A few thoughts for Navi Pillay


By Kath Noble

As the Commonwealth Summit draws closer, the world is going to turn its attention to the situation in Sri Lanka. It is a major international event, and people will want to know what is happening in the host country. When Mahinda Rajapaksa stands up to welcome his fellow heads of government, talking about their shared values and vision, he will give them the perfect opportunity to ask questions – principally, do we really have anything in common with this administration?

Some campaigners have already decided on the answer. They want a boycott, and in the next few months they will be working hard to persuade key individuals – in particular David Cameron and Manmohan Singh – to stay away.

Whether or not they succeed is not very important. What matters is the issues that they raise in the process.

Navi Pillay’s visit will set the tone. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who is due to arrive in Colombo this weekend, has had plenty to say about Sri Lanka since she was appointed back in 2008. But this is her first trip to the island. She will spend a week here, meeting various officials, politicians and activists, and her report will form the basis of the next round of discussions in Geneva, as well as informing the positions of the Secretary General and member states. It is also to her opinion that the international media will turn for an assessment of how the Government should be treated – like a naughty child or like an armed and dangerous criminal.

And she has a decision to make.

She can continue to focus on allegations of war crimes, in step with the Transitional Government of Tamil Eelam, which last week renewed its call for an investigation in a letter to the new United States Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power.

But that would be ethnically polarising. Sinhalese overwhelmingly reject the idea of international oversight of the way the war was fought, many of them believing that such intervention would not be honest or reasonable. There is a feeling that Sri Lanka is being singled out, and that sense is strengthened by the memory of what most people regard as a much worse episode in the country’s history – the response to the JVP uprising in the late 1980s, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Sinhalese – that did not generate anywhere near as much of a reaction.

In any case, Navi Pillay getting involved in efforts to seek justice for war victims only makes them less likely to succeed, by pushing Sinhalese back into their narrow conception of nationalism, which is most ably represented by Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The other option would be for her to stress issues of concern to everybody.

At the moment, the vast majority of people in Sri Lanka could agree on two points with regard to human rights. First is the need for the authorities to crack down on crime and in particular on politically connected criminals, or in other words to depoliticise the legal system. Sri Lankans from all communities are fed up with selective policing. They have been appalled by the revelations from Deraniyagala – the latest example of politicians abusing their power, with villagers describing the situation in recent years as a ‘reign of terror’ by the Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman. Most of them are also disgusted by Sinhalese extremist organisations, whose attacks on Muslims have been allowed to go on for several months now.

They would feel the same about politically connected criminals from the Tamil community if they had heard about them.

The second point on which there is consensus is the need for the authorities to go easy on protests and dissent. The killings in Weliweriya shocked the nation in a way that no other excess by the Security Forces has done in a very long time.

Delivering a strong message on these issues would show that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is on the side of the majority of the population.

Majority does not mean the majority community. It means looking after the interests of the powerless, whether they be Sinhalese, Muslim or Tamil.

International solidarity with or support for struggles against the powerful cannot help if it does not take account of the context in which they are going on. It has to respond to the prevailing attitudes in the society, working intelligently to change them over time, acknowledging that it is not just a matter of telling people what to do – they have to be convinced.

The Transitional Government of Tamil Eelam is the perfect example of how to fail.

One of its other demands is a referendum in the North and East on the establishment of a separate state. It says that Tamils should be free to decide their own destiny, just as the Scottish will do next year when they vote on whether or not to leave the UK. But it is not that simple. The Scottish have persuaded the English to accept it. And this effort was needed, because our people could never be completely apart from each other and would not want to be – our lives are intertwined through centuries of sharing the same small island. We have to get along.

Likewise, the Tamils of Sri Lanka have to live with Sinhalese and Muslims.

Of course things can be imposed on small countries from outside, but history shows that this does not tend to work out as intended.

Navi Pillay must concern herself with both means and ends.

Pressing the Government to act on the two points referred to above can open space for others to work, including representatives of the Tamil community.

One person who now seems to have grasped the importance of such an approach is Karunanidhi.

The DMK chief is not known for his measured approach to Sri Lankan issues. But despite the fact that India is fast approaching a parliamentary election, which generally encourages parties in Tamil Nadu to issue ever more radical statements on Sri Lanka in competition with each other – being a matter of foreign policy, they know that they do not have the power to actually do anything, so they can say whatever they like – Karunanidhi has chosen to stress entirely sensible demands of late.

His revival of the Tamil Eelam Supporters Organisation last year did not bode well, but in the protests that he led a few weeks ago calling for India to boycott the Commonwealth Summit, it was a political solution and the full implementation of the 13th Amendment that was stressed.

This is good news for Sri Lanka.

These are things that the Government can and must agree to, and the extra pressure that it is going to be subject to in November if applied in the right direction has a chance of bringing results.

Kath Noble’s column may be accessed online at She may be contacted at

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