The Government has gone into hyperactive mode after signals through its own channels indicated that the United Nations Human Rights Council’s March sessions may take a serious turn over alleged war crimes and other issues. Hectic preparations, a feature absent in the past except a show of strength in numbers in Geneva, are under way. [...]


Alarm bells in Geneva: Govt. in hyperactive mode

Indications of tough new resolution on accountability and related issues, Pillay to submit 10,000-word report US war crimes ambassador coming here, followed by new Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Desai Biswal New Gazette notification to stop internal revolts within local councils; Ravi lashes out at cry-babies and spineless leaders in the UNP

The Government has gone into hyperactive mode after signals through its own channels indicated that the United Nations Human Rights Council’s March sessions may take a serious turn over alleged war crimes and other issues.

Hectic preparations, a feature absent in the past except a show of strength in numbers in Geneva, are under way. Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga will leave for Geneva later this month to brief envoys accredited to the UN there on the progress Sri Lanka was making over issues contained in two successive US-sponsored resolutions. Weeratunga heads a Presidential Task Force assigned to implement a string of recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and approved by the Cabinet of Ministers. This week, Weeratunga together with Ravinatha Ariyasinha Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, met different stakeholders in Colombo as part of preparations. One such meeting was with retired Major General Nanda Mallawaratchchi, Secretary to the Ministry of Law and Order to discuss matters relating to the Police.

A similar mission is also being undertaken later this month by External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris. He will address New Delhi-based envoys of countries which have diplomats accredited to Sri Lanka but do not have a diplomatic mission in Colombo. He has taken this opportunity to seek a meeting with Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid to discuss bilateral issues and matters relating to the UNHRC sessions. India supported the two successive US-sponsored resolutions. He wants to brief India on the course of action being taken. Some of the envoys Peiris will speak to represent UNHRC member countries such as Algeria, Argentina, Benin, Chile, Estonia, Morocco, Namibia and Macedonia.

Late last year, 14 countries — Algeria, China, Cuba, France, Maldives, Mexico, Morocco, Namibia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Macedonia, Vietnam, Russia and the United Kingdom — were elected by secret ballot for three years beginning January 1 this year. Other members of the Council and the year when their term ends are: Argentina (2015), Austria (2014), Benin (2014), Botswana (2014), Brazil (2015), Burkina Faso (2014), Chile (2014), Congo (2014), Costa Rica (2014), Cote d’ Ivore (2015), Czech Republic (2014), Estonia (2015), Ethiopia (2015), Gabon (2015), Germany (2015), India (2014), Indonesia (2014), Ireland (2015), Italy (2014), Japan (2015), Kazakhstan (2015), Kenya (2015), Kuwait (2014), Montenegro (2015), Pakistan (2015), Peru (2014), Philippines (2014), Republic of Korea (2015), Romania (2014), Sierra Leone (2015), United Arab Emirates (2015), United States (2015) and Venezuela (2015).

Rapp visits Lanka
The move to turn proactive and conciliatory after adopting a belligerent and confrontational posture in the past, a hallmark of Sri Lanka’s fledgling foreign policy, comes amidst a visit to Colombo tomorrow by Stephen J. Rapp, Ambassador-at-Large, Office of Global Criminal Justice in the US Department of State. His office in Washington said on Friday that he will meet a “cross section of government officials, political and civil society leaders on a range of issues.” Even if the official announcement did not give his full title, Rapp is Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues and was appointed by President Barack Obama.

In that capacity he advises the Secretary of State, the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights and works to formulate United States policy “on prevention and accountability for mass atrocities.” Among those Rapp will meet are Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem and Attorney General Palitha Fernando.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa who left yesterday on a four day visit to Palestine and Israel has also been mindful of the issues in Geneva. At the re-scheduled weekly ministerial meeting on Friday, he warned the ministers to be extremely cautious over attempts to rouse ethnic tensions. Whichever community was responsible for such actions, he said, the ministers must respond cautiously bearing in mind the religious sensitivities involved. They could be reported as attacks on churches, mosques, temples or other places of worship. The incidents were being ‘blown out of proportion’ by interested parties to embarrass the Government, he warned.

Education Minister Bandula Gunewardene, at the centre of a controversy over remarks he made about the Year Five Scholarship Exam explains his position at a news conference last week. Examination Commissioner W.M.N.J. Pushpakumara (left) is also in the picture. Pic by Susantha Liyanawatta

Whilst in Palestine tomorrow, Rajapaksa will confer Sri Lanka’s highest honour on late Yasser Arafat, former President of the State of Palestine and Dr. Mahmoud Abbas, the current President. In terms of a Gazette notification on Friday, both will receive Mitra Vibhushana National Honour. “Know Ye that His Excellency the President will personally award this Honour,” said two different notifications.

Rajapaksa also met a two-member delegation from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on Thursday to discuss issues related to the functioning of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC). His Government wants to be in a position to say that it has fulfilled assurances given to the international community over the conduct of provincial elections in the north and that democracy has been restored to the once war-ravaged province. Though he remains engaged with the TNA, troubles for Rajapaksa over the NPC are far from over. Administrative and financial issues formed the core of the discussion. The TNA duo, Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran and Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran sought the removal of the Secretary to the Chief Minister. Rajapaksa agreed and asked the TNA to come up with its nominee. He said the TNA could raise financial issues from time to time with Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera. The Treasury Secretary and Cabinet Secretary Sumith Abeysinghe were present at the discussion.

Sumanthiran told the Sunday Times, “We informed the President of a number of obstacles faced by the NPC. Among them was the issue of appointment of officers to the council. The Governor has to make the appointments in consultation with the Chief Minister. We also discussed the appointment of the Chief Secretary. This needs to be done in consultation with the Chief Minister and (we also raised) the question of NPC receiving grants. This includes foreign grants. For this it was agreed to meet with the Treasury officials and discuss the process of receiving such grants. The issue of addressing the needs of the displaced people including the widows and orphans and the detainees was also raised.” In his customary fashion, Rajapaksa invited the duo for lunch after the hour-long meeting which began at noon but they politely declined the offer.

A thorny issue — the running conflict between the TNA and Northern Province Governor retired Major General G.A. Chandrasiri — still remains unresolved. However, UPFA sources hinted yesterday that the matter would be resolved much the same way tensions on the two sides were being eased with a “routine” changeover of the military leadership in the north. The New Year call on the President by the Northern Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran showed recognition of Rajapaksa as head of State and indicated a willingness to work together.

However, the TNA has refused to participate in the Government’s reconciliation programme, either through the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) or through talks, until the Government makes its proposals public. “You can reach me at any time. We can resolve issues amicably through dialogue,” Rajapaksa told the two TNA leaders. That it comes ahead of the UNHRC’s March sessions is not without significance.

Heightening the UPFA Government’s concerns are reports it is receiving about a new US resolution co-sponsored by a number of countries including Britain. Based on claims that the Government of Sri Lanka has not moved forward on the 2012 and 2013 resolutions to address accountability issues, there are fears that the new resolution would seek to initiate a mechanism for a probe. Though the real shape and format of such a resolution is not clear, the Government is not taking any chances this time. This is particularly after it received confirmation from diplomatic channels that a resolution indeed would be moved by the US. The idea behind the Government move is to re-iterate the official position that the Government has set up its own mechanisms to ascertain fully the circumstances of death or injury to civilians. This is to be one of the major thrusts of Presidential Secretary Weeratunga’s briefings in Geneva. He is to explain that the Army Courts of Inquiry are probing the issue.

This subject, no doubt, will be foremost for Ambassador Rapp, a lawyer and the third Chief Prosecutor, among others, in the case against Charles Taylor, one time Liberian President when he was produced before the International Criminal Court. He succeeded Sri Lankan born Desmond de Silva, QC who served in the judiciary in Britain. Rapp is expected to discuss issues related to this matter with Government officials. His office “coordinates U.S. Government support for international and hybrid courts that are currently trying persons responsible for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity committed in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Cambodia. It also works closely with other governments, international institutions, and non-government organisations to establish and assist international and domestic commissions, courts and tribunals to investigate, judge, and deter atrocity, crimes in every region of the globe. The Ambassador-at-Large also coordinates the deployment of a range of diplomatic, legal, economic, military, and intelligence tools to help expose the truth, judge those responsible, protect and assist victims, enable reconciliation, and build the rule of law.” Rapp, his office said, will be focusing on “Sri Lanka’s justice, accountability and reconciliation process.” He last visited Colombo in February 2012.

Following Rapp to Colombo on January 12 on a two-day visit is Nisha Desai Biswal, Assistant Secretary in the Department of State for Central and South Asia. She succeeded Robert Blake who was also one time US Ambassador to Sri Lanka and is currently serving as envoy to Indonesia. Biswal, an American Indian of Gujarati origin, is on her first familiarisation visit. Diplomatic sources said yesterday that she would meet Government leaders and officials to discuss bilateral matters and issues that are now before the UNHRC. Despite criticism in some sections in Sri Lanka, Biswal is considered a ‘foreign policy star’ in the Obama administration. She worked in the presidential election campaign for John Kerry (now Secretary of State) in 2004 and the Obama campaign in 2008. Her swearing in in November showed part of her power base that included Dennis McDonough, Chief of Staff of President Barack Obama.

A closer look at the UPFA Government’s approach to the two successive resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva lays bare an inconsistent and contradictory approach. In 2012, the response was to send more than a hundred delegates at substantial expense to the country’s purse. This was under the mistaken notion that a greater presence of diplomats, lawyers, journalists, religious dignitaries, lobbyists and others would change hearts and minds towards Sri Lanka. Last year, the head of the Sri Lanka delegation, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, President Rajapaksa’s special envoy on human rights, made a scathing personal attack on UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navanethem Pillay. Thereafter, the Government relented and allowed Pillay to visit Sri Lanka. She gave a preliminary account of her visit to the UNHRC in September last year and is to present a 10,000 word report in March. The mandate to her from the Council requires the High Commissioner to present a “……comprehensive report followed by a discussion on the implementation of the present resolution at its twenty-fifth session.” These sessions begin on March 3.

The planned visits by Weeratunga and Peiris to present Sri Lanka’s case this time are by themselves an acknowledgement that the previous approaches and initiatives did not produce the desired results — with the External Affairs Ministry playing little or no role. Nowhere was the ineffectiveness felt more strongly than in the US capital, Washington DC. This is despite the Sri Lanka Embassy there having hired the services of two different Public Relations firms not only for propaganda but also for lobbying and fixing various jobs. This is besides another PR firm being hired by Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal, ostensibly to promote Sri Lankan interests. He did succeed in having a couple of by-lined pieces (under his name) inserted in small sections of the US media with the help of this firm. In Britain, where a group of ruling Conservative Party MPs were given free tickets and allowances to travel to Sri Lanka, the EAM’s move also does not appear to have paid dividends. The British Government’s position has hardened. It remains to be seen how the new approach will work. Issues before the UNHRC are not the only subject to draw the Government’s attention this week. There were other issues too.

Year Five scholarship
Education Minister Bandula Gunawardena’s public announcements that he would do away with Year Five scholarship examination from 2016 drew a lot of flak at the ministerial meeting on Friday. Minister Wimal Weerawansa, known to often voice the views of the UPFA leadership, lashed out at Minister Gunawardena for making a public announcement even before ministers took a decision on the matter. A day ahead of the meeting too, Weerawansa publicly berated the Education Minister for announcing, without referring the matter to the Cabinet. Gunawardena’s explanation was that the National Education Commission (NEC) had made a recommendation and he was only announcing that decision. As on previous occasions, Gunawardena found there was no ministerial colleague to defend him. They were all heaping strong criticism on him for unilaterally making an announcement that brought the Government to ridicule. It also drew bitter response from the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). Its Western Provincial Council Minister Udaya Gammanpila challenged Minister Gunawardena for a public debate but the minister did not respond. On the other hand, Gunawardena said some of his colleagues wanted to ridicule him. The Year Five scholarship examination in rural schools is intended to make successful students eligible for admission to national schools in the country.

President Rajapaksa, the master of public relations when it comes to critical or controversial matters, intervened to rule on the issue and shower some praise on Gunawardena. He noted that the Minister need not have made the announcement but praised him for the many worthy things he had done in the education sector. He said that the NEC recommendations could be looked at in 2015 and an appropriate decision taken. He said that even if the NEC had made the recommendation, ministers would have to make a decision for it to become effective. “Recent examination results showed that students in rural schools have fared better than those in some of the leading schools in Colombo,” declared Rajapaksa. He said that with the introduction of technology as a subject, there would be more improvements soon.

President Rajapaksa said that Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella should be asked to announce at his regular media briefing after the meeting of ministers that the Cabinet had not taken a decision to scrap the Year Five Scholarship scheme. “If you decide to do that, he will ridicule me. He will place the blame on me,” complained Minister Gunawardena. Rajapaksa then advised the Education Minister also to be present at the media briefing and state his case. However, he did not turn up. Government spokesperson Minister Rambukwella admitted that the announcement (by Minister Gunawardena) had created a huge uproar among parents and students. He asserted that the Year Five Scholarship scheme would not be scrapped.

Budget defeats
Another issue that has become a cause for concern for the Government is the continuing defeat of budgets at local councils. In the vast majority of these councils, internal issues have been the cause. In a Pradeshiya Sabha near Colombo the budget was twice defeated. It has transpired that the Chairman of this local authority had given all the contracts for development work to his son and his brother. Similarly, in most of the local authorities the monopoly by the heads had led to anger among other members and even party organisers who are enraged they are unable to make a quick buck. Corruption has reached unprecedented levels in the local authorities. In a Municipal Council near Colombo, a resident was asked to cough out Rs. 500,000 to be issued a Certificate of Conformity after he had completed his luxury house. The owner used political influence to get the certificate, at no cost.

In a bid to avoid work of the local authorities being crippled, the Government has asked Provincial Councils, which have over-riding authority over the local councils to introduce regulations. These were promulgated by respective Chief Ministers and Gazetted this week. The regulations said: “Wherein action has not been taken as per provisions of the Local Government Authorities Elections (Amendment) Act, No 22 of 2012 to fill the Chairman’s Office that has become vacant or when a Chairman newly appointed to the vacant position requires to present a proposal to the council in relation to adoption of a budget document for 2014, however, lacks the minimum days to present such proposal to the council compliance to the written law relevant to that, in such case, it is legal to execute certain budget document prepared for year 2014 by the said Pradeshiya Sabha under the approval of the Assistant Commissioner of Local Government of the district where the relevant Pradeshiya Sabha is located.”

PC elections
Against this backdrop, President Rajapaksa also chaired a meeting of leaders of all UPFA partners at ‘Temple Trees’ on Friday evening. One of the key subjects of discussion was the upcoming Western and Southern Provincial Council elections. Rajapaksa wanted to know the position of the partners, whether they would be contesting under the UPFA banner or individually. Leaders of three parties said they would field candidates under their own party name. They are the Ceylon Workers Congress, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress and the All Ceylon Muslim Congress (ACMC is led by Minister Rishad Bathiuddin). Rajapaksa was strongly critical about the SLMC going it alone at the September 2013 Northern Provincial Council (NCPC) elections. UPFA General Secretary Susil Premajayantha said there was no harm in going their way in the PC polls. He was of the view that it would not jeopardise the UPFA chances. Minister Hakeem was heard telling his ministerial colleagues on Friday that the SLMC’s decision to go it alone for the PC polls was taken by the party’s high command. He was to remark that his party would fully back the UPFA at a presidential or parliamentary election.

Minister Wimal Weerawansa raised issue over Police arresting hawkers during the festive season for not having the required authorisation to sell their wares along the roadside from Colombo to Moratuwa. He charged that overzealous police officers harassed these hawkers who were eking out a living by selling whatever they could. The complaint prompted Rajapaksa to speak to Police Chief N.K. Illangakoon and direct him that such harassment should stop.

UNP crisis continues
For the main opposition United National Party (UNP), the troubles seem to be not over altogether. One of its seniors and a member of the Leadership Council, Colombo District parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake has taken a swipe against the leadership publicly. In an interview with our sister newspaper Irida Lankadeepa he has charged that the party’s leadership lacked “a backbone.” Here is the relevant Q & A:

Q: Sajith (Premadasa) says as three of his demands were not met, he did not agree to the Leadership Council?
A: What demands? Is this the time to place demands? I am not sure why leader Ranil Wickremesinghe speaks only to Sajith and Karu (Jayasuriya). They messed up on what they spoke. We can’t help that. Do not bring those things to the party. It was the monks who dedicated themselves. They created a climate where all persons could be brought together. They created a situation which was not anticipated. That was a benefit to the country. I appreciate the service done by them. Those cry babies who prick their own eyes and start crying are betraying the party. It should stop even now. There should be a backbone to stop these things.
If there is a problem come to the party and discuss it. We can resolve it. Such questions have been discussed at the Working Committee. Those questions should be discussed within the party and not with rag sheets to sling mud. We have been watching for the last five to six years, they are trying to destroy the party. I am not telling these with personal vengeance, but because of the love of the party. What they are doing is a government contract.

Q: You earlier mentioned that persons in the party do not have a backbone. Is that valid for UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as well?
A: Yes, Yes. It is valid for the leader as well. I am not trying to protect any one. I am working on behalf of the party. It is because the leader did not control things earlier now harsher methods have to be used. That is because there was no backbone. I say that without fear. There is no use of pacifying anybody. We are not henchmen of any person. Some tried to project us as Ranil’s henchmen. I was the main target of this attack. Until recently I did not have a position in the party.”
However, the UNP Leadership Council has already embarked on a programme to strengthen the party’s grassroots level machinery. Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe told the Sunday Times, “Our plan of action this year is the resolutions we adopted at our annual convention on December 21. We will take to the streets and protest against this corrupt Government which has heaped so many hardships on the people.” The full text of the resolution appeared in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) of December 15.

For President Rajapaksa and the UPFA, the upcoming Western and Southern Provincial Council elections will be the litmus test of public support, particularly after the latest budget forced a further spiral in living costs. This is whilst mounting corruption and deteriorating law-and-order situation have become added woes. Mending and doing patch work on whatever remains of the country’s foreign policy, a leaderless, lacklustre External Affairs Ministry and ineffective diplomatic missions overseas will no doubt be a test of strength for the Government this new year. In the hyperactive mode, it will no longer be possible to blame others or paint all of them ‘black’. That will not produce results, not even domestically.

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