Amnesty International stages Hamlet - without the Prince

Last week, a lot of heat was generated by Amnesty International’s (AI) campaign  in the Caribbean where they distributed foam rubber balls with the slogan "Sri Lanka: Play by the Rules" to the spectators who thronged to watch the world cup series. 

This campaign  elicited several furious statements from the JVP, and the government. Wimal Weerawansa raised this issue in Parliament last week with even the UNP supporting him. The UNP’s position was that the human rights issue should not be mixed up with cricket. The campaign was ostensibly launched to pressurize the government, the LTTE, and the various paramilitary groups like the Karuna faction to stop abductions and disappearances and for Sri Lanka to accept an independent ‘umpire’ (independent human rights monitors).

AI has pointed out that their campaign is not directed at the Sri Lankan cricket team.  But at a cricket match, it’s not the Sri Lankan government, the LTTE, the Karuna faction or the EPDP that’s represented. Hence whatever they do will in fact be directed at the cricket team and the nation. Moreover, when the campaign is directed at ‘Sri Lanka,’ the focus is clearly on the country and its legitimate government rather than on the terrorists.  When such a campaign is conducted during a sporting event in which the targeted country is also participating, it constitutes a form of punishment, whereby the spectators are told that the participant country is doing something bad. When that happens, they may adopt a wholly different attitude towards the Sri Lankan cricket team even though its not the cricket team which is carrying out abductions and causing disappearances or waging war. And the possibility is that this change of attitude may last much longer than the series of matches in which the campaign is carried out.

Umpiring, Amnesty International style

What AI is asking for with its "Sri Lanka, play by the rules" campaign, is for independent monitors to be appointed to monitor human rights violations. But how impartial are these people who are asking for independent monitors? If you go to the AI’s website and look in their news section, you will find four articles on Sri Lanka, covering the period March 2006 to March 2007.  The latest, dated March 14, 2007 is entitled, "Sri Lanka: Armed groups infiltrating refugee camps". The entire story is about allegations of the Karuna faction roaming around the refugee camps with the complicity of the armed forces and abducting young people.  Another article dated November 8, 2006 goes "Sri Lanka: attack on displaced civilians investigated". AI says here, "It is appalling that the military should attack a camp for displaced people - these are civilians who have already been forced from their homes because of the conflict".

In yet another article dated June 6, 2006 "Sri Lanka: Over half a million displaced suffer effects of intensifying violence" AI says, among other things that - "The state’s failure to provide adequate security and to ensure that attacks against civilians are prosecuted, has resulted in widespread fear and panic……..It is the government’s responsibility to protect the rights of these displaced people numbering over half a million, they make up a shockingly large constituency." In this article which is about 800 words long, the LTTE is mentioned  just once in a sentence which states, "Many of those displaced, including those living in organized camps, continue to be vulnerable to violence and harassment by the Tamil Tigers, other armed groups, and members of the Sri Lankan security forces."

The earliest news item on the AI website is dated March 31, 2006, entitled "Sri Lanka: Urgent action needed to ensure continuation of  Human Rights Commission". This article speaks of the need to ensure the continued existence of the Human Rights Commission which was founded in 1996, by appointing new members to the Commission. It states, " Given the serious and widespread abuses of human rights that affect Sri Lankans across the country, a fully functional, independent national human rights commission is essential". And further, "With human rights under grave threat each and every day, the government should ensure the continued functioning of the Human Rights Commission as a priority".

Among all these news items on Sri Lanka, which appeared over the past year, the LTTE is mentioned only once, and that too  just in passing in the sentence quoted above. The AI web site makes no mention at all of the civilian massacres carried out by the LTTE in Kebithigollewa and with the bus bombs in Nitambuwa and Ambalangoda which also occurred during the period covered by the news section of the web site. On the whole the ‘news’ on Sri Lanka given out by AI, is even less impartial than the news on Tamil Net.

Protecting the milch cow

In the days before September 11, AI  concentrated exclusively on highlighting human rights violations committed by governments and completely ignored the human rights violations committed by non-state actors on the excuse that they did not have a ‘mandate’ to do so.  At that time for AI, terrorists could do no wrong - only governments could.  Needless to say that under such a  set of rules, terrorism flourished and AI prospered, because states had to crack down on terrorism thus generating more and more ‘business’ for AI.  But after the Twin Towers was brought down and the Pentagon attacked, on September 11, AI thought it prudent to include non state actors as well in their demonology as public opinion in the west changed on the question of terrorism. However, the inclusion of non-state actors in their coverage has been merely cosmetic, since mentioning the terrorists too often would impact negatively on the livelihood of those involved in human rights work. If terrorism is campaigned out of existence, there will be no need for human rights work. 

Hence AI occasionally puts out statements condemning child recruitment by the LTTE,   and once in a while makes appeals to the LTTE not to kill Tamil moderate politicians. But these statements are put out only in Sri Lanka for local consumption to give people the impression that AI is being impartial. But at the international level, AI does its best to shield the LTTE from scrutiny. Even the latest campaign is directed only at the Sri Lankan government. When you say, "Play by the rules Sri Lanka." What is denoted is the Sri Lankan state.

The LTTE does not feature anywhere in the campaign slogan. If the slogan said "Play by the rules, Sri Lanka and LTTE"  that could have been considered an impartial slogan. Amnesty International may say that when they say ‘Sri Lanka’, they mean all those in Sri Lanka, including the government, the LTTE, and other armed groups. But the reality is that when you say Sri Lanka at a sporting event, you are referring only to the state. Moreover, this campaign by AI comes at a time when the LTTE is the most discussed terrorist organization in the world with them having demonstrated air power and become the only terrorist organization in the world to possess their own air force. In such a context, not to prominently mention the LTTE in their campaign was a clear attempt to shield them from criticism. Being a professional connected to an organization like AI in a third world country would be a privileged job, with a high salary, accommodation, fully paid foreign junkets and a very stress free life. Even in the West, where the gap between an employee  in the government and in an organization like AI would not be all that different in purely financial terms, it is a very stress free job in comparison to normal government jobs.

Hence, it’s hardly surprising that human rights professionals involved in AI would do anything to protect this very congenial lifestyle.

The standards applied in organizations like AI are extremely lax, much more so than in any government department in the West. The FAQ section of the AI website states "Before any report or statement is issued, its text is approved within the International Secretariat to ensure it is accurate, politically impartial and falls within Amnesty International’s mandate".  The AI interpretation of being ‘politically impartial’ is to mention the LTTE just once in three or four words, in a whole year of news reports on human rights violations in Sri Lanka. No government department in the West would have regarded that as being ‘impartial’. When a campaign against a country is launched at a sporting event, it constitutes a form of punishment. AI has had this tendency to be judge jury and executioner all along.  In 2001, when former Army Chief of Staff Major General Janaka Perera was nominated as the High Commissioner designate to Australia, the LTTE launched a campaign in Australia against his appointment. At the forefront of this campaign was Amnesty International.

The AI representative in Australia appeared on a Channel  9 program with two others claiming that Janaka Perera had allegations of human rights violations against him - the whole purpose of the exercise being to pressurize the Australian government not to accept Perera as High Commissioner to Australia. AI campaigns against abductions, disappearances and extra judicial killings on the grounds that even terrorist should have recourse to the due process of law before punishment is meted out.  But AI refused to apply the same principle to those whom they deem to have been involved in human rights violations. In the case of Janaka Perera, they were willing to pass judgment and actually mete out punishment by putting pressure on the Australian government not to accept his appointment - which is a kind of punishment because a man was to be deprived of a job without due process of law. Fortunately, the Australian government chose to ignore the LTTE-AI lynch mob and they accepted Perera.

To hurl accusations around in a cavalier fashion, without regard for the consequences to the people they were naming is apparently quite normal for AI. Theirs is a charmed existence where professional rigour is not a requirement of the job. If an officer in a Western Police department were to work with an attitude like AI, they would have to face an inquiry and disciplinary action.  To talk of the Sri Lankan conflict without talking of the LTTE is like staging Hamlet without the Prince.

From the frying pan into the fire

When the 18 UNP dissidents crossed over earlier this year, it was in some sense a crossing of the Rubicon for them as once they sat in government, they may remain UNP members for purely legal reasons, but their political future with the UNP would in effect be terminated. They would have to start afresh in a new political party, with all the extra trouble that entails.

Almost all those who went, were probably reconciled to this reality except Edward Gunasekera, MP for the Gampaha district. On the day that the 18 MPs were due to swear in as ministers in the Rajapakse government, Gunasekera had not turned up at Karu Jayasuriya’s house and the others had gone for the swearing without him. Gunasekera  had turned up late for the swearing.

When the defection was on the cards, the absence of just one MP would have made a huge difference because without all 18 MPs, the government would not have been able to get the numbers to have a clear majority in Parliament and the UNP would have gone to town claiming that even after taking so many MPs from the opposition, the government was still left without a clear majority. This precisely why Basil Rajapakse had last minute nocturnal telephone conversations with Mahinda Wijesekera and persuaded him to join as the minister in charge of ‘special projects’. This is also why a certain UNP Parliamentarian from the south is alleged to have  tried to abduct MP Sooriyarchchi of Polonnaruwa the night before the crossover. Just one absence would have made a huge difference at that stage.  Despite his misgivings, Edward Gunasekera did not let the side down and he did turn up for the swearing of 18 MPs, thus giving the government a clear majority in Parliament. Later the JHU also joined the government and now the government has a comfortable majority. Hence Gunasekera’s defection at this stage is not as harmful to the government as the situation that would have arisen had he not turned up for the swearing in ceremony in February this year. Having been a reluctant defector from the very beginning,  Gunasekera soon began to have second thoughts on his decision to crossover.

On one occasion speaking on TV a couple of weeks back, he said that he had had to listen to  many caustic comments from his constituents on his decision to defect and he looked visibly miserable. When he did the ``double cross’’ on Monday last week, going back to where he came from, no one was really surprised. On Monday morning, Deputy Minister Edward Gunasekera met  Ranil Wickremesinghe at his 5th Lane residence to finalize arrangements for his return to the fold. The next day, Wickremesinghe made a special statement in Parliament blaming the government for not summoning Parliament to discuss the Katunayake air base attack. Just as he concluded his speech, Gunasekera made his entrance in the company of Talatha Atukorale and Champika Premadasa of Kegalle  and took his seat in the opposition.

In the furor that followed, parliament had to be adjourned. During the adjournment, JVP MPs Jayantha Samaraweera and  Ranaweera Pathirana bumped into Ranil Wickremesinghe in the lobby and Pathirana had asked Wickremesinghe whether there was no end to the comings and goings in the UNP. The UNP leader, in high sprits after Gunasekera’s crossover, had told the two JVP MPs that the UNP introduced the open economy to the country and that the party too had now become open with people coming and going all the time. Edward  Gunasekera was welcomed with open arms by the UNP big wigs, who saw his return as part of their April rajayogaya - the first in a series of events which will propel them into power.  However, things were soon to go awry.

The Minuwangoda fiasco

On Friday a meeting was held in Minuwangoda by the UNP as part of their program to hold meetings in the electorates of the 18 MPs who crossed over The whole idea in having such meetings was to get speaker after speaker to tear the dissidents, and especially the former incumbent of that electorate to shreds.

But by the time it came to Minuwangoda’s turn,  Edward Gunasekera, had crossed back to the UNP, and was present at a meeting in his electorate which had been originally planned to take him to the cleaners. After Gunasekera defected to the government earlier this year, the Provincial Councilor for the area, Lihiniya Kumara had entertained hopes of becoming the Minuwangoda organizer of the UNP. Kithsiri Manchanayake who is also a Provincial Councilor and the organizer for the Divulapitiya electorate was also eyeing Minuwangoda and the extra preferential votes that he could harvest from it in the absence of Gunasekera. Earlier, these two PC members had been entrusted with the task of attacking Edward Gunasekera at this meeting. But when Edward Gunasekera had crossed over last week the plans had to be changed.

The change of plans had been discussed at last week’s working committee meeting, where Ranil Wickremesinghe had very firmly said, that both Lihiniya Kumara and Kithsiri Manchanayake had to call off their planned attack on Edward Gunasekera and that if they did not fall in line, they would have to leave the party. There was good reason for Wickremesinghe to be anxious, as negotiations were being conducted with other UNP dissidents to get them to come back into the opposition and if Gunasekera was not given a good reception, the entire plan would fall apart. In order to ensure that nothing went wrong, on Thursday, the day before the Minuwangoda meeting,  Wickremeasinghe had summoned all Pradesheeya Sabha and Urban Council members from Minuwangoda, as well as the two Provincial Councilors Manchanayake and Lihiniya Kumara to Cambridge Place and told them that Edward Gunasekera had rejoined the party and that they should now forget what happened in the past and continue to work in co-operation with him.

But things did not go as planned at the meeting. At a certain point during the meeting, a woman had stood up and told Edward Gunasekera "You left us. Hereafter don’t ever come to our homes!" At this, the audience had hooted and jeered Gunasekera. Any hopes that Wickremesinghe may have had of persuading any other dissident to join the opposition  went down the drain with that. After what happened at the Minuwangoda meeting any dissident wanting to go back would think twice before taking such a step. Earlier, Gunasekera was a much loved figure in Minuwangoda and for anyone to hoot at him in his own meeting would have been unthinkable. He is now in the unenviable situation of having left the government and then being rejected by the opposition, thus falling between two stools.

Malik denies

Mr. Malik Samarawickrema last week said that the reference in this column to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe meeting Mr. Mangala Samaraweera in his house was not correct.


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