United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton issued a virtual 'ultimatum' to the government of Sri Lanka this week. In essence, it is a call to address accountability issues relating to the final stages of the separatist war in May 2009 or face a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva in the coming weeks.
The proverbial Sinhala saying gireta ahuvunu puvak gediya wagey ( like the arecanut caught between the blades of a nut-cutter) underscores the government's dilemma. It cannot extricate itself from a US-backed resolution nor subjugate to it. Worse enough, it comes at a time when US help would be most needed to avoid a possible economic disaster. Washington's sanctions on Iran, supplier of 93 per cent of Sri Lanka's crude oil requirements, prompted the government this week to plead for exemption or urge US to pressure Saudi Arabia to increase its supply to Colombo. It was made to Luke Bronin, Deputy Assistant Secretary to the US Treasury, on a visit to Sri Lanka to discuss the sanctions. This is whilst debating on a fall back option -- whether or not to make another strong plea to Iran, which assured last week, that it was willing to continue to supply crude oil to Sri Lanka.
A proposal, if it materializes, is for Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal to leave for Teheran to plead Sri Lanka's case for an extended credit facility. At present, Iran provides crude oil at four months credit. He is also to ascertain whether Iran could make payments in advance for future tea exports. If the Cabral visit and talks in Teheran do materialise, it would earn the wrath of the United States and place the country's trade with Washington in peril. That is on the grounds that its sanctions are being violated by Sri Lanka.
The present predicament of the government highlights the lack of a studied foreign-policy approach with a virtually non-functioning External Affairs Ministry. No doubt, the UNHRC and crude oil are two different issues here. But Tamil groups in the US have seized the opportunity to write to key players in the Obama administration asking them not to offer any concessions to Sri Lanka. They are also after key personalities in the Democratic Party to lobby them for the same purpose. This being election year in the US, the vociferous if formidable Sri Lankan Tamil community in the US could have the ear of those in high office.
Clinton's message is contained in a note she sent External Affairs Minister G. L. Peiris. Acting US Ambassador Valerie S. Fowler handed it over personally to Peiris on January 27. Though he assured a response, Peiris left the country on the second leg of his tour of African countries without sending a reply. Ahead of that, he had a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and briefed him on Clinton's note. If Peiris was away, Deputy External Affairs Minister Neomal Perera was also off joining a junket for parliamentarians on an all-expenses paid trip to Israel when priorities are elsewhere.
The Sunday Times has learnt from authoritative External Affairs Ministry sources that Clinton's letter dealt with the following aspects:
- It has acknowledged that the final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) made a number of important and positive recommendations for promoting national reconciliation, such as the withdrawal of armed forces from civilian life in the North and East, the reigning in of paramilitaries, strengthening of democratic and civil society institutions, investigation of disappearances and attacks against journalists.
- The US government has understood that GOSL (Government of Sri Lanka) would act on the report's recommendations and take concrete measures to achieve reconciliation and accountability.
- The US government has understood that the GOSL would submit an action plan when the report was presented to Parliament.
- The US government is disappointed that a comprehensive action plan has not yet been publicly released.
- Hence, the US government has decided to sponsor a UN Human Rights Council resolution in March 2012 that will ask for Sri Lanka to take more concrete action towards reconciliation, including on the question of accountability and implementation of LLRC recommendations. In effect what the US wants is movement on reconciliation, accountability and holding of Provincial Council Elections in the North. This is with a view to achieving lasting peace, reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka.
|President Rajapaksa responding to questions from Colombo-based foreign correspondents at a meeting on Tuesday at Temple Trees
Secretary Clinton has in her letter also invited Peiris to visit Washington DC on a convenient date in March for talks on the issues raised. This is whilst the US sent several emissaries to Colombo in the past two weeks to apprise the government, among other matters, on issues related to Clinton's note. This underscored the importance the US attached to the matter. Our front-page report today reveals details of one more such important visit by two senior US officials and another on a separate mission.
President Rajapaksa briefed ministers on the Clinton note at the weekly cabinet meeting on Wednesday evening. With the exception of Minister Wimal Weerawansa, a strong campaigner against the UN and the West, several ministers endorsed Rajapaksa's recommendation that Peiris should travel to US for the meeting with Clinton. Weerawansa, perhaps unaware of the deeper intricacies involved, wanted the government to reject outright the US approaches. The decision to ask Peiris to talk with Clinton was much the same way the government was allowing visits by US dignitaries and engaging them. That was to explain Sri Lanka's position clearly.
The Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister is currently on the second leg of a tour of African countries. He will curtail this tour of canvassing support from UNHRC member countries to fly direct to Islamabad to be on hand when President Rajapaksa makes an official visit on February 9 and 10. The trip, which was advanced from April, is despite President Asif Ali Zardari's government being locked in a standoff with the military and the judiciary there. Besides, temperatures in Islamabad have been plummeting to zero in the past weeks. Peiris was earlier expected to travel to Bishkek, the capital of UNHRC member Kyrgyzstan.
Instead, Petroleum Resources Development Minister, Susil Premajayantha will travel to Bishkek as the President's Special Envoy. He will be accompanied by Jayalath Weerakkody, Sri Lanka's High commissioner to Pakistan who is Concurrently Accredited to Kyrgyzstan. The visit will take place after Rajapaksa completes his trip to Pakistan.
The exact nature of the resolution that will come up before UNHRC sessions that begin in Geneva on February 27 and continue till March 23 is yet to take final shape. The United States is also known to be in diplomatic consultation with several member countries of the Council in this regard.
Contrary to the Sri Lanka government's belief that such a resolution may seek a majority vote for an international probe on 'accountability issues' during the final stages of the war against Tiger guerrillas in May 2009, current US consultations point to a different direction. In a bid to win the support of a greater majority of members of the Council, the resolution is to be designed to compel the Sri Lanka government itself to address specific issues, including those raised by Clinton. However, a matter of critical importance would be the inclusion in the resolution of a deadline before which the Government of Sri Lanka would have to come up with a detailed road map and/or a firm commitment to implement the issues raised.
This deadline would be monitored by future sessions of the UNHRC. In such an event, western diplomatic sources say, even India could be on board to support the resolution. This is on the basis that India's stated positions with regard to the final report of the LLRC as well as the 'mechanisms' for 'reconciliation' is known and endorsed by the US and other western allies. "In other words, they are on the same page," these sources pointed out. However, there have been no public responses from India over the latest US move.
The official Indian position on the LLRC was set out by an External Affairs Ministry spokesperson in New Delhi in December last year. The spokesperson said, "it is important to ensure that an independent and credible mechanism is put in place to investigate allegations of human rights violations, as brought out by the LLRC, in a time bound manner……..we have been assured by the Government of Sri Lanka on several occasions in the past, of its commitment towards pursuit of a political process, though a broader dialogue with all political parties, including the Tamil National Alliance, leading to the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, and go beyond, so as to achieve meaningful devolution of powers and genuine national reconciliation. We will remain engaged with them through this process and offer our support in the spirit of partnership……."
In the latest dialogue, India's External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna told a news conference in Colombo that President Rajapaksa had "assured him he stands by his commitment to pursuing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution 'plus' approach." The remarks came at a noon news briefing after Krishna held talks that morning with Rajapaksa on January 16. However, last Tuesday Rajapaksa explained himself further when he addressed a meeting of Colombo-based foreign correspondents. Here is the Q & A that followed:
Q: What exactly is the 13th Amendment to the Constitution "plus"?
President: The 13th Amendment is in the Constitution. The Parliament should agree on anything.
Q: What is your solution? You have the majority in Parliament.
President: If I say something Ranil will object, the TNA will object. They will say I am biased.
Q: Do you have a time frame?
President: Let them appoint the Parliamentary Select Committee and discuss.
Q: But, you can appoint the Select Committee on your own.
Minister Basil Rajapaksa: Any small proposal also needs to be discussed in Parliament. Even the local government election laws took more than three years and that too has not been completed.
Q: What happens if no opposition party submits names to the PSC?
President: You will have to pressurise them to give the names.
Q: The Diplomatic Community believes the TNA is the biggest party representing the Tamils.
Sajin Vaas Gunawardena, monitoring MP of the External Affairs Ministry: That is what you are saying.
Q: Do they have any status?
Vass Gunawardena: The TNA is a former proxy of the LTTE. We have given our perception. If the answers do not please you we can't help.
President: Whatever we say you interpret it your way.
The proposed UNHRC resolution, the Sunday Times learns, will be moved by the United States. During the September 2011 sessions of the Council, Canada in fact circulated a draft resolution. It said "The Human Rights Council decides to request the OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) to convene, within existing resources, at its 19th sessions, an interactive dialogue on Sri Lanka's Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and steps taken by the government of Sri Lanka towards reconciliation and sustainable peace, inviting the active participation of the government of Sri Lanka in briefing the Council on domestic processes and outcomes."
At that time, a note circulated by the Canadian Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva to heads of diplomatic missions in that capital said "We believe that such a dialogue is a constructive way for the international community to fulfil its responsibility to support Sri Lanka in meeting their goal, as articulated recently by President Rajapaksa, of durable peace and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans. It will be a good opportunity to have a conversation focused on Sri Lanka's efforts and achievements, on its own domestic processes and outcomes. Our initiative is being carried out in a constructive and transparent spirit and we hope to be able to count on your active support…." That draft resolution came after the US failed in its diplomatic initiatives to persuade Sri Lanka to agree to an 'interactive dialogue.' Such a dialogue, a discussion of the report of the UN Panel of Experts and the report of the LLRC, would have come up at the upcoming UNHRC sessions.
Even if the Canadian resolution were to have been adopted, it would have come up for discussion at the upcoming UNHRC sessions in Geneva. However, the Canadian move did not draw much support and only a handful of diplomats turned up at the Canada Desk in a Room of Palais des Nations in Geneva to sign it. The Canadian move came some ten weeks before the final report of the LLRC was presented to Parliament.
This time, however, the move for a resolution comes after the LLRC report is in the public domain. Clinton's note was the first official confirmation of a resolution before the Council; there have been co-ordinated efforts by a number of Western nations not to mention others. The "non-implementation" of several recommendations of the LLRC has been their main rallying point. Instead of an 'interactive dialogue,' the US is now seeking the passage of a resolution, which in view of the deadline to be imposed, would become binding on Sri Lanka. The only way to avert such a resolution would be categorical assurances from the government on how the issues to be raised would be addressed within a limited time frame. A failure or delay would inevitably compel member countries of the Council to raise issue.
Western diplomatic sources confirm the US itself will move the resolution. Though seemingly harmless, an External Affairs Ministry source opined yesterday, that the resolution now taking shape would have 'disastrous consequences' on Sri Lanka. "Once the resolution is tabled and approved, it would become a diplomatic football to be kicked around every time a UNHCR session gets under way," the source added. A bigger danger, the source cautioned, is the 'punitive measures' that may follow on grounds that Sri Lanka had not paid heed to the resolution or sections of it. That member countries will be able to find fault over 'this or the other not being implemented,' would be another factor, the source pointed out.
A bigger fear was expressed by a ministerial source who did not wish to be identified. "If they find there is larger support for the resolution there is a strong possibility that the text could become harsher. We have to avoid a resolution at all costs by taking a studied, pragmatic approach."
The ministerial apprehension was enhanced by the January 18 remarks by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the subject of responsibility to protect. Known as 'R2P', it is the international security and human rights norm of recent years to address the international community's failure to stop, among other matters, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Addressing the Stanley Foundation in the US, Ban said this principle was tested as 'never before' in 2011 resulting in thousands of lives being saved and vital lessons learned. He added, "Such is the nature of the Responsibility to Protect. It can be a minefield of nuance, political calculation and competing national interests. The result too often is hesitation or inaction. This we cannot afford."
He said that in a short period of time, the world had embraced the Responsibility to Protect - not because it was easy, but because it was right. "We therefore have a moral responsibility to push ahead," he stated. He added, "Together, let us work... with optimism and determination... to make the Responsibility to Protect a living reality for the peoples of the world."
Those remarks, according to the ministerial source, reflect the mood in the international community.
Nevertheless diplomatic sources said there were no plans to go beyond 'what is now under consideration.' Herein lay the dilemma for the government. Until Clinton's note ruffled feathers at the highest levels of the government, there has been no clear idea on how issues would play out at the UNHRC. The fact that the government was unclear what would take place was pointed out in these columns last week. Even senior officials of the External Affairs Ministry had learnt of Clinton's note only after our sister paper Lankadeepa reported it as its front-page lead story exclusively last Monday. The fact that it took the Colombo government by surprise is also an indictment on its mission in Washington DC. They seem to have been completely in the dark as to the goings on at the US State Department. The only focus of the government has been to send dignitaries to member states of the Council to appeal to them not to allow a resolution against Sri Lanka.
The strategy adopted by the government sets a serious poser. The present shape of the US resolution is to ask the Government of Sri Lanka to act on recommendations made by the LLRC report and on issues where Sri Lanka's official positions on some crucial issues are known and remains in the public domain. This places the government in a dilemma. Other than to say that the time available, since the release of the LLRC report has not been enough, there are only a few other arguments it could adduce. This has also exposed the External Affairs Ministry's inability to react whenever issues were raised by foreign governments or international organizations in the past.
This is besides Sri Lanka's human rights record coming up for scrutiny under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The UPR is a process involving a review of the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States once every four years. It is an innovation of the UN Human Rights Council, based on equal treatment for all countries. It provides an opportunity for all States to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations in their countries and to overcome challenges to the enjoyment of human rights. The second cycle of the UPR in October this year will cover Sri Lanka.
This is perhaps why the government has suddenly gone into a "fire fighting" mode and is adopting a series of measures ahead of the UNHRC sessions. Two ministers are to travel as special envoys of the President. John Seneviratne will fly to Uruguay, the current chair of the UNHRC and later to Chile. Dilan Perera will fly to Guatemala, Peru and Cuba. Earlier, Deputy External Affairs Minister Neomal Perera visited Uruguay and Peru in August/September, last year.
Locally, issues concerning the recommendations in the final report of the LLRC have also received attention. President Rajapaksa told editors of national newspapers on Monday and Colombo-based foreign correspondents on Tuesday that the Attorney General's Department was now studying the recommendations in the report with regard to allegations of violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) committed by the Armed forces during the last stages of the military campaign against the LTTE in 2009.
The Army is also paying attention to the contents and recommendations in Chapter 4 of the LLRC report. The Commission said the government should investigate the specific instances referred to in its observations and "any reported cases of deliberate attacks on civilians." Whilst one team is going into this aspect, another is also studying the Commission's observations on International Humanitarian Law (IHL). These measures have thus given the government some clout to claim it is already acting on the recommendations in the LLRC report. During his proposed visit to Washington DC, to meet Clinton, Peiris is expected to detail these matters to his American counterpart.
However, the advice External Affairs Minister Peiris has given President Rajapaksa is that moves to adopt resolutions against Sri Lanka were only "pressure tactics" by some countries. He is of the view that such a move would not materialise. Despite his own advice, Peiris seems not wanting to take any chances. He has been canvassing for the support of African countries vigorously against the Sri Lankan issue being taken up at the UNHRC. This was the official reason for his visit to Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was, unsuccessful in obtaining an appointment with Phandu Skelemani, Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation Minister of Botswana, a member of the UNHRC.
When Peiris met Skelemani on the sidelines of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth, Australia, last year, he (Skelemani) had advised Peiris to attend the African Union meeting in Addis Ababa that was held beginning January 24. He had said that would be an ideal opportunity for the Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister to meet all his African counterparts. In fact, Skelemani had offered to extend his own good offices to arrange these meetings. However, Peiris, who had been more in the air than on land in the past weeks, did not act on this advice. The reasons are not known. Instead, he has chosen to visit only handpicked member countries of the Council individually. Skelemani had told Peiris that the earliest an appointment could be granted to meet him was a date in March. Even these African nations were playing 'hard to get' with Peiris.
Until Friday, Sri Lanka has not formally responded to Clinton's letter. If that was bad enough, contradictions on official positions by different ministers over international issues were galore. This week, Environment Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, a member of the Sri Lanka delegation to the UNHRC sessions, while briefing the media on decisions at Wednesday's weekly cabinet meeting, declared the government had still not taken a decision whether or not to table the LLRC report in Geneva.
That indeed was not the factual position. President Rajapaksa had directed that the report would not be tabled there. This was explained by three different ministers during media events -- Keheliya Rambukwella, the official spokesperson, External Affairs Minister Peiris and the President's Special Envoy on Human Rights Issues, Mahinda Samarasinghe.
Yet, as pointed out last week, the need for such a tabling of the report may not arise since the Sri Lanka government has already given copies to countries with which Colombo has diplomatic representation. To add to that, Sri Lankan ministers have also argued at various overseas events before the LLRC report that the document would answer matters raised by the UN panel of experts.
Who will lead the Sri Lanka delegation to the UNHRC sessions has become a contentious issue. It was Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe who led the previous delegations and has cultivated a wide circle of diplomatic contacts, especially in Geneva. This was first in his capacity as Minister of Human Rights and Disaster Management. Thereafter, he was specifically assigned a new title - President's Special Envoy on Human Rights Issues. However, during the Council sessions in September, last year, Peiris was in Geneva during the opening days hosting lunches for delegations. Thereafter, he proceeded to Britain.
While Samarasinghe is expected to leave Sri Lanka on February 12, Peiris wants to head for Geneva on February 25, two days before the sessions begin. It is not clear whether it would also be a visit only for the opening days, and to merely host lunches, or whether Peiris would want to seize the moment to lead the Sri Lanka delegation and sideline Samarasinghe in the process. His claim for the role is solely on hereditary grounds since he is Minister of External Affairs. The Sri Lanka team will include ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and 'monitoring' MP for the External Affairs Ministry, Sajin Vaas Gunawardena. A team of officials from the Attorney General's Department will also be in the delegation.
A surprise development would be the likely presence of a delegation from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Though they will not enjoy official status, they are to join other overseas Tamil organisations in lobbying member countries of the UNHRC.
TNA parliamentarian E. Saravanapavan met US Assistant Secretary Robert Blake on Thursday afternoon to make a formal request on behalf of the Alliance to urge the US to press on Sri Lanka to address 'accountability' issues. Secret consultations between a government minister and TNA leaders are under way to resolve a deadlock that sections of the government believe would help TNA change its mind. The thrust of these consultations is to resume government-TNA talks if the Alliance consents to name members to a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC). In the event of any accord being reached to resume talks, the Cabinet would have to reverse its earlier decision not to hold talks with the TNA until it names members to the PSC.
In London, an All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils held an exhibition at the Atlee Suite, Portcullis House of the House of Commons. It was to "update" British parliamentarians on "accountability issues in Sri Lanka." The event was a precursor to the upcoming UNHRC sessions in Geneva and was attended by several British MPs.
In marked contrast, the Sri Lanka High Commission in the UK was conspicuous by its silence.
Some ministers in the government were outraged last week after the report in these columns about references made to Sri Lanka by the Canadian Foreign Minister, John Baird. As reported, it came after a speech on Canada's foreign policy at the Royal Commonwealth Society. RCS President, Peter Kellner declared that Baird's speech on human rights was 'remarkable.' However, he said Baird had not mentioned Sri Lanka specifically. Baird was to hit out saying, "there is a growing authoritarian trend by the government in Colombo." These ministers say that Sri Lanka's High Commissioner, Chris Nonis and his staff who were present were unable to explain the government's position.
The bigger worry for the government is the fact that the UN Human Rights Council sessions are coming in the midst of an impending threat to the country's economy, the result of US sanctions on Iran. On June 9, 2010 the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 1929 imposing additional international sanctions on Iran's nuclear programme and military activities. President Barak Obama signed into law the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA), expanding unilateral U.S. sanctions to target Iran's energy sector, banking industry, and Iran's Revolutionary Guard Council (IRGC) activity on July 1, 2010.
Though Iran has said it was still willing to meet Sri Lanka's crude oil requirements, breaking the US sanctions would lead to other consequences. Sri Lanka will lose its largest apparel market and draw other trade or economic sanctions. That is if the proposal to send Governor Cabral to Iran to obtain new terms meets with success. That would be a costly gamble.
On the other hand, falling in line with the US sanctions would force the government to seek a supplier to replace Iran that supplies 93 per cent of Sri Lanka's oil requirements. The government of President Mahmoud Ahamedinejad allowed a four month credit facility. Now without any concessions, the government sought enhanced supplies from Saudi Arabia only to be told that the kingdom cannot meet additional requirements.
The demand for oil is rising with forecasts speaking of a spiral from an average current price of US $ 100 to $ 150. That would naturally trigger another fuel price hike locally. That threat comes at a time when the government faces a resolution before the UN Human Rights Council. Tough decisions and tougher actions will become inevitable. With little or no strategy, an External Affairs Ministry in tatters and contradictory stances by different ministers, forging a unified approach becomes a very difficult task. That is just one day after Sri Lanka has celebrated its 64th year of independence.
Yet, President Rajapaksa is in a defiant mood. In his address to the nation during yesterday's national day ceremonies from the historic city of Anuradhapura, he declared "Conspiracies and propaganda of terrorists based overseas have not abated still. When such things happen abroad some people here do various things to destabilise the Motherland. They expect to achieve in Sri Lanka certain results that happened in some countries of the world. Both these groups are one. Fuel and nutrition for this struggle in Sri Lanka are received from separatism active in foreign lands."