The temperature outside the Serena Hotel in Islamabad last Tuesday afternoon was near zero. The main engagements finished the previous day, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and senior members of his entourage were relaxing at the presidential suite. Later that day, two more dignitaries -- the Defence Minister of Pakistan and the Chairman of that country's Board of Investment were to call on Rajapaksa.
External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris told the President about the news from Colombo. Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe had tabled a ten page United National Party (UNP) response to the final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). He had also made a statement.
In fact Wickremesinghe had written to Rajapaksa enclosing the same report a day earlier. However, he was away in Pakistan and the letter had remained unopened in Colombo.
A discussion ensued. Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga telephoned Malik Samarawickrema, former UNP Chairman and close confidant of Wickremesinghe, in Colombo. He spoke briefly about Rajapaksa's concerns over the UNP statement and handed the phone to Minister Peiris. Once a cabinet minister in Wickremesinghe's United National Front government, where he championed the virtues of the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement with Tiger guerrillas, Peiris added his own 'concerns.' He then handed over the telephone to Rajapaksa. The President asked Samarawickrema in Sinhala "why is Wickremesinghe doing this?" Such a response would only 'internationalise the Sri Lanka issue,' he exhorted.
Samarawickrema faithfully conveyed the details of the conversation to Wickremesinghe. The opposition UNP leader was happy. His statement in Parliament had had an instant effect. The episode showed that matters at home were of much concern to Rajapaksa though he was on an official visit to Pakistan. He had arrived there last Monday to be greeted at the airport with a 21-gun salute. He went to his hotel for a quick change and was off to the pyramid like Aiwan-e-Sadar, the official residence of the President. There the tri-services presented him a guard of honour ahead of talks with President Asif Ali Zardari. The standoff between Zardari and the military, now on the brink of a serious political crisis, was to cause its own issues. The guard of honour had to be at the official residence since neither President Zardari nor Prime Minister Yosuf Raza Gilani would visit the airport for this purpose. On the other hand, a 21-gun salute to honour the President was not possible at the residency in Islamabad since it was a heavily built up area. Hence it had to be held at the airport.
Though it took two months for the UNP to put together ten pages in response to the LLRC's final report, it had some stinging observations. As revealed in these columns last week, it noted that the number of deaths, those injured and requiring assistance in the government's war with Tiger guerrillas remains yet to be properly counted. It accused the LLRC of failing to "adequately inquire" into the reasons why the government failed to properly estimate the number of persons who would be confined to camps and trapped in no-fire zones. Here was the country's main opposition raising two pivotal issues. One is to say that the toll of those killed or injured is unclear. Second is to express uncertainty over the number of civilians who were trapped in the No Fire Zone during the final stages of the separatist war in May 2009.
The UNP has declared that there is "a lack of specific and factual findings" in crucial areas which were very much a part of the Commission. Even if the UNP commended the Commission for recognising the problems threatening democratic institutions, the fact that its response came this week jolted the government. In just seven days from now, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meets in Geneva. The two key issues the UNP raised were among the focal points of attention. In addition, there was the UN Secretary General's panel of experts who probed alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. The UNP has faulted the Commission and declared that it leaves large areas of the UNSG's report unanswered. The UNP pointed out that the government took the stance that the Commission report would deal with issues relating to accountability and human rights. There is little doubt that the UNP's own report is grist to the mill for those raising issues on Sri Lanka, though belatedly, it had made its stance known.
However, the issue was 'internationalised' long before the UNP had even issued its statement. Some party insiders say they were egged on to make a written statement after an informal lunch with senior Indian diplomats. Some of the views expressed by UNP leaders prompted those diplomats to ask whether the UNP had articulated those views in public. Of course, the diplomats were only using the occasion as a sounding board to discern the UNP's line. This is in the wake of confusion and contradictory positions taken by different party seniors.
|U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asian Affairs, Robert Blake addressing the media at the Colombo Hilton
|U.S. Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, Marie Otero addressing the media at the Colombo Hilton. Pix by Indika Handuwela
For President Rajapaksa, the UNP response weighed in more forcefully for another reason. Upon his return, he met with two top officials from the Obama administration who were in Colombo to deliver what External Affairs Ministry sources described as a 'strong message.' They were Marie Otero, Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, and Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary in the State Department for Central and South Asian Affairs.
The talks, the sources said, sought strong guarantees on the implementation of the LLRC report and a probe on accountability issues related to the final stages of the separatist war in May 2009. Though Sri Lanka has already taken up the position that both issues are being addressed by the government, the source said, no guarantees were possible. Whilst the government would implement recommendations of the LLRC, two Courts of Inquiry, each led by a Major General, have been tasked to probe any allegations of possible attacks on civilians and on matters relating to International Humanitarian Laws (IHL). The latter move has already drawn some foreign criticism on the grounds that the Army was probing itself. However, a Defence Ministry source said "this is nothing new. They have been all along conducting probes into reported misconduct by their personnel."
The Sri Lanka delegation to the UNHRC, now expanded, has also been briefed on this aspect which will be the official position. They have also been told to explain that a period of two month's since the release of the LLRC report was not sufficient time to implement the recommendations. The delegation will comprise External Affairs Minister Peiris, Minister and President's Human Rights Speical Envoy Mahinda Samarasinghe, Ministers Nimal Siripala de Silva, Rauff Hakeem, Rishard Bathiuddin, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Sajin Vass Gunawardena, MP, the monitor appointed to overlook the Ministry of External Affairs.
The fact that the visiting senior US officials did not secure "a road map" or any guarantees from President Rajapaksa was reflected in the news conference addressed by Otero and Blake last Monday. Some highlights of the official transcript of the news conference reflect the US position.
Under Secretary Otero: "I've had serious and productive meetings with the government of Sri Lanka as well as with civil society, political leaders, and journalists. President Rajapaksa was kind enough to meet with me and to explain his government's vision to advance reconciliation among Sri Lanka's ethnic communities since the end of the conflict.
"I also had fruitful meetings with the Minister of External Affairs and the Secretary of Defence among others. Our bilateral relationship with Sri Lanka is multi-faceted. I am the most senior U.S. government official to visit Sri Lanka since Secretary of State Colin Powell was here in 2005. I know that you have hosted visitors from several U.S. government agencies in recent months.
During my trip I've had a chance to meet with officials and groups who focus on trafficking in persons, child labour, and human rights.
"We also appreciate the work of the Sri Lanka Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). While it has shortcomings on accountability, the commission addressed a number of crucial areas of concern to Sri Lankans and made substantive recommendations on reconciliation, devolution of authority, demilitarization, rule of law, media freedom, disappearances and human rights violations and abuses that if implemented could contribute to genuine reconciliation and strengthening democratic institutions and practices.
"I discussed the recommendations with the President and he assured me that they were looking to implement the LLRC report in a comprehensive manner. I urged the Sri Lankan government to share the details of their plan and begin fulfilling the recommendations called for in the report and to credibly address outstanding issues of accountability. I confirmed that the United States will support a resolution in the United Nations Human Rights Council in March that provides an opportunity for the government of Sri Lanka to describe what it intends to do to implement the LLRC's recommendations and advance reconciliation as well as address accountability, human rights, and democracy concerns.
"Ultimately the government should address the needs of all communities in Sri Lanka by creating independent mechanisms that support reconciliation, democracy and accountability for serious human rights abuses. It is critical to ensure the rule of law to foster lasting reconciliation. We strongly encourage the government of Sri Lanka to work with international bodies including the United Nations to address these matters.
"An agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on a lasting political settlement is also critical. We urge both sides to approach negotiations in a spirit of trust, empathy and good faith to reach a political solution that is in the best interest of all Sri Lankan citizens.
"Press: I'm Sean [inaudible] from Colombo. My first question is for the [inaudible]. You said [inaudible] shortcoming in the [inaudible] report, and also [inaudible] [Human Rights Council]. Will you [inaudible] as [inaudible] shortcomings? And the reason behind the U.S. supporting the [inaudible] human rights.
"Assistant Secretary Blake: We've explained in some detail our views on the LLRC report, both on its merits and also on its shortcomings. As you know, there have been a number of other reports such as the UN Panel of Experts Report that describe in some detail some of their concerns about human rights violations and potential war crimes that occurred, particularly at the end of the conflict from January to May of 2009.
"In our view the LLRC report did not cover in sufficient detail some of those allegations. So again, we think it's very important as part of finally achieving a just and durable settlement and reconciliation process that those be fully addressed, so we talked in some detail about that with our friends in the government today.
"Under Secretary Otero: If I can just add to that. In that context it is also important to point out that we believe that report makes some important and positive recommendations in the areas of reconciliation, and that it concentrates in that area, in many of those areas. Moving forward in those areas we also see as a very positive way towards addressing the situation that remains.
"Press: My second question is about [inaudible] human rights [inaudible] meetings, [inaudible] human rights [inaudible].
"Assistant Secretary Blake: The United States will support a very straight-forward resolution that declares that the government of Sri Lanka has not yet done enough to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, and will comprehensively address the issue of accountability. We hope to work very cooperatively with the government of Sri Lanka, both in the UNHRC but also both before and after that. I think we had some good discussions today about that.
Press: [Inaudible]. In your remarks you said that [inaudible] resolution [inaudible]. Now does this [inaudible] is wrong? And will you also [inaudible]?
"Assistant Secretary Blake: The United States supports the successful conclusion of the current dialogue between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil National Alliance. From talking to both sides we understand that they're really not that far apart so we hope that that dialogue can resume and again, can reach a successful conclusion, and that then whatever is agreed can be discussed in the context of the Parliamentary Select Committee.
"Press: The [inaudible] classified and the material [inaudible]. If there is to be a credible, transparent [inaudible] into these alleged war crimes, would you urge the Secretary General to declassify this material? In order to facilitate a credible, transparent probe into these alleged war crimes.
"Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, that's a matter for the Secretary General to decide for himself. But I have just answered the question about the importance of an investigation and accountability for what happened at the end of the war.
"Press: My second question to Ms. Otero, it's about the [inaudible] women and minorities [inaudible] issue. [Inaudible] on this [inaudible]. How concerned are you about the safety and security to women [inaudible]?
"Under Secretary Otero: I think in any situation where there has been a conflict the concern about the safety of women remains. Clearly this is one of the areas that we are concerned about and we have expressed that concern and discussed it with several of the officials that we have met with to ensure that proper protection is provided, and to ensure that women, in many cases women who are now heads of households, are able to both operate within the society and be able to make sure that they are properly protected.
"Press: [Inaudible] News Agency. The government of Sri Lanka said [inaudible]. What is your [inaudible]? And the other thing is, do you want the timeframe for [inaudible]? [Inaudible].
"Assistant Secretary Blake: Again, it's up to the government of Sri Lanka to determine what it wants to say and when. It's not for us to set a timeframe of any kind. But as a general matter I'd say that the sooner the government can explain first to the Sri Lankan public but then also to its friends in the international community what the details of its plans are and how it intends to proceed, I think that will be very helpful to all of us.
"Press: Is the U.S. going to push for international [inaudible] in Sri Lanka, or are you satisfied with [inaudible]?
"Assistant Secretary Blake: For now we're focused on this UN Human Rights Council Resolution, but as I said earlier, we remain very hopeful that a domestic mechanism will proceed and that there will be a credible investigation inside Sri Lanka. That's always going to be the preferable solution for a domestic accountability mechanism of some sort. But our position has always been that if there are shortcomings in such a domestic mechanism there will certainly be international pressure to establish some sort of international mechanism. Again, we encourage our friends in the Sri Lankan government to ensure a credible and transparent investigation as possible of their own.
"Under Secretary Otero: The only thing I would add to that is that we have been supportive of this process from the outset. And we believe that a report that is done here in the country, if it was then implemented and its recommendations were then taken seriously, addressed in a timely manner, that that would be one way to address the reconciliation and accountability issues."
Ahead of the visit by the US duo, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sent External Affairs Minister Peiris a letter inviting him to Washington DC. She said, "I would like to invite you to Washington in March to discuss your plans to move ahead on reconciliation, accountability and provincial council elections in the north." She said that Peiris' visit could also provide "a valuable opportunity for you to meet with think tanks and our Congress to brief them on the government's intentions and action plan. Your presentation of a meaningful and credible action plan in Washington would contribute to our dialogue on these issues and help shape our thinking about how best to encourage and support progress going forward."
She added "I look forward to discussing with you and concerned members of the international community future steps to help achieve lasting peace, reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka….."
An External Affairs Ministry source said yesterday Peiris would not visit the United States in March. The official reason, the source said, was due to engagements he had that month. Hence, he would suggest that he may consider a visit in April, by which time the UN Human Rights Council sessions would be over. Though the source dismissed the claim, reports circulating in the corridors of the Ministry spoke of Peiris' reluctance for fear that any possible joint statement that may be released after his visit could tie him down to some 'pledges' or 'commitments.'
On the other hand, senior EAM officials say he should have "grabbed" the opportunity of a US visit to talk things over so he could have tried to moderate the resolution that was coming up. This is particularly in the backdrop of US moves to 'back' a resolution on Sri Lanka at next week's UHRC sessions. As revealed in these columns last week, Peiris had advised President Rajapaksa that the moves for a resolution on Sri Lanka were only a "pressure tactic" and that would not materialise. The visiting US duo's official announcement showed an error of judgement by the Sri Lanka External Affairs Minister and the President has been ill-advised.
A critical question for the External Affairs Ministry (EAM) this week was who would move the resolution at the UNHRC. Earlier, the ministry believed that the US would do so itself. Recent reports reaching the EAM spoke of Canada, which failed in a similar bid in September, last year, would spearhead it. However, Sri Lankan officials now say it may be altogether another country. This is on the basis that any move for a resolution by either US or Canada, because of their different foreign policy stance, may distract some members of the UNHRC. A non-aligned African country is not being ruled out.
Otero and Blake had extensive talks with TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan and another. Besides Peiris, they also met two other ministers - Rauff Hakeem (Justice) and Athauda Seneviratne (Labour). With the latter, they had talks on the General System of Tariffs (GSP) which US offers for apparel and other exports from Sri Lanka. They also met civil society groups. Ahead of the duo's visit, Steven Rapp, US Ambassador at large for Global Criminal Justice was on a visit. He met with several senior government officials. Rapp's visit is in no way linked to the upcoming UNHRC sessions. After his very first visit to Sri Lanka, he is to report to the US Congress on his findings on a broad spectrum of issues related to his portfolio.
Ahead of next week's UNHRC sessions, pressure on the Sri Lanka issue has been building up for weeks now. Before the European Parliament is a resolution which seeks to define EU's position on a number of issues before the UNHRC. The reference to Sri Lanka in the 54 point resolution states: "Stresses the need to further support efforts to strengthen the accountability process in Sri Lanka and continue to call for the establishment of a UN commission of inquiry into all crimes committed, as recommended by the UN Secretary General's Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka; invites the Sri Lankan Government to send an invitation to the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression;"
Last week, Alistair Burt, Britain's minister with responsibility for Sri Lanka, set out the British government's position on the LLRC report in a statement made to the House of Commons. He said, "The British Government is, on the whole, disappointed by the report's findings and recommendations on accountability. Like many others, we felt that these leave many gaps and unanswered questions. We welcome the acknowledgement that 'considerable civilian casualties' occurred during the final stages of the conflict and the recommendation that specific incidents require further investigation. But we note that many credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, including from the UN Panel of Experts report, are either not addressed or only partially answered. We believe that video footage, authenticated by UN Special Rapporteurs, should inform substantive, not just technical, investigations into apparent grave abuses. The British Government believe that the report's recommendations on on-going human rights issues in Sri Lanka are well founded. We hope they will be implemented vigorously. We welcome especially the focus on tackling attacks on media freedom and disappearances - including thousands of outstanding cases"
The South African Government whilst commending the government "for the decision to set up an authoritative mechanism to further investigate allegations related to human rights abuses" said "The report, however, should have addressed in more detail the question of holding those people responsible for human rights violations to account."
It called on the Sri Lanka government to "speedily implement the measures as recommended."
Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said in a statement this week that "…. the LLRC report contains constructive proposals for advancing reconciliation and reconstruction, including through reducing the presence of security forces in the North, care of internally displaced persons and media freedoms.
"Nonetheless, while the LLRC's conclusion that further investigations need to be undertaken in specific cases is certainly welcome, wider issues relating to accountability need to be dealt with more thoroughly.
"The Australian Government has consistently urged Sri Lanka to investigate all allegations of crimes committed by both sides to the conflict, including those raised in the UN Secretary-General's Panel of Experts report.
"In light of the report's failure to comprehensively address such allegations, we continue to call on Sri Lanka for all such allegations to be investigated in a transparent and independent manner.
"It is now also critical that the Sri Lankan Government endorse the LLRC report's constructive elements and set clear, firm timeframes for their implementation," Rudd said.
The responses from different countries and international organisations in the recent weeks show clearly that pressure is building on Sri Lanka. The main task of the Sri Lanka delegation to the UNHRC sessions is to lobby member countries and ensure no resolution is passed. The United States has now publicly declared it would move such a resolution, contrary to claims by Sri Lanka's External Affairs Minister, that it was only a "pressure tactic." Thus challenges the Sri Lankan team faces are formidable.
Table LLRC report in Geneva and implement it: UNP
The dismissive manner in which the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime dealt with its international commitments and obligations is what has led to the current crisis Sri Lanka is facing, the United National Party's media committee chief, Mangala Samaraweera, said yesterday. He was at one time Foreign Minister in the Rajapaksa government.
Commenting on next week's UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva, Samaraweera said, "The cloak of "national sovereignty" is no longer enough to protect regimes which continue to suppress, violate and subvert the democratic rights of its own peoples.
The diplomatic principle of extra-territorial reach will be used to varying degrees by the international community to pressurize truant nations to honour their commitment to the principles of democracy. This is the ground reality which no country will be able to escape from, if it wishes to remain a member of the community of civilized nations."
Here are edited excerpts of a Q & A with Samaraweera:
THE EXTERNAL AFFAIRS MINISTRY:
It has clearly abdicated its role to the Presidential Secretariat. Foreign policy decisions are taken by the President and his brothers along with a few "advisors" while experienced diplomats and civil servants have been ignored or sidelined. The foreign office has been relegated to the position of an employment agency providing overseas diplomatic appointments to kith and kin.
The statement made by a senior executive of the British public relations firm Bell Pottinger that it drafted the speech made by the President to the UN in 2010 is a clear indication of the status of the External Affairs Ministry under this regime.
THE LLRC REPORT:
The government, in the run up to the release of the LLRC report and in response to the Ban Ki-moon report clearly stated that the government's response will be included in the LLRC report: the leader of the House, Nimal Siripala De Silva, in tabling this report in Parliament in December reiterated the government's commitment to implement its recommendations. Therefore the government should accept with open arms, the UNP's offer to support the implementation of the LLRC recommendations by agreeing to a time-bound plan of action.
Although the LLRC report is weak on the accountability issues, the recommendations on good governance and the rule of law have given the government a new window of opportunity to prove its commitment to democratic reforms to the people as well as to the international community: It should use this opportunity to salvage our country's reputation by tabling the report at the UNHRC.