UNHRC sessions make Sri Lanka a focal point in world affairs  US takes stronger stance on HR and rule-of-law issues  Piqued Presidential spokespersons and ambassador attack the Sunday Times Political Column By Our Political Editor Just over two weeks ago, Anuradha K. Herath, Director (International Media) at the President’s Office gave some gratuitous advice to [...]


DPL strategies fail; Govt. loses friends and makes more enemies


  • UNHRC sessions make Sri Lanka a focal point in world affairs
  •  US takes stronger stance on HR and rule-of-law issues
  •  Piqued Presidential spokespersons and ambassador attack the Sunday Times Political Column

By Our Political Editor

Just over two weeks ago, Anuradha K. Herath, Director (International Media) at the President’s Office gave some gratuitous advice to editors and media practitioners in the country. They should use more than one source for a story, she said, and added that it was a big problem in “the Sri Lankan media”. The Sunday Times (Political Commentary) of February 10 reported her learned remarks. As we pointed out, if mistakes are made they are corrected. If denials are issued, the facts are placed. The cause for her “official decree” was a news report that Sri Lanka had rejected a US request to send troops to Afghanistan. And who had reported on that first? The Government Department of Information. Little wonder, we had to observe that the right hand did not know what the left did.

On the Monday that followed, Herath was on the phone complaining over the references made to her. Not that they were wrong. She declared she had been “pulled up” and told to speak to the Sunday Times. In a later exchange of SMS she reacted even more angrily than before. She said she would have to deal with “the Sunday Times officially”. It did not take long for her to carry out her threat to “deal officially”, though surreptitiously. Last Sunday, she and Ravinatha Aryasinha, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, were the duo behind an editorialised statement against the Sunday Times over last week’s political commentary. They had won approval of the higher-ups to proceed. It was distributed under the name of Mohan Samaranayake, whose onetime paymaster was the UN system.He now plays the dual role as Spokesperson for the President and Chairman of Rupavahini, the state TV broadcaster. To others in diplomatic missions and selected foreign correspondents, Herath eagerly sent it by e-mail.
The statement was not sent to the Sunday Times. Neither does it address any specific issues nor contradict any specific facts in the column. Perhaps, those who issued it knew the answer they would get. It only singles out the “political column”. The contents of the statement are akin to a mere venting of piqued feelings, both on the part of Herath and Aryasinha so, there is nothing to respond to its contents. What seems to have touched a raw nerve was the reference in the column last week saying that Aryasinha had objected to Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe coming to Geneva for the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions.

The President’s Spokesman’s statement was played over and over in the State media because, after all, it was a statement from the President’s Media Spokesman. That seems the new order of the day to deal with the media if unpalatable facts or views hurt those in officialdom. How serious one is to take statements issued by the new team of Media Spokesmen/women of the President is of course, a different matter.

Focus on Geneva

The issues at the UN Human Rights Council, currently in session, continue to be in focus. Having originally decided to field a low key delegation, the Government changed its mind at the eleventh hour. Just three days before the Council sessions began, President Rajapaksa asked Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe who is also his Special Envoy on Human Rights to head the country’s delegation. Earlier, it was decided to leave Sri Lanka’s destiny in the hands of Ambassador Aryasinha. The Ministry of External Affairs liked it that way too. Clearly, the President didn’t place much confidence in Aryasinha.

Besides Minister Samarasinghe and his personal secretary, there is a ten member delegation from Colombo. They are six from the Attorney General’s Department – Suhada Gamlath (Additional Solicitor General), Shamindra Fernando (Deputy Solicitor General), Buveneka Aluvihare (Deputy Solicitor General), Janaka Silva (Deputy Solicitor General) and Nerin Pulle, (Senior State Counsel); Ministry of External Affairs – Maduka Wickremarachchi and Dilini Goonasekera. The current Sri Lanka delegation is in marked contrast to a contingent of more than 50 who were present last year.

Though relatively junior in their service, both officials from the EAM function as Assistant Directors in the UN Division of the Ministry of External Affairs. Wickremarachchi, a former Sinhala journalist, has served under Ambassador Aryasinha for a year whilst Goonasekera was recruited to the Foreign Service only a year ago. Ambassador Aryasinha had asked for a senior military official to be on hand in Geneva. The request, however, was turned down by the Ministry of Defence. The UNHRC sessions in Geneva are easily one of the most important events for Sri Lanka. Yet, the absence of top rung EAM officials including its Secretary, Additional Secretary, Director General, Directors both senior and junior, Deputy Directors was the talking point in the corridors of the EAM. Only one EAM official, Shashikala Premawardene (now attached to the MoD) attended the Council sessions on Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in September last year. It is another clear indication that the EAM has lost focus on the issues confronting the country, or was not supporting Minister Samarasinghe in this national task, or both.

There has been a marked shift in Sri Lanka delegation’s strategy this week. Earlier, diplomatic overtures were made to the United States through different channels to ‘water down’ its second resolution on Sri Lanka. This was through countries friendly with the US. The other was the consultations Ambassador Aryasinha had with his American counterpart Eileen Chamberlain Donahue in Geneva. However, this week, the Sri Lanka delegation has taken a step backward from this approach. Instead, some lobbying is under way to persuade friendly member nations on the UNHRC to back Sri Lanka’s cause. Yet, a Sri Lankan diplomatic source in Geneva said yesterday that the country was unlikely to seek a vote when the resolution comes up, most likely on March 21. There was a fear that the result might be worse than the last time.

The same source added that the United States was bringing “enormous pressure” on member countries of the Human Rights Council to support its second resolution. Ahead of the formal presentation of the resolution, the US delegation to Geneva is expected to consult members of the Council in what is called an informal metting. The Sri Lanka delegation will be on hand to obtain a first-hand account of the contents of the new finalised resolution. The latest draft was revealed exclusively last week in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary).

Testing the waters

The only official task for Minister Samarasinghe, named delegation leader at the last moment, was to address the high level segment of the Council on Wednesday. Thereafter, he was busy conducting one-on-one meetings with heads of delegations over what one Sri Lanka diplomat said was to “test the waters”. He said yesterday, “We want to find out what each country thinks of the resolution.” Whilst mnisters are allowed 20 minutes speaking time from the rostrum, heads of missions leading delegations are entitled to only two minutes. That was another reason that made the government despatch Samarasinghe. Other than foreign and justice ministers of some countries, the only minister with a different portfolio (Plantation Industries and President’s Special Envoy on Human Rights) attending the Council sessions is Minister Samarasinghe.

In his speech, Samarasinghe left out all references to the United States or to its latest resolution. Whilst the former may be to avoid a ‘confrontational’ approach, the latter is on the grounds that the US resolution has not yet been presented formally at the Council. Samarasinghe said “……on the alleged lack of Government implementation of the interim recommendations and that the National Plan of Action (NPoA) deals with only selected recommendations of the LLRC, I wish to inform this Council that some of the recommendations were already being addressed, including through the National Human Rights Action Plan. They have not been reflected in the NPoA. Further it may be noted that the NPoA is an evolving process…..”

On the subject of reconciliation, he noted that “the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC), the Government is of the view, is the most appropriate forum on this matter since constitutional reforms need a two-thirds majority and a broad national consensus….”

He also charged that “remnants of the terrorist organisation remain very active in some countries in the Western hemisphere, where their proxies are continuing to lobby host governments, opinion makers in the media and elsewhere, to undermine the peace and reconciliation process that is on-going. It is regrettable that some part of the international community has fallen prey to these efforts based on disinformation, outright falsehood and pressure tactics. This has at times, resulted in biased and unequal treatment of Sri Lanka…”

Samarasinghe is due to return to Sri Lanka tomorrow and travel again to Geneva in nearly two weeks’ time. That is for the UPR report on Sri Lanka that will be taken up by the Human Rights Council on March 15 and remain there until the conclusion of the sessions. Thus, he will oversee matters of the Sri Lanka delegation during the most crucial period, the second US resolution.

A key feature of Samarasinghe’s speech was the strong criticism he levelled against the UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay. Pointing out that “internationalisation of Sri Lanka’s domestic issues would hamper reconciliation efforts,” he accused Pillay of making regular “negative observations about Sri Lanka both at the UN and other forums” since May 2009. That was when troops militarily defeated Tiger guerrillas. Pillay was in the assembly hall when the remarks were made. “Her frequent comments to the media, some in close proximity to sessions of the Council, could well have the effect of influencing delegations, especially when there are resolutions contemplated. This runs counter to the detachment, objectivity and impartiality expected from the holder of such an exalted office,” Samarasinghe said.
Germany defends Pillay

Germany came to the defence of PIllay. Germany feels Sri Lanka’s criticism of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHRC) is unjustified. German Ambassador Hanns H. Schumacher said Pillaywas increasingly faced with unjust criticism.He said the statement made by Minister Samarasinghe at the UNHRC this week constituted an illustration.

In her statement to the UNHRC, US Ambassador Donahue referred to issues in only three countries – Syria, Mali and Sri Lanka. On Sri Lanka, she said, “When conflicts end, promoting reconciliation and accountability through transitional justice is imperative. To this end, Sri Lanka must promptly implement the constructive recommendations of its own Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission. It must address accountability for violations of international law and investigate allegations of war crimes. We welcome OHCHR’s recent report on Sri Lanka’s efforts and share the High Commissioner’s concern about the Government’s lack of genuine action on these issues, as well as its recent efforts to undermine the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law. We stand ready, with OHCHR, to help Sri Lanka address outstanding issues related to reconciliation, democratic governance, and accountability.”

Channel 4 adds to the woes

Various groups who are backers of the latest US resolution on Sri Lanka have pitched camp outside the venue of the Human Rights Council sessionsat Palais des Nationes. They are located in a square near the compound and are expected to take part in an anti-Sri Lanka demonstration today. This is whilst international pressure appears to be mounting in different quarters.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay listens to Remigiusz Henczel, President of the Human Rights Council before delivering her annual report to the 22nd session of the Human Rights Council at the United Nations in Geneva REUTERS

Early this week, Ambassador Aryasinha wrote a strongly worded letter to Remigusz Achilles Henczel, President of the Human Rights Council over the screening of the Channel 4 film ‘No Fire Zone,’ in the UN premises. He wanted him to ensure that “NGOs are not facilitated in perpetrating unsubstantiated and politically motivated acts against member countries in any manner.” The letter was released by the Sri Lanka Mission to the UN in Geneva.

On Thursday, it issued a second statement saying that the Council President has, in a response to Ambassador Aryasinha, dissociated UNHCR from the screening of the film. There was a spin on the statement that was issued. In the first instance, the Council is not formally associated with side events arranged by different groups on issues that come up. This is standard procedure and not confined to Sri Lanka alone. In this case, the film was arranged by both the Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International which have received UN recognition. It was screened on Friday afternoon.

A news report in the International Herald Tribune on Friday on the screening of the event had caused some concern to the Sri Lanka delegation. It had quoted the film’s Director, CallumMacrae as saying that the screening was in “conjunction” with the Council sessions. The Sri Lanka delegation had a meeting. By then the official position of the UNHRC has been made clear. According to reports from Geneva, Minister Samarasinghe asked that Ambassador Aryasinha attend the screening of the film together with some officials from the Sri Lanka mission, make a statement there, and withdraw.

This statement was released to the delegations and the media yesterday. Aryasinha said, “The Government of Sri Lanka strongly protests against the efforts by the organisers of the event – Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Festival du Film et Forum International hur les Droits Humains (FIFDH), to use the UN premises for the screening of this film NO FIRE ZONE: THE KILLING FIELDS OF SRI LANKA. Sri Lanka also strongly protests the perception that has been sought to be created in the public mind, through pro-LTTE websites, as well as by duping even better known media organs such as even the International Herald Tribune, which yesterday in an article quoted the Director of this film Mr.Callum Macrae as saying that the film ‘would be screened at the 22nd sessions of the Human Rights Council now under way in Geneva, where the United States planned to introduce a resolution asking Sri Lanka to investigate the allegations of the war crimes by its Army.’”

Aryasinha’s lengthy statement added “By providing a platform for the screening of this film which includes footage of dubious origin, content that is distorted and without proper sourcing and making unsubstantiated allegations, the sponsors of this event seek to tarnish the image of Sri Lanka and detract from the considerable, positive developments that have taken place in the former conflict zones, within less than four years since the guns fell silent. A consequence of this action would be the undermining of the on-going reconciliation process in Sri Lanka….”

Another speaker at the screening event was Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran. He said, “The UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts reported that there were credible allegations that both sides to the conflict committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. It recommended an independent mechanism to investigate these alleged crimes. The TNA, as the elected representatives of the Tamil people, welcomed these recommendations and called for Independent International Investigations into the last phase of the war. We think this and the on-going violations and persecution of the Tamil population need to be investigated and stopped.

“When the Channel 4 footage was first released, the Government of Sri Lanka vigorously opposed it. Yet the government-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) too recommended that it should be investigated to ascertain its authenticity. We will co-operate with any investigation to uncover the truth. It is the truth that will lead to any kind of meaningful reconciliation and that is how the on-going violations will stop”

TNA leader, Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, though expected to travel to Geneva had decided against travelling and remained in London. Both Sampanthan and Sumanthiran had travelled to London to attend the third anniversary sessions of the Global Tamil Forum held in a building in the British Parliament. The high profile event gave the GTF propaganda mileage ahead of the UNHRC sessions. There, among other matters, Sumanthiran said, “The recent impeachment of the Chief Justice through a process that was declared to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court demonstrates the extent to which the rule of law has broken down in Sri Lanka. The apparent disregard for democratic ideals and to the values and principles of the Commonwealth as regards Latimer House principles, which Sri Lanka is bound by, clearly demonstrates the authoritarian and dictatorial nature of the present regime….”

Rajapaksa denies war crime charge

In a separate development, President Mahinda Rajapaksa denied the Army had killed Tiger guerrilla leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran’s son Balachandran. In an interview with an Indian newspaper, he was quoted as saying, “Had it happened, I would have known [it]. It is obvious that if somebody [from the armed forces] had done that, I must take responsibility. We completely deny it. It can’t be,” he told the newspaper. The newspaper report added: “On new evidence of wrongdoing in the final stages of the war in 2009, collated by international organisations and media outlets, Rajapaksa said that putting out such reports and videos was their job. “We must not merely look at one side. They must not merely listen to one group and the Opposition [in Sri Lanka]. So they [the Opposition] are trying to get the support of other countries to create an ‘Arab Spring’ here. That won’t happen in Sri Lanka.”

On the coming US sponsored resolution at the UNHRC,” the newspaper report added, “Mr.Rajapaksa said Jaffna was provided with all infrastructure just three years after the war ended. “Who did this within three years? Anybody who has come and seen it has talked about it positively and has commended us. Even India was “harassed” by the UNHRC over Kashmir, he said. Sri Lanka is like a volley ball. Everyone is taking turns punching it to cover up their sins.”

By co-incidence, when the screening of the film ended, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was addressing a news conference. Here a Q & A from the official transcript delivered to the media including the Sunday Times.

“Q: Thank you very much. Mr. Ban Ki-moon, I am a Mexican journalist and Vice-President of ACANU. It’s very nice to see you here in Geneva. Thank you very much for the opportunity of this press conference, on behalf of ACANU, I would like to say.

“My question is regarding Sri Lanka. We just saw an appalling film that documents atrocities perpetrated at the end of the war. Members of the civil society made a strong statement demanding the Human Rights Council to ask for an international and independent investigation. Do you support this request?

“SG: I have consistently underlined the critical importance of addressing accountability in Sri Lanka through a genuine and comprehensive national process achieving national reconciliation. Last week in New York I have received the Japanese ambassador who led the accountability assessment mission to Sri Lanka where representatives of Bangladesh, Nigeria, Rumania, Sri Lanka and a Colombia University professor participated in an observation project to Sri Lanka last December. I recognised through our meeting with them the important steps taken by the Government of Sri Lanka since the end of the conflict and strongly underlined the need to address the remaining challenges particularly on issues relating to reconciliation and accountability. I highlighted the importance for the Government of Sri Lanka to work constructively with the international community towards that end.”

Human rights issues also figured at the State Department news briefing in Washington DC last Thursday. Questions were taken by Patrick Ventrell acting Deputy Spokesperson. He was asked:”QUESTION: Just a quick one on human rights. The UN Human Rights Report and also Human Rights Watch, they are accusing Sri Lanka as far as not taking steps against the minorities or for their welfare. Does U.S. agree with that? Because Sri Lanka denies all these reports and all.

“MR. VENTRELL:So we’re reviewing this lengthy and extensive report. I understand we just got it a day or so ago. But we do note our strong concern about human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka. And to date, the Government of Sri Lanka has not initiated a full, credible, or independent investigation into longstanding allegations of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, including sexual assault. So we’re reviewing this particular report, but you know where we’ve been in terms of human rights in Sri Lanka and our really deep concerns.”

Sri Lanka figured again at the State Department news briefing on Friday. Here is what transpired:
“QUESTION: All right. There’s one more on Sri Lanka I have.
“QUESTION: On the resolution that you are putting up at the UN, is it different than the last? How different is it from the last year’s resolution that the U.S. has put in?
“MR. VENTRELL: Well, we do intend to, as I mentioned yesterday, sponsor resolution at the UN Human Rights Council current session. It will build on the 2012 resolution, which called on Sri Lanka to do more to promote reconciliation and accountability. The resolution will ask the Government of Sri Lanka to follow through on its own commitments to its people, including implementing the constructive recommendations from the report by Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. So that’s really the content of the resolution and we’re cosponsoring – we’re sponsoring it and support it.”

Rajya Sabha debate

On Thursday, the Rajya Sabha or India’s upper house also took up a “calling to attention” motion. External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, though he “shared concerns” with those moving the motion, made clear India would not intervene directly in Sri Lanka’s sovereign affairs. He also declared that India cannot adjudicate about the truth over the reported incident where Balachandran, the 12 year old son of Tiger guerrilla leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed. The remarks came after members called for an independent probe into the reported killing.

Both members of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (AIADMK) members staged a walkout. External Affairs Minister Khurshid continued. He said accountability was necessary and it should come from within. Pointing out that there is no future unless there is reconciliation, he added that India could not impose a time line for Sri Lanka on it.

Responding to demands that India should vote with the new US resolution on Sri Lanka, Khurshid said India would take a position bearing the sentiments expressed at the debate. D. Raja of the Communist Party of India (CPI) sought a “categorical assurance” from Minister Khurshid that the Sri Lanka Government would not ignore the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

He replied that no such assurance could be given about what another government would do. V. Maitreyan of AIADMK objected to Khurshid describing Sri Lanka as a friendly country. Sanjay Raut (Shiv Sena) said India committed a mistake in sending troops to Sri Lanka. Venkaiah Naidu (BJP) complained that the Sri Lanka Government had “failed miserably” in protecting the rights of Sri Lankan Tamils. Some members made extreme demands like banning visits to India by President Rajapaksa and sending Indian troops again to check what they called “ethnic cleansing.” Ruling Congress Party members however ignored such suggestions.

The events playing out in different world capitals make clear that Sri Lanka is very much a focal point of attention. It only means that media release diplomacy where one vies against the other or abuse by inexperienced officials tasked to build good relations with the media alone will not help the Government. If not now, at least post Geneva, there is an imperative need to have a close look at why strategies failed and Sri Lanka ended up winning more enemies and distancing friends. Needless to say, the task should begin at home by having the best professionals to do the key jobs.

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