Mervyn’s remarks draw angry retort from UN Human Rights chief; President livid over EAM’s mishandling of crucial visit UNP presents tough report; wants 19A to nullify 18A; focus now on what happens in Geneva this month It was Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, the UPFA Government’s point man for many issues who hosted the cocktail [...]


Govt. caught in Hurricane Pillay as she ends whirlwind tour


  • Mervyn’s remarks draw angry retort from UN Human Rights chief; President livid over EAM’s mishandling of crucial visit
  • UNP presents tough report; wants 19A to nullify 18A; focus now on what happens in Geneva this month

It was Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, the UPFA Government’s point man for many issues who hosted the cocktail reception on Thursday night for a select crowd of politicians, diplomats and officials at the Colombo Hilton.

That was in honour of Navanethem Pillay, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. He took it upon himself to protect the honour and integrity of the cabinet of ministers. Surrounded by a few guests, de Silva told Pillay, “Madam, Don’t take our Minister Mervyn Silva’s remarks seriously.” She was quick on the draw and responded, “It is not I who should take it seriously. It is you.” She looked angry and her characteristic smile was absent as she retorted.

If de Silva took a few seconds to recover, others present watched helplessly. They included Ministers D.E.W. Gunasekera, Douglas Devananda, Rauff Hakeem, Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha, External Affairs Ministry Additional Secretary Kshenuka Seneviratne, Colombo University Vice Chancellor Dr. Kumara Hirimburegama, and Parliamentarian J. Sri Ranga.

Minister de Silva was alluding to a front-page news report in our sister newspaper Daily Mirror about remarks by his colleague Mervyn Silva, Minister of Public Relations and Public Affairs. Mervyn remarked he was willing to marry Pillay. “I urge her to join me in a trip around the country. I would teach her the history of Sri Lanka. I would tell her about Maha Ravana,” he had said. That a member of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cabinet of ministers had proposed marriage to her publicly, an unusual one when he had not even set eyes on Pillay had naturally angered her.

It came from the Minister tasked with the portfolio of Public Relations at that. Making a marriage proposal to a visiting senior United Nations diplomat had been the talking point among ministers this week. So much so, some complained that Silva was being allowed to get away with whatever he did no matter even if it made them look like fools in the eyes of the world. That ministers in Sri Lanka were trying to make wives out of official visitors, they said, also placed the country in bad light. Hence, Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, who is now a trouble shooter, took upon the task to clear the air. The one-liner rapid response from Pillay, it seemed, was a message not only to Minister de Silva, the messenger, but the entire cabinet of ministers. Pillay wants them to “take seriously” the implications of Minister Mervyn Silva’s clownish ‘marriage’ proposal.

In her statement issued yesterday prior to her departure, Pillay referred to three Government ministers joining in what she called the “wildly incorrect and deeply offensive” accusations when she was in the country, that she was an LTTE sympathiser.

An accomplished lawyer, Pillay, the daughter of a bus driver, was the first South African to obtain a doctorate in law from the Harvard Law School. She won the right for political prisoners on Robben Island including Nelson Mandela, to have access to lawyers. After the African National Congress came to power, Mandela nominated Pillay as the first non-white woman to serve the High Court of South Africa. She served the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for eight years, half the period as its President, before quitting and joining the UN.

Other than that, Minister Mervyn Silva was also in trouble. On Friday, he was to have a meeting at the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery Corruption. Due to the intervention of a VVIP, he has now won time for three months. The Commission wants him to explain the sources of income from which he reportedly acquired, among others, vehicles, buildings and other property. Only weeks earlier, he had offended the UPFA leadership. One was over biting criticism against them on the incidents at Weliveriya. Another was reports that he had a meeting with Venerable Maduluwawe Sobhita Thera, Chief Incumbent of the Kotte Naga Viharaya and Convenor of the National Movement for Social Justice. When queried, he is reported to have replied that he went there for religious reasons. However, other reports said Silva had during a meeting faulted the opposition, particularly United National Party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, for reportedly not being able to deal with the Government effectively.

Both as Minister and as Leader of the House, Nimala Siripala de Silva has been the UPFA Government’s point man. Issues for him range from peace talks at one time and chairing nomination boards of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) for this month’s three provincial polls. He is now chairing a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on matters relating to the 13th Amendment and reconciliation. It was last Wednesday that de Silva told a news conference Pillay could “go anywhere in Sri Lanka and obtain first-hand knowledge of the real situation over allegations levelled by enemies of the country.” He observed that she could “release a good or bad report” after her study. He was also to remark that Pillay could not “give orders” and asserted that the Government “would not follow them” if issued.
Pillay and a high ranking official entourage wrapped up a week-long visit to Sri Lanka yesterday.

A report on the news conference she addressed after winding up her visit appears elsewhere in this newspaper. Later this month, she will make an oral statement on her findings in Sri Lanka to the 24th sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. The event will be held from September 9 to 27. Whilst it is not immediately clear what shape and form her presentation to the UNHRC would take, remarks by a Colombo-based diplomat who spoke on grounds of anonymity gave a sneak preview.

Pillay has noted during her interactions in Colombo that there was a major gap in the positions taken by those speaking for the Government and others representing civil society. She is sure to identify the areas where there is forward movement and highlight the areas where there are inadequacies. “If one is to go by the current mood, it won’t be easy going. She is tough and will speak her mind out,” said the diplomat. She is also preparing an 8,500 word report for the UNHRC for their March 2014 sessions. There is little doubt that such a briefing would encompass some of the newer issues like the Army shooting at Weliveriya and the incidents at the mosque in Grandpass.

Though a meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa had been sought for ten minutes, it extended to twenty. When Pillay walked into ‘Temple Trees’, there were a group of schoolchildren on a visit to meet Rajapaksa. One of them asked her from where she was and she replied “from South Africa.” On her way out, President Rajapaksa told Pillay “I know you have already written your report; you are only here to validate it”, to which Pillay quickly replied “No, no, Your Excellency, that is not the case”.

Opposition UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe showing UN High Commissioner Dr. Navi Pillay a framed painting of King Wimaladharmasuriya welcoming the visiting Dutch Ambassador to Sri Lanka when she called on him for talks this week at his 5th Lane residence .

Later, a statement from the President’s Office said, “President Rajapaksa told Ms. Pillay there is a belief among many Sri Lankans that the United Nations is biased in the way it deals with countries, and he said he urged those who voiced these concerns to him not to prejudge the report Ms. Pillay is due to issue.” However, the Sinhala text of the news release was different. It said: The people of this country have a belief that the UN is a pessimistic organisation. They believe that her report would include prejudged matters. The President said though his Cabinet included different groups, he was able to lead them to a common goal.”

Rajapaksa was to find fault with the External Affairs Ministry for what he considered were a string of blunders during the visit of Pillay. He was livid that the EAM, which plays a minimum role in the conduct of the country’s foreign relations, had lined up the first meeting for Pillay with Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem. Rajapaksa has also spoken to Hakeem criticising him for the way he handled the meeting. He was perhaps unhappy that his Justice Minister did not counter more effectively Pillay’s observation that the Police Department should have been under his (Hakeem’s) Ministry.

The subject had come up when there was a discussion over the setting up of the new Law and Order Ministry which is under the President. Peiris had told Rajapaksa that Hakeem should have been more assertive.

President Rajapaksa had also felt there was no need for the EAM to have arranged for a meeting with Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, President’s Special Envoy on Human Rights. Since the External Affairs Minister was meeting her, he felt, it was not necessary. His displeasure over this was conveyed to External Affairs Ministry Secretary Karunatilleke Amunugama.

When Pillay arrived for her meeting with Peiris, she was taken aback by the number of photographers. She had asked him why there was a “large presence of media personnel”. Peiris replied that they were his “Ministry people” and added that as Pillay was due to hold a news conference before her departure he was going to issue his own statement after their meeting.

When they met, Pillay complained to Peiris that she was “being vilified” in sections of the Sri Lankan media. Peiris replied that “was probably” how the media viewed her visit. Another cabinet minister, who learnt of these remarks, was to say somewhat mischievously “he should have said that is because the media is free and there is democracy in Sri Lanka. He also should have said even I am being vilified. That was lost on him.” Or maybe he didn’t want to admit to that.

For the UPFA Government, reputed for blowing hot and cold, the Pillay visit is no exception. After the adoption of the first US backed resolution in Geneva in March 2011, the Government adopted a tough stance. There were strongly worded letters addressed to Pillay. One came in January this year after Chief Justice 43 Shirani Bandaranayake was impeached. Then acting External Affairs Ministry Secretary Kshenuka Seneviratne said “……… your action in resorting to unwarranted comments with a series of innuendos on an issue which is entirely a domestic matter for Sri Lanka, and that too without first engaging with our Permanent Representative or the delegation of Sri Lanka in Geneva, demonstrates yet again the deviation from established procedure, amounting to blatant interference in an issue of a sovereign country.” A visit to Sri Lanka by Pillay, though listed then, did not materialise. UN officials accused the Government of stonewalling. Local officials said there was disagreement over suitability of dates.

Pillay’s 20-minute-meeting with the President began with a handshake.

However, after the second US-backed resolution in March, the Government again took a tough stand but later began to relent. The broader implications had dawned on it. With the External Affairs Ministry (EAM) playing little or no role, it was President Rajapaksa who charted a new strategy. The second US-backed resolution had mandated Pillay to give an oral briefing to the UNHRC in September. A Government refusal in this backdrop would have meant that it was trying to cover up the issues raised. Hence, the UPFA went on an overdrive.

The Sinhala adage Kappanna beri atha imbinawa wagey or kissing the hand that cannot be chopped off underscored the mood. Issues raised in the US resolution were resurrected after they had remained in the backburner for some time. Measures were adopted to deal with them. One such case is the arrest of an ASP and 11 police officers of the Special Task Force for the alleged murder of five Tamil students from the Katubedde University. The incident had taken place on January 2, 2006 in Trincomalee. Those arrested, now in remand custody, will appear in courts tomorrow. A Presidential Commission of Inquiry was named to probe disappearances.

On Friday, the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development directed Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Daya Ratnayake to relieve from duties Brigadier Harsha Gunawardena and three Lieutenant Colonels. They will face a Court Martial over the Weliweriya shooting. This is after a Court of Inquiry headed by Major General Jagath Dias found them guilty. The Sunday Times has learnt from authoritative sources that the creation of the new Ministry of Law and Order was a direct sequel to the Weliweriya incidents. It is also a recommendation by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). With the creation of this new Ministry, President Rajapaksa has directed Police Chief N.K. Illangakoon to train and equip more police contingents to cope with situations arising from civil unrest. Hence, the Police are to seek help from the armed forces only in extreme situations where their supporting role becomes inevitable. Otherwise Police will handle them.

Earlier, the Government had decided to incorporate only 91 recommendations of the LLRC in the National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP). Under five different themes, these recommendations were deemed as most significant “with potential to be promptly implemented” by 22 key government agencies, President Rajapaksa told his ministers. Thereafter, he recommended to them that a further 53 recommendations should be incorporated into the NHRAP. Highlights of this were reported exclusively in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary- June 9). These 53 recommendations, approved by the cabinet of ministers in July, relate to issues concerning International Humanitarian Law, Human Rights, Treatment of Detainees, Vulnerable Groups, Disabled Persons, Internally Displaced Persons, Concerns relating to the Muslim Community in the North and East, Return and Resettlement, Restitution/Compensatory Relief, Reconciliation, Language Policy and Other Measures. However, no reference was made then to the creation of a Law and Order Ministry, also a recommendation by the LLRC.

Ms.Pillay referred to her meeting with whom she mistakenly referred to as the “Permanent Secretary to the President”, Lalith Weeratunga who is chairing the National Plan of Action on the LLRC recommendations. She offered UN ‘good offices’ to help implement some of these proposals, but when she met Weeartunga she had asked him why the Government was changing some of the names of north and eastern towns like Mutur, Thirukovil and Potuvil. “Who told you all this?” Weeratunga asked and said there was nothing of the sort contemplated by the Government. He went on to ask a senior Defence Ministry official to take photographs of these name boards and have them sent to her.

Even if the Government was forced to roll out the red carpet for Pillay and her entourage, the bitterness at all levels over the visit surfaced in different ways. There were also contradictions in the approaches by key players not only in the Government but also in the main opposition UNP.

On a visit to Belarus, President Rajapaksa declared that certain countries were using the UN Human Rights Council against those like Sri Lanka and Belarus. In the case of Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa was alluding to the US-backed resolutions at the UNHRC.

Whilst this was playing out, in Colombo this week, US Ambassador Michele J. Sison met National Movement for Social Justice Convenor, Venerable Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera, at his vihare. At the meeting sought by the US Embassy, she discussed the movement’s ten point plan. The major highlight of this plan is to abolish the executive presidency. A report on this meeting appears elsewhere in this newspaper. It is known that the UNHRC is also focusing on Belarus over human rights violations there and curtailment of other freedoms by President Alexander Lukashenko’s corrupt administration. He has remained in office for the past 19 years winning four successive presidential elections. The last was won by a near 80 per cent vote in his favour.

On Thursday, after a meeting with Pillay, External Affairs Minister Peiris put out his customary news release. If he attempted to deal with all issues, there was not one word on the questions raised by Pillay to him. In other words, the aim was to please those in power by cataloguing what he said on the issues involved and how he admonished her. The statement was strongly worded and had some advice for her too. He said, “It is important to have an objective approach and extend equal treatment to all countries when fulfilling the assigned mandate.” Alas, Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Minister had missed out on an “objective approach” only last week when he gave favoured treatment to the Indian media over Indian Government officials. The Sunday Times (Political Commentary) last week revealed how his itinerary during a visit to New Delhi to invite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for the Commonwealth Summit in Colombo began first with a meeting with the Indian media.

That encounter has had its sequel according to EAM sources in Colombo. They say Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner Prasad Kariyawasam, was called to the Indian External Affairs Ministry and told of the Indian Government’s displeasure over Peiris making an official statement whilst in New Delhi. Peiris said that arrests of Tamil Nadu fishermen poaching in Sri Lanka’s territorial waters were a “deterrent mechanism.” The remarks have been perceived as a diplomatic threat of arresting fishermen who will cross the IMBL (International Maritime Boundary Line). The fact that Peiris delivered it to the Indian media, casting aside diplomatic norms had earned the ire of the Government there.

If Peiris dealt with what are widely regarded as the key issues related to the Pillay visit in his latest news release, there were areas with exceptions. It was particularly the subject of human rights. Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe too met Pillay on Thursday. Though he levelled personal criticism against Pillay at the March UNHRC sessions, Samarasinghe was relatively frank. He told reporters after the meeting, “I am candid enough to say there are challenges ahead of us. I mean no country can be expected to overcome surmountable challenges we are facing at the end of a 30- year-conflict. We faced the worst form of terrorism the world has seen.” On the one hand, there is Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Minister going on a diplomatic demolition course through a news release. On the other, the President’s Special Envoy on Human Rights, though by hindsight in a meeting which Rajapaksa did not favour, is taking a more pragmatic approach. The contradictions are quite clear.

The Ravana Balaya, an organisation backed by a Government Minister, staged a protest outside the UN’s Colombo office in Bauddhaloka Mawatha on Monday. Minister Mervyn Silva called Pillay Navanandana Pillai taking the cue from name of Navanandana Wijesinghe, a local comedian. Deputy Fisheries Minister Sarath Kumara Gunaratne also used the same name when he spoke to the media. On Friday, Minister Wimal Weerawansa, who is well known for voicing the views of the UPFA leadership, hurriedly summoned a news conference. He said, “The only aim of Navi Pillay’s visit to Sri Lanka is to submit a negative report to the UN Human Rights Council. Her actions have proved what we have been saying over and again.

It is clear that the government gave this opportunity genuinely, but the question whether Ms Pillay is genuine needs to be raised. It is clear that any danger to Sri Lanka will not recede with her submitting a report. She will give credibility to what she has already decided. This is by saying she has now visited Sri Lanka. The public in this country may recall that it was admitted that the so-called UN panel report was not a UN document. It is this same issue which is continuing.” There is little doubt Minister Weerawansa has filed answer to what influential sections of the Government perhaps perceive would be a harsh response by Pillay at the UNHRC sessions. If their fears become a reality in the weeks to come, Minister Weerawansa’s remarks would be a justification.

Sri Lanka’s main opposition UNP was also riven by contradictions. As revealed in these columns last week, Opposition (and UNP) Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe named a three-member committee to formulate a report to be presented to Pillay during their meeting on Friday. The outlines had been formulated by Karu Jayasuriya and Srinath Perera, PC. The latter has been appointed human rights co-ordinator of the party after the death of Dr. Jayalath Jayawardena, three months ago. The third member, Mangala Samaraweera has been busy campaigning in the North Western Province. The report was found to be “mild, inadequate and incomplete,” a party source said. Hence Wickremesinghe had handed over to Pillay one that has been formulated by him. The source said that the amended report encompassed many aspects and claimed it was “more realistic.” The final touches have been given by Wickremesinghe with the help of Perera. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner met Wickremesinghe at his residence at Fifth Lane, Kollupitiya and the meeting lasted 45 minutes.

Even at that meeting, Pillay was livid about Minister Silva’s marriage proposal. “They have had their say. I will have mine tomorrow,” she said referring to her news conference. It prompted Ravi Karunanayake MP to say “not all MPs are like that. I apologise on behalf of our fraternity for what happened.”

Wickremesinghe said that his party (UNP) was concerned about the “overall democratic structure” in the country and that Sri Lanka was not a fully functional democracy. He said the LLRC had also admitted that and it was within Pillay’s mandate to scrutinise these shortcomings. He said the short-circuiting of the 17th Amendment by the 18th Amendment was a violation of the UN resolution on Sri Lanka of 2009 and the restoration of the Independent Police Commission was a good first step. He then gave her a draft amended 17th Amendment (which will be the 19th Amendment) to bring back these independent bodies and said that the government and the opposition can pass this Bill before the UNHRC sessions this month.

The new draft Bill also limits the President’s term of office to two terms though the 18A allows the President to contest any number of times. A copy of Karu Jayasuriya’s private members bill on the Freedom of Information Act was also handed over to Pillay.

When she raised questions about ethnic tensions, Colombo Mayor A.J.M. Muzzamil gave her a briefing. Wickremesinghe then said that while religious intolerance was an issue, the Government had once threatened even the High Priests of Kandy (Buddhists Mahayaakes) by saying they would break up the Siam Nikaya (sect) to which they belonged and create a new sect because the prelates had wanted former Army Commander and Presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka released.

Mangala Samaraweera, the UNP’s Communications Director, told the Sunday Times, “We told her that since the war ended, democratic institutions were deteriorating. We said if the Government is sincere about democracy, it should re-introduce the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. It was withdrawn in 2010 hurriedly. We also told her of the need for a Freedom of Information Act.” He said the UNP delegation also handed over to Pillay a copy of the party’s draft proposals for a new constitution. “She was well informed and aware of many developments in detail,” he added.

In marked contrast to the position taken up with Pillay by the UNP delegation, the party’s former deputy leader, Sajith Premadasa has struck a discordant note. He criticised Pillay harshly at a political rally in Kurunegala. “Pillay was a person who was asleep when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was committing human rights violations in Sri Lanka,” he said. He charged that Pillay had only now begun to remember human rights and it was after our war heroes began to score military victories. He said in allowing Pillay to visit Sri Lanka, the Government was causing “great harm” and added that Pillay had no right to interfere in Sri Lanka.

The remarks came as a grave embarrassment to the UNP and its candidates contesting the North Western Provincial Council elections. It ran counter to the positions taken by other speakers at election rallies in the Kurunegala District. It was consonant with the position taken up by speakers for UPFA candidates in a district which is said to have the largest concentration of personnel from the armed forces

Another aspect of the second US-backed resolution at the UNHRC is the call for “the Government of Sri Lanka to co-operate with special procedures mandate holders to respond formally to their outstanding requests, including by extending invitations and providing access.” In the case of the latter, the likelihood of different special mandate holders dealing with religious freedom and minority rights are among those likely to visit Colombo. Such visits are expected with an eye on the UNHRC sessions in March next year.

One of the areas of importance for the Rapporteur on Minority Rights is hate speech, a subject which Pillay discussed with National Languages and Social Integration Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara. He has noted that the LLRC “sets out the need to enact deterrent laws to preserve rational and religious co-existence and prevent hate speech against any ethnic group or religious group.” He told his ministerial colleagues recently, “Although this subject matter has been assigned to the Ministry of Justice, since the subject of Ethnic Affairs has been assigned to my Ministry, I consider it as my responsibility to take appropriate action in this regard with the concurrence of the Hon. Minister of Justice.”

He recommended that provisions against hate speech now enshrined in the Prevention of Terrorism Act 48 of 1979 (Section 2 (1) (h) be written into the Penal Code. This provision states: “any person who by words either spoken or intended to be read or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise causes or intends to cause commission of acts of violence or religious, racial or communal harmony or feelings or ill-will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious groups” shall be guilty of an offence.

Nanayakkara told Pillay that legislation would be introduced once a ministerial sub-committee completes deliberations on the matter. It is now being examined by a Cabinet Sub Committee chaired by Minister Susil Premajayantha. Among other members are Sarath Amunugama, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Tissa Vitharana and Rauff Hakeem. In a departure from the subject at issue, Nanayakkara also took the opportunity to assert that he did not share some of the views expressed by his ministerial colleagues. Also incorporated into this sub committee to study the proposed laws is Minister Champika Ranawaka.

Earlier on Friday, Pillay addressed the Youth Parliament of the National Youth Council in Maharagama — an initiative of Youth Affairs Minister Dullas Allahapperuma. Some of the words of advice given by her have not been said by either UPFA or opposition leaders. A few of those “MPs” expressed strong views reflecting opinion in the south. Here is what she said:

“I am concerned when I see young people here and in the diaspora frozen in the hatred that fuelled the war. I am concerned when religion is misused to mobilise young people of one community against another. But I’m greatly encouraged when I hear about young people coming together from across communities to defend independent universities, to fight discrimination against women or people with different sexual identities and orientation to say no to ethnic or religious violence.

“I am pleased to come to Sri Lanka at a time that the war has ended and scourge of terrorism hopefully put behind you, this is a moment when the new generation in Sri Lanka can transcend the differences, prejudices and politics of their parents and play a transformative role in building a new society.”

At a crowded news conference at the UN office in Colombo, Pillay took questions after circulating a six-page text which was her opening remarks. Warning that Sri Lanka was “increasingly heading in an authoritarian direction”, Pillay urged the Government to “issue immediate orders to halt” treatment of human rights defenders and journalists who face harassment and intimidation on a regular basis. She noted “self censorship fuelled by fear, journalists report that there are articles they dare not write, and others their editors dare not print. Freedom of expression is under a sustained assault in Sri Lanka. I have called for the Right to Information Act to be adopted like many of its neighbours in SAARC”.

Now, with Pillay’s visit concluded, the focus shifts again to Geneva. What she tells the UNHRC in September will shape the events in March next year. Whilst blowing hot and cold, the Government will no doubt have to face some tough challenges.

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