The Importance of Documentation of Human Rights Violations
The Importance of Documentation of Human Rights Violations
A presentation made at a symposium at the Metagora Forum in Paris by M.C.M.Iqbal
The past decades have been a turbulent period in the history of Sri Lanka. The government had to face increasing militancy of youth, both in the South and in the North of the country. To deal with the situation successive governments had to take recourse to the provisions of the infamous Emergency Regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act of Sri Lanka. These have provisions that are inherently bad which enabled violation of the rights of the people, both by the police and the security forces. The militants themselves showed no concern for the basic rights of the people whose cause they purported to espouse. Consequently the country had to go through what many call a “period of terror” when violations of rights were rife. The militancy in the South has been effectively suppressed and the violations in that part of the country declined. In the North and the East however, it was the signing of the memorandum of understanding with the Tamil militants in February, 2002. that virtually brought about a ceasefire, the end of emergency rule, the suspension of the operation of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and led to a decline of violations in the North and the East.
In the period referred to there had been widespread violations of human rights, most of which had been related to the involuntary removals of persons and the disappearance of persons taken into custody by the police or the security forces and abducted by others. Such instances were so widespread that the UN Commission on Human Rights had to name Sri Lanka as the place where the second largest number of disappearances had occurred. This statement had been based on the 12,000 complaints of disappearances of persons the UN had received from Sri Lanka. However the estimates of the number of persons who disappeared during that period vary. For instance the Presidential Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances of Persons in Sri Lanka appointed in 1995 had received about 30,000 complaints while the NGOs estimate the figure to be around 60,000. This wide disparity in the statistics underscores the need for diligent and systematic documentation of all the information available to arrive at an authentic figure. This is true in respect of other violation such as torture, abductions, unethical religious conversions, extra judicial killings, deaths in custody and the total number of persons who have died as a result of the ethnic conflict. These violations too need to be carefully documented if one is to get a proper understanding of their dimensions.
While disappearances have now been minimized, other violations such as torture and extra judicial killings continue with impunity. The National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka which was created in 1997 has been doing whatever it could within its mandate, availing of the limited resources it has, to prevent violations and help the victims. The law enforcement authorities however do not appear to be in a position to contain these violations. The political climate in the country coupled with the absence of adequate resources and skills, stand in the way of violations being effectively dealt with and the escalation of crime being checked.
The government is very much concerned about this trend. It had recently adopted certain measures to stem violations one of which is the changes made in the laws, to enable the police to detain suspects in custody for a period of 48 hours instead of the 24 hours permitted earlier, in the hope that this would reduce torture to get confessions and give more time for police investigations. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extra- Judicial killings is expected to visit Sri Lanka later in the year to make an assessment of the extent of extra judicial killings in the country.
There are a large number of NGOs in Sri Lanka some of which are in the forefront in mobilizing civil society against adoption of legislation that infringe on human rights norms. Sustained opposition to such efforts had led to pressure being brought on the state to withdraw obnoxious provisions in the Emergency Regulations. Some NGOs have often gone to the rescue of torture victims and are in the forefront of taking steps to obtain reparations, often by providing them with legal assistance in actions against perpetrators. However, of late, the environment in which the NGOs work had been fouled up by the state moving to impose restrictions on the activities of NGOs by attempting to bring in legislation to control their activities for the fault of a few. Further the influx of foreign assistance to victims of the recent tidal wave (tsunami) brought in its wake a whole heap of foreign NGOs whose activities have become questionable vis-a-vis their motives for involvement in post tsunami relief work. This has resulted in the environment in which NGOs work being made more difficult.
The need to strengthen the capacity of the Human Rights Commission, in particular, and the NGOs of the coalition in general , to meet the challenges pertaining to human rights violations need hardly be stressed. However on many an occasion attempts by NGO to obtain relief for victims of violations of rights through the use of the UN mechanisms have failed due to the absence of the kind of details of the violations that the UN systems require. Such details are not readily available because of the absence of systematic documentation of such incidents. In the circumstances the scope of the Metagora Forum in Paris which is to provide the necessary technical skills and share their experiences in documenting and analyzing human rights violations will undoubtedly enhance the capabilities of the institutions that are concerned with human rights violations. Such an effort would promote systematic collection and documentation of violations and facilitate a better understanding of their trends and patterns with authentic facts and figures to enable evidence based reporting. This could also result in a better understanding of the issues concerned and the adoption of good practices in governance that could lead to policy orientation to meet the challenges based on the perspectives that come to light.
In this scenario, it is commendable that the Asia Foundation has brought together NGOs concerned with human rights violations into a coalition to contribute in the efforts to monitor violations of human rights.
Miss. Lakmali Dasanayake of the Asia Foundation who is co-ordinating the activities of the coalition will tell you more about it. Thank you.