Columns - Political Column

Showdown in Geneva: Hate-campaign in Lanka

  • Critical questions as to whether demos against the West will be helpful or harmful to the government
  • US finalises resolution at UNHRC sessions; deadlines to be given on LLRC report and accountability issues
  • Ministers were not consulted on huge fuel price hike; Cabraal's rosy picture viewed with scepticism
By Our Political Editor

The special SriLankan Airlines flight had rolled off the runway at Bandaranaike International Airport in the morning of Friday, February 10. On board were President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his entourage on an official visit to Pakistan.

He was still in the air, somewhere between Colombo and Islamabad, when a crucial meeting of a Cabinet Sub Committee was under way in Colombo. It was discussing costs of fuel imports and how the new pricing structure should be formulated. Taking part were Petroleum Industries Minister Susil Premajayantha, Senior Minister (and former Prime Minister) Ratnasiri Wickremenayake and Environment Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. In attendance was Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, Secretary to the Ministry of Finance and Planning.

UNP hierarchy protesting outside Parliament complex. Pic by Indika Handuwala

It was taking place in the backdrop of a Cabinet Paper circulated to ministers at the weekly meeting just two days earlier, on February 8. In the absence of Rajapaksa, it has been signed by acting Finance and Planning Minister Geetanjana Gunawardena.

As our front page story today reveals, it painted a dismal picture of the financial situation in the country. In essence, more loans were being raised to pay for those or interest on loans obtained earlier. It was a case of the proverbial borrowing from Peter to pay Paul. Other than that, there was no indication to ministers that a major decision that would adversely affect the lives of practically every Sri Lankan was round the corner. Yet, it seemed a trivial issue for the cabinet to deliberate on or it was too "sensitive a secret" for ministers to know in advance.

It has now come to light that the increases effected were not to the liking of the ministers who took part in the Cabinet Sub Committee meeting. Petroleum Industries Minister Premajayantha confided in colleagues that he had insisted during the meeting that the rise in fuel prices, particularly diesel, petrol and kerosene, should be just little "beyond the break-even point." In other words, he had suggested that the profit be marginal to enable the benefit to accrue to the consumers. His colleagues in the Sub Committee had concurred. Alas, Premajayantha had lamented that he was shocked that there had been a steep increase when the prices were announced on the night of Saturday February 11.

This was again without any discussion or approval by the cabinet, the country's highest policy and decision making body. He was unhappy that Jayasundera had not heeded his advice that had been endorsed by his ministerial colleagues. However, a high ranking government source who did not wish to be identified strongly defended Jayasundera. "He consulted President Rajapaksa and determined an upward revision that was inevitable," the source said. "Claims by some ministers and parliamentarians that he had misled Rajapaksa, much the same way he did former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga were frivolous and totally unfair ," the source added.

That the steep hike in fuel prices came unexpectedly was cause for concern for most ministers and government MPs. At first, the matter figured at the government parliamentary group meeting on Tuesday. Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera was to say that parliamentarians would find it difficult to go to their electorates with such high increases. He noted that it was not only a burden on the people but even ministers like him could not bear it. In the absence of President Rajapaksa, it was usually Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne who chaired the parliamentary group meeting. However, he was held up directing operations at the Ambuluwawa biodiversity complex, one of his pet projects in the Gampola area. The task of chairing the meeting fell on Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa. He made a frantic bid to soothe the angry speakers.

State Resources and Economic Development Deputy Minister Sarath Gunaratne was angered by the police shooting that killed Anthony Fernando (32), a fisherman when he and his colleagues were protesting against the fuel price hike in Chilaw. The Gampaha District parliamentarian said the protest was quite legitimate and it was wrong for the Police to have opened fire. He asked whether such action was justified. He was of the view that the fuel price hike had caused considerable difficulty to the people. Joining in was Power and Energy Minister Champika Ranawaka whose Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU or the National Heritage Party) is a constituent partner of the UPFA government. He said, "we had formulated a price formula" for fuel products but were unaware who was responsible for the latest hike. Even more vociferous was JHU's Venerable Athureliye Rathana Thera. He made clear it should not be "misconstrued" in any way that his party had consented to the fuel price hikes. He said if there was a need to increase fuel prices that should have been a collective decision. It is a "very serious matter" that such an issue had been decided without any consultation, he added.

President Rajapaksa was in fact conscious that fuel price increases were having a chilling effect on the people. In Chilaw, fishermen had staged mass protests and declared they would not set out to sea until the decision to raise the fuel prices was reversed. The main opposition United National Party (UNP) seized the opportunity to stage a protest outside the Fort Railway Station. Protestors who tried to march towards the Fort area were tear gassed and baton charged. Police are now re-playing footage of the events from surveillance cameras positioned near the railway station to identity UNP protestors who allegedly damaged government property including signal lights.

They want to arrest them and charge them in courts. In fact, courts have issued orders to electronic media institutions to turn in video footage in their possession. Earlier, similar protests were also staged by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) only to be baton-charged, tear gassed and dispersed by the Police. Last Tuesday, UNP parliamentarians staged another protest which evoked more laughter than generate public anger against the government.

At 11 a.m., two hours before the start of Parliament sittings, the UNP parliamentarians carrying placards stood outside the building to be photographed by the media. There was no one else present, not even the government MPs who turned up only later for the sittings. The protest with placards really took place before the media and a group of police officers who were on duty. That was UNP's "command performance before the media and showed the importance they attached. This was to protest over the government not heeding their demand to summon Parliament and also on the fuel price hike. In a similar move the party has decided to hold its May Day rally in Jaffna. It seemed that the country's main opposition is both out of tune and out of touch with ground realities.

The spontaneous protest by the fishermen in Chilaw clearly outdid the UNP's own one in Colombo. Yet, an angry Rajapaksa told a public meeting in Kadawatha last Sunday that parties with vested interests were trying to take advantage of the prevailing situation to create a volatile environment internally. This was with the intention of putting Sri Lanka to difficulty at tomorrow's 19th sessions of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). He said fuel prices had to be increased due to the rise in world oil prices. It had caused a heavy burden on the economy. The next day, he visited a fish market in his ancestral town of Tangalle and was photographed with the day's catch. The message was clear - the fishing industry in the Deep South was functioning normal though it was not so in the coastal belt north of Colombo.

Last Wednesday evening, Rajapaksa was to go into action again. Besides Ministers and MPs, he summoned electoral organisers and party district representatives for a meeting at "Temple Trees." There, he delayed the weekly cabinet meeting, to put in place a programme of action not only to cope with public criticism over the fuel price increase but also on issues which were coming up at the UNHRC sessions in Geneva tomorrow. This was despite the pain from an ankle he sprained after a fall at 'Temple Trees'. The cabinet meeting that evening began at 9.30 p.m. Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal spoke of the economic situation in the country. He painted a rosy picture and forecast that despite rises in fuel prices, the country's economic growth was on course. Cabraal was to also tell the media that neither the fuel price increase nor the rise in electricity tariffs would have a major shock on consumers. Not surprisingly, not one cabinet minister or government parliamentarian agreed with the Central Bank Governor's logic. Even if they did not speak out openly, privately they were irritated. They exchanged views among themselves.

Petroleum Minister Premajayantha explained the world market price trends for crude oil and how increases had impacted on Sri Lanka. As our front page story today reveals, the US has turned down a request for concessionary terms after it imposed sanctions on Iran, which provides 93 per cent of Sri Lanka's fuel requirements. Power and Energy Minister Ranawaka followed with an explanation on the power supply position in the country. He explained the recent increase in surcharges were inevitable. When the three speeches were over, Construction Minister Wimal Weerawansa spoke on political issues, particularly the US-backed resolution that was coming up before the UNHRC. Widely regarded as the government's point man when it came to key issues, Weerawansa stressed the need to muster large crowds on the streets both in Colombo and the outstations to protest the US-backed resolution before the UNHRC. Later, he made his presence at the weekly news briefing that follows cabinet meetings. Weerawansa said:

"The forces against the government are at work again. This time, they are trying to bring a resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC sessions in Geneva. We were expecting that some country will raise some objection, but we now understand that it is the US which is bringing the resolution. They are reported to be bringing serious allegations against Sri Lanka. We understand that the resolution is being discussed with various countries and it is being adjusted accordingly. Our question is, Are we a country where there are coups and conspiracies or governed by a military regime to take such action against us? If we are acting against democracy or do not have elections you can understand such action. But in this case it is the vengeance for defeating the LTTE. There is an NGO funded western conspiracy. Their aim is to prosecute President Rajapaksa and the 'war heroes' in the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. As a mark of protest against these moves we are calling the public to come out to hold a protest campaign on Monday, February 27.

Minister Premajayantha added: "The government has decided that the demonstrations will be held throughout the country including the main towns. After the end of the war we will demonstrate to the international community that the people have rallied round the President. Ministers too will organise protest campaigns where they will rally the people at Grama Sevaka division level. Also we should be careful of the protests which are being held in the country as some of them are organized by interested parties to show there is instability in the country. But we will demonstrate that there is no instability in the country."

Earlier, on Tuesday, Rajapaksa also had a one-on-one meeting with Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan at "Temple Trees". During the discussion, at least on three different occasions, Rajapaksa asked Sampanthan to nominate TNA's representatives to the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) that was to formulate proposals to address Tamil grievances. Sampanthan was to politely explain that the TNA would do so only when its delegation resumes talks with the government and a "set of proposals" are formulated. Rajapaksa was keen to have the PSC going so the Sri Lanka delegation to Geneva could say that discussions towards reconciliation had begun. A call for reconciliation is one of the issues in Geneva. Rajapaksa had also referred to tomorrow's UNHRC sessions during his discussions with Sampanthan.

The dichotomy in the government's position lays bare a strong sense of inequality. On the one hand, it has stifled the opposition and prevented groups from holding any protests with the use of batons, tear gas and even bullets. Minister Premajayantha has dubbed these protests as those "organised by interested parties to show there is instability in the country." In the same breath, he says, people are being rallied around to protest against the United States and its western allies among others. His rationale seems that if one is organised by the government, it was to protest "against the international community." If it was done by the opposition, it was to cause "instability." Thus, he unashamedly admits that the government had one rule for itself and another for the opposition. Would not the move by the government have a destabilising effect?

Would it not be an invitation for Washington to issue an adverse travel advisory to its nationals at a time when the Sri Lanka Embassy in the US capital boasts of 'heavy' US investment in Sri Lanka with more to come? A more important question is whether the public at large, particularly those hit by the steep increases in fuel prices, would join such protests. Nevertheless, the government will undoubtedly be able to muster its own trade unions, Samurdhi recipients and supporters for the protests.

The question remains whether it could stall the resolution that will come before the UNHRC. That seems a doubtful proposition despite External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris now backtracking. He told reporters in Geneva that the proposed resolution should be delayed until October when Sri Lanka's case would be reviewed under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). If indeed that was Sri Lanka's position, why the country's chief diplomat Peiris could not work towards that goal in the past weeks remains a relevant question. The eleventh hour appeal for a postponement sends a wrong diplomatic signal that Colombo is making the plea after being cornered.

A Sri Lanka delegation of 56 members has flown to Geneva for the sessions. No doubt, their travel and lodging expenses would constitute a neat amount in foreign exchange. Not all of them could be accommodated in seats allotted to Sri Lanka delegation at the Palais des Nationes at Avenue de la Pais in Geneva. In the past two days, External Affairs MinisterPeiris, has been wining and dining heads of delegations. In the coming week, he is off to Botswana for a meeting with his counterpart Phandu Skelemani. Peiris had tried unsuccessfully to meet him earlier this month.

Mahinda Samarasinghe, who is leading the Sri Lanka delegation, is scheduled to make an opening statement tomorrow. In a bid to forestall the US backed resolution, he is to list out a number of measures that the government had taken following recommendations made in the final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). He is also to caution that a passage of the resolution would only lead to the strengthening of extremist groups in Sri Lanka's political firmament.

Ahead of tomorrow's UNHRC sessions, the House of Commons in Britain held a debate on Sri Lanka. The Conservative government's position was spelt out by Alastair Burt, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He said: "Our policy towards Sri Lanka is built on the United Kingdom's values and on British interests. It will balance the future of the people in Sri Lanka, who must get on with their lives after terrible years of conflict, with the need for a sense of justice about the events of the past. We express again our abhorrence at some of the events that concluded the conflict, which still leave questions for the Sri Lankan Government to answer, just as we do at the campaign of violence, suicide bombings, the use of child soldiers and terrorism practised by the LTTE during the conflict-a conflict that, after decades, has left recent scars that still need to be healed.

"Our policy is not starry-eyed about allegations against the Sri Lankan Government or unaware of concerns about current human rights issues. However, we acknowledge open statements from the Sri Lankan Government about what needs to happen to reconcile and move forward, and we recognise the sovereign Government's ability to make things happen through implementing measures set out by the LLRC and through addressing issues that were not dealt with satisfactorily in the report……"
Burt has said the UK government will support the resolution.

Norway has also expressed support for the resolution. Erik Solheim, Norway's International Aid Minister and special envoy for peace talks in Sri Lanka during the ceasefire, has told his country's media Sri Lankan government won the war "but now needs to win the peace." Besides the United States, among the other countries known to be backing the resolution are Austria, Botswana, Guatemala, Libya, Hungary, Poland, Spain, Romania, Uganda, Cameroon and Nigeria.

Diplomatic sources said yesterday that the resolution would be co-sponsored by a number of countries, each from a geographical region. A draft now circulated by the United States mission in Geneva is going through a number of modifications. This is how the draft text stood by last evening:
"Sri Lanka HRC19 Resolution Draft Elements

"Guided by the Charter of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Human Rights, and other relevant instruments,

"Reaffirming that States must ensure that any measure taken to combat terrorism complies with their obligations under international law, in particular international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law, as applicable,

"Noting the Report of Sri Lanka's Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and its findings and recommendations, and acknowledging its possible contribution to Sri Lanka's national reconciliation process.

"Welcoming the constructive recommendations contained in the LLRC report, including the need to credibly investigate widespread allegations of extra judicial killings and enforced disappearances, de-militarize the north of Sri Lanka, implement impartial land dispute resolution mechanisms, re-evaluate detention policies, strengthen formerly independent civil institutions, reach a political settlement involving devolution of power to the provinces, promote and protect the right of freedom of expression for all, and enact rule of law reforms.

"Expressing concern that the LLRC report does not adequately address serious allegations of violations of international law, and expressing serious disappointment that the Government of Sri Lanka has not fulfilled its relevant legal obligations and stated commitment to initiate credible and independent investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for such violations,

"1, Calls on the government of Sri Lanka to implement the constructive recommendations in the LLRC report and additionally to take immediate steps to fulfil its relevant legal obligations and stated commitment to address serious allegations of violations of international law by initiating credible and independent investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for such violations,

"2. Requests that the Government of Sri Lanka present a comprehensive action plan before the 20th session of the Human Rights Council detailing the steps the Government has taken and will take to implement the LLRC recommendations and also to address alleged violations of international law,
"3. Encourages the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and relevant special mandate holders to provide, and the Government of Sri Lanka to accept, advice and technical assistance on implementing those steps."

Sri Lanka figured prominently at Thursday's news briefing at the
Department of State in Washington DC.

QUESTION: On Sri Lanka, the Government has called for protests over what it says is the U.S. position on the UN Human Rights Council. That's with regard to the events of 2009, the end of the civil war. Does the U.S. have anything to say either about Sri Lanka's call for protests over this, or more broadly, about the U.S. position on the UN Human Rights Council?

MR. TONER: We think we've been very consistent in our dialogue with the Government of Sri Lanka regarding the issue of reconciliation and accountability. We long publicly supported the idea of the Government of Sri Lanka having the time and space for this domestic Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission to carry out its work, and believed that an action plan would be announced when that report was made public. And then subsequent to the report's publication, we wanted the Government of Sri Lanka to follow up on some of the recommendations from the report.

Again, we welcome the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission's report. It was a Sri Lankan undertaking, which includes many strong recommendations that, when implemented, could help improve and contribute to genuine reconciliation and strengthening of democratic institutions and practices in Sri Lanka. But to date, frankly, we've not seen a detailed action plan from the Government of Sri Lanka on how it's going to implement these recommendations. So I think we still encourage the Government of Sri Lanka to move forward to take concrete steps on this implementation plan. And at the same time, we're working with our partners in Geneva on a resolution within the UNHRC that calls for actions on important steps towards reconciliation. But I think our goal ultimately is the same here: We want to see these recommendations implemented and so that they can help lead towards reconciliation.

QUESTION: Just following up, on the Human Rights Council, in previous years, it's fallen short regarding Sri Lanka. Is there - how concerted is the effort by the United States? Is there a desire to really pass something in the Human Rights Council on -

TONER: Well, we wouldn't be pursuing it if there wasn't a desire. We're also - obviously continue to be engaged with the Sri Lankan Government. But we've long said that we would support local efforts and want to see local efforts to address these issues, but we would also engage international mechanisms if appropriate.

In addition, Amb Donahoe's statement on UNHRC session does include this language: Another priority for the U.S. this session is to support a process of real reconciliation inSri Lanka. Many thousands of Sri Lankan civilians died or suffered other violations in the final weeks of the long-running civil war in 2009. To date there has been no complete accounting of those deaths or other violations and no pursuit of accountability for them.

We believe that real reconciliation must be based on accountability, not impunity, and that the people of Sri Lanka must have confidence that their government will in fact implement the needed reforms and recommendations as promised. To this end, the United States is supporting a resolution that provides an opportunity for the government of Sri Lanka to describe what it intends to do to implement the LLRC's recommendations and to take further steps toward accountability.

We have encouraged the government of Sri Lanka to engage with the Human Rights Council to make progress in these areas and we continue to work with the Sri Lankan leadership on a bilateral basis to move forward with the necessary reforms that can serve as a secure basis for lasting peace.
Although the government decided that the LLRC report would not be tabled at the sessions starting tomorrow, the US-backed resolution is based entirely on it. This is on the basis that copies of the report were handed over by the Ministry of External Affairs to countries with which Sri Lanka has diplomatic representation. Moreover, Sri Lanka delegation leader, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told the 18th UNHRC sessions in Geneva in September last year that, ".......Currently, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) is inquiring into the conflict and its causes and is evolving recommendations to ensure that such a situation never arises again in Sri Lanka. It is critical to wait for that body to finish its deliberations and come up with its conclusions in due time. Rushing these processes unduly may compromise the effectiveness of the implementation of the eventual recommendations. The persons engaged in the Commission are highly regarded professionals. They should be given time and space to come up with their findings and recommendations. We have briefed our friends in Geneva and elsewhere of the interim recommendation made by the LLRC and the measures taken by the Inter-Agency Committee to implement them without delay........

"......I look forward to the LLRC coming forward with creative, forward thinking and workable recommendations that we can implement with a view to buttressing our common values and ideals and celebrating our rich socio-ethnic makeup......

Either wittingly or unwittingly, as Minister Samarasinghe points out, foreign governments have been briefed on the interim recommendations of the LLRC. Naturally, the question therefore is why not the recommendations in the final report? Was this not a poor reflection of the conduct of Sri Lanka's foreign policy? Here is an instance where a public pronouncement has been made at the UNHRC last year that the LLRC "is inquiring into the conflict and its causes." There is also an acknowledgement that "we have briefed our friends in Geneva and elsewhere of the interim recommendation made by the LLRC…" And suddenly, the government decides that "our friends" should not know of the findings in the final report when they meet in Geneva.

Besides calling upon the Sri Lanka Government to implement some of the salient recommendations in the LLRC report, the resolution says, "additionally to take measures to fulfil its relevant legal obligations and stated commitment to address serious allegations of violations of international law by initiating credible and independent investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for such violations…." Whilst asking the government to present a "road map" for implementation of the LLRC report, the resolution places a time bar for it. It wants "a comprehensive action plan" before the 20th UNHRC sessions in Geneva in September this year. What happens if such an action plan is not presented?
Diplomatic sources point out that such a move would pave the way for a harsher resolution for action against Sri Lanka. This is besides unilateral action by some western countries. Another significant element is the last paragraph in the resolution which calls upon the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and "relevant special mandate holders to provide, and the Government of Sri Lanka to accept, advice and technical assistance on implementing those steps." Such a move, the Sunday Times learnt would allow UN special rapporteurs dealing with torture or war crimes, among others, to visit Sri Lanka to offer advice and technical assistance.

Whilst most of the fallout from the resolution being adopted would be clear, there are also areas which cannot be discerned immediately. If it is passed, it becomes incumbent on the government to pay heed to what would constitute a UNHRC resolution. If it chooses to ignore, besides inviting retaliatory moves collectively from the Council, the government also runs the risk of unilateral action by individual countries. It is in this backdrop that the government is taking up the official position that it is implementing the recommendations of the LLRC, though a road map is not necessary. Among the action taken, the Sri Lanka delegation to Geneva has been mandated to tell the Council, that domestic inquiries by the three different armed forces into complaints of possible attacks on civilians were under way.

Attorney General Eva Wanasundera is to brief them on cases her department plans to institute on the basis of representations made by those who appeared before the LLRC. S.B. Divaratne, Secretary to the Presidential Task Force for Resettlement, Development and Security, is also on hand to advise the Sri Lanka delegation on various measures adopted after the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas in May 2009.
However, in marked contrast to these measures, the protest rallies being planned by the government against the United States and its allies backing the resolution bring a new dimension. The mood was reflected by Fisheries Minister Rajitha Senaratne, who is in the forefront with some of his ministerial colleagues arranging these protests. Main among them is Minister Weerawansa who is both anti-UN and anti-West. Senaratne told the Sunday Times "The government has decided to have demonstrations in 150 towns in the country on Monday.

The main idea is to show solidarity with President Rajapaksa and to protest against other countries interfering in the internal matters of our country. We have invited all trade unions to take part in the demonstrations. In addition, in seven of the provinces (except north and east) there will be seven main meetings attended by the Ministers where speeches will be made to extend support to the government and condemn external interferences. We want to show the international community the backing the government and the President has from the people of this country. All levels of politicians including local council members will be involved in the demonstrations".

There is little doubt that the UPFA government is in an unassailable position with a two thirds majority in Parliament. Its strength is further bolstered by a weak opposition. Whether there is a demonstration or not, its firm grip on power remains, notwithstanding some public discontent over the fuel price hike that has led to a cascading increase in prices of a number of products and services. However, the demonstrations which will rouse considerable public sentiment against the US and its allies could trigger off reactions. This is particularly if a hate campaign against the west intensifies. Whether that would harm or help Sri Lanka remains the critical question. The answers of course would come only in the weeks and months after such events.

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