We have shortcomings, but some criticism unfair, and unacceptable: Samarasinghe

A Government Minister conceded yesterday there were “areas of concern” over human rights “that require remedial action.”

“We sincerely hope to improve our current levels of promotion and protection of human rights,” Mahinda Samarasinghe, Minister of Human Rights and Disaster Management said.

He was commenting on the European Union’s move to suspend the GSP plus concessionary tariffs to Sri Lanka beginning July this year. The issue was mainly on grounds of human rights abuses.
For nearly 18 months, he said, the Government has been working hard at “developing a holistic and comprehensive National Action Plan for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. The EU is aware of this.”

Earlier, Prof. G.L. Peiris, Minister of Export Development told a news conference that the Government plans to sue the European Union. However, asked to comment on the statement, Samarasinghe said, “I am not aware of any such decision by the Government of Sri Lanka.” He added “To my understanding, the GSP plus facility is a discretionary benefit extended to Sri Lanka and many other developing countries based on objective criteria – to wit, the implementation of certain human rights conventions, labour standards and environmental norms within the overall rubric of promoting good governance.
Here are edited excerpts of an interview Mr. Samarasinghe gave the Sunday Times:

The ongoing polls campaign:

Victory, that we know is assured. We want to make it into a resounding triumph. It will not be a victory of an individual, a party or a coalition of parties. It will be a triumph for the whole nation - of all Sri Lankans irrespective of petty divisions based on class, caste, language, ethnicity, cultural background, religious persuasion or political affiliation.

On being a vociferous critic of Gen. (Retd) Fonseka:

I have been critical of Gen. Fonseka’s contradictory positions which are reflected in statements he has made for apparently partisan reasons. What he said in July with regard to the deaths of LTTE leaders when he was felicitated in his hometown, sharply contrasts with what he told a Sunday newspaper and subsequently, at a public political gathering in Ratnapura this month, at a time when he was declared a candidate for the presidential election.

Just because he has entered the political fray, Gen Fonseka cannot disavow his earlier statement and change his position and expect it to go unchallenged. My understanding is that he has belatedly tried to withdraw or amend the reported version of his statement in December.

Ultimately, this episode demonstrates that, however good his record as a soldier may be, he is susceptible to political vicissitudes that befall many a neophyte aspirant to public office in this country and this part of the world. His statement has potentially been damaging to serving officers of the armed services, the Government and to the image of Sri Lanka.

On improving Government’s Human rights record:

I have consistently said that some international criticism is less than objective in the sphere of human rights. Our enviable gains in education, health, social welfare and other sectors are largely ignored due to the discourse that focuses exclusively on civil and political rights. The latter are as important as other rights but a disproportionate amount of attention is paid to these rights, particularly in the context of the conflict against terrorism. This is due mainly to the activities of the anti-Sri Lanka lobby that has been and is very active at the international level.

Regrettably, some in Sri Lanka also jump on this bandwagon (for reasons of their own) without engaging constructively with the agencies of state that are trying to incrementally improve the situation. As a result, the picture that is painted of Sri Lanka is wholly one-sided and subjective. Our foreign policy initiatives need to proactively redress this negative perception. There is no gainsaying the signal importance of all universal, indivisible and interdependent human rights, but to target Sri Lanka on the basis of a selective component of these rights supported by a well-coordinated and well-funded campaign by forces entrenched in and funded by a handful of countries is unfair, unjust and unacceptable. We acknowledge that we have shortcomings.

On the US State Department report on alleged war crimes

I must correct you with regard to the tenor and content of the State Department’s report which is titled ‘Report to Congress on Incidents During the Recent Conflict in Sri Lanka’, which in its own words: “focuses on incidents that occurred from January 2009, when fighting intensified, through the end of May 2009, when Sri Lankan government forces defeated the LTTE” and is merely a cataloguing of events reported by various sources during that period.

The Committee, appointed by the Sri Lankan Government too look into this, has, in fact, been given more time, though I hope that it will be able to issue at least an interim report. In many instances we received explanations in respect of some incidents that were reported wrongly. Other allegations are more complex, for instance the American State Department’s allegation that Gen. Fonseka made inappropriate claims in July - if we try to seek clarifications and expedite an answer to that, we might be accused of questioning him (or a website that now supports him) in an unfair manner

On mounting corruption:

Similar charges have been laid at the door of several previous regimes including the previous UNP-led administration, not least by media outlets friendly to that Government. Looking at the global corruption perceptions index (CPI), we have not shown a dramatic decline over the last 5 years. However, there is much room for improvement. The private sector, which represents the supply side of corruption, must also join in this effort.

In short, Sri Lanka can draw from the experience of countries such as Singapore and acknowledge that corruption is “a fact of life” in any human society and take appropriate remedial measures. However we must, at the same time, do our utmost to ensure that it does not become “a way of life”.

On guerrilla suspects now in custody:

There is a legal framework governing persons who have surrendered or have been apprehended in connection with involvement with terrorist activities under the Emergency Regulations. As far as I am aware, inquiries into the level of involvement of these persons in terrorist activity has enabled the categorization of these persons into groups which will receive appropriate treatment depending on their classification. Some cases will be submitted to the formal legal process while others will be subject to rehabilitation.

Others with minimal involvement will be released and incorporated within the resettlement process that is ongoing. The office of the Commissioner-General of Rehabilitation operates under a special regulatory framework with regard to children.

On foreign policy:

Both these subjects have an international dimension. In dealing with these subjects, one cannot but help intervening in matters that involve the foreign policy of Sri Lanka in coordination with the Ministry responsible for foreign affairs and external relations.

However, I must acknowledge the role that President Rajapaksa has played in cohesive team building that has enabled all of us in the executive branch of government – ministers and public officials alike – to work in cooperation with a larger objective in view. There are many ministries, agencies and functionaries that interact with foreign interlocutors.

On UN observers for polls:

Frankly, it does not matter whether or not the Government likes (or dislikes) election observers from any particular institution or region. The invitation is extended to polls observers by the Commissioner of Elections.

He is an independent official whose prime responsibility is to ensure the integrity of the electoral process as he sees fit. If one is to believe the news media, invitations have been sent to several election observers including those from the entity you name. The Government will be happy if these observers fulfil their mandate as specified and do not engage in trying to play out any other agendas as has happened in some instances in the past.

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