18 May 2010
On the first anniversary of the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war, Pakistani lawyer, politician and human rights activist Aitzaz Ahsan writes on why the ongoing abuses in Sri Lanka should concern Pakistanis and all South Asians.
Although it is clichéd to begin with that proverbial view from an aeroplane, landing at the airport, that indeed was my first view of Sri Lanka: lush green forests and long white beaches gently sloping into the dark blue waters of the Indian Ocean.
I was going to Colombo to observe a trial on behalf of the Law Asia Foundation. Certain officers of the Sri Lankan police were to be tried for atrocities against the Tamil population in the Batticaloa region. The trial was a sombre proceeding, conducted with the highest judicial propriety.
That was the year 1987.
There was more that engaged me besides the trial during the week I was in Sri Lanka. As my wife and I walked the streets and the beaches, ate at restaurants and deliberately lost our way in the back allies of Colombo, we realised the true beauty of the capital – its plurality.
Bells of Hindu and Buddhist temples chimed, while across the street, mosque minarets and church spires competed with each other to touch the clouds. There was a sublime serenity to it. An atmosphere of tolerance and peaceful co-existence pervaded all around. Everyone was friendly, helpful and outgoing.
It was indeed a paradise on earth. It was a nation at peace with itself and with the world. The Tamil Tiger insurgency was then a distant occurrence confined mostly to the northern Jaffna region.
Yet the most valuable interaction I had was that with a former judge of the Supreme Appellate Court of Sri Lanka, Justice TW Rajaratnam. He had retired from the Supreme Court and was writing a book on the trial and execution of Pakistan’s former Prime Minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.
Short, stocky, bald, Hindu by persuasion and well into his 70s, the judge was passionately interested in a tragedy enacted in a far and distant land, Pakistan. We had long discussions at his home and in restaurants. His book, Judiciary in Crisis? The Trial of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, became the most authentic analysis of the evidence and the mistrial.
Why should a retired Sri Lankan judge be interested in a Pakistani tragedy, I wondered. My own commitment to justice and human rights had taught me that these values were universal. The Sri Lankan judge only reinforced my belief.
And that is the precise reason why the state of human rights in Sri Lanka today should be of interest to every Pakistani, indeed every South Asian. These values are indeed universal and of common concern to all humanity.
Pakistan was itself created in the image of its founder, barrister Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Jinnah was a pluralist who believed in non-violence and constitutionalism. He prescribed for his state and its people peaceful co-existence and equality of all citizens.
On the eve of Pakistan’s birth in August 1947, Jinnah said: “Therefore, we must learn a lesson from this. You are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or any other place of worship in Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed, this has nothing to do with the business of the State …. Now I think that we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find in course of time, Hindu would cease to be Hindu and Muslim would cease to be Muslims, not in the religious sense because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense, as citizens of the State.”
By the time I visited Sri Lanka again, the war had come to Colombo. In fact my second visit was a consequence of this; President Ranasinghe Premadasa had been killed by a suicide bomb in May 1993. I, as a Federal Minister, accompanied the Prime Minister of Pakistan to the late President’s last rites.
That war, having lasted more than 25 years, was declared over with the Sri Lankan government’s victory in May 2009. But the pain and tragedy of the conflict has not ended. A report submitted to the United Nations recounts the violations of citizens’ basic human rights by the Sri Lankan government and its agencies. These include enforced and involuntary disappearance, impunity for abduction and secret detention, as well as the imprisonment of more than 10,000 people on suspicion of having been involved with the Tamil Tigers in what can best be described as concentration camps.
The UN experts are not the only ones who have observed human rights violations. Human Rights Watch says it has documented several cases in which individuals were taken into custody without regard to the protections provided under Sri Lankan law. In many cases, the authorities have not informed family members about the whereabouts of the detained, leaving them in secret, incommunicado detention or possible enforced disappearance. Other reports indicate orders to summarily execute surrendering Tamil Tigers leaders.
Meantime wide-ranging and discriminatory emergency regulations that gave the military and intelligence vast powers of arrest, entry and confiscation of property remain in force. Sri Lanka’s government is also delaying the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the constitution, which would entail the devolution of powers to the provincial tiers. Colombo fears that this would empower the Tamil grassroots. The implementation process has thus slowed.
Sri Lanka is again a veritable paradise in the making. But to fulfil this, it has to celebrate and derive strength from its plurality. It has to reach out to its minorities and give them equal opportunities and freedoms without discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, race or religion. That, alone, can ensure it lasting peace.
When I was there in 1987, before the conflict had embraced all of Sri Lanka, it was a paradise, where Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Muslims and people of all ethnicities could co-exist without discrimination or fear. That paradise was lost in war. And that paradise needs to be regained in peace. That is a lesson for all multiethnic and plural states in the region.
Aitzaz Ahsan is one of Pakistan’s leading attorneys, having represented Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry during his career. He is a human rights activist and a founder of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and also serves on the advisory council of the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace & Justice. He is a member of the Pakistan People’s Party.