The Government is touting its latest Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Missing Persons as “a first step” towards answering international calls for a domestic investigation into war crimes allegations. “I think the Commission of Inquiry into Missing Persons is the first step,” Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President, told editors and senior journalists on Wednesday. [...]



Lalith W: Accountability and reconciliation are two parallel tracks that won’t meet


The Government is touting its latest Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Missing Persons as “a first step” towards answering international calls for a domestic investigation into war crimes allegations.

Mr. Weeratunga makes a point to journalists

“I think the Commission of Inquiry into Missing Persons is the first step,” Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President, told editors and senior journalists on Wednesday. He also said allegations of abductions, missing persons and involuntary disappearances had to be gone into carefully to determine the numbers —“because number is a very questionable thing”.

The commission started public hearings in Jaffna on Friday, just weeks away from a crucial UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions at which a third resolution on Sri Lanka will be presented. The Commission has received 13,000 applications from relatives of missing persons; of these, 4,000 are from military families.

“Let us go through this and find out exactly how many persons are missing,” Mr. Weeratunga said. He added that the Government was also considering requests to broaden the mandate of the Commission to include incidents before 1990. At present, the commission is instructed to look into cases between 1990 and 2009.

The commission was appointed on August 15, 2013, ten days before UN Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay arrived in Sri Lanka for a weeklong visit. Led by former High Court Judge Maxwell Paranagama, the three-member commission is tasked with investigating cases of persons who went missing during the war from the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

Mr. Weeratunga updated journalists on progress in implementing the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. He said he had made the same presentation to audiences in Washington DC and Geneva during lengthy visits last month. He denied that he had been deployed in a belated effort to make Sri Lanka’s case in the run-up to the resolution at the UNHRC sessions in Geneva. But he did say, “…better late than ever”.

“I know there is a lot of scepticism,” he said. “Even when the LLRC was formulated, there was. But I think when the report came out there was some kind of acceptance that, okay, good recommendations have been made. Unfortunately, it is coincidental that I went to Geneva in January and then to Washington. But I think it is better late than never, at least to educate these people.”

“It was not to stop a resolution in Geneva,” he asserted. “I knew I couldn’t have done that. The Government knew that, by sending me or by sending the whole Government, you couldn’t have stopped what the US was doing. They are hell bent on it; they’ll do it.
“But I think now we have to start telling the world regularly what we do,” he said. “I think we have done a substantial amount of work, 18 months of work, and I thought I will go and tell the world.”

Mr. Weeratunga did not respond directly to a comment that journalists in Sri Lanka were not kept informed of progress in implementing the LLRC recommendations.

Among the steps that have been taken by the Government are demining, resettlement of the displaced and the release of all child combatants without any judicial process. Additionally, 11,872 ex-combatants have also been released after rehabilitation. “My argument (to the international community) was that, yes, you can have an international inquiry,” Mr. Weeratunga said. “That is not an issue, if that is what the Government wants. But then, all these people will have to be brought back to the judicial process. Won’t that upset the reconciliation we are going through? To have accountability and inquiry into 30 years of war and to also make sure there is reconciliation are two parallel tracks that will never meet. That’s the truth of it.”

Mr. Weeratunga reiterated that the US will “somehow push this resolution in Geneva”.

“Whether resolutions are presented or not, we have to complete what we have set out to do as early as possible,” he maintained. “That’s a stance I think the Government will have to take in time to come.”

Small countries at the
mercy of lobbying groups

Small countries like Sri Lanka were at the mercy of lobbying groups in the US, Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga said. He also attempted to defend Sri Lanka’s mission in Washington for an apparent failure to present the Government’s case to US politicians in a constant manner.

“I used to think so,” he said, in response to whether Sri Lanka’s missions had failed. But they had an enormous task ahead of them, with more than 800 lobbying groups based in Washington DC. “If you have embassies which are very robust all the time, looking at things that are happening on the ground, then they need to be staffed very well, numbers also, because to engage these people is so difficult.”
Mr. Weeratunga was asked why the issue of accountability for alleged war crimes had not been delegated to the External Affairs Ministry (EAM) and was instead being handled by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and by him. He indicated that the EAM might not know the nuances.
“The External Affairs Ministry will have to go out and tell the world what the Government is doing,” he replied. “No question about it. But I think when specific areas like LLRC come into focus, it is best that we go and tell them because we know the nuances, we know the ground level issues.”

Mr. Weeratunga’s argument seemed to confirm the oft-repeated criticism that the Government was sidelining the EAM and focusing the task of representing the country abroad in the hands of a select few.
In Geneva, Mr. Weeratunga had met a large number of ambassadors of different countries. “I get the feeling that we were able to put out our side of the story which may not have been conveyed, not due to any fault of any particular person or group,” he said. “But I think we probably did not think that articulating our thoughts is important. We just would go and make some speech and come back. I think that is not what is called for.”

But his experience in the US was different. Mr. Weeratunga said it was the first time he had realised the power of lobbying companies.
“It is this time that I realised, particularly in the US, this whole business of lobbying is the order of the day,” he said. “The LTTE has taken the Podesta group, which is one of the strongest groups which is already in the White House. They have John Podesta, who is almost an adviser to President Obama who has the ear of the administration. So they are well placed, no question about it.”“And 30 years of superb communications, superb malicious propaganda, has certainly placed them on top and government has not been able to come to terms with that,” he admitted.

“I don’t know to what extent London does it, I can’t understand, because England may be having the kind of structure we have,” Mr. Weeratunga continued. “In the US, there is a totally different structure. Senators move differently, Congress moves in another way, the State Department is another one, the Executive arm is that. So, it’s very difficult to understand sometimes.”

“And they are quite independent,” he remarked. “What the State Department does has no bearing on what the Congress and the Senate does. And that’s what I felt. Each one wants to move.”

Mr. Weeratunga said he had met a Congressman who had co-sponsored a resolution against Sri Lanka without knowing where the country was. He also said Sri Lanka’s mission in Washington no longer employed a public relations company. The services of the one it had hired were terminated last year.

Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.