Columns - Political Column

Lanka faces battle with big powers

  • Minister Peiris presents case to UN and US but gets mixed response
  • Despite optimism and publicity, Brussels talks end on sour note
  • Ties with India at crucial point as New Delhi moves to exert more influence
By Our Political Editor

Some critical economic and political issues relating to Sri Lanka were played out in world capitals this week. These related to economic talks with the European Union, bi-lateral talks with India and mending fences with the United States of America.

Important in economic terms was talks in Brussels on the revision and updating of the European Union's scheme of Generalised System of Preferences or the GSP Plus. The EU wants to withdraw this facility from August this year. It says the Government had not complied with eligibility criteria on the implementation of human rights conventions. The withdrawal would put thousands in the apparel industry out of employment with the closure of factories.

The Government despatched a high-powered delegation to Brussels. It was led by Attorney General Mohan Peiris and comprised, among others, External Affairs Ministry Secretary Romesh Jayasinghe and Sri Lanka's European Union Ambassador Ravinatha Ariyasinha.

A statement issued by the Sri Lankan side did not reflect a rosy picture. However, it did highlight the issues and the way they presented them to EU officials. The thrust was that both the Government and the people were "increasingly focusing on reaping the peace dividend, while endeavouring for restorative justice to further strengthen national amity." The regime of Emergency Regulations considerably amended or repealed. The Commission on Lessons Learnt and National Reconciliation were other steps. As a new measure, the Government completed a National Action Plan on Human Rights (NAPHR) together with civil society. This will go before Cabinet shortly.

Lankan professionals and businessmen protesting against CEPA at Kollupitiya on Tuesday. Pic by Sanka Vidanagama.

However, UPFA leaders including President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who received a personal briefing from the Sri Lankan delegation had little or no cause to be pleased. During their talks with Dr. Kristalina Georgiva, European Commissioner for International Co-operation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, she had fired volley after volley of questions at the Sri Lanka delegation raising even questions on inability of some lawyers to practice in courts.

The remarks prompted Attorney General Peiris to name two Colombo lawyers and say they were behind this propaganda against the Government.

Peiris was compelled to explain that the purpose of the delegation's visit was to continue the ongoing dialogue with the EU more than an immediate reversion of the EU decision to withdraw the GSP Plus. He was to caution that a delegation from Sri Lanka would not come again to Brussels for talks if such an atmosphere were to prevail. The contentious mood was reflected in a remark made by another member of the Sri Lanka delegation. He said if oil prices were to come down further, it would offset the losses the Government would sustain from the withdrawal of the GSP Plus scheme.

That abrupt note on which the Brussels dialogue ended may not spell the end of the GSP Plus issue. However, it does signify that the diplomatic process to win the facility will be long drawn, perhaps even after August when the withdrawal takes effect. Some Government leaders opine that the mood at the recent round of talks was tougher than previous occasions. To say the least, the apparel industry, one of top money spinners for the economy faces a serious threat.

The focus also turned to both New York and Washington with the first official visit by the new External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris. At the UN in New York, he met with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
The meeting with Ban was to convey a fairly tough message from President Rajapaksa to "keep your hands off Sri Lanka". Peiris claims he told the UN Secretary General that such moves by the UN are "unprecedented". More so, because the panel the UN SG was planning to appoint did not have the blessings of the UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly or the UN Human Rights Council.

Peiris' argument was that Sri Lanka has appointed its own Reconciliation Commission with former Attorney General C.R. 'Bulla' De Silva, PC heading it. Thus, a UN inquiry into alleged 'war crimes' in Sri Lanka in the last stages of the 'war' with the LTTE is "premature". Peiris had said that the local commission ought to be given space to conduct its own inquiries even though several international human rights groups like Amnesty (AI) and Human Rights Watch were pressing for a panel independent of the Sri Lanka government to go into these allegations.

The UN chief, however, is reported to have disagreed with Peiris saying that he still had the right to appoint an independent panel to go into allegations. UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky confirmed this position and cited UN probes into the conduct of Israel in the Gaza, and war crimes charges in Guinea Bissau last year as precedents.

Ban told reporters this week he was still working on a team to probe events in Sri Lanka based on international standards and practices. He told Peiris to do three things, according to an report filed by Thalifdeen of IPS reporting from the Glass House (the UN building) in New York, i.e. firstly, continue to improve the conditions of the internally displaced persons; expedite relocation; and reintegration of these people. Secondly, promote national reconciliation and third "the accountability process as I have been discussing with the Sri Lankan President (Mahinda) Rajapaksa, as soon as possible".

With regard to the panel of inquiry by the UN, Peiris told IPS's Deen, it was "politically unacceptable to Sri Lanka".

It was clear, that Sri Lanka was taking this tough attitude towards pressures from western governments and various western financed NGOs (Non Government Organisations) because it believes it has the steadfast backing of China, and possibly Russia which can veto any move detrimental to Sri Lanka at the highest levels of the UN. It already managed to gain a decisive victory over such moves at the UN Human Rights Council last year with the backing of the Non-Aligned Movement and several Latin American and Arab member-states.

The UN is also embroiled in some internal problems over the issue. Probing questions are being asked about the role of UN chief of staff (chief de cabinet) and Ban's chief political adviser, Vijay Nambiar during the last stages of the 'war' against the LTTE when he was despatched to Colombo to talk to Rajapaksa.
The UN special rapporteur, Philip Alston, has already gone on record saying that the Sri Lanka government forces "summarily executed" LTTE cadres who surrendered after Nambiar had spoken to LTTE leaders.

UN spokesperson Nesirky told reporters this week that Nambiar had already denied that he was in contact with LTTE leaders or those who were wanting to surrender at that stage of the 'war'. He had only conveyed some message by some other parties regarding surrendering cadres to the Sri Lankan leaders, the spokesperson said. Muddying the waters further was of course the fact that Nambiar's brother, Satish was a retired General of the Indian Army and reportedly quite close to the Sri Lankan defence establishment.

Therefore, whether Peiris succeeded in stopping a UN probe on alleged 'war crimes' in Sri Lanka remains uncertain. From all accounts Peiris has not succeeded and the UN chief has not entirely dropped the issue even though he is being accused of soft-peddling or dragging his feet on it.
Peiris also met the hard-line US Ambassador to the UN Dr. Susan Rice, a fellow Rhodes scholar at Oxford (during different times). She gave him a lecture on how the local probe commission must function. Peiris had to concede a point in the US that the local commission was provided "as the US State Department had wanted".

On to Washington DC, Peiris met Hillary Clinton the US Secretary of State, a meeting that was, according to widely -- and wildly -- circulating reports, brokered by a Sri Lankan business magnate who has funded the Clintons in their several election campaigns. We carry on Page 17 the discussions between Peiris and Clinton.

The theme of the talks seems to have revolved around Sri Lanka's alleged 'war crimes' and its treatment of the minorities. There is no record of Peiris asking any reciprocal questions about alleged US 'war crimes' in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan which are going on right now.

He has a few other episodes that must seen his head swirling during his hectic four-day trip to the US capital. From a chance meeting with Henry Kissinger on the train to Washington DC to running away from a scheduled press meeting at the National Press Club when he came to the 14th floor, checked out who was waiting for him, and then running away without an explanation.

The press meet had been arranged by Qorvis, the public relations firm that works on the Patton Blogg contract for the Sri Lanka embassy in Washington, and the firm that works for the Saudi Arabians. What a waste of funds, though Peiris should be credited for at least not wasting public funds like his predecessor by taking an entourage of his extended family and hangers-on during the visit.

Peiris began his visit on Tuesday speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) at a meeting presided over by Teresita Schaffer, the popular US Ambassador to Sri Lanka in the 1990s,
This is where Peiris must have done his practice run defending Sri Lanka's brief on all the charges against the government and the security forces. But it was here that Peiris also spelt out some of the proposed constitutional changes back at home. He spent a lot of time talking on the proposed Senate, saying that the re-introduction of the bi-cameral legislature would be on the lines of the Indian Rajya Sabha (Upper House).

One of the salient points he made out on the 13th Amendment was that it contained a "certain hiatus" and a "structural flaw" in so far as the law was aimed at power-sharing with the provinces and not so much as power sharing at the centre itself. He referred to the US Constitution that provided for "sovereign equality of the federating units. Whether they were big or small, they elect the same number members to the US Senate". He also spoke of the Centre-province relationship in Canada; so by all accounts it is going to be awhile before any 'devolution' proposals take shape and the introduction of the Senate in Sri Lanka is one of the ways of tackling this issue.

How much this will satisfy the Indians is another matter. The Indians keep harping on the 13th Amendment as if it is the 'manthra' or cure for all Sri Lanka's problems with the minorities. They may have a sentimental attachment to the 13th Amendment because it is they who forced it down Sri Lanka's throats soon after their forced food-drop in 1987; but whether it has been of any assistance to man or beast in Sri Lanka is for the people of Sri Lanka to say.

President Rajapaksa will fly to New Delhi soon on his first official state visit since his re-election. Our front page story by our Diplomatic Editor refers to a massive dossier that was received at the Sri Lankan Foreign Office as reading material -- and a virtual shopping list of the things the Indians want from Sri Lanka.

As our Diplomatic Editor said last week, the subject of India has been removed from the Ministry of External Affairs for all intents and purposes, and the dossier went to Basil Rajapaksa, the Minister of Economic Development, and not to Peiris.

The voluminous dossier was too much for the younger Rajapaksa to read -- and assimilate before his scheduled departure for New Delhi earlier this week as the precursor to the elder Rajapksa's state visit.
Our report on Page 1 refers to India now upping the ante by asking for not just a Consulate in Jaffna but for Deputy High Commissions in Jaffna and Hambantota. Clearly, the Indian see the China bogey and the increasing influence of the Chinese especially at the Hambantota harbour area as a problem for them.
In Washington DC, Peiris was asked at the CSIS about this very issue. He said Sri Lanka enjoyed cordial relations with both India and China, and declared that as far as Sri Lanka is concerned there is no zero-sum game viz-a-viz Beijing and New Delhi.

But the Sri Lankans know that there is an issue, especially in New Delhi and the Rajapaksa administration is now beginning to feel the 45 degree heat that is already gripping the Indian capital by nature.

This week, the President called Sri Lankan businessmen involved in trade with India under the CEPA (Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement) and had to declare that he will not undermine the 'mavrata' (Motherland) for anything on earth. His government that made those same proud cries about the EU's US$ 150 million worth of garment exports is now looking for ways and means of winning back those concessions.

The Indians are offering much much more in terms of economic assistance, especially for the rebuilding of the north - and their strategic interests coupled with their worries of Sri Lanka's growing friendship with China are going to be some headache for Rajapaksa as he prepares for his all-important state visit to India in ten days time.

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