The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, who was in Sri Lanka on a seven-day fact finding mission, said she was deeply concerned that Sri Lanka, despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant, all-embracing state, was showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.

Addressing a press conference at the offices of the United Nations on Saturday, Ms. Pillay made what came across as a hard-hitting statement covering a gamut of issues — from the need for a credible investigation into allegations of civilian causalities and summary execution, the question of disappearances and the extent of militarisation to the vulnerability of women, particularly those in the north, heading households.

In her rather detailed statement, Ms. Pillay also made references to recent reports of attacks on religious minorities and to the controversial impeachment of the former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, which she said, shook confidence in the independence of the judiciary.

“The war may have ended, but in the meantime democracy has been undermined and the rule of law eroded,” she said.

During the week that Ms. Pillay spent in Sri Lanka, travelling across the country, different sections in Sri Lanka and among Sri Lankan diaspora attributed controversial motives to her visit — some even going to the extent of branding her a “Tamil Tigress in the UN”. She said that based on her Indian Tamil heritage a section of media called her a tool of the LTTE. Observing that such abuse had reached an extraordinary crescendo during this past week, Ms. Pillay said it was not only widely incorrect, but also deeply offensive. The LTTE, she said, was a “murderous organisation” that committed numerous crimes and destroyed many lives. There should be no place for glorification of such a ruthless organisation, she added.

Ms. Pillay drew attention to some of the main issues in Sri Lanka, which have been drawing sharp criticism both within and outside the country since the three decade-long conflict ended in May 2009.

‘De-militarise North and East’

Referring to the extent of militarisation in Sri Lanka, Ms. Pillay said she was concerned to hear about “the degree to which the military appears to be putting down roots and becoming involved in what should be civilian activities".

The High Commissioner said she also heard complaints about the acquisition of private land to build military camps and installations, including a holiday resort. “This is only going to make the complex land issues with which the Government has been grappling even more complicated and difficult to resolve,” she said, urging the government to speed up its efforts to demilitarise the war-affected provinces where the continued large-scale presence of the military was perceived as oppressive and intrusive. The continuing high level of surveillance of former combatants and returnees was at times, verging on harassment, she added.

Counting the disappeared

Ms. Pillay seems to have pressured the government to make its recently-appointed inquiry commission — which is to look into cases of disappearances during and after the war — more effective than previous commissions. “I met many relatives of missing or disappeared civilians and soldiers [during the trip] who are still hoping to discover the whereabouts of their loved ones, and they emphasised the urgent need to resolve this issue.”

Ms. Pillay also expressed disappointment over learning that the commission would cover only disappearances in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. In an apparent reference to enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, often using a white van that many associate with the military, she said that the “many white van disappearances” reported in Colombo and other parts of the country in recent years would not fall within the scope of the commission.

She called the reconstruction work in the North and East, in terms of new roads, bridges, houses, medical facilities, schools and improved electricity and water impressive. “However, physical reconstruction alone will not bring reconciliation, dignity or lasting peace. Clearly, a more holistic approach is needed to provide truth, justice and reparations for people’s suffering during the war.”

‘Disturbing aspect of visit’

Referring to a ‘disturbing aspect’ of her visit, Ms. Pillay said she received reports that human rights defenders, priests and journalists and citizens who met her were harassed and intimidated. The police or military officers visited people in Mullaitivu before and after her visit, she said.

“This type of surveillance and harassment appears to be getting worse in Sri Lanka, which is a country where critical voices are quite often attacked or even permanently silenced.” The United Nations, she stressed, considered the issue of reprisals an extremely serious matter.

Referring to attacks on journalists and human rights defenders, she said: “Freedom of expression is under a sustained assault in Sri Lanka. I have called for the right to Information Act to be adopted like many of its neighbours in SAARC.”