Before leaving Sri Lanka after her week-long visit the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, made a media statement in which she expressed her deep concern about Sri Lanka heading in an "increasingly authoritarian direction". She said,
"I am deeply concerned that Sri Lanka, despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant, all-embracing state, is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction".
The Sri Lankan government has criticised this statement as transgressing her mandate and the basic norms which should be observed by a discerning international civil servant. Authoritarian governments always try to portray the issue of authoritarianism as being a political one rather than a human rights issue. That is quite understandable as the heart of authoritarianism is the destruction of the civil liberties of the individual.
However, authoritarianism is the most crucial problem of human rights and where it appears no one who holds a mandate for the protection and promotion of human rights and no discerning civil servant, international or otherwise, can ignore it. High Commissioner Pillay in boldly raising this issue has shown her maturity as a great human rights defender and proven her capacity for leadership in the field of human rights when dealing with the most difficult problem which negates human rights, authoritarianism.
In raising the issue of authoritarianism in relation to Sri Lanka she has virtually given a new direction to the United Nations in its efforts on human rights as well as to the international community and the civil society in Sri Lanka. From now on in all efforts relating to human rights in Sri Lanka the focus needs to be on the fundamental negation of human rights by way of authoritarianism.
Long years of conflict between the LTTE and the government resulted in creating great confusion on the actual nature of political development in Sri Lanka. The 1978 project of displacing Sri Lankan democracy by way of a new order imposed through the Constitution was done subtly and every effort was made to camouflage the actual aim of the Constitution which was aimed at introducing authoritarianism.
The enormous violence that was a result of this conflict diverted everyone's attention to what was then called "the war". This environment did not leave must room for reasonable discourse and the absence of such discourse was also one of the reasons why the overall transformation into authoritarianism went unnoticed. The architect of the constitution, J.R. Jayewardene, quite cleverly manipulated "the war" to prevent popular resistance against his attempt to displace Sri Lankan democracy.
The more things became polarised in military terms the more the political project became invisible. The LTTE also took advantage of the situation and attempted to portray the idea that Sri Lanka's fundamental conflict was about ethnicity. The propaganda stance was necessary in order to justify the demand for a separate state and to justify armed conflict as the only way to get it.
"The war" not only confused the local population but it also thoroughly confused the international community. No one noticed the transformation of Sri Lanka into a dictatorship and the demands of the international community including also the UN agencies were to find a solution to the military conflict. The discourse of about 25 years was totally confined within the paradigm of the ethnic discourse and the peace discourse.
There were some voices in the wilderness like that of the Asian Human Rights Commission which kept the focus on exposing the scheme behind the 1978 Constitution and the ever increasing authoritarianism in the country. However, such voices were unable to get much attention as the violence and the war occupied everyone's minds.
It took nearly four years for the people of the world to even begin to recognise that they had been mislead and that the fundamental problem of Sri Lanka was one of undermining democracy and the rule of law which, in turn, was a problem affecting the human rights OF ALL.
The High Commissioner, Navanethem Pillay's intervention will now inform the world of a new perspective on the human rights issues in Sri Lanka. Within this overall perspective of the ever-increasing authoritarianism and the ever growing polarization of the population against such authoritarianism new strategies will need to be developed. She has identified the heart of the problem. What is needed now is to identify the ways to overcome this problem.
It is to be hoped that the local civil society and the international community will rise to the occasion and respond to the call of the High Commissioner and begin to grapple with the ways to overcome authoritarianism and the reestablish the rule of law within the framework of democracy.
Photo of Dr. Pillay courtesy of UN Multimedia