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UN Human Rights Commission's report on promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka

A certain predictability has developed in the public exchange on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. In keeping with this predictability, the UN Human Rights Commission recent report on Sri Lanka’s continuing serious human rights abuses is yet another expression of deep international concern which, almost certainly, will end up gathering dust.
The Human Rights Commission report lists a litany of egregious human rights violations perpetrated by the Government of Sri Lanka or its agents dating back to the end of that country’s ethnic war in 2009. In response, the Government of Sri Lanka continues to deny all such accusations, claiming there is an international conspiracy against it and that the evidence is manufactured, falling back on the argument that its actions were predicated on crushing terrorism.
With the backing of states less sympathetic to human rights issues, Sri Lanka has, since 2008, been immune from expressions of international concern. Attempts to impose an internationally driven solution to its human rights situation or the fate of its ethnic Tamil minority have been blocked in the UN Security Council by Sri Lanka’s main international guarantor, China.
China’s interest in Sri Lanka is part of its so-called ‘String of Pearls’ strategic push into the Indian Ocean. However, with China making inroads into India’s strategic sphere of influence, India has also been keen to try to keep Sri Lanka on side following its troubled relationship.
As an initial gesture towards the West, Sri Lanka did allow a circumscribed ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ investigation into the vast scale of atrocities that occurred in the period to May 2009. It was at that time that some 40,000 people were killed by intense government army attacks against civilians sheltering on a sliver of land in Sri Lanka’s north- east coast.
Yet even the innocuous report that came from this tame commission was effectively ignored, reflecting the government’s distaste for anything that does not accord with its brutally hard line on Sri Lanka’s ‘Tamil question’. So it was with the just released UN Human Rights Commission report on ‘Promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka’.
UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay found that, despite previous recommendations, there had been no action by the government on issues of enforced ‘disappearances’, hate speech, witness protection or improved ‘truth seeking’ processes. She noted that there remained several outstanding human rights problems to be addressed by the Sri Lanka government.
Among continuing human rights problems identified by Ms Pillay were continued limitations on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, freedom of opinion and expression, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and enforced or involuntary disappearances. In this, she expressed concern over the role and security of human rights defenders, the independence of judges and lawyers and discrimination against women both in law and in practice.
Overall, Ms Pillay said, there had been little movement towards addressing issues of truth about human rights abuses, issues of justice and reparation for victims, and guarantees of non-recurrence of human rights violations. All of these issues have also been highlighted by civil society organisations in Sri Lanka such as the Centre for Policy Alternatives.
In response to the report, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Envoy in Geneva, Ravinatha Aryasinha, ran the government’s usual line, claiming that the details of Ms Pillay’s report ‘reflect the preconceived, politicised and prejudicial agenda which she has relentlessly pursued with regard to Sri Lanka’. He accused Ms Pillay of ‘double standards’ and paying ‘scant or no regard to the domestic processes ongoing in Sri Lanka’.
He also criticized Ms Pillay’s report for arriving at conclusions in a ‘selective and arbitrary manner’ while ignoring requests from the Sri Lankan government to provide factual evidence to substantiate allegations and to otherwise not make ‘general comments’.
Yet Ms Pillay is not alone in the concerns expressed in her report. A petition signed by leading international figures, headed by South Afrca’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has called for an independent international investigation in the form of a Commission of Inquiry. ‘Only this will help to put the country on the path to justice and reconciliation’, the petition says. Similar comments have been expressed by the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch.
Underpinning the culture of impunity which informs Sri Lanka’s poor human rights record is a heightened sense of ethnic chauvinism and religious intolerance that has increasingly characterised Sri Lankan politics. This is now institutionalised under the Rajapaksa government, which has enjoyed massive ethnic Sinhalese support following the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers.
Since coming to office, President Rajapaksa’s government has been intolerant of dissent or opposition and has fostered a climate of fear. This initially focused on the country’s ethnic Tamil population, but has since spread to ethnic Sinhalese uncomfortable with the direction of Sri Lanka’s politics.
Sinhalese journalists are now regularly intimidated, occasionally abducted and sometimes murdered. Reporters Without Borders has consequently ranked Sri Lanka at 165th of 180 countries assessed. This shift away from plural politics towards a closed chauvinist ethno-politics has increasingly closed the distinction between the individual and the state, giving Sri Lanka an distinctly authoritarian hue.
For Tamils, despite the wars’ formal end, they remain second-class citizens in their country of birth. The north and east of the country, where most Tamils live, continues to function under military occupation, in which Tamil civilians do not know from day to day whether they will be subject to an arbitrary search, rape, torture or disappearance.
Despite concerns expressed by more liberal sections of the international community, and Ms Pillay’s report and others like it, the Sri Lanka government refuses to budge. With the backing of China, Russia and Pakistan, it is under little real pressure to do so.
Once relatively free, Sri Lanka has now firmly joined that list of authoritarian states that primarily acknowledge basic human rights in the breech. Despite the Human Rights Commission report, and others like it, there appears little the West can now do.

Thai junta cracks down on media

It was, perhaps, an act of optimism to believe that a media conference would be called by the Thai army to explain, as it had announced, its concrete plans for the restoration of Thailand’s democracy. This is especially so given that, when local journalists questioned Thai army officials a few days ago about when democracy would be restored, the news conference was promptly ended.
Yesterday afternoon, Thai army spokesman Colonel Sirichan Ngathong said the junta’s plans were to take steps towards restoring normal administration to the country, establish a legislative council and a reform council and work towards holding democratic elections in a time frame yet to be determined. That is, the anti-government "yellow shirt" key claim has been met, and the terms of "democratic elections" will be determined by a constitution that is yet to be written.
Of the information that is otherwise available, little of it relates to Thailand being under army lockdown and, where that is mentioned, it is in formal and strictly factual terms. What we do know is that the international broadcast media has been blocked, that local journalists have been called in for questioning, with some arrested, and editors have been formally warned.
Around 250 people have now been arrested by the junta, with those few handfuls who have been released having signed a pledge not to oppose the junta’s activities. The army is continuing to hunt for many more, issuing public broadcasts for people to hand themselves in.
At the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, however, a handful of news hacks propped up the bar, given there is little else they can do. All foreign news channels are blocked.
The once-proud BBC went missing in action before the coup was even announced. Locals are now asking themselves if the BBC was taken off the air because it was an unfettered voice of international journalism, or just because its reporting of local events had become so superficial and, seemingly, ill-informed.
The army has also warned that it will limit internet access to block social media from discussing the coup. Facebook was taken down for 37 minutes on Wednesday, although this was said by an army spokesman to be a "gateway" problem.
However, Facebook, Line, Instagram and YouTube have been identified for potential closure if they promote "divisiveness" or "infringe on the monarchy". There is also a related move by the junta to closely screen information sent via the internet.
These threats, and to crack down strongly on any further protests, reflect a growing sense of frustration by the army over what it views as a lack of compliance with its world view, and continuing if limited protests around Bangkok.
Thailand’s revered King Bhumibol who, under increasingly strict lese majeste laws, cannot have anything said about him that could be construed as less than supportive, is said by the army to have condoned the coup. The king has condoned military coups in the past.
However, the much-loved 86-year-old king, who has been in poor health, has not been seen in public during this period of military control. The venerated king has also not issued a statement under his own name.
But there is no question as to who is in control in Thailand. The area around the Victory Monument, which has been a daily protest site, has now been reopened to traffic, if with a continuing military presence to ensure that protesters do not return. Soldiers lounged by their trucks along the main roads on the outskirts of Bangkok, while a machine-gun armed Hummer patrolled a main road near the Thailand stock exchange.
After having yet again deposed a democratically elected government, the Thai junta’s plans to restore "democracy" raises questions over the meaning of the term. That the junta also has no time frame in which to do so similarly raises a variation of the legal adage that democracy delayed is democracy denied.

Kids with ADHD at higher risk of becoming obese and inactive teens

If you have had close connection to a child with ADHD, then intuition says that all of that unfocussed physical activity should surely translate into a lower body weight. Showing that intution is not always right, tracking of the health and weight of children with ADHD into adolescence has surprisingly found that these children are at higher risk of becoming obese and physically inactive teenagers.

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a condition characterised by excessively inattentive, hyperactive (unusually active or over-active) and impulsive behaviour in children – to a degree that is inappropriate for their age and development.

Thailand's army tightens its grip

Thailand’s army has tightened its grip on the country’s domestic political process since launching its coup d‘etat last Thursday. Up to 200 politicians, journalists, academics and activists have been arrested, with more ordered to surrender to authorities. The media have been tightly restricted on what can be reported and there has even been a brief shut-down of social media sites.
The army’s National Council for Peace and Order's (NCPO), now acting as the government, dissolved Thailand’s semi-appointed Senate over the weekend, ending speculation that the army would use the conservative Senate appoint an interim prime minister. With this move, coup leader General Prayuth Chan-ocha assumed all parliamentary authority, although he has appointed a small body of advisers.
Further tightening the army’s grip on Thai politics, officers not deemed to be supportive of the coup, including national police chief General Adul Saengsinglaew, defence secretary General Nipat Thonglek and Special Investigations Department director-general General Tarit Pengdith, have also been sacked.
Thailand’s land borders have been closed and senior ousted government Pheu Thai Party figures who have not yet surrendered to the army have had their bank accounts frozen.
Further details have emerged as to how the coup was staged. The army chief called a meeting for 2pm last Thursday of Thailand’s government and opposition leaders, senators, election commissioners and key figures in the pro-government ‘red shirt’ and anti-government ‘yellow shirt’ factions to a meeting at army headquarters last Thursday. The meeting was ostensibly to avoid further yellow shirt protests planned for the weekend.
The talks became deadlocked over demands that the government resign and whether and when there would be fresh elections. When, two and a half hours after the meeting started, General Prayuth asked government Justice Minister Chaikasem Nitisiri whether the government would resign, Chaikasem said it would not. General Prayuth then said he was seizing political power.
While most of the politicians at the meeting were then detained, senators, election commissioners and Opposition Democrat Party leader and former prime minister Abhisit Vejajjiva was freed. Yellow shirt protest leader Suthep Thaugsuban was also freed a short time later, indicating the army's political preferences.
It is now thought that the army will remain in power until Thailand can go to new elections under a new constitution, probably not until next year.
The new constitution, when it comes, is expected to include limits on majority rule, including increasing the appointment of members of parliament, formerly limited to 74 of the 150 members of the Senate. There have also been calls for extending the political role of the now ageing King Bhumibol Adulyadej or his successor.
Meanwhile, in Thailand’s pro-government ‘red-shirt’ heartland of Khon Kaen in the country’s impoverished north-east, there were arrests over the weekend of 21 people said to be in possession of weapons and explosives, sparking fears of an armed anti-coup insurrection. An army spokesman claimed the group was supposed to launch the first stage of an armed insurrection against the new military junta.
Meanwhile, numerous , if small, anti-coup protests have sprung up in direct defiance of the government’s ban on gatherings of more than five people. Soldiers and police have so far acted with restraint in the face of the growing protests.
In Thailand's restive south, however, there have been more than 20 bomb blasts and further shootings since the declaration of martial law. Young Muslim militants, some who have now trained on the battlefields of Syria, have returned with a much less compromising approach to how their own political claims should be settled.
Thailand's main towns remained relatively quiet, but there was also an undercurrent that this situation - and Thailand's military rule - would not go unchallenged.

Treating gestational diabetes with a high blood pressure diet

A diet first designed to help treat high blood pressure has shown some promising results in improving pregnancy outcomes in women with gestational diabetes.

Gestational diabetes (GDM) is a form of diabetes that occurs during pregnancy, affecting around 8 percent of all pregnancies. The high blood sugars from the diabetes can result in the developing baby growing too large, causing birth complications. Following delivery, the baby can also experience low blood glucose levels caused from being removed from the glucose-rich environment of the mother. The mother also suffers a much higher lifetime risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The first steps in treating GDM are lifestyle changes, including changes to diet where needed. There is some evidence that a lower glycaemic index (GI) diet may help with GDM, but overall there is not a lot of solid evidence for what are the best dietary changes to make.

Jokowi chooses safe and moderate running mate

The announcement yesterday by Indonesian presidential candidate Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo that his vice-presidential running mate will be former vice-president Jusuf Kalla has calmed concerns that Indonesia could be headed back towards an era of increased military influence. Until yesterday, it had been suggested that Jokowi’s running mate would be hard-line retired general Ryamizard Ryacudu.
Jokowi’s main competition for the presidency comes from hard-line former general Prabowo Subianto, who was cashiered out of the army in 1998 for human rights abuses. Prabowo was the son-in-law of former President Suharto, and was implicated in atrocities in East Timor and West Papua, as well as against student protesters in Jakarta in 1998.
The orientation of Jokowi, a populist, towards the army is unknown. However, he will represent the Indonesian Democratic Party-Struggle (PDI-P) in the presidential race, with PDI-P having in the past been sympathetic to a military response to security problems.
However, Jusuf Kalla is likely to bring a moderate and technocratic influence to government, should he and Jokowi be successful. Current opinion polls suggest that they will have a comfortable victory in July’s presidential elections.
Jusuf Kalla was vice-president during out-going president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s first and most successful term in office. It was during this time that Yudhoyono pushed through his main reforms, with Kalla playing a key role in many of them.
Among other roles, Kalla was given overall responsibility for the 2005 Aceh peace talks, which ultimately ended almost three decades of separatist war in Aceh and introduced a high degree of local autonomy. Kalla directed his two trusted lieutenants, then Justice Minister Hamid Awaluddin and Social Welfare Deputy Minister Farid Hussein, who were important to the success of the talks. Kalla had previously led efforts to resolve conflicts in Ambon and Poso.
While Jokowi is from Central Java, Kalla is from Sulawesi, providing a geographic balance that is usually regarded as desirable in a presidential election team. Prabowo is seconded by Indonesia’s richest man and chairman of Golkar party, Aburizal Bakrie, a West Javanese born in Jakarta. Kalla is a former chairman of Golkar, which may see a split in the vote of Indonesia’s second largest political party.
A Jokowi-Kalla team, whould it be successful, is likely to keep Indonesia on a path of continued moderate democratic reform. It is also likely to be less assertively nationalist than an administration led by Prabowo.

Thailand's broken politics

Thailand’s political crisis worsened this morning, with the country’s army unilaterally declaring martial law. The army has said that the declaration of martial law was to restore peace and stability to the country after six months of, at times, violent protests.
Lieutenant Geneneral Nipat Thonglek says that while the declaration of martial law was not a military coup, the precise restrictions to be imposed by the declaration are still being worked out.
The declaration of martial law follows the dismissal by the Constitutional Court earlier this month of prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra and several government ministers for "abuse of power". The subsequent caretaker government has limited powers to act, ahead of fresh elections.

Foreign affairs: savage aid cuts will hurt the poorest in Asia

When a government cuts spending, its non-voting constituents are always going to fare worse than those who do vote. Whatever residual anger might come at the next federal elections, Australia’s aid recipients won’t be a part of that vote.
As compared to budget cuts of $7.6 billion over the next five years, or a little over $1.5 billion a year, the government’s trimming of just $107 million from the $5 billion aid budget in January looks positively generous. An earlier bipartisan commitment to lift Australian aid spending to 0.5% of gross national income, delayed until 2017-18, now appears entirely gone.
Australia has an international obligation under the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to spend 0.7% of its gross national income on foreign aid by 2020. That also appears to be no longer within the realms of foreseeable reality.
The Coalition's had a pre-election commitment to grow the aid budget in line with inflation. But, riffing off former prime minister John Howard’s "core" and "non-core" promises, that appears to have joined the substantial list of "non-significant" promises.
Yet Australia’s aid budget, and the uses to which it is put, is the better face of the "white tribe of Asia". Moreover, some regional governments only marginally concerned with cuts to Australian aid will measure this spending reprioritisation against Australia’s defence build-up. An 11% increase in the defence budget stands in stark contrast to the aid cuts, and sends a less benign signal to our neighbours.
Even Crikey’s sober readers, considering aid cuts set against wider cuts, might be saying, "So what?" Australia’s aid budget has been, overwhelmingly, aimed at the Asia-Pacific region. In this area, there are 757 million people in extreme poverty, usually defined as living on less that $1 a day.
Australia cannot fix this problem by itself, and regional governments do need to lift their respective games. But, to the extent that Australia has committed to assist, that promise has been broken to more than just ourselves.
With some regional governments being miffed, Australia will lose diplomatically from this budget. But the real losers from Australia’s aid parsimony will be those whose existence is just this side of total calamity and, for want of a few cents a day each, may now slip to the other side.

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