Sri Lanka’s Catholic archbishop, Malcolm Ranjith, recently toured Europe urging renewal of the country’s highly privileged access to the EU market, known as GSP+, which the European Commission is recommending should be suspended because Sri Lanka has not implemented three key human rights conventions. In The Tablet, Britain’s leading liberal Catholic weekly, Edward Mortimer and Steve Alston examined the Archbishop’s record and asked why he has not shown the same public concern for human rights in Sri Lanka as some of the brave Catholic priests working under his authority. Read their article here.

Peace and Justice in Sri Lanka

By Edward Mortimer and Steve Alston

Post-conflict peace-building is hardly an exact science. But the international community by now has enough experience of it to agree on some general propositions, one of which is that lasting reconciliation must be based on recognition of, and some form of reparation for, both the grievances that gave rise to the conflict and the wrongs committed during it.

Six months after the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, these processes have yet to start. Despite the well documented excesses of both sides in the long civil war there is no sign of such honesty surfacing; and little sign of the Catholic Church’s leadership playing a prophetic role in the healing necessary for reconciliation to take place. The newly installed Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Ranjith, has just been to Europe at the head of a group of Sri Lankan Catholic, Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist faith leaders, on a visit which seems to ally him with a Government concerned mainly to sanitise its policies.

Christians of all denominations are a minority in Sri Lanka, still thought of as culturally western and as having allegiances far beyond the island. But the Catholic Church is by far the largest Christian community, with a history going back to the early Portuguese missionaries. Being slightly better represented among the Tamil ethnic minority than among the Sinhalese majority, it has also traditionally been well placed to build bridges between the two. Archbishop Ranjith himself had, when Bishop of Ratnapura, undertaken more than many of his predecessors to try to build peace. He worked, for instance, with the Tamil Bishop of Mannar to open back-channel communications between the Tamil Tiger leadership and the Sinhalese-dominated government in Colombo, which helped bring about the (eventually unsuccessful) Norwegian peace initiative.

Yet his recent trip to Europe, where he met (among others) the Italian and British foreign ministers, has been reported as supporting a Sri Lankan Government lobby for retention of the privileged EU trade concession known as “GSP+”, which allows Sri Lankan textiles free access to European markets. The European Commission has advised the Council of Ministers not to extend this concession beyond June next year. This is bad news for Sri Lanka‚Äôs ailing textile industry, but no surprise given the Government’s failure to observe the conditions it had accepted, including the ratification and implementation of key international agreements on human rights.

Unfortunately the Archbishop and his delegation are not on record as calling for investigation of the many human rights abuses that have been reported from Sri Lanka in recent years, or as raising with foreign investors the long working hours, restrictions on trade union activity and pitifully low wages to which textile workers (most of them women) are subjected.

The Sri Lankan hierarchy’s record contrasts with that of the Catholic Church in difficult situations elsewhere in Asia – most recently in Burma but earlier also in the Philippines and Korea, where it has shown that it can disengage from the apron strings of dictators. It also contrasts with that of grassroots church activists within Sri Lanka, such as Father Nandana Manatunga’s Human Rights Centre in Kandy, which is pursuing justice for rape and torture victims, or Father Harry Miller formerly in Batticaloa and Father Sarath Iddamalgoda in Jaela, who have helped survivors of human rights abuses struggling for legal redress and security from intimidation.

In recent years successive visiting UN special envoys and rapporteurs have documented a continuous disregard for international law, and even for Sri Lanka’s own national laws. Such witnesses are often dismissed as “Tiger sympathisers”. The 17th Amendment to Sri Lanka’s constitution, which sought to curtail the power of the Presidency by establishing a constitutional council to oversee appointments to major executive and judicial functions, is effectively a dead letter. Despite the much publicised Presidential Commissions or ‘urgent and thorough’ police investigations into massacres of NGO workers, fishermen and farmers, or political leaders and editors, no one is ever charged or found guilty of these crimes. Instead, the investigations last long enough for international media attention to drift elsewhere, and then are quietly dropped. Military or other state personnel, on whom suspicion often rests, are thereby given a signal that they are beyond the reach of the law.

If Archbishop Ranjith had called for justice for those who suffered in the closing stages of the war against the LTTE, and if he had marshalled the undoubted capacity of the Church to monitor and report on the abuses that took place, his pleas to European governments on behalf of textile workers would certainly have gained in credibility.

Caritas agencies of the Church have been visible throughout the war bringing humanitarian relief to the many civilians who have suffered. Churches, as well as Hindu Kovils, became prime sites of refuge and security throughout the north and east of the Island, the traditional Tamil homelands. Through Caritas, the Church has been one of only a few national agencies allowed into the internment camps in which the vast civilian populations who fled the intense fighting early this year have been incarcerated.

Under intense international pressure the Government has now started a resettlement programme, but the nightmare is far from over for the displaced people. Families are being moved from the IDP camps to smaller so-called transit centres. Independent agencies have restricted access to the few families that have finally been able to return home, making it difficult to monitor their well-being or ensure that humanitarian standards of rehabilitation are observed. Far from the process of reconciliation which the Pope called for during the Ranjith delegation’s private audience in the Vatican, the Government appears to have in mind a process of subjugation and containment.

Had the members of the faith delegation been eloquent on behalf of the Government’s victims, they might have had more credibility in Europe. As it is, one can only hope that the response they received was the same as that given by the EU ambassador in Sri Lanka: that the GSP+ tariff concessions are institutionally linked to respect for the various international conventions.

Sri Lanka’s Church leadership should lead the country’s faith communities in insisting that the Government respect and uphold Sri Lankan citizens’ fundamental rights. Archbishop Ranjith should use his influence with the Government (the President’s wife and several ministers are Catholics) to campaign for international Red Cross access to all camps, and for all internally displaced Sri Lankans to be treated according to international standards. If church leaders would reflect the grass roots activism of their followers and bring about a sea change in government policy, then perhaps a new GSP+ package could be negotiated, and conditions established in that troubled country for a lasting peace built on justice.

The Tablet

Edward Mortimer is Senior Vice-President and Chief Programme Officer of the Salzburg Global Seminar. He writes here in his capacity as chair of the Advisory Council of the Sri Lanka Peace & Justice Campaign www.srilankacampaign.org

Steve Alston is a Development Consultant who formerly worked in Sri Lanka