Rejection of informal Government overtures to Opposition political parties to forge a common front has forced the ruling UPFA into a panic driven dual track diplomatic initiative to counter the issues before the March sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Moves to obtain Opposition support for a bi-partisan strategy have proved futile. [...]


Foreign mire and people’s ire, will there be voter fire

Thud and blunder on Geneva issues, Weeratunga takes charge of Govt. counterattack while External Affairs Ministry fiddles Wigneswaran launches strongest attack on President, UNP to move no-confidence motion against ruling alliance Major Opposition parties refuse to support Rajapaksa regime in its battle at the UNHRC sessions

Rejection of informal Government overtures to Opposition political parties to forge a common front has forced the ruling UPFA into a panic driven dual track diplomatic initiative to counter the issues before the March sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Moves to obtain Opposition support for a bi-partisan strategy have proved futile. The main Opposition United National Party (UNP) has not only spurned the effort but is busy this week working on a vote of no confidence against the Government. That would be on a number of issues. It is consulting other opposition parties for this purpose. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) says though it is opposed to foreign countries interfering in Sri Lanka, it would not back the Rajapaksa Administration. On the other hand, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), whose relations with the UPFA Government were further strained this week, is in favour of the UN Council addressing “grave issues” against the Government.

On the official side, it is the Presidential Secretariat that is spearheading the Government’s initiatives. That made it abundantly clear that once more, the External Affairs Ministry and Sri Lanka’s own diplomatic missions are not playing an effective role. Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga was in Geneva last Tuesday to address heads of foreign diplomatic missions accredited to the UN in the Swiss city.

Using a six-page power point presentation, he highlighted the issues raised in the past two United States resolutions at the UNHRC sessions and the measures taken by the Government at a well-attended meeting at Palais des Naciones, home for the UN in Geneva. Later, during a meeting with the UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navaneethan Pillai he emphasised what would be the UPFA Government’s official position before the Council in March – that most issues have been tackled and the Government needs more time to address the remaining ones. Ms.Pillai is due to present “a comprehensive report” to the Council over the implementation of the March 2013 US backed resolution to enable a detailed discussion. According to reports from Geneva, this report is already prepared and is now up for translation from English to other languages recognised by the UN.

If that was a formal first track of the new diplomacy, the second, also undertaken by Weeratunga was informal and largely behind the scenes. He flew from Geneva to WashingtonDC for this purpose. Leaving Colombo this week to join him was Sajin de Vass Gunawardena, Monitoring MP for the Ministry of External Affairs. President Rajapaksa has vested in Gunawardena, his trouble shooter, the responsibility of handling matters relating to the UNHRC. During the two previous resolutions, it was the President’s special envoy on human rights and Plantation Industries Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe who undertook the task. Though Samarasinghe has declared at public meetings that he would be in Geneva, his inclusion in the Sri Lanka delegation still remains in the balance.

At least officially, in the US capital, Weeratunga is billed to address a ‘forum on investment’ in Sri Lanka. It has reportedly been arranged for the Central Bank by the US public relations and lobbying firm Thompson Advisory Group LLC (TAG). The Central Bank pays this company US $ 66,000 (or more than Rs 8.5 million) every month for three different tasks. As reported earlier, they are to create (1) “a political climate” in the US “more than conducive to enhancing Sri Lanka’s long-term political and economic aspirations,” (2) to create a platform where US decision makers “receive clear and accurate information of Sri Lanka’s current achievements and future plans, and (3) “a higher volume of private sector investment in Sri Lanka.” As is clear, all successive Governments since independence in 1948 used Sri Lanka’s diplomatic missions overseas to undertake such routine tasks now outsourced to the US firm. Funds, the taxpayer’s monies, were allocated to the missions and qualified, trained diplomatic personnel were posted to work under the directions of the Ministry of Foreign (now External) Affairs.

However, the fact that packing the country’s diplomatic missions with inexperienced cronies of politicians having little or no experience has had a devastating effect is amply demonstrated by the latest developments. The Sri Lanka Embassy in WashingtonDC, if it was functioning actively, would have been able to deal with the issues that are now outsourced. Even more importantly, through a vigorous interaction with those in the US establishment, both public and private, they would have been able to create a “political climate” which would have been in the best interests of “Sri Lanka’s long term political and economic aspirations.” This would have easily averted the panic situation which the Government has now been forced into. Alas, today, with the exception of a trade official, the entire Embassy staff in WashingtonDC is made up of political appointees. It was only last week the Sunday Times revealed exclusively the multitude of political appointments made to the country’s diplomatic service from the highest levels to the lowest positions.

To make matters worse, this Embassy has also separately hired a US lobbying firm (Majority Group) paying it US $ 50,000 (or more than Rs 6.5 million) to lobby the US Government to change “its attitude towards Sri Lanka.” The two deals costing US $ 121,000 (or more than Rs 15.7 million) a month which were signed some eight months ago have not produced the desired results. The money could have been used for projects benefiting the people, like setting up pure water purification facilities in villages in the North Central Province where Chronic Kidney Disease is fast spreading. If that was bad enough, worse is the fact that the PR firm hired by the Sri Lanka Embassy in the US has been too busy writing out mostly press release statements on the “good work” of the Ambassador, photo essays on cultural events he takes part in and speeches he makes, all for publication in the Sri Lankan media. Firstly, whether there was a compelling need for two different public relations cum lobbying firms to work for the Embassy and the Central Bank, both futile exercises at public expense, has set a precedent.

Any other state organisation, like for example the Ministry of Investment Promotion or the Foreign Employment Bureau, could hire their own US firms too. That is if those heading such bodies are powerful enough. Secondly, it is clear in hindsight that the tasks given to these US firms have not brought any benefits to the country except to boost the image of some individuals locally through statements making Sri Lankans believe they are doing a splendid job. Thirdly, the UPFA leadership is yet to see the severe damage caused to the Government, the country’s image and to the conduct of foreign policy. Turning to US public relations or lobbying firms is by itself an acknowledgement that the country’s diplomatic missions, perhaps with the existing staff, are not up to the task though thousands of dollars are spent for their upkeep. This is proven by the rules of engagement with these firms, which are given the same responsibilities as that of a diplomatic mission. It is at a time when the US is now working on two draft resolutions, one tougher than the other, to win co-sponsorship for either of them.

There are also other “informal” engagements in WashingtonDC that have come Weeratunga’s way, at least from two different quarters. One is after talks President Rajapaksa held with Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu during his visit to that country early this month. Rajapaksa who briefed Premier Netanyahu on developments in Sri Lanka had sought help from Israel to place the Government’s position ‘correctly’ to influential quarters in WashingtonDC. Another is the result of a private offer of help from a one-time powerful cabinet minister of a friendly Asian country. He made his second visit to Colombo a week ago and had meetings both with President Rajapaksa and his son, parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa. On a previous visit, a month ago, he also had a meeting with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

This ex-minister, UPFA sources said, extended the good offices of his contacts in the US to lobby Sri Lanka’s case. A US national who accompanied the ex-minister on his previous visit, according to the latter, had close contacts at the White House with key foreign policy makers and influential congressmen. Since it was too late to take any concrete measures ahead of the UNHRC sessions in March, he was of the view that initiatives would have to begin immediately with the long term impact in mind. For that purpose, informal meetings have been set up. Some of them are expected to be conversations at social events arranged for the purpose.

President Rajapaksa though being far apart from Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe on vital policies, whispers into his ear at a ceremony on Friday to mark the opening of the Sama Vihara at Havelock Town. Pic by Santha Ratnayake

These developments lay bare important ground realities. The UPFA Government has gone into panic mode only because the conduct of the country’s foreign policy has virtually stalled. Is this not the reason why it was jolted when the US Embassy placed a photo tweet on its official site? It showed St. Anthony’s playground in Iranapallai near Puttumatalan in the Mullaitivu District and charged that the Army had killed hundreds of families there. In the photograph were Stephen J. Rapp, US Ambassador at large for war crimes and Michelle Sison, US Ambassador in Sri Lanka. It took the Army to issue a strong rebuttal but the External Affairs Ministry maintained stoic silence.

That was one of the reasons for UPFA leaders refusing to grant an extension of service to then External Affairs Ministry Secretary Karunatilleke Amunugama, who reached the age of 60 a week ago. However, he has now been appointed Secretary to the Ministry of Investment Promotion. That the US exercise amounted to the use of diplomatic heavy artillery on Sri Lanka is now all too well known. At first, the UPFA leaders wanted to summon Ambassador Sison to the External Affairs Ministry. It later relented and Minister G.L. Peiris tried unsuccessfully to speak on the telephone to Ambassador Sison and have the tweet pulled out from the US Embassy site.

Now, there is a repetition of the shades of what transpired in March 2012 when the US moved its first resolution against Sri Lanka in Geneva. An assortment of officials numbering more than 70 was flown to Geneva to lobby all and sundry in support of Sri Lanka. Thoroughly unprepared and badly briefed they were at sixes and sevens in Geneva. That was a clear reflection of the lack of understanding by the UPFA Government on how the UN system in Geneva worked. The costly exercise failed, miserably. Now, groups and people identified as ‘US power brokers’ or policy makers are to be befriended for the Herculean task of changing the US attitude towards Sri Lanka. Quite clearly, the entire operation smacks of a lack of awareness about US foreign policy, the working of their diplomatic initiatives and how official policies of the Administration in that powerful country are translated into action by professional men and women in the US foreign service.

To say the least, the Government is paying a heavy price for their ad hoc approach to the conduct of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy with the country’s diplomatic missions contributing next to nothing for the cause. This is whilst the public relations and lobbying companies make a windfall. Inevitably, the task has now fallen on Presidential Secretary Weeratunga to trouble-shoot. Is it a case of too little too late? Naturally, the question is what the External Affairs Minister, G.L. Peiris has been doing during two successive resolutions by the US, and the third one pending comes to the fore. It is clear that other than media statements, and photographs with counterparts and at seminars around the world, little or nothing tangible has taken place. The current state of affairs is proof.

Peiris will leave on Wednesday (January 29) for New Delhi. On the same day he will address envoys,who represent member countries of the UNHRC and are accredited to Sri Lanka, but do not have resident diplomatic missions in Colombo. Later in the day, he will meet Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid.
Weeratunga’s power point presentation, which he elaborated on, was titled ‘Taking forward the National Plan of Action (NPoA) to Implement the Recommendations of the Lessons Learnt & Reconciliation Commission’. He told the Geneva based diplomats there were 144 recommendations – International Humanitarian Law issues (7), Human Rights (54), Land Return & Resettlement (24), Restitution/Compensatory Relief (9) and Reconciliation (50).

The subject of war crimes – the critical element in the upcoming US resolution which seeks to establish an international probe on the last days of the armed conflict against the LTTE – was dealt with by Weeratunga under two different cages in the power point presentation dealing with IHL (International Human Rights Law) and HR (Human Rights) – Progress: He said Army Courts of Inquiry were probing into (a) allegations with regard to civilian casualties. (b) Allegations of summary executions of captured persons.

On another cage, reference is made to the ongoing Commission of Inquiry to investigate alleged abductions or disappearances of persons resident in the North and East. This Commission is now conducting sittings in Jaffna and the UPFA leadership was disturbed by the adverse publicity, particularly the reports in the Tamil media. Other points were (b) Census on deaths/injuries to persons or property damages due to conflicts since 1982, and (c) Inter Ministerial Working Group continues to verify cases on alleged disappearances submitted by WGEID (Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, which reports to the UNHRC). Since January 2012, the Government has transmitted responses to 842 cases to the Working Group.

Dealing with the military presence in the Northern Province, Weeratunga said it had been reduced by 30 per cent of its peak levels during conflict. “Continuous evaluation of the security requirements is being made to facilitate further reduction of troops,” he said. A cage in the power point presentation made a “Comparison of reduction of Army strengths from 2008 to 2013 October.” Army strength in May 2009, the period of the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas, stood at just below 120,000 and has dropped to 80,000 by October last year, according to a chart in the power point presentation. However, speaking at a meeting that followed the opening of a cancer hospital in Tellipalai, Jaffna, President Rajapaksa said the number of soldiers based in the North have been reduced to 12,000. He said 60,000 to 70,000 troops were present in the North during the separatist war.

Support for the Government’s initiatives will not come from the main Opposition UNP or the JVP. The UNP this week rejected informal overtures as its national leader Ranil Wickremesinghe called for a broader opposition front to campaign for the abolition of the executive presidency. A wider effort was necessary towards this and to determine what is best suited for the country, he told a meeting of the Buddhist clergy at SiriKotha, the UNP’s headquarters. Wickremesinghe made a reference to the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) “which the Government says it is implementing to address issues before the Human Rights Council.” The UNP national leader added: “The Government has given some promises. The main solution to issues is through the LLRC recommendations. If they are implemented, we can also talk about them. But the Government has not brought them up for discussion. If these recommendations were going to be implemented, we could have discussed ideas expressed by other countries. Our duty is to fulfil our promises. Similarly, we must demonstrate we have an independent judiciary. Actions against judges should be in keeping with Latimer House principles.”

With informal consultations with other Opposition parties under way, Wickremesinghe is also working on a vote of no confidence on the UPFA Government. He told confidantes in his party that the motion will be on the grounds that the Government’s inaction has led to Sri Lanka becoming a hub for international drug smuggling. It will contain references to the detection of the single largest heroin haul in Sri Lanka and attempts by the narcotics importer to smuggle them into the country through the good offices of Prime Minister, D.M. Jayaratne. The Pakistani smuggler in cohort with a Sri Lankan had obtained a letter from the Prime Minister’s Office seeking a demurrage waiver for the consignment. Another move bythe Opposition would be to emphasise gigantic corruption in the State sector. The UNP is collecting data of such corrupt activity in various areas including multi-million dollar projects. There is little doubt that such a motion will be defeated overwhelmingly in Parliament. However, views expressed by parliamentarians of different political parties during the debate, if it receives wide exposure, would be embarrassing to the Government both locally and externally. This is particularly in the light of Western and Southern Provincial Council elections, likely to be held on March 29. That is almost the time when the third US resolution is due to be passed by the Human Rights Council.

The UNP is also piqued by the Government’s refusal to agree to a private member’s bill moved by Parliamentarian Wijeyadasa Rajapaksha. Titled the ‘Removal of judges of the Superior Courts (Special Provisions) Bill’ it seeks to provide for “fair, independent and impartial trial for judges of the superior courts in case of a resolution for their removal.” Wijeyadasa Rajapaksha tried to present it to Parliament on Wednesday but it was put to a vote. The private member’s bill was defeated with 72 voting, all Government MPs, against it and only 34 in favour.

According to the provisions of the Bill, when a Resolution for the impeachment of the Chief Justice is placed on the Order Book of Parliament, the Speaker, in consultation with the Leader of the Opposition, would appoint a panel of inquiry to investigate the alleged misbehaviour or incapacity of the judge concerned. In the case of the Chief Justice, a panel consisting three persons, each of whom holds or has held office as a Judge in the highest Court of any Commonwealth country other than Sri Lanka could be appointed. In the case of any other Judge of the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal, the inquiry would be held by a panel of three persons, who hold or have held office as a Judge of the Supreme Court.

The Bill also sought to provide for MPs, who sign such a resolution, to have the right to appear before a panel of inquiry in person or through their legal representatives while the Bar Association will also be permitted to appear before it.He said that the private member’s bill was based on the Latimer House principles which have been adopted by the Government. President Rajapaksa is the chair-in-office of the Commonwealth but has chosen to ignore this issue, he told the Sunday Times.

Though the JVP is “totally against” any country interfering in Sri Lanka, its Parliamentarian Anura Kumara Dissanayake told the Sunday Times the party would not back the Rajapaksa administration. He said, “This Government has packed Sri Lanka’s diplomatic missions with its stooges. It should pick the best qualified professionals, particularly to serve in leading countries like the United States, Russia and China. The External Affairs Ministry is weak. Government stalwarts were using all forms of vituperative statements against western countries. They help us. We must think of the country. Some who made remarks think that all other world powers were nations within Sri Lanka. They must realise they are also very much a part of this world.”

Dissanayake said that the Government has chosen to hold Western and Southern Provincial Council elections in March only in view of the UNHRC sessions in Geneva. It wants to turn its ineptness into winning sympathy locally. It has been brought about by Government inaction. “We will launch a strong campaign to educate the public about the hypocrisy behind this exercise,” he added.

If the UNP and the JVP are not in favour of joining hands with the Government over issues before the UNHRC sessions in Geneva, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) held a different view. Its leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan said, “Grave issues have been aggravated in recent times.” He told the Sunday Times, “Those issues include the Government take-over of substantial extents of land, the Government’s failure to address international humanitarian law and international human rights issues and the fate of missing persons.” He said many impediments have been caused by what he called “military involvement” that has impeded the livelihood of the people. He charged that the restoration of civil administration in the North, after the Northern Provincial Council elections in September last year was ineffective. “They cannot function. There has been no progress towards a political settlement of issues affecting the Tamil people,” he added.

Sampanthan’s remarks came as TNA’s relations with the UPFA Government took a turn for the worse. Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran mounted his strongest attack so far on President Rajapaksa. Last Thursday, he addressed a public meeting that followed an event to recognize best performing local councils. This is what he said: “President Mahinda Rajapaksa had an idea to win the Northern Provincial Council elections with the help of the Army. However,he failed and could not bear it. The President has a habit of saying something, but acting in a different manner.

“During his recent visit to Jaffna,I met him. He said he will fulfil the needs and aspirations of our people. He promised to transfer the Chief Secretary of the Provincial Council, but up to date it has not happened. Since 2009 he was postponing the Northern Provincial Council elections, but eventually it was held in 2013 due to pressure from India. Even southerners say that they should not believe the people beyond the Bentota River. Even the President is from the south, beyond this river.

“Now the President is trying to negotiate on matters we do not need. Also on certain things he was trying to negotiate ignoring the laws of the country. He will have to face the consequences of this. The President is not worried even if we go to Courts to challenge the appointment of the Chief Secretary. The whole world says that the Government was responsible for attacks on the Tamils.There are reasons for the President not to devolve powers to the Provincial Councils. He will tell the masses in the south at the next elections that he has not bowed down to the demands of the people in the north. This is to retain the vote base in the south.

“The Government has chosen the wrong path. These actions will draw the country to a disaster. The President is trying to secure his power and be a ‘dictator’. In today’s context many countries have said that powers should be devolved. In the recent times, many persons who have acted as dictators have later regretted their actions. The leaders in Egypt, Iran and Pakistan regretted what they did in the past. Therefore current rulers also should realize the reality. The President should realize that a person like Nelson Mandela ruled the country by sharing powers. This made him a great leader in the world.”

During a meeting with a two-member TNA delegation on January 2, Rajapaksa agreed to shift the Northern Provincial Council’s Chief Secretary, R. Vijayalakshmy. He asked the TNA to nominate a person of its choice. However, the move drew an angry response from organisations representing the administrative service. Thereafter, the matter was put on hold.

The coming weeks and months would no doubt be critical for the UPFA Government. That is particularly in the backdrop of Opposition political parties veering to agree on common issues to take on the Rajapaksa Administration. If their response is like something akin to tackling issues before the Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Opposition is likely to gain some ground. The question, however, is whether it can still seize such opportunities and translate the groundswell of resentment into votes.

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