The address by the Head of State on Independence Day is a much looked forward to occasion, for it outlines the Government’s road-map for the ensuing year. Our Political Editor gives some detail of the diplomatic and political activity that took place as President Maithripala Sirisena prepared the text of his speech. Such activity on [...]


Geneva: Ambiguity continues


The address by the Head of State on Independence Day is a much looked forward to occasion, for it outlines the Government’s road-map for the ensuing year. Our Political Editor gives some detail of the diplomatic and political activity that took place as President Maithripala Sirisena prepared the text of his speech.

Such activity on the eve of February 4 was necessitated due to the power play that unfolded in the fortnight before Independence Day. The President and the Prime Minister seemingly took up contradictory positions on the Government’s approach to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution to investigate allegations of violations of International Humanitarian Law during the final stages of the military campaign against the LTTE in early May 2009. This Resolution, ironically co-sponsored by Sri Lanka, has the contentious Article 6 which states: “….. to establish a judicial mechanism with special counsel to investigate …… and also affirms in this regard the importance of participation in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism, including the special counsel’s office, of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorised prosecutors and investigators”.

Our Political Editor seems to think that the President took a step back from his stance of just a fortnight ago when he told foreign media, and quite emphatically at that, that there will be no foreign judges adjudicating in such a tribunal. He did not say that on Independence Day. Instead, he opted to fall in line more with the Prime Minister’s position that the Government will stand by the Geneva Resolution, which then makes provision for foreign judges and prosecutors. Already, foreign media are taking the President to task for backtracking on earlier commitments on the eve of the UN Human Rights Chief’s visit to Sri Lanka.

It is this Resolution that hangs like the proverbial ‘Sword of Damocles’ over the head of this Government, the Armed Forces and the people of this free and sovereign nation that celebrated its Independence from 400 years of colonial rule in 1948.
The President strained to clear the air but eventually left much unsaid leaving it to the listeners to interpret his words the way they wanted to. He first blamed the colonial masters of yore for leaving with problems that remain unresolved to date. He praised the Armed Forces for defeating a terrorist organisation like the LTTE and he blamed the previous Government of which he was a member) for its failure to inquire into any human rights violations committed during that campaign which has resulted in the Geneva Resolution, and called for patience in implementing the provisions of that Resolution.

But the ‘Elephant in the room’, so to say, is whether the foreign prosecutors and judges will participate in the virtual War Crimes Tribunal that the Government has undertaken to establish. The PM, of course, has put in a rider for now. He says that any foreign judges or prosecutors will have to be within the Constitution (which prohibits foreign judges and prosecutors) functioning locally. The President concurs with this position saying he will act according to the Constitution. Then, is the Geneva Resolution in violation of the Sri Lanka Constitution? All that the Government has done is to postpone making the final call on a critical question; will foreign prosecutors and judges be engaged in a War Crimes Tribunal in Sri Lanka – or not?

Moving on, the President was statesman-like in giving due credit to all those who fought – and won, the war against separatist terrorism over a 27-year period. When one saw the various battalions and the Special Task Force (STF) raised in the 1980s and the military hardware acquired after 2005, it was clear that the fruits of victory were cultivated over the years. It was also good to hear the President not devoting his entire address to ethnic issues and reconciliation efforts however important the issue is. He recognised the need for a modern approach to the world. He conceded, and many will agree with him, that in most countries, the ordinary folk are way ahead of their leaders. He missed out on the dilemma of the modern development-oriented world that has created climate change issues threatening the planet as a whole and instead fired a shot across the bow to the local media which has become an increasing irritant to his Government.

The Jordanian-born head of the UNHRC landed in Colombo yesterday, some saying he is on a tourist visa. His official itinerary does not reflect this fact – that he’s here merely to enjoy the sights and sounds of this Paradise isle. His own country is struggling with 600,000 refugees from neighbouring Syria in a war where human rights violations are taking place by the hour. One might as well wish him a pleasant stay in this Paradise isle. Will he find apt the words of Bishop Reginald Heber’s hymn on Lanka;
“What though the spicy breezes
Blow soft o’er Ceylon’s isle;
Though every prospect pleases,
And only man is vile”.
We will have to wait and see.


Fish bone in Indo-Lanka relations
In a busy week for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, still smarting over a Prime Ministerial fiat to have a Global Affairs Committee under the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) breathe down its neck and watch over its shoulder, the Indian Minister of External Affairs arrived on Friday for a Joint Commission meeting.

The media statement issued by the Indian High Commission on the bi-lateral talks dismisses one of Sri Lanka’s biggest issues with India, that of illegal fishing in the Palk Strait and the Gulf of Mannar by Indian fishermen with a cold reference that both sides agreed to a “permanent solution to the problem”. The Sri Lankans were slow on the draw to give their version of the talks and there was no joint communique either. But the Sri Lankan Minister of Fisheries has announced that India has asked for three years to resolve the most crucial of problems for Sri Lanka — the continuing rape of our marine resources. In three years there might not be a need to resolve this issue; the issue would have been naturally resolved with the entire area left barren. The unfortunate people of the north of Sri Lanka for whom the Indian Government sheds a crocodile tear on behalf of the duplicitous politicians in the southern state of Tamil Nadu will be without their livelihood with Sri Lanka which happily accepts the handouts from India losing out on the revenue garnered by such illegal activity.

It is in this context that the Government of Sri Lanka must stop living in dreamland thinking it is entering into technology and commercial agreements with India on a level playing field. Unlike in the past, when Sri Lanka’s political and diplomatic leadership was able to meet their Indian counterparts eye-to-eye, and yet maintain healthy relations, recent Sri Lankan leaders have meekly capitulated before the ‘Big Brother’ – or as some say – ‘Big Sister’. The poaching issue proves that – unlike in the resolving of the Katchchativu issue in the 1970s, India’s political leadership refuses to accept the legality of the dispute and be politically magnanimous in acceding to a just demand from Sri Lanka. It is an ‘India First’ policy despite all its rhetoric of a “Neighbourhood First’ policy trotted out from the South Block of New Delhi.

This quarrelsome issue need not, however, spoil the overall bilateral relations between India and Sri Lanka. The Trincomalee industrial park and the development of Palali in Jaffna for regional co-operation and a host of other inter-related activities in the areas of tourism, traditional medicine, education and energy are welcome aspects between the two countries. But the poaching issue in the north of Sri Lanka remains the fly in the ointment.

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