ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday March 30, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 44
Columns - Political Column  

Fox seeking shadow grapes here

  • Foreign Ministry invites former facilitator, but exercise appears to be meaningless
  • Presidential commission in crisis amidst contradictory claims

By Our Political Editor

Liam Fox

In Sri Lanka's murky world of politics, contradictions or conflicts of interests are galore. They amply bear out the axiom that the left hand does not know what the right is doing. Among the many events that highlight this ever-increasing ambiguity is this week's visit to Sri Lanka by Liam Fox. In 1996, he made three visits to Sri Lanka, talking secretly to then Government and Opposition leaders. His efforts succeeded on April 3, 1997, when then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, as Leader of the People's Alliance and Leader of the Opposition, Ranil Wickremesinghe, as Leader of the United National Party (UNP) signed letters which provided for a bi-partisan policy if any approaches were to be made to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The two leaders agreed to keep each other informed and not to scuttle one another's efforts. The British diplomacy for the Kumaratunga-Wickremesinghe accord had the full weight of then Government headed by Prime Minister John Major. Then Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, visited Sri Lanka in August 1996 - the first ever by a British Foreign Secretary since Ernest Bevan came to Colombo in 1950 for the meeting that paved the way for the setting up of the Colombo Plan. Rifkind set the stage for the three visits that year by Fox, who was then his deputy, as Junior Commonwealth and Foreign Office Minister.

Both Rifkind and Fox had declared during their visits that successive British governments had realised that a bi-partisan policy was essential when dealing with their own problems in Northern Ireland. Though it did not guarantee a solution to their problems, they were of the view that it made it possible to look for one in the belief that whatever is agreed will not be prejudiced or undermined.

The ink on the letters exchanged between Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe had barely dried when the efforts of the British Government for a process of bi-partisan consensus ended before it began. Just a month after the historic event, the Kumaratunga Government launched "Operation Jaya Sikurui" (Victory Assured) to seize total control of the Wanni. That was by bringing under Government control the land mass between Paranthan (south of Kilinochchi) and Omanthai (north of Vavuniya). Nearly three years after the offensive, still the costliest in terms of men and material losses, was called off. Later, the Tiger guerrillas gained control of Elephant Pass, Kilinochchi and immediate environs.

Today troops are battling to seize control of these areas. Thus, the Liam Fox initiatives came a cropper. However, this week a new Liam Fox initiative seems to have begun. He was invited to visit Colombo by none other than Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama. The Foreign Ministry was very guarded in its official pronouncements about why Fox was being invited to Sri Lanka as a state guest. Even the photograph of a Bogollagama-Fox meeting released by the Ministry only said, "they discussed various issues including the forthcoming Provincial Council elections in the Eastern Province." It is all the more intriguing since Fox is a member of the opposition Conservative Party. Even there, he is no longer involved in matters relating to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is the shadow Minister for Defence.

This is by no means to say that Fox is not a British politician worthy of being invited to Sri Lanka. Perhaps, the Foreign Ministry could argue that cultivating a long time friend of the country would be beneficial if the Conservative Party did come to power. However, parliamentary general elections in Britain were held in May 2005. The Labour Party won and Prime Minister, Gordon Brown is now in office. Elections are expected sometime later this year, or early next.

In the light of recent accusations of human rights abuses against Sri Lanka by UK Government leaders, whether it would not have been wiser to cultivate them and do damage control remains a question. It further heightens the question - Why did Bogollagama invite Fox and what was his mission? Was it to ensure another rapprochement between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ranil Wickremesinghe?

At least an influential section of the United National Party seems to believe he was testing the waters. When Fox met Wickremesinghe at the latter's office at Cambridge Terrace on Tuesday, he made clear he was in Sri Lanka on an invitation extended by Bogollagama. The UNP and Opposition Leader, the sharp politician that he is, wanted to outfox Fox. He asked what he wants to do in Sri Lanka. His reply "I am groping in the dark." Wickremesinghe seized the opportunity to give a comprehensive brief to Fox on his party's views on recent developments.

Although the UNP did not contest the local polls in the East, he said they had decided to contest the upcoming Provincial Council elections. He said it was subject to three conditions. They were (1) that the Government disarms the paramilitary Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), (2) Invite European Union observers for the elections ,(3) provide adequate security to candidates and cancel moves to shift Police Special Task Force (STF) installations in the Ampara district. The UNP leaders are also meeting envoys of EU countries on Wednesday to urge them to pressure the Government to heed their demands. This will not mean the party will not contest if the demands are not heeded.

Wickremesinghe told Fox his party was willing to ensure the Government had two thirds majority to effect Constitutional changes to give effect to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Fox was to make clear that a war is not the answer to the ethnic conflict since it would not be winnable by either side. Fox was to congratulate Wickremasinghe for what he called "being consistent throughout." The issue of GSP Plus preferences from the European Union also formed the subject of discussion during the 90-minute meeting.

Fox was to tell Sri Lankan friends later that there was a "great window of opportunity" if the political parties wanted to make use of it. He was of the view that 'mega phone' diplomacy had no place in the Sri Lankan conflict. He expressed the view that the international community must continue to engage the Government. He was also of the view that it was not correct for the Government to keep on denying cases of human rights abuses.

If indeed it was Bogollagama's intention to work for a rapprochement between President Rajapaksa and Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe, whether an interlocutor was necessary is a moot question. After all, Wickremesinghe has readily obliged whenever Rajapaksa extended an invitation to meet him. The duo met even in February to discuss some of the political issues confronting the Government. They included the implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which the Rajapaksa administration wants to introduce, as part of its efforts to settle the ethnic conflict.

Interesting enough, as Bogollagama was playing host to Fox in Colombo, his Cabinet colleague, G.L. Peiris was in London talking to Lord Malloch Brown, Minister for Africa, Asia and United Nations . It was Lord Brown, who during the Geneva sessions of the United Nations Council on Human Rights declared "in Sri Lanka there are reports of disappearances, extra judicial killings and violence against the media. When Louise Arbour visited Sri Lanka in October 2007, she was alarmed by the weakness of the rule of law and the prevalence of impunity. Little has changed, and those who committed these appalling crimes remain free." He declared that Britain supports Arbour's call for a human rights country office in Sri Lanka.

Mahinda Samarasinghe, Minister for Disaster Management and Human Rights was to counter Lord Brown. He said such speeches only "promote a growing belief that some individuals find it difficult to let go of historical possessions…." His name has already transpired in a controversy within the Commission of Inquiry having public sittings over the massacre of seventeen aid workers employed by a French NGO.

Government Armed Forces are being accused of this massacre and the allegations are being hotly disputed. Proceedings began with a tearful appearance from the father of one of those killed, and a forceful defence of the Government Forces by Attorney S.L. Gunasekera.

Then, the hearings took a sensational turn when former International Bar Asssociation President Desmond Fernando appearing for one of the human rights groups made a statement that was taken to mean that a Cabinet Minister had told him in a confidential communication who the killers were, and that therefore he could not take any further part in the proceedings.

Mr. Fernando denied having said such a thing. He was later to say that he and Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe had a discussion sometime last year when the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) had slammed the Government over the killing of the 17 aid workers citing a report from an Australian forensic expert.

The Australian's report said that of the three pellets removed from the head of one of the dead - a female - two were 8 mm pellets and one was a 6 mm pellet - and that it was only the Sri Lankan Forces that have 6 mm pellets. However, Sri Lankan ballistic experts said that the 6 mm was the case of an 8 mm, and the Australian forensic expert admitted that he was not a ballistic expert to give a definitive opinion on the matter.

At that stage, Minister Samarasinghe had contacted Fernando, who was a one-time Vice President of the ICJ and asked him to seek a withdrawal of the allegations made against the Government by the ICJ. Fernando had then faxed ICJ to this effect, and Samarasinghe was given an appointment to see the ICJ Secretary General Nick Howen in Geneva.

At the meeting, Howen refused to budge from his position, and asked for an 'independent' ballistic expert to go into the matter. Samarasinghe had conveyed this to Fernando who was in London at the time, and the matter ended there, says Fernando. "There was no talk about who the killers were", he insists.

Fernando has now withdrawn from the hearings in this particular case. He says that his juniors will continue to watch the interest of his clients, as they were not privy to what he had discussed with Minister Samarasinghe. Meanwhile, Defence Counsel Gomin Dayasiri pounced on the eligibility of one of the Commissioners - Dr. Devanesan Nesiah, sitting on the basis that he had been a Consultant to one of the petitioner's in the trial, the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Nesiah refused to withdraw, and Dayasiri is reported to be considering going before the Court of Appeal for a determination on whether Nesiah should sit in the Commission. Justice must not only be done, but must be seem to be done, say legal purists, while the human rights of the Commissioners themselves will come into focus in the days ahead.

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