Pillay’s bombshell report corners Rajapaksa regime
A damning 20-page report from United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay became the subject of close scrutiny by the UPFA Government this week. Pillay’s office urged the Government, as is the practice, to respond to the contents of this 74-point report — the precursor to the United States backed latest resolution on Sri Lanka next month — within a week. The External Affairs Ministry (EAM), which co-ordinated the point by point answers converting it to a formal document kept to the deadline which was last Wednesday (February 12). It was sent to Ravinatha Ariyasinha, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations in Geneva, for onward transmission. The Pillay report too had earlier been channelled through him to the Government in Colombo. It will be made public by the Human Rights Council just days before the 25th sessions which begin on March 3 or in less than two weeks.
This report, a copy of which was seen by the Sunday Times, has made recommendations both to the 25th sessions of the UN Human Rights Council as well as the Government of Sri Lanka. To the UNHRC, it recommends, that it should “establish an international inquiry mechanism to further investigate the alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law and monitor any domestic accountability process. OHCHR (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights) stands ready to assist such a process.”
Here is what the Pillay report calls upon the Government of Sri Lanka to carry out:
(a) Finalise laws dealing with incitement to hatred, witness and victim protection, the right to information, the criminalization of enforced disappearances, in line with international standards, and revise existing laws to bring them into line with International Human Rights Law;
(b) Repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and lift the regulations promulgated under it which allows for arbitrary detention;
(c) Arrest, prosecute and punish alleged perpetrators of attacks on minority communities, media and human rights defenders, and ensure protection of victims;
(d) Undertake independent and credible criminal and forensic investigations with international assistance into all alleged violations of human rights and humanitarian law, including recently discovered mass graves;
(e) Establish a truth seeking mechanism and national reparations policy in line with international standards as an integral part of a more comprehensive and inclusive approach to transitional justice;
(f) Broaden the scope and tenure of the Commission on Disappearances to encompass cases from all parts of the island and all periods of the history of disappearances. Ensure an effective public information campaign and provide sufficient time to hear and record all petitioners who wish to submit complaints;
(g) Publish the final report of the military courts of inquiry, presidential commission of inquiry 2006 and more recent commissions of inquiry to allow the evidence gathered to be evaluated;
(h) Take further steps in demilitarization, and initiate a meaningful and transparent reduction of the military presence to peacetime levels, which would require a clear timeline for demobilisation, disarmament and disengagement from activities that are meant to be civilian;
(i) Engage civil society and minority community representatives more fully in an inclusive and consultative process to support implementation of the LLRC recommendations;
(j) Implement the LLRC recommendation for a national day of commemoration, allow all citizens their right to hold individual or group commemorations, and hold national consultations on the design of appropriate memorialisation for the victims of the war;
(k) Give positive consideration to the offers of technical assistance made by the High Commissioner for Human Rights;
(l) Invite special procedure mandate holders with outstanding requests to visit the country in 2014, particularly the Working group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances and the Independent Expert on Minority Issues.
Among other matters, Pillay says that “new evidence — including witness testimony, video and photographic material — continues to emerge on what took place in the final stages of the armed conflict. Human remains also continue to be discovered, for instance in Matale in November 2012 and Mannar in December 2013.” She adds: “As the emblematic cases highlighted above show, national mechanisms have consistently failed to establish the truth and achieve justice. The High Commissioner believes this can no longer be explained as a function of time or technical capacity, but that it is fundamentally a question of political will.
The Secretary-General’s PoE (Panel of Experts) and initiatives by international non-governmental organisations have shown that witnesses are willing to come forward to testify to international inquiry mechanisms which they trust and which can guarantee their protection. For this reason, the High Commissioner remains convinced that an independent, international inquiry would play a positive role in eliciting new information and establishing the truth where domestic inquiry mechanisms have failed. In the absence of a credible national process, she believes the international community has a duty to take further steps which will advance the right to truth for all in Sri Lanka and create further opportunities for justice, accountability and redress.
“The High Commissioner reiterates concern about the continuing trend of attacks on freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, particularly against human rights defenders, journalists and families of victims; the rising levels of religious intolerances; and continued militarisation which continues to undermine the environment where accountability and reconciliation can be achieved. She therefore reiterates and updates the recommendations made in her previous report to the Human Rights Council, most of which remain unimplemented.” Diplomatic sources say the Pillay report will form the basis on which the US resolution would be finally worded. That is to make clear that their resolution has been further complemented by the outcome of the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s findings.
One of the important elements in the Human Rights High Commissioner’s report to the Human Rights Council, besides the call for an international inquiry, is that there should be no amnesty for those found guilty of war crimes if a truth seeking mechanism is established. The Government has looked at the South African model for such a purpose and wanted to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
South Africa, where a Truth and Reconciliation Commission came into being after apartheid was abolished, has been engaged in diplomatic efforts to have a modified one set up in Sri Lanka. According to the South African TRC, a Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act declared that the TRC was to enable “South Africans to come to terms with their past on a morally accepted basis and to advance the cause of reconciliation.” This was to help deal with what happened under apartheid. The conflict during this period resulted in violence and human rights abuses from all sides. It was to be carried out through three mechanisms — the Amnesty Committee, Reparation and Rehabilitation Committee and the Human Rights Violations Committee. A Register of Reconciliation gave members of the public a chance to express their regret at failing to prevent human rights violations and to demonstrate commitment to reconciliation. Applicants were allowed to appeal for amnesty for any act, omission or offence associated with a political objective.
Despite the Sri Lanka Government’s interest in a TRC, there is grave doubt about the prospects of one being set up. The broader outlines, mooted informally, were for a commission that would include military officers, who will hear representations paving the way for a pardon or amnesty. However, one of the key players who would have to agree to such an exercise, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), is unwilling. It does not want to be seen as by-passing India which has strongly backed it so far and continues to do so.
Cyril Ramaphosa as special envoy
There were also misgivings between Colombo and Pretoria, particularly after talks between South African President Jacob Zuma and President Rajapaksa, on the side lines of the Commonwealth summit in November last year. References in a news release after the talks spoke of a Sri Lankan interest in the TRC when in fact the two countries were already locked in diplomatic consultations to set up such a commission. Yet, South African born Pillay has chosen to close what she deems may be a loophole when an investigation into alleged war crimes is concluded. The provision to exclude amnesty for those found guilty, diplomats in Colombo say, was likely to be entrenched in the new US resolution.
Yet, South African President Zuma referred to Sri Lanka in his 2014 State of the Nation Speech to mark the opening of Parliament last Thursday in Cape Town. He said: “Progress is being made in negotiations between Sudan and South Sudan on outstanding issues following the secession. Following requests from Sri Lanka and South Sudan for assistance in bringing about peace and reconciliation, Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa, has been appointed as South Africa’s Special Envoy to the two countries. His expertise in conflict resolution and negotiations as well as our country’s experience in this regard, will greatly assist the two countries to resolve their problems.”
Ramaphosa is best known for founding the National Union of Mineworkers, the most powerful trade union in South Africa. He is also known for the role he played during the negotiations to bring a peaceful end to apartheid and to steer the country towards its first democratic elections in 1994.
The UPFA Government’s position on the different issues was articulated by Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga who headed a special mission to Washington DC. He told a media briefing on the LLRC Action Plan for select invitees on Thursday, “My reading is that, the USA will somehow push this resolution in Geneva. It appears that they will go flat out to get this resolution on board and to make sure that a majority of people will support it. But I think what we have to do is, whether resolutions come, presented or not, is to complete as early as possible what we do. That is the stance I think the Government will have to take in time to come.”
Weeratunga added: “The crux of the argument I made was why Sri Lanka is not being given time when you see the enormity of the work that we have to do.
Whatever we say here is to make sure that reconciliation is a process which will take a long time. We are not trying to rush through and I don’t think we can ever sort it out in a matter of a year or two. So I know that there is a lot of scepticism. Even when the LLRC was formulated there was, but I think when the report came out, there was some kind of acceptance. Ok, right, good recommendations have been made. I think it is better late than never, at least to educate these people (US and in Geneva). It was not to stop a resolution in Geneva…..”
The Pillay report is the direct outcome of the US backed resolution adopted by the UNHRC in March 2013. It called upon the Human Rights Commissioner to “present an interim report at the twenty-fifth session (next month) of the Human Rights Council, on the implementation of the resolution.” For this purpose, she paid a week-long visit to Sri Lanka, the longest she has undertaken to any country. She then declared that “I am deeply concerned that Sri Lanka, despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant, all-embracing state, is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction.”
The Sri Lankan Government’s response to the latest Pillay report was formulated by senior External Affairs Ministry officials with assistance from those in the Ministry of Defence, the Attorney General’s Department, and the Human Rights Commission among others. Forming the basis is a report prepared by Lalith Weeratunga who chairs a Presidential Task Force on the implementation of the LLRC recommendations.
That highlights the recommendations implemented, those under implementation and the different initiatives the Government has taken. In addition, reports of alleged attacks on religious minorities, attacks on media practitioners, threats and intimidation of human rights defenders were among the matters dealt with.
These alleged attacks on religious minorities figured even at Thursday’s weekly meeting of the cabinet of ministers. It came in the backdrop of reports that both Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, members of the UNHRC, are poised to vote in favour of the US resolution. Kuwait voted against the resolution (i.e. in favour of Sri Lanka) last year whilst Saudi Arabia is a new member. President Mahinda Rajapaksa told his ministers that the “whole purpose” of the upcoming US resolution was to bring about a regime change. He raised issue about a document circulated by the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) listing places of Muslim worship where attacks have allegedly been carried out.
Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem, the SLMC representative in the Cabinet, maintained stoic silence. Later on Thursday, Minister Wimal Weerawansa, known for publicly airing views of UPFA leaders, hit out at the SLMC. He charged that the SLMC, an ally of the UPFA, had figured among groups that had provided information to UN Human Rights Commissioner Pillay against the UPFA Government. Though he did not refer directly to his ministerial colleague Hakeem, Weerawansa told an election rally in Seeduwa, that the SLMC was enjoying ministerial posts. He alleged that an SLMC delegation which met Pillay during her visit to Sri Lanka had included Hassan Ali. They had provided (anti-Government) information to her. He said this was how media reports had spoken about Pillay submitting a 10,000 word report before the UNHRC.
A lesser known fact about Minister Weerawansa’s actions boomeranging on the Government surfaced this week. During the visit to Colombo by US Ambassador at Large for War Crimes issues, Stephen J. Rapp, the US Embassy had offered to keep his engagements on a “low key” with little or no publicity. This assurance ended when Weerawansa had organised a demonstration outside the US Embassy. The fact that a Government Minister was behind such a protest incensed US officials. “The Embassy had agreed with the External Affairs Ministry (EAM) that it would keep matters on very low key with little publicity as possible. However, this protest changed it all,” said an authoritative EAM source. When the Embassy protested, the EAM response, according to the source, was that the demonstration was only by one Minister and should not be treated as that of the Government. As a result, the US retaliated with a Twitter message. Accompanied by a photograph, the message on the US Embassy Twitter account in the name of Ambassadors Michele Sison and Rapp said “St Anthany’s Ground – Site of Jan 2009 killing of hundreds of families by Army shelling.”
As news of Weerawansa’s remarks circulated on Friday, Hakeem summoned his own insiders in the party for a meeting at his residence that afternoon. He told them that he chose to remain silent when the President raised issue at the ministerial meeting on Thursday. This was because Rajapaksa had telephoned him days earlier about the same SLMC document and he had explained to him why it had been published. He alleged that his colleague Weerawansa was being used as a cat’s paw and charged that he had even violated cabinet responsibility by “making those wild accusations” against a ministerial colleague in public. Incidentally Rajapaksa was livid over a similar case where Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne had summoned a news conference to berate External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris over the issue of Indian fishermen poaching in Sri lankan waters. Peiris had in fact issued a statement thereafter slamming his cabinet colleague Senaratne basically giving him a lecture on how foreign affairs are conducted.
A source at the SLMC high command meeting said Hakeem was “defiant.” He had declared that his as well as the party’s position “were vindicated” after he explained matters on the phone to Rajapaksa. “We are not against the Government. We want the full implementation of the LLRC recommendations. Beyond that, we are opposed to any probe into alleged war crimes. That is going beyond the mandate of the UNHRC,” he had told his confidants. Pointing out that we “are within our political rights” to raise issues, sometimes “we find ourselves like square pegs in round holes,” Hakeem had declared adding that “we are very much with the Government and have not betrayed anyone or compromised on cabinet responsibility.” Commenting on alleged attacks on Muslims, Hakeem had argued that when there is “a lack of enforcement of the law,” it was the collective responsibility of the cabinet of ministers. Hakeem had also said the SLMC was for the fuller implementation of the LLRC recommendations.
The main opposition United National Party (UNP) also drew attention to the recommendations of the LLRC in a three-page statement issued on Thursday. It said that it is “tragically comical” that the Government has asked for a further five years (from July 2012) to fully implement the LLRC recommendations. It said: “For a regime that had the eagerness to repeal the 17th Amendment and introduce the draconian 18th Amendment virtually overnight, for a regime that impeached the Chief Justice through a process that lasted less than two weeks and for a regime that grants approval to any multi-billion dollar deal over the counter it is nothing short of ridiculous to ask for five more years to implement recommendations that were made by a Sri Lankan commission tasked with looking into bringing about peace and reconciliation in our country. These absurdities once again demonstrate the insincerity of the ruling regime.” The UNP said it was “prepared to support the regime” to “restore the systems and institutions of democratic governance, if it pledged to restore the 17th Amendment and prioritise a return to civilised values and the rule of law.”
In this backdrop, it became increasingly clear, this week or it’s now official, that domestically the UPFA will launch an “all-out campaign” against the United States and its allies over the latest resolution.
Ministers and organisers for the Southern and Western Provincial Council elections were briefed on Thursday at a meeting in ‘Temple Trees’. President Rajapaksa also took part for a short time but it continued with Minister Maithripala Sirisena in the chair. Sirisena told the participants that they should focus their campaign on the efforts made by President Rajapaksa to end terrorism by defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). He said Rajapaksa was willing even to face the electric chair to defend the troops who had taken part in the “humanitarian operation” and liberated the North from LTTE terrorists.
All participants were given copies of a DVD detailing out the points they should emphasise in their speeches and also in their interaction with the voters. Other awareness campaigns are also to be launched. That will no doubt see a spike in anti-west sentiments and may prompt adverse travel advisories from some countries at least. That is not good news for the tourism industry.
The UPFA polls campaign will formally be launched next week though individual candidates are holding their own meetings. President Rajapaksa is to address two meetings in each district in the Southern and Western Provinces adding up to 12 rallies. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said whilst his party candidates had launched their respective campaigns, all party leaders would take part in a number of rallies beginning only early next month.
That notwithstanding, the Government is now taking a second look at the offer by the US Pacific Command to reconstruct three different schools in the North. The fact that Education Minister Bandula Gunawardena forwarded a proposal together with a draft Memorandum of Understanding with the US Pacific Command and how it was rejected was revealed exclusively in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) of February 2. Now, the Cabinet has asked the Secretary to the Ministry of Education Anura Dissanayake to forward a comprehensive report on the subject. The schools in Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Mannar Districts were to be reconstructed into a modern educational facility. It would be a two pronged project, one primarily for educational purposes and the other for it to be used as relief centres in the event of a national emergency where hundreds could be housed. The project comes under the Overseas Humanitarian Disaster Assistance and Civic Aid (OHDACA).
US Senate resolution
Besides the United States moving a resolution in Geneva next month, the US Senate also resolved last week to forward a resolution on Sri Lanka for the attention of its Foreign Relations Committee. It was a cross-party resolution (both Democrats and Republicans) moved by five influential Senators, among other matters, calling upon US President Barrack Obama to “develop a comprehensive policy towards Sri Lanka” and urged an “international investigation into reports of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other human rights violations…” Though the resolution is non-binding it pressures the executive branch and signals the sentiments of the influential Senators involved and those who back them.
Sen. Leahy (Republican – Wisconsin) was a strong Sri Lanka supporter. Lately he turned negative on the Government. He once supported military assistance and financing of ships, guns, aircraft and coastal radars for Sri Lanka. He moved for funding for humanitarian demining which continues. He also obtained funding for mine victims by providing with prosthetics. In 2007, he pressured to drop Sri Lanka from the Millennium Challenge Corp. funding (SL qualified for up to USD 1 billion in 2004) and authored the Leahy Amendment application to SL. However, that did not stop key items such as air and sea surveillance radars needed then to end the conflict. Leahy chairs the Senate Judiciary and Appropriations Sub Committee on Foreign Operations, which controls aid and military assistance. He is also closely associated with the ‘human rights community,’ particularly the Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Sen. Robert Casey (Democrat – Pennsylvania) has always been critical of Sri Lanka. He was heavily lobbied by Tamil Diaspora groups. He is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. His staff visited Sri Lanka late last year. Senator Richard Burr, (Republican -North Carolina). Senator Barbara Boxer (Democrat – California) serves in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator Scott Brown (Republican -Ohio) has been a previous signatory on resolutions on Sri Lanka. Boxer serves on Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Senator John Cronyn (Republican – Texas) is co-chair of the Senate caucus Friends of India. Reports from Washington DC say the House will discuss a resolution on the same lines as the one unanimously adopted by the Senate. This is now being formulated, according to these reports.
The fact that a resolution was before the US Senate seems to have caught off guard the Thompson Advisory Group (TAG), the US public relations and lobbying firm that is doing the work of the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington DC. It was unable to brief either Presidential Secretary Weeratunga or External Affairs Ministry Monitoring MP; Sajin de Vass Gunawardena whilst in the US capital that such a resolution was being moved in the Senate. The Sri Lankan VIPs became aware of it only after their return to Sri Lanka. This is whilst the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington hired the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage for a cultural performance to mark Sri Lanka’s national day.
A statement from the Embassy in Washington to the local media said, “The Ceremony at the chancery concluded with the guests enjoying a traditional breakfast with milk rice and sweetmeat including Kewum and Kokkis …” It added that Ambassador Jaliya Wickremesuriya declared “We are determined to reconcile and build a peaceful and prosperous country and what we expect from our true friends in the international community is genuine and meaningful support towards this process.”
That such support has not been forthcoming for years now and his Embassy has done little is no secret. Neither the Embassy nor TAG was able to report to the Central Bank (which has hired it) that more things have turned against Sri Lanka. Thus, the Bank was in the dark and was unable to alert the Ministry of External Affairs too. The latter had first learnt of it from media reports. That is despite TAG drawing US$ 66,000 monthly from the Central Bank. A Central Bank source said yesterday that the TAG bill for December and January would be much higher for a catalogue of reasons. Main among them is the production and airing by buying time of a 28 minute film on Sri Lanka. The others will be for services rendered when Weeratunga and party were in Washington.
The European Parliament also this week adopted a lengthy resolution on Sri Lanka. It called upon the UN Human Rights Council to establish “an international inquiry to be fully independent, credible and transparent” into alleged war crimes.
Lobbying of other member countries of the UNHRC continues. This week Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa travelled to the South Korean capital of Seoul as President’s special envoy. In a meeting with that country’s first ever woman President Park Geun-hye he sought South Korea’s support at next month’s UNHRC sessions. Minister Rajapaksa also had a meeting with Prime Minister Chung Hong-won. South Korea voted in favour of the US backed resolution last year.
This is whilst a senior Russian diplomat was in Colombo this week to express his country’s strong support to Sri Lanka. He is Anatoly D. Viktorov, Director, Humanitarian Co-operation and Human Rights in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He met officials of the External Affairs Ministry, the Defence Ministry, the Attorney General’s Department and the Human Rights Commission. He was to tell them that Russia did not support any “country specific” resolutions.
Remarks by Government ministers and senior officials this week make clear that they are resigned to the reality that the third US-backed resolution would be carried through in the Human Rights Council. Hence they have chosen, officially, to carry out a strong propaganda campaign against all those responsible for this during the ongoing polls campaign. With an opposition still in disarray, there is little doubt that the UPFA will win the two elections to the Southern and Western Provincial Councils. The “electric chair” campaign will therefore have only a relatively marginal effect. But that could further marginalise Sri Lanka. More of the taxpayer’s money would have to be pumped later to repair damages, more so with a non-existent foreign policy. If it is not for the UPFA Government, the increasing isolation is certainly a dilemma for Sri Lanka.