Columns - Political Column

Battle moves from New York to Wanni

  • President meets world leaders but Indian premier avoids him
  • Bogollagama needles EU instead of stitching in time to save garment jobs
By Our Political Editor

It was a week where the Government was engaged in wars on two different fronts. The latest one is the diplomatic war fought this week thousands of miles away, in the Big Apple or New York. Instead of artillery or multi-barrel rockets, this was with the use of words and deeds. The other, of course, is the ongoing military campaign in the Wanni. Reports of the imminent fall of Kilinochchi, the centre of political power for guerrillas of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE- Tamil Tigers), have generated national euphoria.

One such war of words followed when Benita-Ferrero Waldner, Commissioner for Exeternal Relations of the European Union, hit out hard in an open letter she issued to defend Julian Wilson, the EU head of delegation in Colombo. Wilson had been the focus of criticism over his conduct and utterances. Though his friend, US Ambassador Robert O' Blake, came to his defence openly in the media, Wilson did on some occasions cross the threshold from being diplomatic to becoming un-diplomatic, though generally-speaking, he was by no means an LTTE sympathiser.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa meeting British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in New York yesterday

In the open letter released from Brussels, before emplaning to New York, Ferrero-Waldner did not just stop at defending Wilson. She also made reference to the all important subject of "GSP Plus," or what she calls "the special incentive arrangement for sustainable development and good governance." She declared, "We do not want Sri Lanka to lose GSP +, which has achieved its objective in Sri Lanka and now benefits the country massively, with expanded trade with EU and thousands of jobs."

She asked "which other partners offer Sri Lanka such generous market access?" Pointing out that this preferential system is based on clear criteria set out in an EU law, developed to meet the legal requirements foreseen by the WTO (World Trade Organisation), Ferrero-Waldner argued "beneficiary countries made a commitment to respect the principal requirement which is the ratification, incorporation and effective implementation of 27 international covenants specified in the GSP Regulation."

She added: "If a country which benefits from GSP + does not ensure compliance with these UN Conventions, it is perfectly normal that the eligibility be called into question. But, with Sri Lanka, unfortunately, we have seen many reports and statements from United Nations sources as well as other publicly available information which we cannot ignore. I sincerely hope that Sri Lanka can maintain this important market access preference."

In this backdrop, the fact that the EU was investigating into areas where reportedly there was non-compliance and on issues related to it, was known. In fact, she had told of this to Foreign Minister Rohita Bogollagama during a meeting in New York this week. That EU task was indeed an internal exercise and did not mean the GSP + was lost to Sri Lanka forever. One of the aspects that were perhaps unknown was the glimmer of hope amidst reports of the facility being withdrawn. In as much as there were detractors, there were also those who wanted the GSP+ scheme to be continued for a limited period subject to specified conditions. Within that period, the Government was to be asked to give effect to a series of stipulated conditions.

Bogollagama hit out at Ferrero-Waldner. He said, "The Government of Sri Lanka finds the procedure of instituting an investigation unnecessary and inappropriate, given the extensive co-operation Sri Lanka has extended to UN/ILO convention supervisory bodies relevant to the GSP+ process." Later, a Foreign Ministry news release widely publicised what Bogollagama said.

There was also a note of warning to the EU from Bogollagama. He said Sri Lanka Government's response over the GSP+ facility "will be structured bearing in mind the country's national priorities and interests." In this context, he said, they are "protection of the territorial integrity and fight against separatism, eradication of terrorism, restoring democracy and empowering the people."

Sri Lanka, the Foreign Minister said, "would not have expected such a short measure from a friendly development partner with whom there has been continuous and open engagement."

The question that begs answer is whether the Sri Lanka Foreign Minister's statement is based on the assumption that the EU has already refused to extend the GSP+ facility? If, as Bogollagama claims, the Government has given "extensive co-operation" to EU, would it not have been prudent to wait till the EU went through its procedures? It would thus have given him an opportunity to address the exact issues where the EU has differed from the Government position. What does he mean by saying that the Government's response would "be structured" bearing in mind the "country's national priorities and interests?"

In other words, is he not forestalling a conditional extension of the GSP+ facility by telling the EU "we will not take it if we do not like it?"

To say the least, it is a case of pre-judging a situation. The danger in such aggressive diplomacy is that it puts the jobs of some 150,000 workers in the apparel industry in jeopardy not to mention the loss of revenue from exports. That garrulous German Ambassador Juergen Weerth was right when he said recently "the EU does not need Sri Lanka but Sri Lanka needs the EU." However, the axiom appears to have not fallen on Bogollagama's ears.

A deed, not much to the liking of Sri Lanka's political leadership, came about in New York. That was the inability of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to secure a meeting with the Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh. According to a source at the Presidential Secretariat, the Government had sought this meeting through the Indian High Commission in Colombo. "We were made to believe that the event would take place," the source who spoke on grounds of anonymity told The Sunday Times.

However, reports from New Delhi said Premier Singh had a busy schedule in the light of India's impending conclusion of the nuclear deal with the United States. Yet, Premier Singh met a number of Asian dignitaries including Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and Pakistan's new President Asif Ali Zardari.

That is not all. He even had the time for a meeting with US Vice Presidential contender, Sarah Palin. Interesting enough, another to meet Palin was Zardari who told her "Now I know why the whole of America is crazy about you … you're gorgeous." Cameramen who were covering the event asked Zardari to shake hands with her so they may snap him. An over enthusiastic Zardari retorted "I will even hug her if you want."

According to reports from New Delhi, Premier Singh's inability to meet Rajapaksa hinged on matters relating to previous meetings between the two. These reports say that both during the Non Aligned Summit meeting in Havana, President Rajapaksa had assured Premier Singh that political proposals to end the ethnic conflict would be made at the earliest. The same offer, these reports say, had been re iterated during last year's meeting between the two leaders in New York. Since, they have not been fulfilled, the reports said, there was no purpose served in conducting another meeting this time. This is because India's official position is that there is no military solution to the ethnic conflict which should be resolved through political means.

Another reason analysts attributed was that the Indian Central Government came in for some flak when it was discovered that Indian air technicians were manning the radar at the Wanni air base that was directing operations against Tiger targets. In the context of the volatile Indian political canvass, Premier Singh meeting President Rajapaksa gives Singh no credit. However, there was no official intimation from either Colombo or New Delhi on the non-meeting.

President Rajapaksa's entourage to the UN General Assembly this year was almost a quarter of the team he took to New York last year. The bad publicity the earlier visits with his jumbo entourage attracted in the midst of calls for belt-tightening back at home, must have had its impact on the decision. It also came at a time when the Foreign Ministry has ordered Sri Lanka diplomatic missions abroad to prune their expenditure by 30 per cent as exclusively reported in The Sunday Times last week. However, Rajapaksa's Minister of Social Services and Social Welfare, Douglas Devananda, could not be a member of the entourage. It transpired that he was in Washington's 'watch list', and thus the US Embassy in Colombo could not approve his visa application. It had to be referred to Washington for clearance. Though dubious, Devananda finds himself in the exalted company of leaders like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahamadinejad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Clearance for him is expected next week, thus preventing him from being a part of the Presidential entourage. Rajapaksa would have returned to Colombo when Devananda chooses, if at all, to go to New York.

Barely a few kilometres away from the UN in New York, the Sri Lanka Donor Co-chairs met to discuss the situation in Sri Lanka. Ferrero-Waldner said in a statement that "along with my colleagues, I am concerned about the humanitarian situation prevailing in Sri Lanka, and would appeal to both the Government and the LTTE that the rights and needs of civilians and those who are internally displaced by the ongoing conflict in the North are fully respected, in line with international humanitarian laws….."
But a more lengthy statement came from Richard Boucher, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs. It was the US that had convened the meeting. "One of the areas all of us emphasised", Boucher said, "were the immediate humanitarian concerns." He said, "We're all having meetings in New York with representatives of the Sri Lankan Government. Some of the parties are in touch with Tamil Tigers during the course of their activities, and we are making these points - each of us, I think - to the parties that we speak to, and particularly in New York, to the representatives of the Sri Lanka Government who are here. And our ambassadors, envoys in Colombo, are making them as well."

Boucher was deluged by questions from the media after he read out his statement. Here is the Q & A posted on the State Department website:

So we wanted to get out on the record from the Co-Chairs that we did have a meeting, but also to emphasize the humanitarian concerns at this particular moment.

QUESTION: I'm sorry, I wasn't paying close enough attention at the very beginning. Who were you meeting with? (Laughter.)

QUESTION: It's about Sri Lanka.

MODERATOR: I'm glad we've got that on the record. (Laughter.)

BOUCHER: Am I supposed to use the name in the response?


BOUCHER: We were meeting with the Co-Chairs, as they're called, that - who work on Sri Lanka, and they were Co-Chairs of the meeting. I can't remember.


BOUCHER: 2003. But it's the United States, the European Union, Japan and Norway. That's actually kind of in reverse order, because Norway is the most frequent.

QUESTION: You don't call it the Quad?

BOUCHER: No, we don't. There's too much confusion over words like that.

QUESTION: Okay. And then there was someone from the Sri Lankan Government who was there, too?

BOUCHER: No, this is a meeting of the foreigners who are involved in the process. But we each are meeting with representatives of the Sri Lankan Government. I met yesterday with President Rajapaksa. Other delegations are meeting with other representatives.

QUESTION: So you are concerned about government activities? That's what you're -

BOUCHER: No, we're - well, we've talked before about the human rights situation there and the government's responsibility. But I think at this moment it's just protection of human rights. It's recognition that the government, especially as a democratic government, as it moves forward militarily, needs to pay special attention to the protection of human rights for the citizens in the areas that they take over, special attention as they proceed with the fighting to respect the civilian population, and also to work with the international organizations, the United Nations especially, to make sure that the humanitarian assistance that these people need is provided in a smooth fashion.

QUESTION: Who's in touch with the Tamil Tigers? The Norwegians?

BOUCHER: Yeah, some of the other members of the Co-Chair have various contacts.

QUESTION: But you haven't had direct contact?

BOUCHER: Not the United States, no.

QUESTION: Who others besides the Norwegians have contacts with the Tamil Tigers? Is it all the others? I don't -

BOUCHER: No, it's - the Japanese have had contacts in the past. I think you'd have to check with each one sort of where their current contacts stand. But one of the reasons for making the humanitarian concerns public is so that the Tigers get the message, as well as the people on the government side.

QUESTION: Do you have any statistics on the number of displaced people sort of recently by this conflict, how many people have recently been killed, why you're making this statement now?

BOUCHER: There's an estimate of about 200,000 displaced people. And frankly, I don't know if that's kind of the official UN estimate or if that's just kind of the ballpark figure that we're working with these days. But as the fighting continues, which it looks like it will, I think there's concern there'll be more and more.

QUESTION: And the death toll - do you have any

BOUCHER: No, I don't.

QUESTION: Civilians?


QUESTION: When was the last time that you guys had one of these meetings?

QUESTION: Last year?

BOUCHER: No, it was this year, wasn't it? No, no, we do this periodically. Six to nine months ago. I can't -

QUESTION: It was this year?

BOUCHER: Might have been late last year.

QUESTION: Might have been last calendar year. I can see that that is a real burning issue. (Laughter.)

BOUCHER: No, it's just we - you know, we don't necessarily use the meetings

STAFF: You were just there visiting to take this up in August, weren't you, Assistant Secretary Boucher?

BOUCHER: Yeah. No, I was just out there earlier this year. It might have been December. It might have been J January, frankly.

QUESTION: So that was today. And these were the foreign ministers of - the Japanese Foreign Minister is not here.

BOUCHER: No, this is not foreign Ministers. This is the Co-Chairs. So for the United States it was myself, Richard Boucher

QUESTION: And your equivalents?

BOUCHER: Well, for the EU, Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner was there part of the time. For the Norwegians, Minister Erik Solheim was there.

QUESTION: He's their Foreign Minister?

BOUCHER: No, he's the Minister for Development. He was there for, again, most of the time. And then for the Japanese, it's Yasushi Akashi, who is their senior diplomat representative, and many of you know of his many achievements in other areas.

QUESTION: You mean like the Cambodian (inaudible)?

BOUCHER: I'll ignore the comment.

En-route back, President Rajapaksa met British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, and next week he may host Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas when he visits Sri Lanka. With the country's tri-forces now engaged in what is increasingly becoming a decisive battle with the Tiger guerrillas, it would seem that the President will have to don his mantle of Commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, more so now in the weeks ahead.

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