HR bigwigs refuse MR’s approach

by Namini Wijedasa

Hours after the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR) released a report accusing the government of complicity in human rights abuses, President Mahinda Rajapakse’s office was contacting prominent individuals with the intention of re-staffing the Human Rights Commission (HRC).

Authoritative sources said that former commissioners N Selvakumaran and Deepika Udagama were contacted on Tuesday night by Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga. They had been offered their previous posts at the commission but reportedly declined on a matter of principle. One of them pointed out that to accept such an appointment would be extra-Constitutional. The 17th Amendment decrees that commissioners may only be appointed by the Constitutional Council.

These sources said that the president’s office was also contacting other professionals and individuals for appointment as commissioners. It was not immediately known whether any had accepted these posts. Earlier, President Rajapakse staffed the National Police Commission and the Public Service Commission in a similar fashion.

Also on Tuesday, the UTHR issued their latest report in which they accused the government of increasingly showing scant respect for the human rights of Tamils. “Today instead, rhetoric abounds, people are being cornered and alienated from the Government,” the organisation said.”Once again, individuals who could be handled politically are being killed in the name of security. And once that river is crossed, the reasons for killing will have no bounds. And in effect the Tamils as a people are being treated with contempt, having been delegated to the care of extremists in the defence establishment who suffer under of variety of misperceptions.”

Meanwhile, former employees of the Human Rights Commission confirmed that the vital watchdog body was all but dead. Speaking on condition of anonymity, they said that funding agents have withdrawn their support for crucial projects and that the ordinary public was suffering as a result.

They also warned that, if Sri Lanka does not take corrective action, there may be negative repercussions on the country’s newly-acquired UN Human Rights Council seat.

“A special rapporteur, retired Supreme Court Judge T. Sunderlingam, was appointed by the HRC in October to inquire into conflict-related human rights violations,” said one former employee, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He and his team were doing very useful work and had identified some 30 violations to be investigated.”

The project was being paid for by the UK Department for International Development. “DFID stopped funding after the term of the former commission expired in April and the special rapporteur was forced to suspend his work after completing just six investigations,” the employee said. “He finished a report on these cases and forwarded it to the HRC office for release to the media. However, the office did not send it out because the HRC has no chairperson who might be responsible for such a move.”

Sunderlingam was, therefore, forced to circulate his findings privately.

Another HRC project to clear a backlog of complaints has come to a standstill due to the withdrawal of funding which had been channelled through the UNDP.

“The worst impact has been on the HRC’s ten regional offices,” the employee continued. “Originally, anybody who was being victimised could run into these offices and seek redress. We were legally empowered to intervene and stop such things as ongoing torture. Without a chairperson or functioning commissioners, the offices are receiving complaints but are unable to act because they have nobody to fall back on.”

“The police know that the commission has no legal status or commissioners,” he observed. “But ordinary people continue to complain because they don’t know. Many inquiries have been stopped halfway. Without a chairperson’s signature, the HRC cannot issue reports based on their findings.” [Source: Island]

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