Yahapalana leaders fear loss of civic rights whilst govt. grapples with UNHRC

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  • Sajith, Ranil meet to work out a common strategy
  • Pakistan Premier’s visit runs into controversy
  • US joins Core Group to formulate new Resolution
  • US Ambassador Teplitz on US position post-UNHRC sessions
The Covid-19 pandemic has exploded to uncontrollable proportions. The proof, escaping the secrecy on the issue, is the average of a near thousand confirmed cases daily. They are made public only at night when most are asleep. The number of cases is mounting.

The cost of consumer goods has hit an all-time high. The prices of essential food items, including vegetables, have risen to incredible levels. Even commodities like turmeric and tamarind, relatively cheap those days, have become rare or high in price. Consequently, the common man’s packet of rice has gone up in price. This is amidst the closure of smaller restaurants and food outlets, throwing many out of jobs.

Crime is on an upward trend. Road accidents are leading to increased deaths. There are murders in daylight. Drug abuse continues unabated despite a heavily-publicised drive months ago to curb it. Hardly a day passes without a major detection. The jails are full and larger numbers are being released purely on the grounds that there is congestion. These criminals are back on the beat of petty thefts to breaking into houses, a phenomenon which was under control but is now raising its ugly head rampantly.

Tourist arrivals have dropped crippling the hospitality industry. The showpiece exercise of Ukranian tourists fleeing their Covid-19-hit country to become tourists in Sri Lanka turned out to be a well-scripted drama. Eventually, some were affected by the deadly coronavirus whilst others had a field day having a fight at the luxury Taj Bentota. Crockery and cutlery flew at each other making the hotel staff to turn video cameramen with their smart phones. Of course, a handful made their money, thanks to one controversial but powerful man who has re-emerged with more clout and bravado than before.

These are just a handful of issues confronting the government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, now in office for 15 months. The catalogue is too long to enumerate but sufficient enough to make a strong point. In a democracy, it is the opposition that rightfully ensures checks and balances in governance. This is by raising issues so the people are endowed a better quality of life, one without fear or favour with justice and fair play.

US Ambassador Teplitz

That mantle falls on the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) which is the largest opposition party in Parliament. The United National Party (UNP) failed to secure a single seat at the August 5, 2020 parliamentary elections winning only two percent of the total votes cast. It has thus descended to issuing only media statements. The party’s bonus seat in Parliament continues to remain vacant. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) is relatively active but has a limited outreach.

The SJB has not been vibrant enough, partly due to internal bickering and the stoic silence of its leader Sajith Premadasa, on critical issues. Comments and statements from the party are rare. So are news conferences by Premadasa. A section complains that notwithstanding a Management Council to govern affairs, two others (a lady and an ‘outsider’) are taking important decisions together with Premadasa. Another section insists he is linked to incredibly protective, powerful ruling alliance politicians, a charge flatly denied by SJB General Secretary Ranjit Madduma Bandara. “There are no divisions or issues among us,” he told the Sunday Times.

SJB-UNP common front

A strange paradox emerged this week. Many an opposition politician of different hues united together to fight a serious threat, not against their parties, the people who support them or the public at large, but to save themselves. Bizarre enough, this weird unity, like cremation of Muslim Covid-19 victims united this minority community with the Tamils, has been caused by government action.

The first initiative came when SJB leader Premadasa had a meeting with UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe at the Colombo residence of former Minister Malik Samarawickrema. Accompanying him was Thalatha Athukorale, MP. On the side with Wickremesinghe was Samarawickrema.  Ahead of the parliamentary elections last year, Premadasa and his allies broke away from the UNP-led alliance to form the SJB. It was on the grounds that Wickremesinghe was not quitting as leader of the UNP and thus paving the way for reforms. For Wickremesinghe and his allies, the threat was now so great that it required joining hands. Whether this will forge any future unity is anybody’s guess. For many days, behind-the-scenes consultations went on to ensure the meeting took place.

The subject of discussion – there were moves by the government to introduce a resolution in Parliament to withdraw the civic rights of Premadasa backers, Wickremesinghe and a number of others. It was Premadasa who observed that Sri Lanka was turning into a dictatorship, a view endorsed by Wickremesinghe. They decided together to field a team of lawyers who will represent all stakeholders on the issue and take up a common position. They are to move the Supreme Court and the lawyers will consult all parties in this regard and form a united front to fight their cases.

An opposition leader also had a meeting with a VVIP of the ruling alliance at an official bungalow located in the south, not far from Colombo. Besides the camaraderie they have enjoyed between themselves throughout, the subject was the fear of the leader being stripped of civic rights.  They discussed issues related to it at length, said a source familiar with the goings on.

The opposition members’ concerns arise from the findings of the Commission of Inquiry into Political Victimization. It was headed by retired Supreme Court Judge Upali Abeyratne. The other members are the Court of Appeal’s retired judge Daya Chandrasiri Jayathilake and onetime Inspector General of Police Chandra Fernando.

In its final Report, the Commission said, “In establishing the Anti-Corruption Committee (ACC) and the Anti-Corruption Secretariat (ACCS), that 22 persons, including the former Prime Minister, MPs from the then (yahapalana) Government and Opposition, as well as senior police officers and Government officials, “have violated the Constitution and misused public property.”

Among those named for “violating the Constitution and misusing public property” are former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe (Chairman of the Anti-Corruption Committee – ACC), former Ministers Mangala Samaraweera, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Rauff Hakeem, Malik Samarawickrema and Sarath Fonseka, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Leader R. Sampanthan, TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, Attorney-at-Law J.C. Weliamuna, former MPs Dr Jayampathi Wickramaratne, the Criminal Investigation Department’s former Director Shani Abeysekara and former Prime Minister’s Secretary Saman Ekanayake.

The non-availability of the Victimisation Commission’s Report to opposition members led to heated arguments between opposition MPs and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, who is the House Leader. After lengthy exchange, Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, who chaired the party leaders meeting last Friday, declared he could not make any ruling since those reports were still in the hands of the President.

As a prelude to the possible resolution in Parliament, it transpired at the Premadasa-Wickremesinghe discussion, that the Government had appointed another Commission of Inquiry. It is headed by Supreme Court judge Priyantha Jayawardena. The other members are SC judge Kumudini Wickremesinghe, and Court of Appeal judge Ratnapriya Gurusinghe. Their task is to examine if respondents mentioned in the Victimization Commission Report (named above) were:

  • Violating the provisions of the Constitution of Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, while destructing the oath which had been given in accordance with the provision of the said Constitution.
  • Abuse or misuse of power, interference, fraud, corruption, criminal misuse, criminal breach of trust or nepotism.
  • Political retaliation against “some one.” (sic)
  • When, (a) Making any appointment or transfer, Granting a promotion, Terminating the service of “some one” (sic)  due to any type of disorder, Violation of any written law.

The Commission has been requested to submit its report within three months in terms of a Gazette notification dated January 28.  It has been empowered to “hold any inquiry or investigate or part of the investigation without public awareness.”

The Political Victimization Commission, appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on January 20, last year, probed alleged incidents of political victimization from January 8, 2015 to November 16, 2019. It investigated the roles of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC), the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID), the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and the Special Investigation Unit (SIU) of the Police during the specified period. It investigated allegations of serious fraud, corruption, abuse of state resources, privileges, power, and authority.

Initially appointed for a term of six months, the Commission’s term was extended via gazette notification on July 8, 2020 for another six months. Its term was further extended for a third time on November 9 till November 25.

It received 1971 complaints for investigation. The report consists of 3 volumes and 2043 pages.

In its final report, the commission unanimously determined that former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his Cabinet had violated their oath to “act according to the Constitution and the law” and to “protect and abide by the Constitution,” by their actions to set up an Anti-Corruption Committee (ACC) and a Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID). The FCID, “which was an unofficial institution established illegally, had accepted complaints and at times, political opponents had been held in detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act based on complaints lodged at this illegal institution.”

Both the ACC and FCID had been established through recommendations made to the Cabinet by a National Executive Council (NEC), which had been established outside the current State mechanism in violation of the Constitution, says the final report.

State officials who worked for the ACC and ACC Secretariat, which “is an unofficial organisation,” the Commission has held, “have committed an offence under (Section 70) of the Bribery Act. In working for the ACC, which is a “Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO),” and drawing salaries from the State in that capacity, the commission has observed that, “the officials have also committed the offence of misuse of public property.”

The report adds that over Rs 33. 7 million (Rs 33,714,807.59) had been released for the expenses of the ACC Secretariat through the Head of Expenditure of the Prime Minister’s office, and that former PM’s Secretary Saman Ekanayake had “committed the offence of criminal breach of trust by authorizing the release of these funds.”  Furthermore, in allowing Temple Trees to be used to hold meetings of an NGO such as the ACC, “the respondents have also committed the offence of corruption through the misuse of public property,” the report observes.” None of the Committees had been established as per an existing legal provision, an Act of Parliament, or the Constitution and the ACC exercised executive power illegally,” the Commission has ruled.

The Commission completed investigations into 97 complaints and has recommended  individuals in many of these cases be granted relief by the State as they had been politically victimised. These individuals include Wasantha Karannagoda, Udaya Gammanpila, Yoshitha Rajapaksa, Duminda Silva, Nalaka Godahewa, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan alias ‘Pillayan,’ Rohitha Bogollagama, Jaliya Wickramasooriya, Nissanka Senadipathi, Udayanga Weeratunga (he withdrew one complaint made by him over the MiG-17 deal for the Sri Lanka Air Force), Nihal Jayathilake, Rohan Welivita, and Jagath Wijeweera. The Commission has also recommended that various charges filed against many security forces personnel, including intelligence operatives, be dropped.

In addition to recommending the withdrawal of cases filed against the individuals deemed to have been politically victimised and granting them compensation, the Commission has recommended that legal action be initiated against those who investigated their cases. About former MP Duminda Silva, whose death sentence for the murder of former MP Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra was upheld by the Supreme Court (SC), the Commission has recommended that that Attorney General request the Supreme Court to appoint a full bench of justices to review the judgement.

If the feared loss of civic rights has placed many opposition personalities on razor’s edge, there is also a grim irony to their impending fate. It is public knowledge that some leading personalities then in power in the yahapanana government soft-pedalled not only the investigations but also intervened personally with the investigators to prevent arrests. In this regard, at least one leader and a close friend, a key minister then (not mentioned in the report) played a principal role. It looks like the wheel of fortune at that time has now turned against them – a lesson for any politician to desist playing their popular sport of double dealing for political survival. They have fallen between two stools.

On the other hand, when the issue of the legality of the Anti-Corruption Committee (ACC) and the Anti-Corruption Committee Secretariat (ACCS) came up for discussion during Commission sittings, key witnesses conceded that these bodies were not constituted on a legal foundation or through amendments to the constitution or prevailing laws. To that extent, it gave the muscle for the government to justify that the investigations were therefore political in nature. This was on the basis that the investigations were initiated by the secretariat as well as the committee and probed by the FCID set up for the purpose. At their meetings, weekly directions have been issued.  In other words, the yahapalana government’s anti-corruption drive was founded on an illegal platform. Hence the argument was not more about the probe but the genesis and legitimacy of the process. One of those who raised issues over this at that time was now Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara.

Preparing for UNHRC sessions

There is little doubt that issues arising from moves over the withdrawal of civic rights of some opposition members will find a place before the UN Human Rights Council. That would be inevitable, particularly at a time when a new resolution, based mostly on the UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s Report, is tabled before the Council in Geneva. Early this week, the core group members have been discussing a three and half page, 1420 word “zero” draft of the resolution which is packed with recommendations of the UN Human Rights High Commissioner and is dated February 19. The Sunday Times has seen the document. It is being discussed by the core group. Upon finality, it will be handed over to the UNHRC Secretariat in Geneva as a formal Resolution, most likely, on Monday (tomorrow). Our front-page story today reveals the significant main elements though some of the wording could still change.

One can only hope that Sri Lanka has conveyed its red lines to the core group them take cognisance of such when drafting the final text. It may not be judicious for Sri Lanka to engage directly in the negotiating process of the text and the government should find other ways and means to do so specially to minimise the possible sting which the architects of the Resolution could very well solicit. Tragic enough, the government’s apparatus in dealing with the UNHRC is hydra headed pulling in different directions. Ministerial level leadership, direction, and guidance are virtually non-existent with initiatives being pathetically panic driven.

There was a review of the situation at the Narahenpita residence of Minister G.L. Peiris last Monday. Taking part were Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and the group tasked for dealing with responses to the UN Human Rights Council. Mahinda Samarasinghe, MP was conspicuous by his absence. This group discussed the key elements of the speech Minister Gunawardena will deliver via an internet link during the high-level segment of the Council sessions.

It transpired at the discussion that the draft text of the resolution the United Kingdom will move with support from the core group comprising Canada, Germany, Montenegro, Malawi, and North Macedonia is yet to be received Undoubtedly the crystallisation of Sri Lanka’s position could begin only after having the new draft text. Reference to the elements in the resolution made in these columns earlier has been fleshed out as the text of the Resolution.  Whilst this should be seen only as a guideline for Sri Lanka, it is the final draft text that is of importance in order to arrive at the country’s future strategy. There is no gainsaying that greater priority and serious attention is given to this issue which portends profoundly serious ramifications.

The US stance

In Geneva, the United States will join other core group countries in moving the resolution on Sri Lanka. In Colombo,  US Ambassador Allaina B. Teplitz said in a Q & A with the Sunday Times  (see box story): “Whilst the US acknowledges the Human Rights Council is an imperfect mechanism,” it can “provide a constructive forum for reaching consensus on ways to combat injustices, including egregious violations of human rights.” She said that the best way for the US to address “flaws and reforms within the Council is by engaging with the Council and providing leadership, not standing on the sideline. This is why the US has assumed observer status preparatory to joining the Council.” She declared that the government’s “detailed response” to the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s report was shared with diplomatic missions. It runs counter to the claim that the government has rejected the Report.

Controversy over Imran Khan visit

Another significant development in relation to UNHRC sessions took place in Colombo this week in the context of Tuesday’s arrival in Colombo of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, on a two-day official visit. His government has been canvassing Islamic member countries in the Council to support Sri Lanka. Unlike other official visits by foreign dignitaries, this visit has been dealt with and coordinated by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and not the Foreign Ministry. When the PMO learnt that Premier Khan wished to speak to members of the Pakistan-Sri Lanka Parliamentary Council, one that was to be reconstituted, it was Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who invited him to address Parliament. As reported last week, this was cleared at a party leaders meeting. A time was fixed on Tuesday for the address.

However, that arrangement has since changed though no formal reasons have been given. One issue which Pakistan urged Sri Lanka to consider is reversing its policy on cremations and allow burials for Muslims who die of Covid-19 in keeping with Islamic practices. These diplomatic consultations were under way when Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa announced in Parliament that burials would be allowed. This was countered by State Minister Sudarshini Fernandopulle who told Parliament that the Health Ministry Technical Committee would need to consider the issue. One source said Pakistan High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, retired Major General M. Saad Khattak, now in Islamabad, has been in touch with the PMO by telephone over any progress on the issue. The Sunday Times  learnt that there would be no change in the present regulations which require the cremation of all Covid-19 bodies.  That indeed has been an acute embarrassment for Premier Rajapaksa both locally and internationally. The 20th Amendment to the Constitution has not only taken away his powers but now, his assertions in Parliament on behalf of the government are not being paid heed to.

On Friday, the Imran Khan visit figured at a party leader’s meeting chaired by Speaker Abeywardena. There were heated exchanges on occasions. , Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauff Hakeem declared that they would welcome Premier Imran Khan to address Parliament. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, who as the Leader of the House, declared that the governments of Sri Lanka and Pakistan have “together decided that the address will not take place.” That ended the discussion. A top government source, however, said that Sri Lanka explained to Pakistan its inability to arrange for the address but declined to give the reason. Earlier, efforts by former Minister Rauff Hakeem and All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) leader Rishad Bathiuddin to seek separate meetings with Premier Khan have not been successful. They made the request from acting High Commissioner Tanvir Ahmed.

In official circles the reason adduced not to have PM Khan’s address in Parliament is being attributed to the fast-spreading Covid-19 pandemic. If that be the case, the address, or for that matter the visit, should not have been originally scheduled. More importantly then, even an individual being asymptomatic with Covid-19 could infect others including visitors to this country. It has been pointed out that there are over 1,000 employees in Parliament and the fear of an outbreak must be borne in mind. On Friday, a fresh programme was sent to Islamabad by the PMO. It has been pruned down to a few events: Trade and Investment conference with different chambers of trade and commerce and inauguration of a Sports Institute. The Pakistan High Commission said among the subjects of discussion would be “defence and security” and added that Premier Khan “is accompanied by a high-level delegation, including members of the Cabinet and senior officials.”

He will call on President Rajapaksa, and hold talks with Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Premier will host a banquet in his Pakistani counterpart’s honour on Tuesday night. Premier Khan, as earlier expected, will not sign a proposed tripartite maritime agreement now but only a set of MoUs. He will leave Sri Lanka thereafter. There were government sections who also feared that Premier Khan, if allowed to address Parliament, may refer to the issue of Jammu and Kashmir, an extremely sensitive issue to India.

They noted that such a move would place Sri Lanka in an awkward position. The controversies surrounding Premier Khan’s visit too reflects the shabby, unprofessional, and amateur manner in which foreign relations are being handled by Sri Lanka. A foreign leader is invited to address Parliament and later told not to do so making Sri Lanka a laughing stock in the eyes of the world. The onus is on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, even at this late stage, to give priority to corrective action so such things, fit enough only for the Guinness Book of Records, do not happen. Sad enough, even the Foreign Ministry is keeping the people in the dark about the goings on other than the heroics of some bureaucrats and a Minister. Little wonder Sri Lanka is at the crossroads of a diplomatic dilemma.

US-Lanka relations tied with respect for human rights: US Ambassador 

The United States views the UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michele Bachelet’s Report on Sri Lanka is “significant and comprehensive and highlights many concerns which we have raised directly with the Sri Lankan government over the past few years,” US Ambassador Allaina B. Teplitz declared.
US Ambassador Teplitz

Sri Lanka’s future, the quality of our partnership as democracies with shared values, she said in a Q & A with the Sunday Times “depends on respecting rights today as well as taking meaningful steps to deal with the past.” She added that “our return to the UNHRC as an observer, and our intent of re-joining the UNHRC as a full-fledged member in the near future, is a testament to our commitment.

Here are edited highlights: ON SRI LANKA GOVERNMENT’S REJECTION OF THE UNHCHR REPORT: The government of Sri Lanka offered a detailed response to the Report that was shared with diplomatic missions. The response offered context that will undoubtedly inform discussions among UNHRC member states as a resolution is considered.

The report was mandated by Resolution 40/1 in 2019, which requested the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to “continue to assess progress in the implementation of its recommendations and other relevant processes relating to reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka.”

Sri Lanka has always maintained that it proactively engages with both the Council and the OHCHR.  We hope Sri Lanka will take a constructive approach to implementing the recommendations and build on its relationship with the OHCHR.

It is important to recall that Sri Lanka is a signatory to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and all the relevant covenants and conventions that stem from it.

SHOULD THE HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL DECIDE ON TARGETED SANCTIONS (TRAVEL BANS, ASSET FREEZES ETC) WHAT IS THE US POSITION: The report makes recommendations to the UNHRC members in this area. Like other states, we will consider. We continually review our authorities regarding credibly alleged perpetrators of grave human rights violations, anywhere in the world.

ON FUTURE MILITARY TRAINING: Consistent with U.S. law and State Department policy, the U.S. government does not furnish assistance to security force units where there is credible information that such units have committed gross violations of human rights.

The United States remains committed to helping Sri Lanka reshape its security forces to tackle current and emerging threats, leaving the country better poised to contribute to regional and global security.  The maritime domain is an example of one area where U.S. support has contributed in significant and concrete ways to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and capacity to protect itself.  Security cooperation will continue to emphasise respect for human rights as a fundamental component of our training, assistance, and engagements.

We closely review changes to the Sri Lankan military, including changes to personnel, policies, and military culture.  We also continue to assess the military’s professionalisation, including its commitment to uphold human rights and ensure credible accountability and justice processes.

IMPACT ON POTENTIAL US INVESTORS IF THE UNHRC RESOLUTION IS ADOPTED: It is too soon to speculate on discussions and consensus surrounding a new UNHRC resolution and what the final language might look like.  We hope that Sri Lanka remains deeply engaged with the international community and its trading partners, and to uphold its reputation as a peaceful, diverse, and multicultural democracy.  That is at the heart of Sri Lanka’s appeal as a tourism and investment destination.

If we are talking about an overview of human rights protection in Sri Lanka and how that is perceived by U.S. investors and businesses, I think it is common knowledge that the track record of a country, in terms of Human Rights protection, is particularly important to U.S. businesses and consumers.  And Sri Lanka’s commitment to always work constructively toward finding solutions to its most pressing issues is an important reassurance for U.S. and other international investors.

The United States is Sri Lanka’s single largest export market and Sri Lanka’s largest trading partner.  In 2017, Sri Lanka exported over $2.9 billion in goods to the United States, $2.1 billion of which were ready-made garments.  In that sense, the Sri Lankan government’s commitment to strengthen human rights is vital, not just in a social, legal, or political context, but in terms of economic prosperity for its people.

At the same time, it is important to note that over the last several years, otherwise successful U.S. companies have had real difficulty competing for tenders by the Government of Sri Lanka due to a lack of transparency in the process.  The perception that there are unfair distortions in the tender process can send a message to the U.S. companies that Sri Lanka may not be the best bet for business investment, which is really unfortunate.

ON HER RECENT REMARKS THAT THE EAST CONTAINER TERMINAL IN THE COLOMBO PORT SHOULD HAVE GONE TO INDIA: Regarding my comments on the ECT, I encouraged Sri Lanka to seek the best value in its economic arrangements and underlined the importance of the private sector in promoting sustainable economic development.  Transparent decision-making and predictable and fair enforcement of regulations are critical if Sri Lanka is to attract high quality foreign investment.

In that context, the decision on the ECT came suddenly and surprised those who were involved in the project.  Sri Lanka’s partners should not be learning about decisions like this from the press.  To be frank, what happened with the ECT was reminiscent of what happened with the MCC agreement – disinformation coupled with a campaign to mislead the public rather than promote a fact-based discussion of the opportunity.  That was unfortunate because there were tangible benefits that Sri Lanka lost out on, and it begs the question: who benefited from such campaigns?  In any case, my comments on India were in relation to the fact that since a considerable portion of the Colombo Port’s business is in transhipment to and from India, looking for a way to including India in the Port’s expansion would be a way to cement an important commercial relationship.  It would give the Indians “skin in the game” regarding the future success of the Port.

Like many, I noted the media reports about the concerns Minister Jaishankar expressed about external pressures on Sri Lanka that sought to undermine the ECT project.  I would hope that the recently announced decision on the ECT was not based on external forces that influenced Sri Lanka’s ability to decide for itself.  Sri Lanka’s sovereignty should be respected.

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Disclaimer: Yahapalana leaders fear loss of civic rights whilst govt. grapples with UNHRC - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view

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