Columns - Political Column

Diplomatic lapses put SL under world pressure

  • After saying no and yes, Govt. delegation meets Ban and UN panel in New York
  • Millions paid to PR firms, but US toughens stand and Senate passes resolution
By Our Political Editor

Almost three years after the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, remains defiant against his critics both in Sri Lanka and abroad.

"We will not sell out the Humanitarian Operation. I proudly say we will not allow this victory to be forgotten. I will not allow it to be wiped out of history or erased from the minds of the people," he re-iterated last Wednesday. The occasion was an event to mark the 60th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) held at the No: 2 Squadron Hangar at their base in Ratmalana. An eight-day carnival and an exhibition marked the event.

His bold assertion came as human rights issues took the centre stage globally. The chain reaction set off by the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak due to public protests spread to other North African and West Asian countries. Yemen, Bahrain, Tunisia and Libya have now become centres of uprisings with allegations of killings and human rights violations mounting each day.

SL’s stand on Libya

The focus was enhanced when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton flew to Geneva to address the UN Human Rights Council sessions that began on February 28. In her speech, she endorsed President Barrack Obama's call for Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to step down.

Many other top dignitaries also flew in for what turned out to be a high profile event dominated by the crisis in Libya. If most leaders urged Col. Gaddafi to quit, Sri Lanka's position became clear on Friday night. Presidential spokesperson Bandula Jayasekera told media that Rajapaksa asked Gaddafi to bring peace in Libya, a remark that made clear Sri Lanka wanted the strongman in Tripoli, accused of killing over a thousand of his own people, to remain in power.

Jayasekera said Rajapaksa also asked Gaddafi, with whom he maintained close contacts, "to protect the people of Libya." Gaddafi has repeatedly blamed the "Al Qaeda terrorists" for the revolt in his country. The telephone call had come from the Libyan leader, according to Jayasekera.

At the SLAF ceremony, Rajapaksa said, "There are people who tell us not to speak about the victory we gained. Those same people attempted to sabotage our fight against terrorism. We know that they carried out false propaganda against Sri Lanka. It happens even today."

The four-member Lankan delegation meeting UNSG Ban, Vijay Nambiar and other officials. Pic courtesy Inner City Press

The remarks come in the backdrop of the impending report of the three-member UN panel that probed "the modalities applicable, international standards, and comparative experience with regard to accountability processes, taking into account the nature and scope of any alleged violations in Sri Lanka." As revealed in these columns last week, the panel's report was to be handed over to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday.

A copy was also to be handed over on the same day to Navaneethan Pillai, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. A UN source in New York told the Sunday Times yesterday "it is now delayed. It will take two to three weeks more before the report is handed over." The source added, "even if it is handed over before the current sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva end, (on March 25), the report will not be discussed. This is because the UN Secretary General and not the Human Rights Council commissioned the panel.

Also revealed in these columns last week were details of the meeting a four-member Sri Lanka delegation held with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. This was the result of top-secret consultations. Attorney General Mohan Peiris and External Affairs Ministry Secretary Romesh Jayasinghe flew from Colombo to New York to be joined in by Dr. Palitha Kohona, Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative at the UN and his deputy, Major General Shavendra de Silva. In addition, present at the meeting was Vijay Nambiar, the Chief of Staff of the Secretary General.

As our front-page exclusive story today reveals, present at the discussion were members of the three-member panel -- Chairman Marzuki Darusman (Indonesia) and members Yasmin Sooka (South Africa) and Steven Ratner (United States). The Sri Lanka delegation explained the government's position that most of the issues before the UN panel had been gone into by the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission. It was pointed out that the LLRC needed more space to complete its report. So did the Inter Agency Advisory Committee (IAAC), appointed after the interim recommendations of the LLRC, which has many tasks to accomplish. The IAAC has already formulated a six-page progress report on the implementation of recommendations of the LLRC.

Courtesty meeting

Those who favoured the Sri Lanka delegation meeting the UN Secretary General together with his panel argue that it gave the government an opportunity to place its case. That is before the UN panel releases its own report. Thus, they point out that the panel could take into account the representations made before the report is handed over. They also argue that it is not the case of the government delegation directly meeting the panel and making formal representations. It was the case of the panel being present with Secretary General Ban at the bi-lateral meeting. UN deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq last week characterised the event as a "courtesy meeting" with the Secretary General.

However, others within the government felt that meeting the panel, with or without the UNSG, ran counter to the "on off" foreign policy approach the government adopted. As repeatedly pointed out, at first the government rejected the appointment of the panel as "illegal." Thereafter, Ban declared that after "long consultations" with Rajapaksa, the panel would visit Sri Lanka. Later, the government insisted that such a visit would be allowed solely for a meeting with the LLRC.

Visas to the panel, the government said, would be issued and the visit facilitated only on that understanding. Now, instead of the panel coming to Colombo, a government delegation has met both the Secretary General and the panel together in New York. That too, in secret with both sides making no mention of it. It is not immediately clear whether the panel would make any mention of the government delegation's representations in its report.

A copy of the "PROGRESS REPORT ON THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE INTERIM RECOMMENDATIONS OF THE LLRC," obtained by the Sunday Times, highlights the work carried out so far by the Inter Agency Advisory Committee (IAAC). It is headed by Attorney General Peiris. Other members are Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, P.B. Abeykoon, Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs, Suhada Gamlath, Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, Dr. Willie Gamage, Secretary to the Ministry of Economic Development, A. Dissanayake, Secretary to the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms and Romesh Jayasinghe, Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs. D. S. Divaratne serves as the Secretary. He is also Secretary of the Presidential Task Force.

The preamble to the report notes: "The President of Sri Lanka endorsing the importance of the objective behind the LLRC interim recommendations, supported the adoption in Cabinet of the Paper dated 27th October 2010 to establish an Inter Agency Advisory Committee to facilitate the implementation of the interim recommendations. The objective of the IAAC is to implement these recommendations of the LLRC through practical measures and to strengthen the related processes that are already under way."
It adds, "Since its establishment, the IAAC has met regularly under the Chairmanship of the Attorney General, in order to review and implement the recommendations of the LLRC. The recommendations made by the LLRC pertain to measures to be taken in relation to the following areas - Detention, Land Issues, Law and Order, Administration and Language Issues, and Socio-Economic and Livelihood issues."

Here are edited excerpts of the highlights in the IAAC "progress report:

"MATTERS PERTAINING TO DETENTION: A four-member committee, chaired by a Deputy Solicitor-General was appointed from the Attorney General's Department to study the cases of LTTE suspects in detention and expedite legal action where necessary.

LAND ISSUES: Some of these issues need solutions which cannot be offered through existing legal remedies, due to the devastation of administrative infrastructure and private and public documentation as a result of three decades of conflict. In view of the hardship and pain of mind caused to civilians from land related issues, GoSL (Government of Sri Lanka), will expedite necessary administrative measures. The GoSL, whilst awaiting the final recommendations of the LLRC is considering a Land Kachcheri system.
Land Kachcheris - a mechanism of state land allocation where the Government Agent of the District after due and fair inquiry plays a central role in assigning ownership and tenurial rights, will soon be held with ever greater regularity.

Complex issues arise in regard to lands that were expropriated by the LTTE for allocation thereafter outside the law of the land. Steps are afoot to allot lands to the original owners, who have thus had to face expropriation. It is a constitutionally recognised fundamental right of every citizen to choose his residence anywhere in Sri Lanka and the GoSL categorically states that there is no policy of forced settlement. Furthermore, it is categorically stated that any citizen of Sri Lanka is free to purchase land or own land anywhere in the country.

The GoSL will encourage the process, where, except when essential for security reasons, High Security Zones (HSZ) lands are being progressively released. Action has been taken to return 256 houses in the Palaly area to civilians. A further 2392 houses have been identified for civilian occupation in more than 2500 hectares that were set aside for HSZ. Demining is accelerated for this purpose.

ADMINISTRATION AND LANGUAGE ISSUES: Emphasis has been given to the effective implementation of the existing Gazette Notifications and Public Administration Circulars relating to the Official Language policy. The recently adopted Long Term and Short Term Action Plans of the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration at National, District and School/Pirivena levels, provide extensive details in this regard.

Members of the Tamil community in the North and East have been enlisted to the Police Department in the year 2010. Further recruitment will be done in future.

LAW AND ORDER ISSUES: With regard to the disarming of persons carrying illegal arms, the GoSL has taken immediate steps by giving a deadline for the surrendering of illegal weapons, as was successfully done in the Eastern Province, following the clearing of the LTTE from that area. The GoSL intends to enact an amendment to the Firearms Ordinance, which will restrict the grant of bail for those who are apprehended whilst in unauthorised possession of firearms or explosives. This special provision is intended to be in operation for a limited period, until the objective of ensuring surrender of weapons is achieved.

The GoSL observes that with the return to normal following a long-drawn conflict, criminal activities such as robberies, killings and extortions are likely to recur. These would be dealt with by utilising the criminal law and process of the country. Police have been given strict instructions in this regard.

SOCIO-ECONOMIC/LIVELIHOOD ISSUES: These could be looked into in two components: (a) free movement of persons on A 9 - the arterial highway to ensure greater participation in economic, social and cultural rights. (b) the further strengthening of co-operation between Government Agents and Security Forces for the normalisation of civilian activities.

The principal achievement is the opening of the A-9 road. The re-settlement of IDPs along with the building of the Sangupiddy Bridge and removal of restrictions on fishing has transformed the lives of the people."

Barely four days after the Sri Lanka delegation met the UN Secretary General, the United States government issued one of its strongest statements on Sri Lanka vis-à-vis alleged war crimes. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs in the Department of State, Robert Blake granted a digital video interview to AFP Colombo correspondent Amal Jayasinghe. The full text was later posted in the State Department website. Here are edited excerpts of the former US envoy's answers to questions posed:

"US-SRI LANKA RELATIONS: As you know, we've been focusing on three primary issues since the end of the war. First, the return of all of the internally displaced persons from the camps. All of the issues surrounding that. Secondly, the whole question of reconciliation and accountability. Then third, the whole question of human rights. In each of these areas, there has been some progress, but in each of these areas there is also more work that needs to be done.

"RECONCILIATION AND ACCOUNTABILITY: Sri Lanka is one of the countries in South Asia that really has great promise. Your country has the best social indicators in South Asia in terms of the progress made on things like health, literacy and education. You have a growing economy. You have abundant natural resources. You are located to the south of India. You have a free trade agreement with India and with Pakistan. But we believe that to truly realize the promise that Sri Lanka has, that it is going to be very important to achieve national reconciliation so that all of the citizens of Sri Lanka feel there is a just and durable peace after the end of the war in May of 2009…………

"The really major issue now for us and for many members of the international community is the question of accountability. As you know, the UN has estimated that many thousands of civilians were killed at the end, in the final few months of the war. Those need to be investigated, preferably by the government of Sri Lanka and its own institutions.

"The United States is not holding Sri Lanka to any special standards here. You will note that, for example, over the weekend the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution against Libya on Saturday night. One of the provisions of that resolution was to refer Muammar Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court so that they could investigate alleged war crimes and abuses against his people. So this is a very common thing…………… We also welcome the fact that the government has established an inter agency committee to implement some of the interim recommendations of the LLRC and that some steps have been taken…………

"We have also urged that the government enter into a dialogue with the Panel of Experts that the United Nations has appointed to advise the UN Secretary General. I think there are still a number of important steps to be taken, and our preference is that the Sri Lankans themselves take these. It's always best for a host nation to take responsibility for these sensitive issues. But I think also it's important to say that if Sri Lanka is not willing to meet international standards regarding these matters that there will be pressure to appoint some sort of international commission to look into these things.

"TRADE TIES AND AREAS OF CONCERN: We are already pursuing trade ties. We have a lot of U.S. assistance going to various programmes. The other area in addition to the whole reconciliation piece is the area of human rights. We have expressed our concerns in the past about the passage of the 18th Amendment which we felt weakened the system of checks and balances inside Sri Lanka.

"I'd like to say when we talk about human rights, the area that we've been I think particularly concerned about has been the area of media freedom where there continues to be attacks on independent journalists. Most recently, the question of Lankaenews I think was one of those. It is important for those kinds of attacks on the free media and independent media institutions to stop and for those to be investigated, and for there to be a completely open climate and a free media. That, again, I think is a very important part of the whole effort of achieving national reconciliation."

Just a day after Blake's interview, the United States Senate unanimously adopted a resolution on Sri Lanka. This is what the Congressional Record said: SENATE RESOLUTION 84-EXPRESSING SUPPORT FOR INTERNAL REBUILDING, RESETTLEMENT, AND RECONCILIATION WITHIN SRI LANKA THAT ARE NECESSARY TO ENSURE A LASTING PEACE Mr. CASEY (for himself, Mr. BURR, Mr. BROWN of Ohio, Mr. MENENDEZ, Mr. CARDIN, Mr. LEAHY, Mrs. BOXER, Mrs. HAGAN, Mrs. GILLIBRAND, Mr. MANCHIN, Mr. UDALL of New Mexico, and Mr. LAUTENBERG) submitted the following resolution;

"which was considered and agreed to: S. RES. 84

"Whereas May 19, 2010, marked the one-year anniversary of the end of the 26-year conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Government of Sri Lanka; Whereas the Government of Sri Lanka established a Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) to report whether any person, group, or institution directly or indirectly bears responsibility for incidents that occurred between February 2002 and May 2009 and to recommend measures to prevent the recurrence of such incidents in the future and promote further national unity and reconciliation among all communities;

"Whereas United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed a panel of experts, including Marzuki Darusman, the former attorney general of Indonesia; Yazmin Sooka, a member of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission; and Steven Ratner, a lawyer in the United States specializing in human rights and international law, to advise the Secretary-General on the implementation of the commitment of the Government of Sri Lanka to human rights accountability;

"Whereas the Government of Sri Lanka expressed its commitment to addressing the needs of all ethnic groups and has recognized, in the past, the necessity of a political settlement and reconciliation for a peaceful and just society;

"Whereas the United States Government has yet to develop a comprehensive United States policy toward Sri Lanka that reflects the broad range of human rights, national security, and economic interests; and Whereas progress on domestic and international investigations into reports of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other human rights violations during the conflict and promoting reconciliation would facilitate enhanced United States engagement and investment in Sri Lanka:

" Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the Senate- (1) commends United Nations Secretary- General Ban Ki-moon for creating the three person panel to advise the Secretary-General on the implementation of the commitment of the Government of Sri Lanka to human rights accountability; (2) calls on the Government of Sri Lanka, the international community, and the United Nations to establish an independent international accountability mechanism to look into reports of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other human rights violations committed by both sides during and after the war in Sri Lanka and to make recommendations regarding accountability; (3) calls on the Government of Sri Lanka to allow humanitarian organizations, aid agencies, journalists, and international human rights groups greater freedom of movement, including in internally-displaced persons camps; and "(4) Calls upon the President to develop a comprehensive policy towards Sri Lanka that reflects United States interests, including respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law, economic interests, and security interests."

Strong track record of LLRC

An official statement, a response to the adoption of this resolution, though late, came from External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris. He said it was unfortunate that "those who framed the text of the Resolution have overlooked the capacity and strong track record of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission as domestic mechanism, to work for reconciliation and further strengthening of national amity." However, the statement raises more questions than answers to the current issue. Firstly, the External Affairs Ministry was unaware that such a resolution was before the Senate. If indeed it was aware, Sri Lankans have not been told what measures were taken through the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington and other channels to thwart it. The 'media release diplomacy' after an event has become the hallmark of External Affairs Minister Peiris.

Sri Lanka's diplomatic efforts are supplemented by payment of millions of dollars to Patton Boggs, a public relations firm, which is keeping the government regularly informed and working counter strategies. However, the PR firm has not been able to effectively deal with the pro-Tiger guerilla lobbies campaigns at the State Department and Capitol Hill. In addition to Bell Pottinger, a compnay known as Qorvis Communications (under Pottinger global contract) has been hired for lobbying. Still furthermore, a 30-year-old Sri Lankan lawyer has been hired at a phenomenal sum, a former Chicago Sun Times correspondent has been hired just to write media releases at $ 9000 a month -- that's a million rupees, a former female secretary at the Hill has been recruited at $ 3000 a month, they are in the process of hiring another professional staffer at $ 5000 a month and they see the US Senate passing a unanimous Resolution against Sri Lanka. What Bell Pottinger is up against is a very savvy lobbying shop, Podesta Group (Tony Podesta runs it and his brother John was President Bill Clinton's Chief of Staff and headed the Obama Transition Team now running a Think Tank), TAPI (Tamil American Peace Initiative funded by Dr. Karunyian of Lancaster, California and individuals in North Carolina. Stephen Rademaker, a former deputy Assistant Secretary of State handles the accounts for them at Podesta Group.

Ahead of the UN panel's report, it is not only the United States that is intensifying its diplomatic efforts. The issue also figured at the House of Commons in the UK this week. Parliamentarian Dr. Stella Creasy asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Alistair Burt (who visited Sri Lanka a week ago) what recent discussions he has had with the UN Secretary General on the human rights issues.

Burt's response: " Neither I nor the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), have recently discussed Sri Lanka with the UN Secretary-General, but we maintain close contact with UN agencies on the ground. During my recent visit to Sri Lanka, I met with these agencies in Colombo and Jaffna to hear their assessment of the current situation. We continue to have concerns about the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. We made clear in 2010 that we welcomed the establishment of the UN Secretary-General's Panel of Experts in June. The panel's work continues and we await its findings."

Redouble diplomatic efforts

The events in the past weeks show that Sri Lanka would have to redouble its diplomatic efforts in the coming months to ward off a possible heavy fall out from the UN panel's report. Quite clearly, a number of western nations that demanded the probe are asserting their positions at a time when human rights issues have become a most important factor in countries that are in turmoil in West Asia and North Africa.
These events have made clear that Sri Lanka had no cohesive foreign policy or a planned strategy to counter the mounting issues. That is proved by the government's rejection of the UN panel when it was appointed. Now that the panel is on the verge of handing over its report, the Government want its views heard.

Worse enough, an opposition that has to raise issue to ensure there are checks and balances is in a worst state. In this instance, the opposition could have asked the government on why its approach to priority foreign policy issues is not consistent. Alas, the opposition is not focused on key issues, at least not publicly.

With just ten days to go for the local polls, the campaigns are reaching a lacklustre peak. For the main opposition United National Party (UNP), the biggest issue appears to be how a garrulous commentator on a state television network insulted Sri Lankan cricketers in his weekly programme. For raising that as a "national issue," as one wag in the party with a good sense of humour declared, the World Cup cricket trophy should go to the UNP. That is for defending the Sri Lanka cricket team and ignoring other issues the people and the country are together facing. The last time round the UNP tried to ride on the popularity of a General who led the Army to defeat the LTTE. This time, the UNP seems to hitch its wagon to the stars on the cricketing field.

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