Sri Lanka steps up repression ahead of UN meeting: Amnesty International

Updated 11 March 2014
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Sri Lanka steps up repression ahead of UN meeting: Amnesty International

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka has instilled a "climate of fear" as it intensifies its repression of critics in the build-up to Colombo's expected censure by the UN's Human Rights Council, Amnesty International said.
In a new report, the London-based advocacy group documented the cases of several human rights defenders who had been targeted for harassment and surveillance by the Sri Lankan regime, including death threats.
"The pattern of harassment, surveillance and attacks against those opposing the Sri Lankan authorities is deeply disturbing and shows no sign of letting up," said Polly Truscott, Amnesty deputy director for the Asia-Pacific region.
"Repression usually intensifies whenever Sri Lanka's human rights situation is in focus internationally, something we are already seeing ahead of the UN Human Rights Council next month."
In its 16-page report, Amnesty detailed the intimidation against the prominent rights activist Nimalka Fernando, including a state radio broadcast that called for her "elimination".
It added that Colombo had deported several foreign visitors for allegedly participating in human rights-related meetings.
The US has said it will move a third censure motion in as many years against Sri Lanka at next month's UNHRC meeting.
The UN rights chief Navi Pillay has already asked member states to order an international investigation into allegations that Sri Lankan forces killed up to 40,000 civilians in the final stages of their battle with Tamil separatist rebels in May 2009.
Sri Lanka has denounced Pillay for her "unwarranted interference" and denied its troops were responsible for any civilian deaths during the bloody finale to an ethnic war that lasted 37 years.
Amnesty said it continued to receive credible reports of activists facing surveillance and harassment.
"The climate of fear is very real in Sri Lanka. Many people are too afraid to speak out. But Sri Lanka also has some very brave activists, who continue to be vocal despite facing retaliation," Truscott said.
"Some even dare to attend international meetings that could actually lead to an improved human rights situation. The UN should make every effort to ensure that they are protected."

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UNHRC seat: Reforming and learning from within

UNHRC seat: Reforming and learning from within

Giving Saudi Arabia a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) was a stroke of genius by the world body to allow Saudis to participate in helping shape the future on how governments treat their citizens.
Saudis are well aware of the undue criticism our country endured last month over human rights. But the criticism alone is not enough to deny Saudi Arabia a seat at the council. As US President Barack Obama pointed out a few years ago, developing countries must “work from within to reform it.”
The United Nations is worthy of the contempt displayed by the Arab and Muslim communities for its weak-kneed handling of the Syrian crisis, it’s inability to stem the tide of violence against Christians in Egypt and Palestinians by Israelis, and its unforgivable silence on the plight of oppressed Muslims in Myanmar. Just as Saudi Arabia was right to reject a seat at the UN Security Council because of the flagrant disregard by the United States and Russia to deal with Syria, it was right to accept the UNHRC seat because it can be more effective.
The Security Council with its five permanent members — the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom and China — wielding veto power in effect paralyzes the council from any meaningful contributions toward peace in the Middle East. There could be no role for Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom has a better chance of becoming a meaningful contributor on a global scale by learning how to deal with human rights violations on the council in which no country has veto power.
It is not unexpected that human rights groups oppose Saudi Arabia’s appointment, but it is shortsighted.
Europe is witnessing an alarming rise in right-wing xenophobic political parties with an anti-immigrant agenda in the name of cultural unity. France banned the hijab from its public school system in 2004 and the niqab from public places in 2010. Muslims account for 7 percent of the population. Yet France’s bans on religious and cultural clothing marginalizes, not unifies, French Muslims as they go deeper underground to avoid harassment from authorities.
In French-speaking Quebec, Canada, a proposed charter would ban government employees from wearing hijabs, Sikh turbans, large crucifixes and other religious symbols in the workplace. However, in an obvious insult to the minority non-Christian citizens of Quebec, the proposed law would allow the crucifix adorning Quebec’s National Assembly wall to remain.
The rise of the anti-immigrant National Front in France, the British National Party and English Defense League in the United Kingdom and the surging popularity of the anti-Muslim Dutch politician Geert Wilders demonstrate the need to bring more levelheaded voices to government.
Saudi Arabia’s presence on the Human Rights Council will not “warp the basic definition of human rights” as some critics alleged. How can it when it is only one of 47 members? But our country can help Western members of the council understand and define what blasphemy is and how a balance between free speech and sensitivity to other religions and cultures can be achieved. It can also help counter the alarmist nature of anti-immigrant groups.
A casual look at YouTube videos of Saudis beating their workers is evidence enough that we have a long road to hoe. Yet the United States, the United Kingdom and France among other Western nations can no longer claim the high road in our post-Iraq invasion world. And the selective nature of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to condemn some countries but not others pretty much puts all members of the UN Human Rights Council on equal footing.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view

Beyond Sri Lankan provincial elections

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Beyond Sri Lankan provincial elections

As a large majority of the sizable 715,000 eligible voters from Sri Lanka’s troubled north went into makeshift polling booths to cast their preferences for electing a 38 member provincial council on September 21, India’s influence was written all over.
From a five member election observer team led by former election commission chief N. Gopalaswami to transparent ballot boxes imported especially from India for use in polls, New Delhi seems to have invested heavily on this democratic process which is expected to usher a renewed hope for genuine reconciliation. With a 72 million Tamil population of its own who shares the grief of their Sri Lankan brethren and the imminent threat of China making inroads into Sri Lanka through strategic investment, India does have a vested interest in setting things straight in the island nation.
Moreover, it is the India-Sri Lanka accord of 1987 — inked by President J.R. Jayawardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — that forms the basis for creating a council system to devolve power to provincial levels. India, having provided moral and logistical support to the ethnic Tamil movement in Sri Lanka, which later turned violent, somehow believed that the model of decentralized local self-governance could bring that elusive peace in this war-ravaged nation. Hence, New Delhi put subtle pressure on President Jayawardene to delegate effective power to Tamil dominated northern province and at the same time seek a referendum to ascertain whether the citizens of the east prefer to merge with the north. Despite stiff resistance from the then National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, Jayawardene went ahead with his plan to issue presidential proclamation for enabling the merger of northern and eastern provinces into one administrative unit in 1988.
However, this formula flopped after the bete noires, Sinhalas and Tamils, joined hand to defeat what they believed to be Indian imperialism in South Asia. For the foot soldiers of the Indian security establishment who were in the thick of things in northern Sri Lanka, trying to restore some semblance of order, those were nightmarish moments. Having bore the brunt of a violent backlash from both sides of the divide, most of them would indeed like to erase those turbulent days from memory permanently. Now that India is once again exerting her influence to broker a just deal, the back-channel interlocutors must not loose sight of the fact that a majority of the Sinhala people would link this attempt to New Delhi’s virtually non-existent territorial ambition. Let us not forget that years of rigid political discourse based on competitive nationalism — encouraged by both the Sinhala and Tamil political class — has vitiated the political atmosphere to such an extent that it has become extremely difficult for Rajapaksa to convince the Sinhala people that Sri Lanka’s well being lies in abandoning the dogmatic resistance to any sort of power sharing arrangement with the minorities. The skeptical majority is yet to recognize the hard reality that at the end of the day the Tamils, Muslims and Christians are also citizens of the same land and have equal rights to participate in nation rebuilding. Since, New Delhi’s excessive interference in Sri Lankan affairs over the years is one among the many reasons — apart from racial ostracism promoted by the Sri Lankan state historically — for the entrenchment of this deep rooted trust deficit in Sri Lankan society, it is incumbent on India to perform a perfect balancing act.
By this way, not only the Sinhalas can be assured that their giant northern neighbor harbors no ill will or aggressive designs against their motherland but also encourage the Rajapaksa regime to move beyond the optimistic first step of holding a long overdue provincial election, even if it is under duress.
Rajapaksa claims that, “this is the first free election in thirty years afforded to northern people to express themselves in a vote.” But with allegations of army intimidation coming to the fore, fixing the issue at the earliest is a political imperative for him. Otherwise the northern most part of the island nation, already the most militarized zone in the region, will gradually turn into another Kashmir-like fortress. Also, the state machinery would do well to resist the temptation of projecting high turnout in elections as sign of diminishing disenchantment. Let there be no doubt whatsoever that a long distance still needs to be traversed before the Sri Lankan government can genuinely win the hearts and minds of its minority populace.
Yes, there has been violation of election law, systematic misuse of state resources, assault on voters and bullying of candidates belonging to the Tamil parties in the run up to and during election. But such aberrations, visible even in the most vibrant of democracies like India, should be no reason for despondency. This election, with all its significance, was scrutinized minutely at the international level and the victorious Tamil National Alliance’s chief ministerial candidate C.V. Vigneswaran’s call for mutual cooperation and trust building will set the ball rolling for future negotiations. Besides, given the importance of Tamil vote share in Indian general elections slated for 2014 and the reality of Dravidian-Tamil politics revolving around the hopes and aspirations of Sri Lankan Tamils, the ruling elites in New Delhi would inevitably be tempted to cajole Rajapaksa into delegating land and police power to the newly elected provincial council instead of seeking ways to dilute the 13th constitutional amendment. But the world eagerly await the day when Sri Lanka will achieve real integration with all the ethnic groups living side by side harmoniously, right from north to south.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view

Swiss canton becomes second to ban burqas in public

Updated 23 September 2018
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Swiss canton becomes second to ban burqas in public

  • Full-face coverings such as niqabs and burqas are a polarizing issue across Europe
  • The clothing has already been banned in France and Denmark

ZURICH: Voters in St. Gallen on Sunday approved by a two-thirds majority a ban on facial coverings such as the burqa, becoming the second Swiss canton to do so.
Full-face coverings such as niqabs and burqas are a polarizing issue across Europe, with some arguing that they symbolize discrimination against women and should be outlawed. The clothing has already been banned in France and Denmark.
Under the Swiss system of direct democracy, voters in the northeastern canton demanded tightening the law to punish those who cover their faces in public and thus “threaten or endanger public security or religious or social peace.”
The regional government, which had opposed the measure, now has to implement the result of the vote, which drew turnout of around 36 percent.
Switzerland’s largest Islamic organization, the Islamic Central Council, recommended women continue to cover their faces. It said it would closely monitor the implementation of the ban and consider legal action if necessary.
The Swiss federal government in June opposed a grassroots campaign for a nationwide ban on facial coverings.
The Swiss cabinet said individual cantons should decide on the matter, but it will nevertheless go to a nationwide vote after activists last year collected more than the required 100,000 signatures to trigger a referendum.
Two-thirds of Switzerland’s 8.5 million residents identify as Christians. But its Muslim population has risen to 5 percent, largely because of immigrants from former Yugoslavia.
One Swiss canton, Italian-speaking Ticino, already has a similar ban, while two others have rejected it.