The visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, Ben Emmerson was extensively covered in the mainstream media after a damning end of mission statement delivered in Colombo. The Special Rapporteur’s full report on his mission to Sri Lanka will be tabled in Geneva at the next session of the UN Human Rights Council sittings in March 2018. The statement went into some detail around on-going torture in Sri Lanka. Emmerson flagged “… extremely brutal methods of torture, including beatings with sticks, the use of stress positions, asphyxiation using plastic bags drenched in kerosene, the pulling out of fingernails, the insertion of needles beneath the fingernails, the use of various forms of water torture, the suspension of individuals for several hours by their thumbs, and the mutilation of genitals’. The pushback against the UN and the Special Rapporteur in particular, from influential sections of government and other quarters was expected, almost immediate and unsurprisingly given more publicity than the concerns articulated in the original statement. Already forgotten by those who now vociferously deny and decry these allegations is the seventeen-page report to the UN’s Committee Against Torture in November 2016, prepared not by any NGO or arm of the UN, but by Sri Lanka’s own Human Rights Commission. In case its credentials are also questioned, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka was established by an Act of Parliament in 1996. This report also clearly flags the systemic use of torture and notes that ‘common methods…include, undressing the person and assaulting using the hand, foot, poles, wires, belts and iron bars, beating with poles on the soles of the feet, denial of water following beating, forcing the person to do degrading acts, trampling and kicking, applying chilli juice to eyes, face and genitals, hanging the person by the hands and rotating/and or beating on the soles of the feet, crushing the person’s nails and handcuffing the person for hours to a window or cell bar’.
All this in the land of the Buddha, over two years into the yahapalanaya government. One would expect as a consequence a thorough domestic investigation into these allegations, and corrective measures taken to abolish all inhuman and degrading practices. On the contrary, the immediate and to date only response from the President to the statement by Emmerson was to inquire as to how he got access to LTTE detainees. This is the same President, lest we forget, who was seen in public in July 2016 as part of a demonstration organized by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka against all forms of torture on the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Sagala Rathnayaka, the Minister of Law and Order, was also present on this occasion. Photos of the demonstration show the President and the Minister sporting caps with ‘Stop Torture’ emblazoned, in all three languages. The optics then and the response now reveal a divide between what is overtly supported and in reality countenanced, between what is politically expedient and realistically doable given the pressure to maintain the status quo by the military, and inherently violent deep or dark state architectures.
It is easy to ridicule the President for a response in 2017 that is the polar opposite of what he stood for, literally, in 2016. But the nature and spectrum of official responses and reactions suggests that whenever the yahapalanaya government is held up to the same scrutiny as the previous government, it employs a tone of false equivocation – flagging the West and its failings as greater, or flagging the Rajapaksa regime’s human rights violations as more outrageous. The hypocrisy then isn’t so much with those who employ a critical gaze on Sri Lanka coming from the West or the UN, but the inability of the present government to countenance a degree of scrutiny largely if not wholly brought upon by the promises made by it to gain political authority and office. What is never really said, but implicitly suggested is that things like on-going torture are somehow more acceptable in a political context that is comparably more accountable and less violent than the previous regime. The benchmark then is not what is right or should be, but the worst of what we once were. It is akin to say celebrating a light, passing shower in a desert – nothing at all has really changed, but the slight dampness that’s short-lived is somehow projected as something that is refreshingly different to the norm, and indicative of a more verdant future.
We thus have a government that is adept at peddling the illusory, hostage to political and military realities that endure long after the end of the war, instead of a more principled political will anchored to accountability. No longer riding a wave of public support and approaching the twilight phase of its full term in office, the government’s willingness and ability to foster meaningful reform will diminish.
So, the window for systemic reform is over.
What the government has now embraced as its political strategy is akin to what’s known as A/B testing in website development. Through this method, two versions of the same website are shown to those who visit. The visitors aren’t told what version they are looking at or engaging with. Depending on how effective one design is over the other, judged by how visitors respond to it, the final version of the site is deployed. Similarly, the government tells the international community, domestic constituencies, the sangha, military, the opposition, donors and others what they want to hear, all in parallel but not in concert. Hence, the obvious lack of any logical coherence from government on a range of key issues. Each party responds to what is told to them. This approach works to keep the patience of the international community from running out, the sangha at bay, the military happy, the donors interested, the opposition engaged and the voters distracted. What is engineered is a way through which though only the basic minimum is done around reform, it is projected as a great achievement. The general result is tokenism at its core, just with nice icing on it.
What then and what now?
Progressives embedded in government will want to pressure those higher-up even they cannot influence by way of popular demonstrations in support of the January 2015 mandate. Civil society will be encouraged to lead the reform agenda, initially championed by government. The danger here is that through outsourcing, and ironically, the greater the success at highlighting the initial yahapalanaya promise, the more it stands the risk of being perceived as an agenda or set of initiatives alien to government, funded by change-agents perceived to be from the West, and the usual corrosive rhetoric that follows. The lack of political will from within government isn’t something that can be located outside of it, in civil society. Corrective measures are known. It is the political will that’s missing, or more accurately, the once pulsating promise of meaningful reform.
This isn’t just academic. The details reproduced above on the kind of torture detainees and prisoners undergo was deliberate. It forces readers to confront what is happening today, perhaps even right now, while you read this column. It is awful. It is violent. It is ugly. And it is allowed to continue. Even as a card-carrying Theravada Buddhist country, we seem to have confused and conflated ahiňsā – a cardinal precept of the dhamma, with hiňsā as an acceptable norm of governance. This harks back to what Hannah Arendt called the banality of violence. Torture in Sri Lanka is invisible. To highlight it is the crime, not the torture itself.
One reason why, so many years after war, we remain steeped in violence.
Published in The Sunday Island, 23 July 2017.