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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 109

The White Woman's Burden – Louise Arbour’s Plaintive Press Release on Human Rights in Sri Lanka

By Sesha Samarajiwa

Take up the White Man's burden--

Send forth the best ye breed--

To wait, in heavy harness,

On fluttered folk and wild--

Your new-caught sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child.

To veil the threat of terror

And check the show of pride;

Watch sloth and heathen folly

Bring all your hope to naught.

Take up the White Man's burden ...

-- Extracts from The White Man’s Burden by Rudyard Kipling

Louise Arbour came. She traveled, she listened, and she spoke. She turned increasingly abject. She pronounced a judgment of sorts. But her main objective – to set up a UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Sri Lanka – came to naught. They sent their best of breed, but she could not veil the threat of terror or check the show of pride. The half-devil-half-child natives went sullen and acted stubborn. Perish the thought, they said, and killed the idea. Louise Arbour: “I was struck in my discussions by the fact that broader human rights issues affecting all communities on the island have largely been eclipsed by the immediate focus on issues related to the conflict."Louise Arbour: “I was struck in my discussions by the fact that broader human rights issues affecting all communities on the island have largely been eclipsed by the immediate focus on issues related to the conflict."

I'm not sure whether that's good or bad, whether the victory was of real value or whether it is hollow. We could look at it as a victory of sorts in that Sri Lanka stood firm against a high council of the league of nations – the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations, of which Sri Lanka is a member and a sworn signatory to uphold its rules – and repulsed intense pressure to establish a human rights monitoring mission on the island. But it could also be seen as fancy footwork which scored a goal. But does one goal win the match? What if it was an own-goal?

In any case, the UN does not have the power to compel a country to accept such a mission; it is purely voluntary. If we don’t want it, all we have to do is just say no. Yet, rejecting such a proposal outright can have other far-reaching consequences such as being ostracized or, worse, penalized by the powers on whose support and goodwill we depend. The powerful nations which have for long been the happy hunting grounds of the Eelamists could go easy on Sri Lanka’s enemy, the LTTE. India or China or even little Singapore can act brashly, but beggar nations really can’t be choosers, and Sri Lanka is way down the pecking order.

Misreading Ms Arbour

Sri Lanka's Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights Mahinda Samarasinghe and the beleaguered Professor Rajiva Wijesinghe, the director of The Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP), try in vain to show that the Commissioner had no inclination to establish a human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka. But this was the desired goal at the outset. Certainly Ms Arbour did not overtly say so, but she does so in couched, yet unmistakable, terms:

“Many state that the LTTE is quick to manipulate information for propaganda gain. In my view this only accentuates the need for independent information gathering and public reporting on human rights issues. OHCHR is willing to support the Government of Sri Lanka in this way.”

Who would conduct “independent information gathering and public reporting on human rights,” but a Human Rights Mission? Her phraseology is a euphemism for exactly that. What’s more, her office it still hopeful of persuading Sri Lanka to accept one –“OHCHR,” she says, “is willing to support the Government of Sri Lanka in this way.”

Professor Wijesinghe, whom I respect, has an unenviable task. He seems a dedicated individual trying to do his best, but the disruptive forces which invariably undo his efforts make his task Sisyphean.

Be that as it may, my purpose here is to take an honest look at the state of human rights in Sri Lanka.

Paradise Lost

Let's face it; human rights abuses take place in Sri Lanka. To deny that would be to insult all those Sri Lankans, in the south and in the north, who lined up in the burning heat to tell their stories to the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights – stories of their loved ones who had disappeared, pleading for a word about them. To deny that would be to lie to ourselves. We know the situation. We know people disappear and that people are killed. We know, too, that no culprit has been brought to justice. We go about our lives in a climate of fear. We don’t trust strangers any more. We can’t even really trust our friends; we can’t really tell who is friend and who is foe. We look over our shoulders; we hurry home through barricade after barricade and barricade ourselves. People whisper, people double-talk. We have become Kipling’s “fluttered folk and wild.” We’ve gone feral. It’s a crying shame.


We lost paradise long ago, and with it the genteel society our parents took for granted. There was a time when one murder was enough to shock the nation. The press would milk it for all it was worth. People wrote books about it, discussed it to tatters. That was then. What about now? Now, the Press doesn’t have enough newsprint to cover all the murders and the mayhem. Contract killing is a boom industry. Business rival giving you problems? Dial a hitman. Negotiate a fee. Problem taken care of. You have a land dispute? No problem. Seek help from the underworld. They'll fix your problems double quick, either by intimidating the pesky folks or getting rid of them, if you want, with their families.

Cold Facts about the Culture of Impunity

These words of Ms Arbour’s press release are a virtual indictment. (Lest I be accused of taking Ms Arbour’s words out of context or using her like a football in support of a terrorist agenda, allow me please to quote her in full.)

“However, in the context of the armed conflict and of the emergency measures taken against terrorism, the weakness of the rule of law and prevalence of impunity is alarming. There is a large number of reported killings, abductions and disappearances which remain unresolved. This is particularly worrying in a country that has had a long, traumatic experience of unresolved disappearances and no shortage of recommendations from past Commissions of Inquiry on how to safeguard against such violations. While the Government pointed to several initiatives it has taken to address these issues, there has yet to be an adequate and credible public accounting for the vast majority of these incidents. In the absence of more vigorous investigations, prosecutions and convictions, it is hard to see how this will come to an end.”

Sri Lanka state officials have tried to make a case in defence of Sri Lanka, by citing the numerous bodies in existence, including the world’s only Ministry of Human Rights to the APA. But how effective are they?

The cold, hard facts make it difficult to deny Arbour’s charge of ‘impunity’ to which she pins the rest of the rebukes. Citizens who live in this environment can't deny that the perpetrators of human rights violations – from wherever they emerge – act with terrifying impunity. Impunity means to break the law without fear of consequences. It also means that the arms of the law, such as the police and the judiciary, increasingly tend to uphold the law in default. Such impunity can only exist in a state where the rule of law either does not exist, or exists just.

Ms Arbour continues:

“I was struck in my discussions by the fact that broader human rights issues affecting all communities on the island have largely been eclipsed by the immediate focus on issues related to the conflict. These include issues of discrimination and exclusion, gender inequalities, the low participation of women in public and political life, the rights of migrant workers and press freedom. These challenges will remain before and after any peace settlement, and they are deserving of greater and more focused attention.”

All these problems – discrimination and exclusion, gender inequalities, the low participation of women in public and political life, the rights of migrant workers and press freedom – exist. Journalists are harassed and intimidated. In the recent past, seven journalists have been murdered; no one has been punished. What have all the institutions for human rights protection and their functionaries done? Nothing.

Today, the victim of human rights abuses could be a stranger. Tomorrow it could be you, me or our loved ones.

So let’s take an honest look at the various kinds of impunities that blight Sri Lanka.

Criminal Impunity

According 2005 police data, there were 84 underworld gangs operating in Sri Lanka, of which 54 were in Colombo and the suburbs. Alarmingly, 15 new criminal gangs have emerged in the recent past, bringing the total to nearly 100. This is far more than all the gangs in America, and too much for a small country.

Many of them boasting political patrons, these criminals act with increasing impunity. Murder, robbery, mugging, kidnapping and rape keep escalating. This does not bode well for the ordinary civilian.

Armed Forces Impunity

The Sri Lanka Armed Forces, by and large, conduct their duties with brave, impeccable professionalism and are above reproach. However, there are rogue elements whose actions have brought disrepute to the forces they are supposed to serve. There have been incidents where the armed forces have been suspected of killing innocent people with impunity, but so far, no perpetrator has been charged or dealt with. There are also charges that some elements of the armed force helped the Karuna faction to forcibly recruit children. These are lapses that irk human rights watchdogs.

Former Army Chief of Staff Major General Janaka Perera, in an interview with the Sunday Leader of 19 August 2007, speaking of how important it is to treat non-combatants with dignity, said: “If you show the people you are concerned, they will be with you … Human rights violations are not acceptable under any circumstances, in the past or in the present, for it leaves a bad taste and creates a bad image for the security forces and the country concerned. It does not in any way help or hasten the resolution of the problem.

“When I was in charge of the five-one division, two rapes [of Tamil girls] took place, and I personally investigated them and brought the culprits before courts. They were found guilty. This is why I say the humanitarian aspect cannot and should not be compromised even in the fiercest of battles.”

That’s wise advice from a great general, a noble human being who respects human rights.

Law Enforcement Impunity

With due respect to the rare exceptions in the police force, woe be unto the poor and the powerless who brave their way into a police station to make a complaint against the rich and mighty. They would be asking for more trouble than they already are in. They would be lucky to get out without being able to lodge a complaint; most likely they’ll be abused, assaulted and kicked out by the police.

In fact, even a relatively well off person, who has a problem with a richer or better connected person, would not be guaranteed fair play by the police, as was evidenced in the manner in which the police switched the original B report which described an assault with a gun by Minister Mervyn Silva’s son Malaka to a report in which the gun had vanished, thus pre-empting a mandatory non-bail remand sentence. In the same way, evidence can also be cooked up to jeopardize an innocent party.

What does an ordinary citizen do when the first step in seeking justice – the police – don’t do their duty? Not much, really. Maybe just grin and bear it and exclaim “What to do?” the way Sri Lankans are wont to do.

Back to Ms Arbour:

“Throughout my discussions, government representatives have insisted that national mechanisms are adequate for the protection of human rights, but require capacity building and further support from the international community. In contrast, people from across a broad political spectrum and from various communities have expressed to me a lack of confidence and trust in the ability of existing relevant institutions to adequately safeguard against the most serious human rights abuses.”

‘Capacity building’ sounds good, but it’s not rocket science: respect for human rights should be integral to all good humans and human institutions; if it requires special courses to build this capacity, we are in a sorry state. Indeed, as a country whose majority professes Buddhism, we should be in a position to export these capacities. Anyway, what Ms Arbour has gathered through her conversations with the survivors of the victims of human rights abuses is that people have no faith in the state apparatus. It is not Ms Arbour who says this; she’s merely reporting and it behoves the powers that be to pay heed to the people.

The Human Rights Commissioner goes on to say:

“In my view the current human rights protection gap in Sri Lanka is not solely a question of capacity. While training and international expertise are needed in specific areas, and I understand would be welcomed by the Government, I am convinced that one of the major human rights shortcomings in Sri Lanka is rooted in the absence of reliable and authoritative information on the credible allegations of human rights abuses.”

Once again, couched in diplomatic language (‘shortcomings’), Ms Arbour speaks her mind. So we must ask ourselves sincerely whether the ‘mechanisms’ are really adequate to protect human rights? The answer at this stage, unfortunately, would have to be negative.

Political Impunity

Recently, the notorious son of the Minister of Labour and Presidential faithful Mervyn Silva, went on the rampage. The vicious whelp threatened to shoot dead an innocent man who had come to enjoy a pleasant evening at a city restaurant. The younger Silva pistol whipped the man. Then he finished off an uproarious night on the town by assaulting the poor man within an inch of his life, ably joined by his small army of bodyguards, while restaurant patrons looked on in horror. According to press reports, a VVIP politician personally intervened on behalf of his old mate and bloodhound, the villainous Mervyn Silva, the role model to his son. If the highest authorities who profess to uphold law and order obstructs with impunity the course of justice on behalf of his friend’s son, a man notorious for a string of violent crimes and misdemeanors – in fact an urban terrorist – what can the common man expect?

More attempts were made to pervert justice. Thugs intimidated two female magistrates, telling them not to punish the urban terrorist. One excused herself from handling the case. Police records were altered. This sort of thing is unheard of in a civilized country. The case well illustrates the culture of political impunity.

If the judiciary is not respected, when the judiciary is intimidated, anarchy is round the corner.

Seeds of Anarchy

Death Squads, midnight knocks on the door, disappearances, silent vigils by mothers of the disappeared were once terrible news stories reaching us from the far-away badlands of South America. Then, in 1987, they arrived on the Sri Lankan scene like the hounds of hell.

It started with the JVP’s reign of terror which was met by the Government’s counter-terror, in the form of para-military death squads. The dark days lasted till 1990. At the end of that cycle of violence, 100,000 Sinhala youths of the JVP had been killed, according to JVP estimates. Interestingly, no international human rights organizations, certainly not the UN Human Rights Commission, showed the slightest concern.

The JVP eventually weaned themselves from their bloodthirsty ways and are now a power in parliament. But the seeds of terror sown then have grown into a thorny jungle to envelope the whole island.

Tamil Tigers – the Height of Impunity

The LTTE is the perpetually bubbling toxic fount of HR violations. Terror emanates from the Vanni jungles in unceasing waves, wreaking havoc anywhere on the island any time on anybody. The people of the Vanni have been living under the jackboot of the Sun God for a very long time. People under his iron rule are compelled to feed their children to the Tiger war machine. It is the height of irony for the Tigers who crush all human rights with impunity as a matter of policy to cry foul and, worse, to adroitly harness the HR issue for propaganda mileage for their outfit and against Sri Lanka.

The catalogue of Tamil terrorist crimes against humanity is now just too long to itemize in an article. That would need a special archive. The fact is it’s the LTTE that engages in the gravest human right violations and continues to deploy violence against a democratically elected state. That is insurgency and high treason. The state has the right to use violence to eradicate the menace.

Ms Arbour deals with the Tigers and other paramilitary groups this way:

“I regret that time did not permit me to visit the Eastern Province. I also regret that I did not have the opportunity to visit Killinochchi, where I would have liked to convey directly to the LTTE my deep concern about their violations of human rights and humanitarian law, including the recruitment of children, forced recruitment and abduction of adults, and political killings. I am very concerned by the many reports I have also received of serious violations by the TMVP and other armed groups.”

Ms Arbour does chastise the Tigers, but compared to the heavy rebuke she levels at the Sri Lanka government, her charges against the Tigers is almost in passing; they warrant more than a rap on the fingers. She mentions ‘the abduction of adults’ and ‘political killings’, but she has nothing to say about Tiger ethnic cleansing of the North, a macabre feat they accomplished with Teutonic efficiency, or of the countless non-political civilians – men and women, peacemakers and prelates, babies and children – they have slaughtered over the years. The phrase ‘political killings’ gives these crimes a certain ring of justifiability. Besides, Ms Arbour did not necessarily have to make a trek to Kilinocchi to deliver the message to the Tiger King; in these days of email and press releases, it could easily have been done from anywhere.

Many bodies, many mouths, endless talk

The government of Sri Lanka has used taxpayers’ money to set up many bodies to guard human rights, including the world’s only Ministry of Human Rights. Like the world’s biggest cabinet, these bodies keep proliferating. Many bodies are recruited to staff these bodies. But it seems as if they don’t have much to show by way of improving the human rights situation.

Ms Arbour observes:

“The Government's proposed legislation to address this problem, tabled this week in Parliament only partially addresses the issues and risks confusing further the status of different rights in national law.”

Confusion will invariably be worse confounded. Talk is cheap.

There is more to depress the Commissioner:

“Some of the institutions themselves acknowledge their limitations in this respect. Members of the Commission of Inquiry pointed out to me that some state officials had failed to appear in response to their requests.”

Most likely the officials have better things to do, like going overseas at the taxpayers’ expense to promote Sri Lanka’s cause. What’s more, representatives of human rights organizations resign citing no confidence in government HR schemes.

Let those without any sin cast the first stone

Analyzing the human rights situations in countries is about the comparative degree of intensity of human rights abuses, of the prevailing climate, its root causes and challenges, and the power disparity between the analyst and the analyzed.

Consider America’s ultra aggressive reaction on tasting terror for the first time on 11 September 2001. Straightaway President George Bush Junior declared a global war on terror and vowed to hunt down terrorists wherever in the world they lurked. Then, he and his cohorts engineered the invasion of Iraq on charges that turned out to be spurious – that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction. Prior to that, an American-engineered trade embargo had killed half a million Iraqi children; they died because Iraqi hospitals had no medicine to treat their sick. The happenings at Guantanamo Bay continue to earn infamy for one of the world’s avowed upholders of high morality. In the US and the UK, white cops regularly abuse black citizens, more viciously in the former country. Indeed they do, as regular press report inform us. Yet, pointing out the wrongs of one country does not absolve our own guilt. What’s more, the United States is in an entirely different league to Sri Lanka. And there's no denying things are not quite right in Sri Lanka. But neither is it all black, although most citizens are of that hue; there are brave, right-minded people putting their lives and reputations on the line to make Sri Lanka decent.

We really must put our house in order

I gave this essay a tongue-in-cheek title. The UN Commissioner for Human Rights happens to be a white woman, but it is not necessarily a particular UN official’s burden; it could be anyone from any part of the world who holds this position. Being a signatory to international human rights covenants is one thing. Actually protecting human rights is quite another. Boasting the world’s only Human Right Ministry is one thing. It’s quite another to walk our talk. What’s more, the burden of proof of a good record is ours. As Ms Arbour’s press release diplomatically puts it, we cannot use the very real problem of terrorism on our doorstep as a veil behind which to conceal our lapses. Denial is a defeatist policy. We must be honest and mature enough to put our house in order in our own best interest.

Of Louise Arbour’s 14-paragraph press release of 13 October 2007, on her fact-finding mission to Sri Lanka, the first is a preamble, the second is a note of thanks, the other 12 comprise the meat of the message. Of these, 11 deal with the situation under the Sri Lanka government authority and one is about the LTTE and TMVP. One can’t fault the proportions: the government of Sri Lanka is a legitimate state and is therefore held to a higher standard of accountability; the LTTE runs a rogue state committed to carving out a separate state by whatever means necessary. There’s not much point in counseling them; the Tigers play by their own rules.

A Pol-Potist regime has been ruling the North for 30 years. The last thing we want is to let things slide to an extent when there would be not much to differentiate Sri Lanka from, say, Burma. Already, unfairly, prominent people in the West are bracketing Sri Lanka with Iraq, Afghanistan (in truth, the nearly 5,700 people killed since the resumption of hostilities over the past year and a half in Sri Lanka is more than the numbers killed in Afghanistan during the same period), the Republic of Congo and Somalia, which are, in fact, the world’s most horrible places. If that were to happen, we would have earned Kipling’s derogatory description ‘half devil and half child’, who badly needs wise and mature parents to chastise us and make us behave. Now, that would be exceedingly humiliating.

So instead of letting it be outsiders’ burden “to veil the threat of terror, and check the show of pride,” or let them despairingly “Watch sloth and heathen folly bring all [their] hope to naught”, let us roll up our sleeves and do the job. Let’s clean up our act with honesty and an urgent sense of purpose. We can’t let Sri Lanka be permanently stuck in the rot. We must extricate ourselves to stake a genuine claim to a place of dignity among civilized nations. We owe it to ourselves and to future generations.

Press Statement by High Commissioner for Human Rights on Conclusion of her Visit to Sri Lanka, 13 October 2007,

Sesha Samarajiwa believes that no amount of gold, glory or high office is worth the sacrifice of the truth. So he is determined to search for, uphold and broadcast the truth without fear or favor, for they are the highest principles of journalism – and of life.

- Asian Tribune -

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