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HR activist Kaushal assures unbiased probe Says US should correct itself before accusing others

2014 Aug 19

by Sulochana Ramiah Mohan

Soft-spoken human rights activist, Padma Shri Avdhesh Kaushal, of Uttaranchal, India, who will soon be in Sri Lanka as part of the advisory panel to the Presidential Commission to Investigate Complaints Regarding Missing Persons, is the Chairperson of Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (an NGO) and has known President Mahinda Rajapaksa since 1999.

In an exclusive interview with Ceylon Today, he assured he would try to undertake a truthful and non-biased investigation, and said he would also like to put to the forefront the existing discrepancies/shortcomings, exemplary practices in the system and what viable solutions could be adopted.
He also accused the USA of being one of the biggest perpetrators of war crimes, and noted, in such a scenario, the criticism by the US Government does not hold any ground. "They need to come out clean themselves and then accuse others," he said. Excerpts of the interview:
Q: You had mentioned you had been watching over the 30-year war Sri Lanka had experienced. What do you think of the several peace talks Sri Lanka has had, all of which failed ultimately?
A: As a peace-loving person and human rights upholder, I was appalled by the unfortunate incidents in Sri Lanka over a period of three decades. I always longed for an amicable settlement and I am happy to note that normalcy is limping back. It would be wrong to say that all peace talks, which Sri Lanka had, have failed. The peace talks did not reap the desired outcomes mainly because the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka could not be addressed through a single solution. It required a more comprehensive and long- term peace-building and reconciliation process and also there 'was too much' criticism of Colombo, which did not give space to reconciliation.

Do you see the necessity for a war accountability probe in Sri Lanka, as the United Nations (UN) has already initiated such an inquiry?
A: The UN was formed with the intention of upholding the human rights of all without prejudice. Sometimes probes held by the UN are not always independent and are laced with vested interests. Therefore, there is an emergent need for an independent war accountability probe in Sri Lanka, even though the UN has already initiated such an inquiry. The war accountability probe by the international advisory panel, appointed by Sri Lanka, will ensure a free and unbiased investigation into the issue. Sri Lanka is a sovereign democratic country and is free to set up such accountability probes of its own.

What does it mean when you say human rights investigation is challengeable and time consuming?
A: Every issue, including the human rights violations, has two sides. To arrive at a conclusion, both sides should be given equal attention. To arrive at the truth, various fact findings need to be conducted, which may take time and make the process time consuming. Assimilation of information from primary sources can also be a time taking process.

When you were called to be a part of the advisory panel on missing persons, what was your first thought about the role you would be playing?
A: As part of the advisory panel, to look into complaints of enforced disappearances and war crime, I shall try to undertake a truthful and non-biased investigation. I would also like to put to the forefront the existing discrepancies/shortcomings, exemplary practices in the system and what viable solutions could be adopted. I would also stress the need for stricter punishments for the violation of such human rights especially the use of children as soldiers and war shields. Further, I would like to offer my expertise in this field through sharing of best practices and how they can be tailored to suit the requirements of Sri Lanka.

Many are under the impression that the government's initiative, after the US resolution was passed, is a 'cover up' mechanism to the UNHRC. What are your views?
A: I think there is too much, between the lines, being read about the decision of the Sri Lankan Government to set up a body of experts to advise the President of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Government is willing to undertake a war accountability probe, then how can it be seen as a 'cover up'? In fact, such efforts should be lauded. Sri Lanka is a sovereign democratic country and is free to set up such probes and take the final decision.

Do you think if this panel of advisers was appointed nearly three years ago, after the war came to an end, the UNHRC would have not adopted a resolution calling for an international probe?
A: Appointment of a panel is a purely internal affair and the government has rightly chosen this as the right time for a fair and independent probe. As far as the adoption of the UNHRC resolution is concerned, it is nothing but another form of global policing done by these so, called independent human rights agencies. We should not forget that in the UNHRC resolution, 23 countries were in favour, 12 opposed and 12 abstained.

For the first time an Indian has been called to be part of the human rights panel. How do you see that stand taken by Colombo?
A: The world is a global village and the Sri Lankan Government has a right to invite anyone from any other country to seek suggestions or advice. Moreover, India and Sri Lanka are neighbours and friends for centuries. The role of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations in today's times is of much importance. The stand taken by Colombo will provide a bilateral impetus to India and Sri Lanka's relations. It would also act as an interface for policy, lobbying and dialogue.

India has been playing a major role in Sri Lanka's development. However, politicians local and think-tanks from overseas claim that Sri Lanka should handle its own issues and there should not be outside pressures applied on them. What have you got to say?
A: Handling of internal issues by countries on their own is important. Sri Lanka does handle its internal issues on its own, but every country also needs to discuss issues with other countries as well to arrive at viable solutions for emergent issues. However, when it comes to a war accountability probe an independent probe can only be conducted when people are drawn from foreign countries as well, as they lend an unbiased view in the whole process. This does not tantamount to exerting outside pressure but is seen as a means for arriving at a free and impartial probe.

Will you be meeting the complainants and the victim families of the disappeared and abducted, anytime during your stay in Sri Lanka?
A: Let the panel meet and decide its course of action.

Sri Lanka has just began its investigation on missing persons and the Commission said, the time frame needs to be extended and they are unable to state the year or the month when the report would be ready. In that scenario, would you study the terms and references of the commission before you embark upon the given task?
A: Yes, I have already initiated the process of procuring and understanding the terms and reference of the Commission. As this is very important for understanding my task and carrying them out in a time bound manner.

There are international war crime prosecutors, including QC Sir Desmond de Silva on the advisory panel. What is your opinion of the panel appointed by the Presidential Commission?
A: The panel members are drawn from various countries and have expertise in various fields. The experience and expertise of the panel members would lend an incisive view. Sir Desmond is a reputed lawyer, having expertise in the human rights issues. I welcome this move of being associated with a panel in which he is going to chair.

Do you think the Sri Lankan Government will be able to achieve its objectives by inviting foreign experts into the local panel?
A: Yes, the Colombo government will be able to achieve its objectives by inviting foreign experts into the local panel. This will enable exchange of ideas and interaction amongst people who are drawn from different countries having a wide range of experiences. This will serve as a platform for exchange of views and ideas and initiate dialogue. Inviting foreign experts into the local panel will give it an independent character and will also help achieve the objectives of the panel. Further, it will lend credibility to such endeavours.

Have you discussed any allowances or remunerations for the services that you are required to offer towards the Commissions appointed by the President?
A: I am a volunteer, wedded to the cause of welfare of marginalized communities and human rights. I have not and will not demand any monetary or otherwise compensation for the services, rendered by me.

You know the history of Sri Lanka from the time the island nation battled terrorism and confronted the ethnic problem. So, do you feel you could contribute in a tangible manner as a member assisting the commission that is probing disappearances?
A: My association with Sri Lanka dates back to many years. There have been various exchanges and dialogues which I have held with the Sri Lankan Government and many citizens on human rights. I strongly believe that I will be able to contribute in a tangible manner as a member assisting the commission that is probing disappearances. My knowledge and commitment about the situation in Sri Lanka at present and in the past would prove to be an added advantage.

Sri Lanka has been criticized mainly by the US Government for alleged war crimes, and lately, on the religious violence and attacks on the ethnic minorities. What have you to say?
A: In my opinion, the US and other countries should take a holistic view of the situation, which prevailed in Sri Lanka. In the uni-polar world, the US should refrain from acting as a bully or a stick-wielding policeman. The US offences on civilians including innocent children cannot go unnoticed. Its attacks on civilians in Afghanistan and Iraq are nothing but war crimes. The US is one of the biggest perpetrators of war crimes. In such a scenario the criticism by the US Government does not hold any ground. They need to come out clean themselves and then accuse others. However, if there have been reports of religious violence and attack on the ethnic minorities the same will be looked into through appropriate mechanisms/channels. The US interest in Sri Lanka is geopolitical. US did nothing for Sri Lanka during the war and is now criticizing it after the war has been won.

Did Sri Lanka fail as a nation dealing with its own national issue?
A: I do not think so. To the best of my knowledge and information, coming from all the sources, the Sri Lankan Government is committed to the welfare of its citizens. Every year, the UN Human Index report of Sri Lanka proves it.

In what way can Sri Lanka achieve long lasting peace and reconciliation for its own people?
A: Please wait and let the panel of advisors deliberate on the issue. I am confident that long-lasting peace shall prevail in Sri Lanka. The implementation of 13th Amendment in letter and spirit will be a major step in bringing peace in the island.

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