By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI (AlertNet) - The Indian Ocean island of Sri Lanka is once again in the spotlight over allegations of human rights abuses against the minority Tamil population, although the war against Tamil separatists ended in May 2009.
A Human Rights Watch report on Tuesday alleged that Tamils had been tortured, while a U.S. sponsored resolution censuring Colombo over violations is expected at the U.N. Human Rights Council currently meeting in Geneva.
In an interview with Nita Bhalla, Sri Lanka's High Commissioner to India, Prasad Kariyawasam, gives his reaction to the accusations of human rights abuses against his government and questions as to whether he thinks Sri Lanka is becoming a pariah state.
Q. Human Rights Watch has released a new report based on interviews with Sri Lankan asylum seekers in countries like Britain who say security forces are using rape to torture suspected Tamil Tiger supporters in detention, almost four years after the civil war ended. What is your response?
A. Human Rights Watch seems to be focusing on Sri Lanka at a time when the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is meeting and there is going to be a resolution by the United States against Sri Lanka. The report is a well-timed effort to bring discredit to our country.
Human rights violations are taking place in all countries of the world. Why Sri Lanka is constantly targeted by Human Rights Watch is something we are disturbed about. They may be working with the U.S. government. I dare to say that because the HRW report is announced just as the resolution is to be presented to the Human Rights Council.
This sort of targeted criticism against Sri Lanka is unwelcome and unhelpful. It is not going to help us for reconciliation, it is not going to help us for our own people's promotion of human rights.
Q. So, you deny the allegations made by the 75 people in this report, who talk of horrific abuses by your army and police such as repeated rape, cigarette burns on their breasts and buttocks, in order to force a confession from them?
A. There are a group called economic refugees and for them to get asylum or refugee status, they need to have a good story. Until we do a proper inquiry, we have to believe that these are all sob stories for the sake of obtaining asylum or refugee status in a developed country.
Until we do our own proper examination into these allegations, then only can we accept these allegations. Until there is a proper examination on the case in the Sri Lankan court system, we will not be able to accept these allegations. We therefore think that such effort is motivated to gain certain benefits like refugee or asylum status for economic reasons.
Q. So are you willing to discuss the report with Human Rights Watch and independently investigate through your own legal system?
A. The proper way is through the U.N. system. We are treaty bound through the U.N. system that when there are allegations, there are special procedures that can investigate and make recommendations. That's the method we signed up for and that's what we follow.
NGOs like Human Rights Watch, which is based in the U.S., make accusations on the basis of their own criteria and funding for them. We don't know who funds them. So we have our doubts. And in this case, we think it is motivated because timing is very clear. Timing is just when the U.S. is presenting a resolution against Sri Lanka at the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Sri Lanka is not a very big country. We cannot fight with the most powerful country in the world and their NGOs who have large amount of funds, but we still have the right to say what we want to say. We are an open, democratic country and anyone can come and see for themselves what the situation is.
Q. Since the war ended in May 2009, the allegations of human rights abuses by the state have been mounting. Not just from groups like Human Rights Watch, but also from western governments and the U.N. itself, which say Sri Lanka is resisting independent investigations into war crimes. Why is everyone saying this, if it is not true?
A. These are all democratic countries which have a political leadership which listens to their electorate, and there are enough Sri Lankan Tamil LTTE support groups in their electorate who will lobby and create pressure on them to take action against Sri Lanka on alleged violations of human rights.
If there are allegations, they must be placed with us. With our judiciary, our system must examine it. In fact, we appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LRRC) (to look into war crimes) and they have recommended some steps which we are now following.
Even the army has set up a court of inquiry with regard to LRRC recommendations to examine the allegations against the army. So we are waiting for the outcome of that.
We have gone through a very difficult time. We think these allegations are from many lobby groups working against Sri Lanka in distant parts of the world, influencing NGOs to come out with such reports.
Q. Are you talking of the Tamil diaspora?
A. Yes, they are very active because some extreme groups in the Tamil diaspora who used to fund LTTE for arms procurement are now using their money to lobby against Sri Lanka.
They are upset that Sri Lanka was able to eliminate the LTTE and they are trying to get even with us, and their funds are now being used for this purpose. So they make up stories so that they can bring pressure and disrepute to Sri Lanka.
We have not had any major help as far as development efforts are concerned, only on human rights violations. What about development efforts that are needed for Sri Lanka to give a better deal to the Tamils who have suffered for over three decades. But that is not forthcoming from these groups.
Q. Is foreign help coming in to help you with the post-war reconstruction efforts?
Most of the help comes from India, China, Japan and some from western countries, which we welcome still. But the largest investors are from Asia.
We had a growth rate of about 8 percent over the last three years, although this year we are looking at about 6.5 percent.
But the rate of growth in the Northern Province (former war zone) is 22 percent. This shows the amount of development effort we have put into the north. That is all government money, which we have spent at the expense of other provinces. But where is that story?
We are taking care of the economic and social rights of the people of the Northern Province, but the focus is only on civil and political rights whereas the economic and development rights are ignored. Why is that?
Q. As you mentioned the U.N. Human Rights Council is currently meeting in Geneva and there is likely to be a second resolution, brought by the U.S., criticising Colombo on the issue of human rights. This is likely to be backed by Britain, Canada and the European Union. Are you concerned about this?
A. We think the resolution is uncalled for because our situation is on the mend. We are going in the right direction, we are only asking for more time and space.
We have a very good road map created by the LRRC and we are implementing those step by step. If the allegations made by anyone are found to be true through our own investigation mechanisms, then we will take action.
We think international investigation on Sri Lanka is not required because we are a democratic country, we have our institutions and security forces are under the control of Sri Lanka and they fought a very difficult war and we will follow other democratic countries.
Tell me a single democratic country where they have opened up their security forces for international investigation? Very powerful countries also have allegations against their security forces, but have they opened up their forces to international investigations? No. So Sri Lanka also has the same right. We will investigate our own security forces through our own mechanisms.
Q. Given the forthcoming resolution and going forward, are you not concerned Sri Lanka is slowly becoming a pariah state due to almost constant allegations of human rights abuses?
A. We have to wait and see the resolution and how it plays out.
There are countries in the world, for example, Israel which have resolutions against them. But look at U.S.-Israel relations. They are the best friends in the world. So having a resolution against a country does not mean that the rest of world will be against you.
It is up to us to accept the resolution or not. We can reject the resolution if we don't like it.