Supermarkets passing on 15 per cent tax to consumers but Govt may reduce prices for Avurudu season India negotiates with US on resolution against Lanka but likely to support it eventually Commonwealth conference call soon to decide on SL issue despite GL’s claims in Parliament By Our Political Editor The threat of a second United [...]


Price cut for New Year, but high price to pay in Geneva


  • Supermarkets passing on 15 per cent tax to consumers but Govt may reduce prices for Avurudu season
  • India negotiates with US on resolution against Lanka but likely to support it eventually
  • Commonwealth conference call soon to decide on SL issue despite GL’s claims in Parliament

By Our Political Editor

The threat of a second United States resolution at the on-going United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in Geneva is not the only issue to pre-occupy the Government this week.

There was another. It is the issue of rising prices of consumer items and the impact it is having on Sri Lankans, particularly those in the middle and lower classes. President Mahinda Rajapaksa recounted his experience during a visit to Moneragala early this week. He asked a woman “Jeevana Viyadama Vedida” or is the Cost of Living high? She shot back “Vedi vunaata api merenney nehe ney”or though high, we (meaning people) do not die now. She was of course alluding to the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas – a feat to which Rajapaksa gave political leadership. The woman was conscious that there was no fear psychosis due to bomb explosions or assassinations thereafter. Yet, she politely made clear living costs were high.

The discussion was intense in view of the National New Year next month. The discussion focused on many areas. One was how it was claimed that small traders were being badly hit by the proliferation of supermarket chains countrywide. In fact, this was the reason why the Government introduced two different taxes on these chains from April 1 this year. The idea was to slow down their growth. Supermarkets having a gross turnover of more than Rs. 500 million a quarter will have to pay a Value Added Tax (VAT) of 12 per cent. In addition, there is also a 3 per cent Nation Building Tax. Most supermarkets have decided to pass on the new levies to the consumer, not by way of adding them separately in their bills as Government taxes. Instead they are to be reflected in the items they buy, thus keeping the consumer unaware that the taxes have been passed down to them.

United States diplomats held an informal meeting at the Palais de Naciones where the UN Human Rights Council is in session. There, they presented the text of their second draft resolution on Sri Lanka. The meeting in session.

On the other hand, supermarket chains are also making a strong case for their increasing role. One of them said that more than 35 per cent of their consumers came from the middle class. More of them spent just over Rs. 1,200, the per consumer ratio they needed to stay afloat as a commercially viable venture. “They had the option to buy, for example two potato spuds, a handful of capsicum, chillies or similar item, get it weighed and pay for it.

At smaller outlets, they do not have that option and have to settle for a quarter, half or a kilo of some item. Here again, the weight may not be accurate,” the Manager of a large supermarket in the outskirts of the City said. He argued that the new levy would only punish the consumer and force them to mostly unreliable outlets. Since supermarkets were buying consumer items in bulk, it was possible for them to market them at a more competitive price than most retail outlets, he pointed out. In marked contrast, he said, a vast majority of other outlets obtained their requirements not from wholesalers. Hence, the price mark-ups were higher.

The cabinet appointed a ministerial team to identify ways and means of reducing the prices of essential consumer items. It is headed by Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa. It was only a week earlier that he was named the National Organiser of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the main partner in the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). The ministerial team has already got down to business identifying the consumer items on which price reductions could be made and the mechanisms for it. Thus, the weeks ahead of the New Year will see official announcements of price reduction of a variety of items. However, if one is to go by past practices, for how long such lower prices will remain is a critical question. Moreover, they will not lead to hotels, restaurants and other outlets consequently reducing prices of consumable products.

The urgent need to give people relief for the National New Year came as the United States intensified diplomatic efforts in Geneva this week over its second resolution. The hardening US stance was reflected in a statement issued in Colombo by the US Embassy. It came in the wake of a report that a large group of families of those who disappeared had been stopped in Vavuniya and prevented from heading towards Colombo. The protest has been organized by Mano Ganesan, Leader of the Democratic People’s Front (DPF). At the news briefing after Thursday’s weekly cabinet meeting, official spokesperson and Media Minister, Keheliya Rambukwella said allegations had been made by the US Embassy. “I read them in the newspapers. I will have to check and let you know why they were stopped,” he added.

Asked whether he contested the veracity of the embassy statement, Rambukwella replied, “As for now, I have not got any information. I’ll need to check and let you know. And if the reason to stop them is not a valid one, then we’ll have to investigate it. They (the Police) have said that this is for their own safety (the reference is to the protestors)and advised them not to cross certain areas…..”

The US Embassy statement on Wednesday said: “The U.S. Embassy is concerned about reports that hundreds of Sri Lankan family members of the disappeared were blocked in Vavuniya by Sri Lankan authorities while travelling to Colombo. These family members are calling for information about their missing loved ones. The Embassy calls upon Sri Lankan authorities to allow free movement of these citizens. The right to freely express opinions is universal and protected under Sri Lankan and international law. The United States is constructively working with international partners to support these basic freedoms through the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution in Geneva.

“We continue to urge the Government of Sri Lanka to follow through on its own commitments to its people by implementing recommendations made in their Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) Report. The LLRC recommends thorough investigations into disappearances as well an establishment of a mechanism to address cases of the missing and detained. Since last year’s UNHRC resolution the United States has grown increasingly concerned by the lack of progress on these issues, as well as backsliding on other important areas of fundamental democratic rights. All Sri Lankans should enjoy the same rights and live in dignity, sharing a democratic, secure, and prosperous future.”

Though seemingly routine, the statement did contain a strong message. It is one of the toughest from the US Embassy in recent years. One was the expression of increasing US “concern” by the lack of progress since the last UNHRC resolution. This is a forerunner to the second resolution and the reasoning behind it. The other is the charge that the Government was “backsliding” on “important areas of fundamental democratic rights.” Though the group from Vavuniya could not reach Colombo, another group of next of kin turned up outside the UN compound in Colombo on Wednesday. They staged a protest and handed over a letter to a local staffer. Earlier, they staged a protest outside Nelum Pokuna Theatre.

Military spokesperson Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya circulated to the media a statement. It said:”This morning a group of over 1500 parents/next of kin of missing persons staged a protest in Colombo and handed over a letter to UN office requesting the UNHRC to account for their loved ones. This is a demonstration of only a fraction of the reality of terrorism that we defeated in Sri Lanka and the international propaganda spearheaded by the GTF and its allies has conveniently left out thus obscuring the real picture. This list does not contain tens of thousands of Navy, Air Force, Police, Civil Security Department persons and most importantly the civilians killed, missing as a result of terrorist acts of the LTTE. (If a complete list were to be provided to the UN this association of the parents of the missing persons would have had to hire an 18 wheeler truck.)

“Names of over 3000 persons who have gone missing was (sic) handed over to the UN and I have got scanned copies of the covering letter and is attached herewith. In that letterhead the address, email and telephone number of the ‘Dead and Missing Person’s Parents Front’ are given, and you may get more information from them.Sharing for your general information please.”

Brigadier Wanigasooriya’s note to the media raises an all important question. On the one hand, the Government has publicly questioned the propriety of countries and non-governmental organisations calling on the UN Human Rights Council to probe alleged war crimes against troops. Such calls have also been accompanied by demands that disappearances be probed. These issues, the Government has maintained, had received their attention. However, here is an instance where the UN Human Rights Council is being called upon to account for those who have disappeared. Arguably the call is being made by the “Dead and Missing Persons Parents Front” and not officially by the military. Yet, there appears a clear contradiction apart from the fact that the comments have come from the spokesperson. The only logical way the UNHRC could provide answers to such a request would be after an investigation.

US and Indian diplomats in Geneva were locked in consultations over the provisions in the draft second resolution. The full text of that draft was revealed exclusively in these columns on February 24. Here is the latest draft as it stood yesterday (Saturday March 9). It is likely to undergo more changes. The US diplomats in Geneva held an informal meeting on Friday at the Palais des Naciones in Geneva where the latest draft of the resolution was officially made known.(See below for full text.)

Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Ravinatha Aryasinha, who attended the event, said the resolution was not acceptable to Sri Lanka. Though present the Indian envoy did not make any comments.

Draft resolution HRC 22 Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka

The Human Rights Council,

PP1 Guided by the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenants on Human Rights and other relevant instruments, (PP1 19/2)
PP2 Recalling Human Rights Council Resolution 19/2 on Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka,
PP3 Reaffirming that it is the responsibility of the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure the full enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of its entire population,
PP4 Reaffirming that States must ensure that any measure taken to combat terrorism complies with their obligations under international law, in particular international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law, as applicable,(PP3 19/2)
PP5 Taking note of the Government of Sri Lanka’s National Plan of Action to Implement the Recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and its commitments as set forth in response to the findings and recommendations of the LLRC,
PP6 Noting with concern that the National Plan of Action does not adequately address all of the findings and constructive recommendations of the LLRC,
PP7 Recalling the constructive recommendations contained in the LLRC’s report, including the need to credibly investigate widespread allegations of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances, demilitarize the north of Sri Lanka, implement impartial land dispute resolution mechanisms, re-evaluate detention policies, strengthen formerly independent civil institutions, reach a political settlement on the devolution of power to the provinces, promote and protect the right of freedom of expression for all and enact rule of law reforms, (PP5 19/2, modified)
PP8 Also noting with concern that the National Plan of Action and the LLRC’s report do not adequately address serious allegations of violations of international law, (PP6 19/2, modified)
PP9 Expressing concern at the continuing reports of violations of human rights in Sri Lanka, including enforced disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture, violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, as well as intimidation of and reprisals against human rights defenders, members of civil society and journalists, and threats to judicial independence and the rule of law,
PP10Also noting with concern the failure by the Government of Sri Lanka to fulfil its public commitments, including on devolution of political authority, which is integral to reconciliation and the full enjoyment of human rights by all members of its population,
PP11Expressing appreciation for the Government of Sri Lanka’s efforts in facilitating the visit of a technical mission from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and encouraging the Government of Sri Lanka to increase its dialogue and cooperation with the OHCHR,

Welcomes the Report of the OHCHR on advice and technical assistance for the Government of Sri Lanka on promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka and the recommendations and conclusions contained therein, in particular on the establishment of a truth-seeking mechanism as an integral part of a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to transitional justice; and notes the High Commissioner’s call for an independent and credible international investigation into alleged violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law;

1. Urges the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations in the OHCHR report;
2. Reiterates its call upon the Government of Sri Lanka to expeditiously and effectively implement the constructive recommendations made in the LLRC report and to take all necessary additional steps to fulfil its relevant legal obligations and commitment to initiate credible and independent actions to ensure justice, equity, accountability, including investigations of violations of international law, and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans; (OP1 19/2, modified)
3. Urges the Government of Sri Lanka to cooperate with special procedures mandate holders and formally respond to outstanding requests, including by providing unfettered access to the Special Rapporteurs on independence of judges and lawyers; human rights defenders; freedom of expression; freedom of association and assembly; extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; minority issues; and the Working Group on enforced or involuntary disappearances; and discrimination against women;
4. Encourages the OHCHR and relevant special procedures mandate holders to provide, in consultation with, and with the concurrence of, the Government of Sri Lanka, advice and technical assistance on implementing the above-mentioned steps; (OP3 19/2, modified)
5. Requests the OHCHR, with input from relevant special procedures mandate holders, as appropriate, to present an interim report at the twenty-fourth session and a report in an interactive dialogue at the twenty-fifth session of the Human Rights Council, on the implementation of the resolution.

One of the contentious areas for New Delhi is a provision that calls upon Sri Lanka to provide “unfettered access” to UN special procedures mandate holders. This includes Rapporteurs on independence of the judges and lawyers; human rights defenders; freedom of expression; freedom of association and assembly; extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; minority issues; and the Working Group on enforced or involuntary disappearances; and discrimination against women. This provision has remained in the resolution until yesterday.

The use of the words “unfettered access,” Indian diplomats argued bordered on the resolution being intrusive. Their worry, quite apart from Sri Lanka, centred on whether India would, by voting for such a provision, set a precedent that could be used against it. An example, a diplomatic source said, was how the Indian Government would react in the unlikely event of a resolution against that country over Kashmir. They would not be in favour of an ‘outside’ agency having “unfettered access” to deal with the Government of India,” the source argued.India and Pakistan have fought two wars over Kashmir. Around half of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir is in Indian hands whilst Pakistan controls a third of the region, the Northern Areas and the Azad Kashmir.

Another is a call in the resolution – which has become even stronger than the previous drafts — that notes that the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay’s call for “an independent and credible international investigation into alleged violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.” However, it follows immediately thereafter with a call that the UNHRC “Urges the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations in the OHCHR report.” In other words it makes clear there is no call for an international investigation in the resolution.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh went public to confirm reports that there were still differences between New Delhi and Washington over the wording of the new resolution. He declared on Wednesday in New Delhi that whether India votes against Sri Lanka would depend on the wording of the US resolution. However, diplomatic sources in Colombo said there was little doubt India would eventually decide to vote for the resolution with the United States accommodating the changes it seeks in the wording. This is on the basis that the US would want to carry India along in any steps it would take in the region. On the other hand, the question still remained whether the text of the resolution, as it remained yesterday, would be further modified to exclude areas of Indian concerm.

Pressure from the state government in Tamil Nadu extended to the Lok Sabha in New Delhi last Thursday. Parliamentarians of the opposition as well as partners of the Congress Government staged a walkout in the afternoon after making demands that India should take the lead in the US-backed resolution. Among them were the leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK), a partner in the Congress Government and leader of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (AIADMK) S. Thangathurai. The DMK and the AIDMK are arch rivals in Tamil Nadu politics.

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid who interrupted a speaker to respond to queries explained that no decision had been taken with regard to the vote at UNHRC. However, he added that the Government would take into consideration the sentiments expressed in the House when it arrived at a decision. “We must be effective and clear, not lukewarm. What we do has to be done in a proper manner, diplomatically so that it can be most effective,” he declared. When an Indian External Affairs Minister speaks, it is often said that his remarks are well calibrated and represents official Government policy. For this purpose, the Minister receives up-to-the-minute briefings from his own officials. It is indeed a marked contrast from Sri Lanka where contradictions lead to confusion and later to diplomatic disaster. Minister Khurshid’s remarks to the Lok Sabha leave no doubt about what India plans to do though it does reflect a message that it would heed diplomatic niceties.

Former External Affairs Minister and BharatiyaJanatha Party (BJP) leader Yashwant Sinha said that India should caution other neighbours against interfering in Sri Lankan affairs and also caution them not to interfere in Indo-Lanka relations. “Let India not merely vote…. In the UNHRC but take the lead in drafting the resolution and carry it through the Council,” he said. Some members said they were not satisfied with Khurshid’s reply. Others faulted the Government for allowing President Rajapaksa to travel to Tirupati on a private visit. Saugato Roy of the Trinamool Congress withstood repeated interruptions, to say that the late Tiger guerrilla leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran did more harm than good to the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. He charged that the guerrilla leader used Tamils as human shields.

The Sri Lankan Government is yet to work out its final strategy at voting time or the days before it. It is likely to be formulated before delegation leader and President’s Special Human Rights Envoy Mahinda Samarasinghe flies to Geneva on Tuesday. It is highly likely that the Government will take up the position that the second US resolution is unjustified and irrelevant. It is also expected to say it would serve no purpose except to persecute Sri Lanka. It has also not taken a firm decision over not calling for a vote when the resolution is moved on March 21. However, any member country of the Human Rights Council is entitled to call for a vote.

These developments come as some leading countries of the Commonwealth, both members of its Ministerial Action Group and others, made preparations for a conference call. Though diplomatic circles in London say it is likely to materialise next week, no firm date has yet been fixed. This event is ahead of the Action Group’s meeting scheduled for early next month. Sri Lanka is likely to be on the agenda.

External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris told Parliament last Tuesday,”I would like to assure the Hon. Leader of the Opposition at the very onset, that one thing is crystal clear.There is not a shadow of doubt about that, namely that CHOGM 2013 will be held in Sri Lanka in November this year. The Government is investing a great deal of time, effort and resources in elaborate and meticulous preparations in order to ensure that the outcome is entirely positive.” That strong and categorical assertion came after Opposition Leader, Ranil Wickremesinghe raised a question.

Wickremesinghe said,”….media reports have stated that Sri Lanka will be discussed at the next CMAG meeting. The news release of the Ministry of External Affairs titled “Sri Lankan Issues have no place in CMAG Agenda – GL tells Chair of CMAG” states that “the exhaustion of the good offices role of the Secretary-General is a condition precedent of any specific country situation to be included in the agenda of CMAG. This is clear from the rules relating to CMAG, adopted by the Commonwealth Heads of Government at their meeting in Perth, Western Australia, in October 2011. Another news release issued by the National News Agency of Bangladesh (BSS) states Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the chair of Commonwealth Ministers Action Group called upon Colombo to take some positive steps to uphold the Commonwealth values and principles.

“Therefore in the background of these statements, will the Minister make a full statement disclosing to this House the present position regarding CMAG and the discussions with the Secretary-General in relation to the good offices engagement pertaining to the Sri Lankan situation referred to in the External Affairs Ministry newsrelease.”
With barely a month to go for the National New Year, the priority areas for the Government have become two pronged. One is to lower prices of essential consumer items, at least for a limited period, and ensure most Sri Lankans enjoy the festivities.

On the international front, two major issues remain. One is the events against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council which will begin unfolding in the coming weeks. The other is the CIMAG sessions which are sure to list Sri Lanka on the agenda. Notwithstanding his bold and categorical assertion that “there is not a shadow of doubt” that the Commonwealth summit would be held in Colombo, there still remains a gloomy uncertainty. Whatever is now being called Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is being put to test. A nation awaits the answer.

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