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Detention Of HR Defenders And Its Possible Causes

2014 Mar 24

By Jehan Perera

The government’s decision to release two prominent Human Rights Defenders, Ruki Fernando and Fr Praveen Mahesan, was a prudent one. It was also unexpected as the initial reports coming from the legal team and civil society activists who sought to intervene on their behalf was pessimistic. They got the impression that the government was planning for long term detention. The charges leveled against the two Human Rights Defenders were serious. They included the accusation that the two of them were trying to revive the LTTE, discredit the government and supply information to outsiders.

A little more than a day after their sudden arrests, they were equally suddenly released. The government was willing to reassess their arrest in the face of the local and international pressure and appeals made to secure their release. The reason for their release is not yet clear. There is speculation that the international pressure proved too overwhelming for the government to resist. The arrests unleashed an unprecedented barrage of appeals on behalf of the two arrested Human Rights Defenders. It is reported that the highest levels of the UN, foreign governments and the Catholic Church appealed on their behalf.

Sudden arrest, equally sudden release

The timing of the arrests was also puzzling. A section of the international community led by the United States has been asserting that human rights were seriously violated during the war and continue to be threatened even in the present. In this context the sudden arrest of the two Human Rights Defenders could not have been worse timed. It served to focus international attention on the unsafe human rights situation in the country at a time when the country was in the dock of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Since the arrests took place in Kilinochchi in the North, where the military presence and domination is very high, it can be believed that the decision to arrest them was the overriding one of national security.

The power and influence being wielded by the defense authorities can lead to decisions being taken that are one dimensional. They are more adept at dealing with immediate problems, rather than with longer term ones. The defence forces, for example, are excellent in emergency situations. But they cannot be entrusted with decision making that has long term consequences and international ramifications. The government needs to have a better rounded decision making system that includes the military but is controlled by civilians who have a more well rounded grasp of political realities.

Convincing UNHRC members

The charges leveled against the two Human Rights Defenders are indicative of the possible government strategy to resist the resolution on Sri Lanka that is taking shape in Geneva. It is to try and convince the countries represented in the UN Human Rights Council that Sri Lanka continues to face a severe threat to its national unity. In the run-up to the vote in Geneva the government has been emphasizing that the LTTE is trying to revive itself with the support of the Tamil Diaspora. This is probably seen as the best way to justify the continued large presence of the military in the North despite the five years that have elapsed since its end.

Another likely reason for the arrest of the two Human Rights Defenders could have been to choke off the supply of information from the ground to the outside world. The denial of access to information will possibly be a central part of the governmental response to the UNHRC resolution. The indications are now that the resolution in Geneva will call for an international investigation into past and present human rights violations, including alleged war crimes. This is something that the government will resist. Accordingly there is reason to believe that the government will refuse to cooperate with the international investigation that is called for by the Geneva resolution and will not permit international investigators to visit the country.

Denying access

The second prong of the government strategy of denying access to information to those seeking to do an investigation would be to prevent local activists from collecting and sending out information. Those who think in the short term and without looking at the wider consequences of their repressive actions, may consider this to be sound strategy. It is likely that the arrest of Ruki Fernando and Fr Praveen Mahesan was in pursuance of this strategy. This has been borne out by the follow up to their release. The police have obtained a new court order that prevents them from giving any information to the media in respect of their arrest and the ongoing investigation and going abroad without the prior permission of the magistrate.

However, sealing off the flow of information in this highly interconnected world is likely to be impossible to achieve. Nor will the international human rights community give up on persisting in their demands for truth and accountability. President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself was a human rights defender when he brought up issues of serious human rights abuses in international fora in the late 1980s. Those who engage in fact finding and who report on human rights violations are performing an important task which is part of the system of monitoring human rights and providing checks and balances in any democratic society. It is to be hoped that the positive impact of the decision to release the two Human Rights Defenders will not be undermined by what follows.

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