An uneasy calm has returned to areas hit by ethnic violence in and around the southwestern coastal junction town of Aluthgama. Armed commandos of the Police Special Task Force (STF) and Army personnel stand guard at almost every hundred metres in Dharga Town, along the Matugama Road, the worst hit. Their Buffel armoured trucks, with [...]


Five-star wonder of Asia: Dream or nightmare?

Pillay names probe team, Govt. slams door, but Tamil groups and Solheim may testify; South African peace initiative next month

An uneasy calm has returned to areas hit by ethnic violence in and around the southwestern coastal junction town of Aluthgama.
Armed commandos of the Police Special Task Force (STF) and Army personnel stand guard at almost every hundred metres in Dharga Town, along the Matugama Road, the worst hit. Their Buffel armoured trucks, with V-shaped bottoms to minimise damage from landmines during the separatist war on Tiger guerrillas, conduct regular patrols.

Detectives of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), in different groups, are moving from one affected home to another, interviewing families and recording their statements. The focus is on how the attacks on them occurred. Plainclothesmen whom some residents believe are intelligence operatives are also keeping a close eye on premises badly damaged or destroyed. Suspicions were aroused by their conduct. In one instance, members of a controversial diplomatic mission in Colombo escorted by domestic staff visited a destroyed house cum factory. The owner was asked to show only the front area and not the heavily damaged interior.

In another, a house owner whose premises suffered damage said they used a mobile phone to photograph visitors and mingled with them listening to conversations.
State intelligence agencies do not comment on the deployment of their personnel for reasons of national security. However, a source said: “if they were present, it was only to ensure there was no recurrence of any violence. They can monitor the situation on the ground.” The flip side to this, however, has been a fear psychosis leading to uneasiness. Adding to that have been searches and even arrests. Appeals have been made on loudhailers asking the public to surrender to the Police any weapons they may possess. Aluthgama Police have so far had no response to such calls. Nor have the adjoining Beruwala Police.

After details were finalised in Colombo, 700 soldiers from the Army moved into the affected areas this week for a major re-building operation. Their immediate task will be to reconstruct 27 houses and 47 shops that were destroyed. In addition they will also carry out repairs to 67 damaged houses and 90 shops. The task is under the charge of Major General Udaya Madawala, Western Area Commander. Of Rs. 200 million already allocated for rehabilitation work in affected areas, the Army has been granted Rs. 150 million. Besides reconstruction efforts necessitating large sums of money, businesses destroyed depriving employment to hundreds far exceeded re-building costs, Government officials in the area said. One salutary feature was the presence of a large number of well-wishers who were donating gas cookers, washing machines, refrigerators, microwave ovens and other household items to those affected. For Muslims who were affected, it came in handy since their holy month of Ramazan was set to begin last night after the sighting of the new moon.

OHCHR probe
The June 15 incidents in and around Aluthgama appear to have overshadowed another major development – the events leading to UN’s official announcement on Wednesday about the finalisation of the team for the international investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in a statement called upon the “Government and the people of Sri Lanka to cooperate fully with this investigation which can help shed light on the truth, and advance accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.” It warned that “the investigation would still go ahead undeterred if such cooperation was not forthcoming.”

Here are excerpts: “UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay announced Wednesday that three distinguished experts have agreed to advise and support the team set up to conduct a comprehensive investigation of alleged human rights violations in Sri Lanka, as mandated by the Human Rights Council in March. The investigation will look into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka during the last years of the armed conflict.

The experts are:
“Mr Martti Ahtisaari, former President of Finland and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, who has also served as a UN diplomat and mediator and is renowned for his international peace work;

“Ms. Silvia Cartwright, former Governor-General and High Court judge of New Zealand, and judge of the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia, as well as former member of the UN Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women;

“Ms. Asma Jahangir, former President of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association and of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, previous holder of several Human Rights Council mandates and member of a recent fact-finding body into Israeli settlements.

“I am proud that three such distinguished experts have agreed to assist this important and challenging investigation,” the High Commissioner said. “Each of them brings not only great experience and expertise, but the highest standards of integrity, independence, impartiality and objectivity to this task.”

“The experts will play a supportive and advisory role, providing advice and guidance as well as independent verification throughout the investigation.
“The Investigation Team with whom they will work will consist of 12 staff, including investigators, forensics experts, a gender specialist, a legal analyst and various other staff with specialised skills. It will be operational for a period of 10 months (up to mid-April 2015)….

“In March 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted resolution 25/1 titled ‘Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka’ which requested the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to undertake a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka during the period covered by Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission
Commission (LLRC) which examined the last years of the armed conflict……

“The resolution requests the Office to present an oral update to the Human Rights Council at its twenty-seventh session in September 2014, and a comprehensive report at its twenty-eighth session in March 2015.”

The Government has made clear it will neither allow the team to visit Sri Lanka nor cooperate with the investigation. The position is to be reiterated when an official intimation is received from the team. However, the London-based Global Tamil Forum (GTF) said it hoped to make representations. “We are awaiting the operational procedures of the investigation team would adopt. Thereafter we will make representations,” GTF’s Suren Surendiran told the Sunday Times.

He said that the Forum also had made representations to the three-member Panel of Experts appointed earlier by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. A diplomatic source in Geneva said the investigators would invite representations from persons who have been associated with “various developments” during the final phase of the separatist war in May 2009. One such case is that of Erik Solheim, who played the role of peace facilitator and was the former Norwegian Minister for International Development. Solheim told the Sunday Times, “I will go before the team when asked.” He described the investigation team as “high profile, experienced and honest” and added they are “very difficult to be dismissed.”

Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan declined comment when asked whether the alliance would testify before the investigation team. He told the Sunday Times, “Our party will take a decision on this matter. However, we have already placed on record in Parliament matters as and when they happened. Beyond that I cannot comment. Of course, we have to protect the rights of the Tamil people.” He said the Government has brought this situation upon itself. “When the UN Secretary General came in May 2009, the Government agreed to an accountability process. They did not follow up. Nor did they establish a credible domestic mechanism. Genuine reconciliation is not possible until the truth is ascertained,” he declared.

South African initiative
On the question of reconciliation, which the OHCHR claims would be one of the issues to be advanced through an international investigation, there were other developments, too. South Africa’s acting President Cyril Ramaphosa is due in Colombo anytime between July 7 and 9 to continue Pretoria’s process for peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. On February 13 last year President Jacob Zuma told his country’s Parliament during his state of the nation address that Ramaphosa, a one-time General Secretary of the ANC would be special envoy. He said this was the result of Sri Lanka Government’s request for South Africa’s intervention to bring about “peace and reconciliation.” Since President Zuma is reportedly ill, Ramaphosa, Deputy President, is acting. This is the first time that an acting head of state is getting directly involved in Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process.

He will lead a high-powered delegation that will include Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim, the Parliamentary Counsellor to the President of the Republic in the National Assembly. A veteran of the struggle against apartheid, Ebrahim is the former Deputy Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, also served in the Presidency before as political advisor to the then Deputy President Zuma and associated with Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process for many years, Obeid Bopiela, Deputy Minister for Performance Monitoring, Evaluation and Administration, Roelf Meyer, Defence Minister during the apartheid regime and later a member of Nelson Mandela’s Cabinet and Ivor Jenkins, a Consultant and Director at In Transformation Initiative.

An acting President’s South African initiative for peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka comes at a critical moment. Two UPFA Government partners — the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and the National Freedom Front (NFF) — have publicly declared they would oppose any “outside moves” towards reconciliation in Sri Lanka. The South African initiative got under way in Pretoria when a TNA delegation held talks there. Earlier, a Government delegation led by External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris had visited there for the same purpose.

Plans are afoot for Ramaphosa and his delegation members to meet Government leaders, those from the TNA, representatives of the main opposition United National Party (UNP) and civil society groups. Thereafter, the delegation plans to travel to New Delhi but diplomatic sources say they are yet to receive confirmation about meetings. Like the Norway-brokered peace initiatives with the then UNP Government, delegations from Oslo that visited Colombo returned to their capital via New Delhi. This was after briefing Indian officials. Whilst there is no formal agenda for the talks, a source familiar with contacts between Colombo and Pretoria hinted that the South African initiative envisaged a protracted process.

“First would be talks about talks. Then they plan to have a structured agenda that will encompass issues to be discussed and the consequential constitutional amendments required. The last issue thus would be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission tailored to meet Sri Lankan requirements once issues are agreed upon,” the source revealed. However, by the Government’s own public declarations in the recent past, a solution to the national question would have to be through the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC). Hence, how the Government will reconcile its position vis-à-vis the South African initiative and growing dissent among its own partners remains a critical question. A Government source admitted that when Pretoria’s help was sought, it was more focally on a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that could hear confessions and grant amnesty to those concerned. However, the outgoing UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay insisted in her report to the Human Rights Council in March that no such amnesties should be given to wrong doers.

Travel restrictions
These developments came as President Mahinda Rajapaksa proposed a code of conduct on travel abroad for ministers, deputy ministers and MPs on foreign visits to “ensure an efficient management of state expenditure.” This, he says, is by “concentrating mostly on such priority areas that are of vital importance in building a national economy.” A seven-page code circulated among ministers says the powers of the President over matters relating to foreign travel have now been vested with the Prime Minister, Ministers and Provincial Governors. The Presidential Secretariat has sent out circular instructions to all Secretaries on the guidelines to follow when granting permission for parliamentarians, provincial council members, members of local authorities, state officers, and officials of public corporations/statutory boards/authorities/state owned companies.

“Your presence in the island,” Rajapaksa has told his ministers “would be absolutely essential except when unavoidable official or personal reasons compel you to go abroad.” He has said that “invitations from private sector organisations and individuals should be examined more carefully.” He wants the ministers to bear in mind that “such invitations may be an inducement for various undue favours.” Ministers have also been asked to refrain from “obtaining travel grants, air tickets and any other types of funding through diplomatic missions in Sri Lanka and through bilateral and multilateral donor agencies.” All ministers have been directed to forward their foreign travel requests to the President.

Here are some of the significant highlights of President Rajapaksa’s Code:
No direct requests should be made for official or unofficial trips abroad to foreign missions in Sri Lanka, or Ministries of Foreign States and such requests should always be channelled through the Ministry of External Affairs. Likewise invitations from foreign Governments (especially invitations that may be received from Taiwan) for a high level official or private visit should be referred to the Ministry of External Affairs so that the current status of the diplomatic or bilateral relations etc. with that particular country could be looked into and steps taken thereafter to obtain approval for the visit abroad.

Number of official and private visits abroad undertaken during each year should not exceed five and two respectively. No minister should be out of the island for over ten days. Permission will be granted only for essential private visits.

In accepting invitations from foreign Governments and International Organisations (including International Non-Governmental Organisations), advice from the Ministry of External Affairs should be sought and a copy of such advice attached to the application. This requirement will not apply to inter-ministerial level meetings such as annual meetings of recognised international organisations and inter-parliamentary conferences.

Ministers and Secretaries to ministries should not be away from Sri Lanka at the same time. Permission to do so will be granted only under exceptional circumstances.

A minister may be accompanied by only one member of his or her personal staff, if it is found necessary.

Ministers should ensure that definite arrangements have been made to keep the Presidential Secretariat informed (if necessary, confidentially) of the correct dates of departure and return so that acting appointments in place of them could be arranged. They should submit a report to the Cabinet of Ministers within two weeks of their return.

Except in the case of parliamentary delegations, individual Members of Parliament should make their applications separately to the Prime Minister through Chief Government Whip unless they are members of a delegation sponsored by a Ministry. The Prime Minister will forward the list in respect of parliamentary delegations to the President. All applications of those ministers will be taken up for consideration only on receipt of the Chief Government Whip’s report. No travel to be undertaken on the premise that approval would be granted.

Accompanying President Rajapaksa’s Code is an eight-page memorandum by External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris. It calls for significant changes. He has said that the NGO Secretariat (now coming under the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development) and the Registrar of Companies will be tasked “with clearing NGO requests on hosting events and arranging necessary visas for the participants.” He has proposed “to designate a focal point at the NGO Secretariat and the Registrar of Companies in order to streamline the visa process.” Peirs notes that the present ETA (Electronic Travel Authorisation) online visa system does not have a provision for ‘seminars/conferences/workshops’ as the purpose of travel. He has pointed out that instances have been reported of some participants erroneously selecting the ‘visit’ visa category to obtain online visas to participate in events and thereby encountering some difficulties. “Therefore, creating a category called ‘conferences/seminars/workshops’ in the online ETA visa system is strongly recommended,” Peiris has said.

Peiris adds that when an applicant selects the new category in the ETA system, “it should automatically be flagged to the Officer-in-Charge/focal point at the Department of Immigration and Emigration, and he/she could cross check with his/her records or take measures to inform the relevant entities about the request. “Once this category is selected,” Peiris has recommended that “the applicant should be requested to provide details of the local sponsor, letter of invitation and other relevant documentation. This step would further streamline visa issuance process relating to this category,” Peiris has claimed.

This is how Minister Peiris has described the different categories:
PROFESSIONAL BODIES – As most professional bodies are not affiliated or linked to any Government entity, they could inform of the events with international participation directly to the Ministry of External Affairs. The Ministry will provide its observations in consultation with the relevant authorities, to the professional body with a copy to the Controller General of Immigration and Emigration. After receiving these observations, issue of visas to the participants would be through the Sri Lanka missions abroad or the Controller General of Immigration and Emigration.

CHAMBERS – THINK TANKS - The Chambers and most of the Think Tanks are incorporated as companies under the Companies Law. However, it is proposed that the Chambers/Think Tanks should inform the organisation of events with the participation of the External Affairs Ministry with a copy to the Controller General of Immigration and Emigration. Whilst Chambers could write directly to the latter, the Think Tanks could write to the NGO Secretariat.

NGO’S REGISTERED UNDER THE NGO SECRETARIAT - Their request should be made to the Ministry of External Affairs together with a copy of their registration certificate. The EAM, after processing, will advise the NGO Secretariat and the Ministry of Defence. The issuance of visas thereafter will be recommended to the Commissioner General of Immigration and Emigration.

NGO’S REGISTERED UNDER THE COMPANIES ACT - The NGOs registered under this category should make a request to the Registrar of Companies. They should provide the certificate of registration and details of funding sources. In addition, they would be required to give an outline of the subjects to be discussed, objectives and list of participants. The Registrar will forward such requests to the External Affairs Ministry with his observations. It is only thereafter that the Controller General will be requested to issue visas.

Troops undertaking reconstruction work in violence-hit Aluthgama. Pic by Sarath Siriwardene

Peiris’s report also seeks to place restrictions on ministers attending diplomatic functions. He has said that ministers should not accept invitations for receptions, luncheons, dinner parties or other engagements extended by a diplomatic mission at a level below the rank of Ambassador or High Commissioner.

Peiris has laid bare some adverse situations created by ministerial visits abroad, a revelation that does not speak well for the EAM. Some of his observations: “On several occasions requests have been made to the Ministry of External Affairs at very short notice to arrange official meetings for Sri Lankan Ministers travelling abroad, as well as for meetings with dignitaries of foreign States. Sometimes several ministerial visits from Sri Lanka to a single foreign capital have followed successively. On some occasions, these multiple visits have prompted the foreign State concerned to query the rationale and the need for such multiplicity of visits, often for the same purpose. Furthermore, our Missions abroad function with limited resources and such requests, without adequate prior notice, would place the Mission in a very difficult situation.

“It has also been noted that certain Ministers make direct requests to Sri Lanka Missions abroad, and in certain instances, to the Ministries of foreign Governments requesting facilities and arrangements for Sri Lankan VIPP to make official/non-official visits to those countries. This practice is inappropriate both from the administrative/protocol as well as foreign relations point of view….

“In order to avoid such situations, it is necessary that all such requests be rationalised and henceforth channelled through the External Affairs Ministry, which will process the request, taking into account, the foreign relations implications, and advise the Missions abroad as to the action to be taken. Similarly, when an invitation is extended to a Minister or a senior official of a Ministry by a foreign Government for travel abroad such an invitation should be referred to the External Affairs Ministry…..Thereafter steps should be taken to obtain prior approval of the President……”

President Rajapaksa’s Code of Conduct for Travel Abroad by ministers, deputy ministers and parliamentarians, though late, still appears salutary. However, the question remains what would happen to those who breach provisions of the Code. There have been no known instances when UPFA ministers, deputies and MPs have been taken to task over these issues in the past. However, Peiris’ memorandum and the recommendations he has made raise some serious questions. He is determined to place severe restrictions on the conduct of conferences/seminars/workshops and related events in Sri Lanka. One is not wrong in saying that approvals in such instances would be forthcoming only for events that favour or meet the approval of the UPFA Government. For others to receive approval, they would have to change their subjects and speakers to suit the Government. Thus, one more severe restriction will deny the UPFA leaders from continuing to claim that Sri Lanka is a five-star democracy or a Wonder of Asia. It comes at a time when the Government finds itself beleaguered on many fronts.

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