ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 23, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 43
Columns - Political Column  

Fire over foreign policy fiascos

  • Foreign Ministry in open clashes with US and ICRC
  • EU delivers stern warning to Lanka but big farce at media briefing

By Our Political Editor

The flood of pious pronouncements, voluminous media releases and high-pitched propaganda seem to have failed to drown mounting accusations against the Government by foreign nations and international organisations over human rights abuses and related issues.

Bitter retaliatory attacks by Ministers and officials against the protagonists, including vicious vituperative on personalities involved, did little to prevent considerable damage to the Government's image. This week, its dwindling credibility took a further beating. Ironically, the reason is apocryphal.

Some of the facts and even arguments used by the Government to defend its human rights record, it turns out, were wrong. An embarrassing saga came after the United States Department of State released its annual Human Rights Report (2007) on Sri Lanka. It was a damning indictment on the Government's human rights record.

Deeply embarrassed by the move, Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama, summoned US Ambassador Robert O' Blake to express Government's displeasure. None other than President Mahinda Rajapaksa had told him to do so. "The report presents a distorted version of the actual situation in Sri Lanka and is unfortunately a litany of unsubstantiated allegations, innuendo and vituperative exaggerations," a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry quoted Bogollagama as telling Blake.

Nevertheless, within hours Blake hit back. A statement from the US Embassy said, "The US Government stands by the report." One would have thought the 'tragicomedy' ended there. No, it has not. More developments this week turn the spotlight on the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration where foreign policy blunders are assuming hilarious proportions.

Unlike Foreign Ministries under previous Governments that spoke with one voice, propounding one view and one policy, these are days when there are so many saying so many things on the same subject. Thereafter, while others laugh, they pat each other on their backs for a job well done. Thus, it was not surprising that the Foreign Ministry statement was not the only one on the US human rights report.

Disaster Management and Human Rights, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, who headed the Government's delegation to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, also released a separate statement. In that, his Ministry declared, "Sri Lanka is not adverse to criticism but insists that such criticism is fair, objective and above all accurate." Earlier, upon his return to Colombo, Samarasinghe showered praise liberally on himself and his team at a news conference for carrying the day in Geneva and winning the support of a "number of nations."

In Sri Lanka, like in every country in the world, the conduct of foreign policy is the assigned subject of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (then referred to as External Affairs). It has always been the practice for other Ministries to make their positions known through the Foreign Ministry. However, there is a babel of voices in different Ministries and institutions doing the job now. Since the Foreign Ministry is the rightful authority, what it says to another sovereign Government and its people is both relevant and important. They are not only taken seriously but are accepted as the views of the Government.

In the aftermath of Bogollagama's meeting with Blake, therefore, the Foreign Ministry account was of much significance. Their four-page statement of March 14 noted "…..the respected international humanitarian organisation, the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross), which has regular access to all parts of Sri Lanka, except the LTTE controlled areas in the north and east, has confirmed a distinct downward trend in disappearances and unexplained killings in Government controlled areas during the second and the third quarters of 2007.

"According to the ICRC figures, contrary to the State Department assertion, this decline was also evident in the Jaffna District. Notwithstanding the access the US State Department has had to the confidential report shared by the ICRC with GOSL, through its Embassy in Colombo, it is deeply regretted that the US State Department appears to have ignored the improvement on the ground and relied on dubious sources which also feed the LTTE propaganda machine."

Did the Foreign Ministry tell the truth when it said that the ICRC had declared "a distinct downward trend in disappearances and unexplained killings"?
Alternatively, was this simply a blunder from someone's inability to comprehend? The answers may not be known. Nevertheless, the reason for these questions is obvious. The ICRC, shocking enough, has strongly denied saying anything like that.

In a statement issued simultaneously from Colombo and Geneva on Wednesday (March 16), the ICRC declared it "strongly objects to misleading public references to its confidential findings in disappearances that were included in a recent statement by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs." The ICRC deplored "the publication and sharing of confidential reports submitted exclusively to the Sri Lankan authorities and the Foreign Ministry's misrepresentation of its overall findings and its dialogue with the Government."

That is embarrassing enough for a Government fighting to defend its human rights record. However, worst were the comments made in the ICRC statement by Jacques de Maio, head of operations for South Asia. "Extra-judicial killings and disappearances are part of a terrible pattern of abuse in Sri Lanka, which must be stopped," he was quoted as saying. "The ICRC strives to bring this about through its confidential and direct dialogue with the authorities concerned. For this reason, we prefer not to enter into a public debate on the number of disappearances in Sri Lanka," the statement said.

In directly rebutting claims of the Foreign Ministry (which is speaking for the Government of Sri Lanka), the ICRC has highlighted the fact that they contain untruths. However, more importantly, they have gone on to confirm that the assertions in the US report are correct. It has thus bolstered the factuality of the US human rights report on Sri Lanka. Even if ICRC or its senior officials now become the object of verbal or written attacks, one Ministry in the Rajapaksa administration is committed to defend them.

That is the Foreign Ministry, for it has described the ICRC as "a respected international humanitarian organisation." On the other hand, even they could now say the ICRC is not "internationally respected" any more. After all, in the fast changing dynamics in the Foreign Ministry, what is fact today can be fiction tomorrow and vice versa. Eventually, the Foreign Ministry had to back-track by saying that what they said quoting the ICRC "does not contradict this central assertion of a downward trend (in HR violations), which is not after all what the ICRC has said.

Another 'tragicomedy' linking the Foreign Ministry over matters connected with human rights and related issues came this week from the European Union after the visit of a three-member team. The EU troika comprised Janez Premoze (Asia Director in the Slovenian Ministry of Foreign Affairs representing the Presidency), James Moran (Director for Asia and Oceania in the European Commission) and Didier Leroy (Deputy Director for South Asia in the French Foreign Ministry). They were in Sri Lanka on a three-day visit for what an official statement termed was "to discuss EU concerns at the current situation in the country."

On Tuesday morning, the EU mission in Colombo hurriedly sent out invitations to both local and foreign media (print, radio and TV) representatives for a news conference that evening. They apologised "for the short notice" but earnestly urged their presence. Many gathered on time at the briefing room of the EU office in Colombo's Sir Marcus Fernando Mawatha. The EU trio walked in but made a hasty retreat. Thereafter, the EU envoy to Sri Lanka, Julian Wilson, walked in to make an announcement.

A nervous looking Wilson declared that no television cameras would be allowed at the news conference and urged TV crew to withdraw immediately. He apologised for the decision but did not give any reason. Would the European Union, the champions of media freedom and fearless critics of governments abusing human rights, choose to impose partial censorship on a media event organised by them? Anthony David, Deputy Editor (News) of The Sunday Times asked Wilson at the end of the news conference for the reason. He admitted he had told the Foreign Ministry that no TV cameras would be allowed. Yet, he claimed the Ministry had not placed any conditions. Funny indeed for Wilson to act as censor over what his EU troika was going to say. That too, as he claims, without the Foreign Ministry imposing any conditions.

The press conference was to give wide publicity to what the troika had to say. Why then should Wilson give any assurances that will curtail such activity to the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry? It does not take a modern day Sherlock Holmes to know the reasons. Evidently, the Foreign Ministry wanted to do some damage control by curtailing coverage on TV and by restricting questions. When the news conference ended, a staffer of the EU office in Colombo (a foreign lady) walked up to M.A. Pushpakumara, The Sunday Times photographer, to ask whether his camera was equipped to take video footage. She had been noticing him focus his lens periodically at a member of the troika and he had turned nervous.

There were more shocks when Wilson withdrew from the briefing room and the EU trio walked in. Team leader Premoze said the delegation would only read out a statement and will not entertain any questions. That was to cause a stir among the media personnel present. One of them asked about the necessity to hold a press conference when such a statement could have been easily distributed. That would have saved the bother of the media having to visit the EU office responding to their own invitation.

Premoze then went on to read a two-page EU statement. Midway through, Wilson walked in to the briefing room and slipped in a note. Premoze paused for a while, read it and declared the trio would answer four questions. He explained it was due to time constraints. However, when the news conference ended, the EU delegation remained there for well over half an hour chatting with each other thus making clear time was not an issue.

When the contents of the two-page statement were known, it became clear why Wilson and his three EU visitors were nervous. At the end of the EU troika's visit to Sri Lanka, they were making some strong strictures and veiled warnings to the Government. Most important among them is the GSP+ special incentive arrangement, the life support for Sri Lanka's apparel industry which employs more than a 100,000 workers. The withdrawal of that support would lead to a collapse of the industry.

"The troika noted," the statement said "that Sri Lanka was currently taking considerable advantage of the GSP+ special incentive arrangement for sustainable development and good governance and that all countries wishing to continue benefiting from the GSP+ regime will have to re-apply by October. It noted that the human rights situation could have an impact as the linkage between trade preferences and human rights is clearly spelled out in the legal provisions of the agreement. It confirmed that the application process, which had not yet started, would be based on an objective assessment."

In other words, the European Union has put the Government on notice that it should improve its human rights record if it needs trade preferences after October this year. Bluntly put, this gives a lie to claims by Minister of Export Development and International Trade, Professor G.L. Peiris. He had taken upon himself the task of negotiating with the EU on GSP+ facility. Under this facility, almost 7,000 items, mainly apparel, to the EU are allowed without duty. In a signed article to a local newspaper weeks ago, Peiris, who is often referred to as a Minister of intellectual brilliance in the Cabinet, declared, "One of the most basic misconceptions is that the GSP+ review, which all beneficiary countries must subject themselves to, involves criteria of a political nature……"

He added, "….the EU certainly does not embark upon an open-ended examination of the domestic policies of beneficiary countries." Now, the EU has clearly set out the terms right here in Colombo not only for the learned Professor but for the Government too. This clearly highlights how efforts by some Government VIPs to economise on the truth have boomeranged.

On a visit to Brussels, Peiris met Peter Mandelson, British Commissioner of the European Union for Trade. He is learnt to have raised a series of questions on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. He had told Peiris that the Government should take immediate measures to improve on human rights issues.
The EU statement also made some other important points. Among them:

* The EU welcomes the Government's commitment to assure respect for human rights which is one of the key principles
Underpinning all EU-Sri Lanka relations and an essential of the EC-Sri Lanka Economic Co-operation.
Nonetheless, the EU continues to harbour very serious concerns about continuing reports of human rights' abuses.

* Following local elections in Batticaloa district on March 10, key issues have been identified concerning the provision of proper electoral conditions, including the disarmament of paramilitaries. The EU sees effective action on this as key to ensuring free and fair voting at the provincial elections scheduled for May.

* The EU…continues to believe in the importance of guaranteeing access to Kilinochchi for the Norwegian facilitator and other Co-Chairs, as well as the UN. This is needed to allow the delivery of key messages to the LTTE about returning to the peace process, observing humanitarian access and human rights.

The EU trio also had a luncheon meeting with Opposition and UNP leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Associated with the latter were parliamentarians Sagala Ratnayaka and Ravi Karunanayake. The EU trio told the Opposition trio that they were constantly briefing Brussels on the outcomes of their mission in Colombo. They said a larger EU mission would be visiting Sri Lanka to examine the situation even further.

Like the ICRC, the European Union, as is now clear, have declared that it continues to harbour "very serious concerns about continuing reports of human rights' abuses."

This echoes the sentiments expressed in the recent weeks by the US Government human rights report, the New York based Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, International Commission of Jurists, the International Crisis Group and many countries at the UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva among others.

As for the request for access to Kilinochchi, despite their demand, the ongoing Eelam War IV makes it an impossible task. Neither the Security Forces nor the Tiger guerrillas will be in a position to offer security guarantees to them. Now that the Ceasefire Agreement has been abrogated, neither side will halt the war to carry any "key message."

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