Geneva: Hard line at home, heart cry abroad
Ministers at their weekly meeting on Thursday rejected a proposal for the Government of Sri Lanka to enter into a Memorandum of Understanding with the United States Pacific Command (PACOM) to construct three fully equipped schools in the North.
A point at issue was how Education Minister Bandula Gunawardena came to make a recommendation for this purpose. According to him, the Department of National Planning and the Presidential Task Force for Resettlement, Development and Security have recommended the proposal. This was after the Ministry of Education, Cultural Affairs and Sports of the Northern Provincial Council had submitted the proposal. Therefore, he sought approval to sign an MoU with the Office of Defence Co-operation in the United States Embassy in Colombo. It is this office that liaises on all matters related to PACOM. His recommendation was to be taken up originally on January 11 but was put off for last Thursday to await comments from important ministries.
That this proposal came amidst the US move to introduce a third resolution, this time seeking an international probe on alleged war crimes, at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva was grist to the mill for some. Paradoxical enough, this was at a time when Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga and External Affairs Ministry Monitoring MP Sajin Vaas Gunawardene were in Washington DC lobbying Sri Lanka’s case with a small cross section of legislators, policymakers and officials. Weeratunga circulated to them a 42-page report setting out Sri Lanka’s case.
On Wednesday, Weeratunga met Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian Affairs, Nisha Desai Biswal, who was due in Colombo a few days later. He pleaded Sri Lanka’s case and outlined the measures the UPFA Government had taken to act on issues raised in the two previous US-sponsored resolutions. The essence of his appeal was to seek more time. That was the only meeting with a State Department official. Ms. Biswal arrived in Colombo on Friday on a three-day visit and was meeting Government leaders, civil society groups and opposition personalities. A State Department media statement from Washington said, “Assistant Secretary Biswal will travel to London for meetings with officials from Her Majesty’s Government on February 3. She will also travel to Geneva, for meetings regarding our intention to sponsor a resolution on Sri Lanka in the March session of the UN Human Rights Council.
This resolution will build upon previous resolutions in 2012 and 2013, and will urge Sri Lanka to do more to promote reconciliation, justice and accountability in the wake of the civil conflict.” Among those Biswal met in Colombo were External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris, Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Opposition UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and a delegation from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). She had an elaborate programme in Jaffna yesterday. There was a 45 minute visit to the Uthayan newspaper office and a meeting with the Bishop of Jaffna, Rt. Rev. Thomas Savundranayakam.
The prelate told Ms Biswal that there should be an international inquiry into the alleged war crimes. She had a meeting with Ananthi Shashitharan together with relatives of three missing persons. She also called on Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran and Governor retired Major General G.A. Chandrasiri.
Rt. Rev. Saundranayakam will be among Bishops who will meet President Rajapaksa next week. Repeated efforts by the United States Embassy in Colombo to secure an appointment for her with President Mahinda Rajapaksa were not successful. A Presidential source said Rajapaksa had a tight schedule this week. However, diplomatic sources in Colombo believe the move was a snub and Rajapaksa had succeeded in avoiding Biswal delivering a strong message to him from the US Government. The tough stance of the US had been reflected in her engagements with others in Colombo.
A senior official of the US Justice Department is also expected in Colombo ahead of the Geneva event. Also in Colombo this week is Vicky Morely, Desk Officer for Sri Lanka at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London. Britain, which will be a co-sponsor of the latest US-backed resolution, is also canvassing support from Human Rights Council members of the Commonwealth. It has also obtained the help of France to lobby French speaking member countries. In what seemed opposition support for British Prime Minister, David Cameron over Sri Lanka, Opposition Labour Party leader Ed Miliband this week declared his backing for an “international investigation.” He declared that Premier Cameron should follow through with the announcement he made in Colombo during the Commonwealth summit towards such an inquiry. His statement came during a meeting with Tamil diaspora groups in Britain.
Arriving in Colombo on Tuesday on a four-day visit is Ivor Jenkins, a former South African Minister and now consultant to the Government there. He is associated with South Africa’s initiatives to promote a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sri Lanka. Neither the UPFA Government nor the TNA has made progress over this slow moving initiative. Sources on both sides say they do not expect any tangible development though the visit is a continuance of the South African efforts. On the part of the TNA, one of its senior members said, “We are not sure what South Africa can do which India has not been able to carry out so far. We do not place much hope on the effort.” In fact, after its meeting with South African President Jacob Zuma, the TNA said it would have to consult India before embarking on any move towards a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TNA has also not responded so far to a South African invitation for a delegation to visit that country for further talks.
That there is no softening of the US position over Geneva became even clearer this week. Talking to senior State Department officials in Washington was Makita Shimokawa, Deputy Director General, Asian and Oceania Affairs Bureau of Japan’s Foreign Affairs Ministry. According to Washington-based diplomats, Shimokawa made a strong bid to urge the US to take what was described as a moderate approach. The thrust by Japan, a close US ally, was to obtain more time for Sri Lanka to address issues related to the two previous US-backed resolutions. According to these diplomats, he had also pitched on the growing influence of China in Sri Lanka and pointed out that punitive action would only force Colombo to rely further on Beijing. Japan’s relations with China have remained strained with the two countries locked in a war of words. The regional cold war exacerbated on the dispute over the ownership of Diaoyu or Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine further rekindled issues between the two countries. They say that the efforts of the senior Japanese diplomat, Shimokawa did not succeed.
A Japanese Embassy spokesperson in Colombo confirmed that Shimokawa was in Sri Lanka on a two-day visit before he undertook his Washington tour. He had met External Affairs Minister Peiris, Presidential Secretary Weeratunga and External Affairs Ministry Secretary Kshenuka Seneviratne. Shimokawa’s visit came as a follow-up to the six-day visit in December last year by Japan’s special envoy Yasushi Akashi. Last year, Japan abstained from voting for the US-backed resolution.
Government Ministers are also undertaking similar missions. They were heading for different capitals of member countries of the UNHRC to urge them to support Sri Lanka to defeat the latest resolution. Minister D.E.W. Gunasekera who was in Ho Chi Minh City reported back to President Rajapaksa that Vietnam has extended it “fullest support”. Sri Lanka’s Ambassador Dr. Ivan Amarasinghe had messaged the Ministry of External Affairs as well that Vietnam would be backing Sri Lanka with “a robust declaration of solidarity”. Vietnam obtained the highest number of votes – 184 out of 192 countries at the United Nations General Assembly last year — for UNHRC membership 2014-16 despite some Western countries trying to block its entry to the Council.
Other ministers have been assigned to canvass UNHRC members. Dinesh Gunawardena has been assigned to travel to Brazil, A.H.M. Fowzie to Kuwait and Dilan Perera to the Philippines. Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva was in Pakistan and later joined Minister Peiris for a visit to New Delhi where Peiris addressed diplomats of UNHRC member countries which do not have a resident mission in Colombo.
It is in this virtually US-dominated backdrop that the ministers sat down to discuss Minister Bandula Gunawardena’s proposal. President Rajapaksa concurred with questions raised by some ministers on the propriety of a Ministry of Education dealing directly with a security arm of the US Government. The discussion was also to see Pavithra Wanniaratchchi, Minister of Power and Energy, complain about the conduct of the United States Ambassador Michele Sison. She alleged that Ambassador Sison was planning to conduct a meeting of all women MPs in Parliament with the help of United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian Rosy Senanayake. She claimed that it was not proper to do so without the permission of the Speaker.
Education Minister Gunawardena told his ministerial colleagues, “Measures have been taken to sign a Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and the Office of Defence Co-operation, US Embassy, Colombo.” He noted that the objective was to “perform new construction activities and renovations of three schools” in the Northern Province from the office of Defence Co-operation of the US Embassy. The schools are: Uruthirapuram Maha Vidyalaya (Kilinochchi District), Thunukkai Girls’ Tamil Medium School (Mullaitivu District) and Musali Maha Vidyalaya (Mannar District).
He told his ministerial colleagues, “The Department of National Planning and the Presidential Task Force for Resettlement, Development and Security – Northern Province have recommended the two project proposals submitted by the Ministry of Education, Cultural Affairs and Sports of the Northern Province, on new constructions, renovations and reconstruction” of the three schools. Pointing out that the Department of External Resources has granted concurrence for the draft MoU, he has added that the observations of the Attorney General’s Department have also been obtained and incorporated. In terms of the AG’s recommendations, he has added that a committee, will be appointed under the chairmanship of the Ministry of Education and with the participation of the Northern Province’s Chief Secretary to monitor the implementation of the projects.
The proposal entailed the signing of the MoU by Anura Dissanayake, Secretary to the Ministry of Education (on behalf of the Government of Sri Lanka) and Glenda Pollard, Lieutenant Commander (LCDR), United States Navy, Chief of Office of Defence Co-operation at the US Embassy in Colombo on behalf of PACOM.
The draft MoU states that “US Pacific Command Office of Defence Co-operation in Sri Lanka executing agency for the US Government in implementing Overseas Humanitarian, Disaster Assistance and Civic Aid (OHDACA) projects in Sri Lanka. A visiting mission consisting of US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), PACOM and USAID representatives, representative of the local consultancy and construction firm, Co-ordinator Representatives from Northern Provincial Ministry of Education and Zonal Directors (ZDE) of Education, Mannar, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu have considered the need for a school Re-construction project to improve the basic education facilities for the population in the Northern Province….” The project which has been in the pipeline since early last year was to take 36 months and was to be handed over to the Government on a “turnkey” basis.
The draft MoU notes that both the US and Sri Lanka have agreed on five points. They are:
Funding: Funds the schools reconstruction project by soliciting, awarding and executing a US Government Construction Contract, utilising a local construction firm and local quality assurance inspector.
Contract Administration: Administer the related contracts in accordance with applicable US laws including payments and actions for any required contract modifications. The contractor should have ICTAD registration and be selected through open tenders.
Progress Reports: Periodically make construction progress reports available to the Ministry of Education at the national or provincial level and or other official representatives of the Democratic Socialists Republic Sri Lanka.
Design/Specification Changes: Immediately advise USACE (US Army Engineering Corps), or any required or viably recommended design or specification changes. Authority for changes to design and specifications remains with USACE unless specifically delegated.
Dedication/Facility Turnover: Co-ordinate with appropriate Sri Lankan officials and notify USACE to schedule a formal turnover of the completed facilities to the Ministry of Education of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.
Among matters which Sri Lanka was to agree to provide the US authorities were:
Access to Sites: Will ensure that the contractors, PACOM representatives, USACE engineers and USAID representatives will be able to gain access to the Northern Province as necessary in the course of contracting work, inspections and any site visits deemed necessary.
Construction Project Facilitation: Direct all questions, concerns and request for construction progress reports to the Office of Defence Co-operation of the United States Embassy, Colombo, not the contractor or his subordinates, make every effort to ensure that other appropriate Sri Lankan Government officials are aware of such questions, concerns and request.
This is not the first time that Education Minister Bandula Gunawardena is at the centre of a controversy. Some of his colleagues point out that it was inappropriate for his Ministry to have proposed to sign an MOU with the US Pacific Command. They opine that such a move should have been carried out either by the Ministry of External Affairs or the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development taking the lead role. They say once the projects were completed, the Ministry of Education could have taken charge. Late last year, Gunawardena declared that the Year 5 scholarship examination, which paves the way for bright students to enter renowned educational institutions, would be scrapped from 2016. It drew a storm of protests from his own ministerial colleagues as well as the public forcing him to later backtrack.
Some ministers were also critical that the Ministry of Education wanting to sign an agreement with a military command of another country in itself was an indictment on how the state machinery functions. “If it was approved, that would have become a precedent to any Ministry venturing into projects with military organisations of any other country. One has to study this issue to determine how it came about,” said one minister who did not wish to be identified. He added, “even if the proposal itself was well meant, and would no doubt benefit the public in the North, the question is who decides on national security and other aspects? What has happened to the mechanisms that have been in place since independence?” Recently, Commerce Minister Rishard Bathiudeen wrote directly to the Pakistan Prime Minister seeking assistance for housing in Muslim villages in the North.
President Rajapaksa who chaired last Thursday’s ministerial meeting was also livid about another development — the Northern Provincial Council adopting a resolution last Monday seeking an international probe into alleged war crimes. He was angry that none in the NPC opposition benches, who represent the UPFA, raised any objection when the resolution was moved by M.K. Sivajilingam and seconded by Ananthi Sashitharan. It was Chief Minister Wigneswaran who sought to move a change in the wording. He told the Council where 36 of the 38 members were present that the word “genocide” should not be used. Instead, he said, words ‘equal to genocide’ should be used. He also said the word “Tamils” be substituted with the words “our people.”
The changes were made and the resolution was adopted unanimously in the TNA-controlled council. It came as the worst possible embarrassment for Minister Douglas Devananda’s Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP). Kandaswamay Kamalendran, the NPC Opposition Leader who represents his party, was present after he was escorted by Police and Prison officials for the meeting. Kamalendran is now in remand custody in connection with the alleged murder of Daniel Rexian, Chairman of the Pradeshiya Sabha of the island of Kayts. He has rejected calls by Devananda to submit his resignation and continues to hold office. Adding to the ire of the UPFA leaders was the reported failure of its partners to stage any form of protest when US Assistant Secretary Biswal visited Jaffna yesterday. Such pro-UPFA Government protests were conducted when British Prime Minister David Cameron visited the north.
The NPC resolution has led to angry protests in the South. The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) is to urge President Mahinda Rajapaksa to dissolve the Northern Provincial Council since the adoption of the resolution which it says is unconstitutional. The JHU is now discussing the issue and is to seek a meeting with him.
Minister and JHU General Secretary Champika Ranawaka told the Sunday Times, “The Constitution has conferred some powers on Provincial Councils. Calling for any form of investigation into purported war crimes is a matter for the Central Government.” He said the Governor of the Northern Province should initiate action against the NPC since it was not acting in accordance with the country’s Constitution. He added that there was constitutional provision for the Governor to complain to the President if the NPC was violating the Constitution. “In such an event, the President is empowered to dissolve the Council.” Defending the Sri Lanka Army, Minister Ranawaka said if they were unruly, they could have killed thousands of civilians but they had not done so during the final stages of the military campaign to liquidate the LTTE. The Tiger guerrillas, he said, had used civilians as human shields. “The LTTE directed an armed struggle against the State earlier. Now, the majority in the NPC are carrying out a diplomatic separatist campaign,” Ranawaka charged.
However, attorney-at-law Jayampathy Wickremeratne PC, a constitutional lawyer, argued that it did not amount to a violation of the Constitution. He told the Sunday Times, “The people’s elected representatives have the right to express their views on various issues. Soon after the war ended, Provincial Councils and Pradeshiya Sabhas passed resolutions to celebrate the success. I am not taking a particular position on this, but as People’s representatives they can express their views.”
Northern Province Governor, retired Major General G.A. Chandrasiri, declined comment on the NPC decision except to say that the “Constitutional provisions are very clear.” Other sources said his office was now formulating a report on the subject for President Rajapaksa. However, TNA leader Sampanthan defended his alliance’s action at the NPC. He told the Sunday Times, “There has been no transparent, independent and impartial investigation domestically. An assurance to conduct such a probe was contained in the joint statement after the 2009 visit of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to Sri Lanka. The UN panel of experts said there were credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian law. This needs to be investigated in a credible and impartial way.”
He said after these events, “evidence has been forthcoming through the electronic media of such violations. Both in letter and spirit, they violate the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) recommendations and the US-sponsored resolutions. If the purpose of the recommendations was to ensure reconciliation, what has been happening brought about greater ill will and discontent for the victims of the war. We are not against Sri Lanka. We do not want Sri Lanka to be penalised. That does not mean authoritarianism or impunity has to prevail.” He, however, did not comment on the constitutionality of the NPC adopting that resolution. He said the question should be directed to Chief Minister Wigneswaran. However the NPC Chief Minister was not available for comment.
If the pro-UPFA opposition in the NPC remained mum on the resolution calling for an international probe on alleged war crimes, it was also the case when a number of other resolutions were adopted. Among them: A monument to be erected in Mullaivaikal to remember the dead during the final phase of the war, set up a Land Secretariat in Mullaitivu to resolve land issues of the needy, forensic and internal investigations into skeletal remains found at Thiruketheswaram in Mannar to be supervised by the United Nations, all name boards in the North be in Tamil, Sinhala and English, express appreciation to British Prime Minister Cameron for visiting Jaffna and call for the Army to return to owners a farm at Muttiyankadu river bank in Mullaitivu and over 2,000 cows there be handed back to private owners.
These local political developments dominated what would otherwise have been a largely security related meeting on Wednesday chaired by President Rajapaksa. One of the focal point of attention was the crowd former General Sarath Fonseka’s Democratic Party (DP) had attracted. They were to join the Vipakshaye Virodaya (Opposition’s Protest) rally at the Hyde Park. Fonseka had explained to Ven Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera, the chair of the event, that he was not able to join up at Hyde Park since their procession had taken time. Instead, the DP rally ended outside the Fort Railway Station where Fonseka addressed the participants. In a related development, a Buddhist monk who is a member of the DP together with his supporters “raided” a printing press in Nugegoda where a thick book derogatory of Fonseka was being printed. He stood in front of television cameras to show the stacks of books and alleged that an unknown person had ordered 10,000 copies. A DP spokesperson said, “This is the treatment being meted out to a soldier who led troops to defeat Tiger terrorists. Despite intimation to the Police, no action has been taken.” He was of the view that the books were meant for distribution during the upcoming Southern and Western Provincial Council elections.
Nominations for these elections, expected to be held on March 29, will close on Thursday. The UPFA’s line of campaign became clear when President Rajapaksa took part in events in the Kalutara District on Friday. He said countries in the west were in a conspiracy to deny to Sri Lanka the hard-won victory against Tiger guerrillas. He vowed that he would not give in to such moves. That strong assertion reflected a hard line approach domestically though internationally emissaries are pleading Sri Lanka’s case. That dichotomy reflects what the UPFA Government is today.