the educational sphere, where school principals are inducted into the national cadet corps, where security on university campuses is in the hands of the military, and where orientation courses for first-year undergraduates are run in military camps and by military officers.
Again, as I said, it is felt most acutely in the north, where the governors of the northern and of the eastern province are ex-military people. The government agents in certain divisions of these provinces are also ex-military people. According to some statistics, the presence of the military in these provinces, in the north in particular, is of a ratio of one soldier to every 10 civilians. The military is involved in governance in that it has the last word over development projects. It even goes to the extent of telling people in what language the national anthem can be sung. The military is present in private functions, from school prize-givings to sports meets. The military is involved in the economy, growing, buying, and selling vegetables, and running hotels, golf courses, etc.
Most importantly, it's the overbearing presence and the intrusion into the lives of the people that is of particular concern. Only in April, some 6,300-odd acres of private land were taken over by the military for military camps as well as for business enterprises. As a consequence, more than 2,500 people are in court contesting that acquisition.
There is a very powerful intrusion into the daily lives of people. There are also allegations of continuing human rights violations by way of abductions and disappearances, and in particular, with respect to assault.
Gender-based violence accusations have also been made against the military. The vast majority of them are hard to verify, insofar as there are cultural inhibitions on the part of victims and witnesses and their coming forth with hard evidence in respect to these cases, but such violence certainly does take place.
If you move from the question of institutionalized militarization to the collapse of the rule of law, you find that in a huge number of cases of egregious human crimes, violations in which there have been prosecutions, in which there have been indictments, there haven't been convictions. People are taken in, charged, and released on bail.
There are two cases in particular which were identified as well by the presidentially appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission: the killing of five students on the beach in Trincomalee in the east, and the murder of 17 humanitarian workers in Muttur in the east as well. We have had any number of investigations with regard to this, but no convictions.
We have a number of other cases like these. We had a case recently, after the end of the war, in which in the deep south a British humanitarian worker was killed and his partner was brutally raped. Because of CHOGM, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, and because of the earlier visit, the longest country visit paid by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to Sri Lanka, there has been a certain attempt at moving towards indictments and convictions, but it remains to be seen how far they will go.
The response of the government to these egregious violations seems to be to set up commissions. If you take the question of enforced and involuntary disappearances, of which Sri Lanka has one of the highest number of cases recorded with the working group in Geneva, you will find that at least four to five commissions have been appointed by this very government itself, but the reports have not been made public. Therefore, we have no idea whether or not the recommendations have been implemented, but we can safely assume that they have not, because the problem continues.
It continues also for the families of the disappeared. On any number of occasions, including when meeting with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and also when trying to come to Colombo at the time of CHOGM to deliver a petition to take part in an exhibition on human rights, and in meeting with British Prime Minister David Cameron, ordinary civilians have been intimidated, threatened and prevented from participating in such events by the military.
The culture of impunity is widespread. It extends even into the south, where you have a number of cases in which local politicians associated with the ruling party got off scot-free in incidents that involve sexual assault, attempted murder, bribery, etc.
Some attempt is being made now, in the context of the CHOGM, the high commissioner's visit, and the pending sessions of the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2014, to clean up, as it were; however, there are big questions as to whether this is merely being done as a cosmetic exercise to deflect criticism, or whether there is something much more serious and honest intended here.
I suppose that ultimately the whole question of the independence of the judiciary was epitomized by the process of impeachment of the chief justice earlier in the year, which was declared unconstitutional and illegal by all the apex courts of this country, the court of appeal and the supreme court.
Nevertheless, the government steamrollered it, and we now have a bizarre situation in Sri Lanka whereby there are in effect two chief justices, or to put it another way, one de jure and one de facto.
There has been a breakdown of trust as far as the judiciary is concerned and with militarization too. As a consequence, ordinary civilians do not have the level of confidence and trust required to enjoy the fullest measure of their rights as far as the institutions of governance and justice in the country are concerned.
This is also amply demonstrated in the rising tide of religious intolerance. We've had over the last five years a series of attacks on Christian places of worship. New fundamentalist evangelical churches have been attacked. Most recently, egregious attacks have been made on the Muslim community, involving mosques, prayer halls, prayer meeting places, as well as retail establishments. There has been Goebbelsian propaganda and hate speech injected into the public discourse by extremist Buddhist organizations, on the grounds that the Muslims are going to over-populate the country and that the country will cease to be a Sinhala country. They have targeted in particular the halal certification of products by the Muslim community in conformity with their faith.
Now, in none of the instances of attacks on mosques, on prayer halls, and on retail outlets has there been any indictment and conviction. In one particular case, the police announced that the owner of the establishment appealed that no indictment should take place, because it would bring the country into disrepute and because people allegedly involved in the act were also people in robes, that is, monks, and therefore, it would be unwarranted and unnecessary criticism of the situation in Sri Lanka. The police proudly announced this as an example epitomizing communal harmony and amity but did not take any action whatsoever.
There are on record now more than 150 acts between January 2013 and September 2013 targeting the Muslim community. This begs the question how acts of violence of this nature can happen without any action being taken by the forces of law and order, without any categorical condemnation by the government and by the politicians of these kinds of actions. People therefore point to the instance in which the brother of the president, who is the defence secretary in charge of the entire national security apparatus, was invited as the chief guest to the inauguration of a leadership academy by one of the key groups involved in perpetrating these attacks against the Muslim establishment, namely the Bodu Bala Sena, or force for Buddhism, otherwise referred to by the acronym BBS.
Put all these things together and you find that Sri Lanka, in terms of human rights, is facing a very critical situation at the present moment. The public at large, the polity, the citizenry do not have full enjoyment of their rights. They are treated rather as subjects, given that the structure of power is also dynastic. The predominant ideology of the day is very much triumphalist and majoritarian. It is underpinned by this militarization. Therefore, we seem to be moving away from that example of a formal functioning democracy and a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society to something that is much more homogenized, centralized, and controlled, and one which in this respect moves away from that idea of a boisterous, vibrant, dynamic democracy.
As the UN high commissioner noted in her final press statement when she left Sri Lanka and in her oral statement to the Human Rights Council, we are heading in an authoritarian direction here. Some of us would disagree and say that we are already in an authoritarian state, in which things in that respect are not very good as far as human rights are concerned, and something badly needs to be done about it.
That is why sections of civil society look yet again to the UN Human Rights Council sessions in March 2014 and the possibility of yet another resolution on Sri Lanka that will push and persuade our government to take human rights more seriously.