Govt. says it has rejected UN Human Rights Commissioner’s report Anger in New Delhi and Tokyo over ECT deal Foreign Minister to meet Core Group representatives in Colombo tomorrow Moves to oust Sri Lankan peacekeeping troops from world trouble spots The Government this week walked back on its move to hand over the Colombo Port’s [...]


Confusion reigns as ECT deal sinks and UNHRC pressure rises


  • Govt. says it has rejected UN Human Rights Commissioner’s report
  • Anger in New Delhi and Tokyo over ECT deal
  • Foreign Minister to meet Core Group representatives in Colombo tomorrow
  • Moves to oust Sri Lankan peacekeeping troops from world trouble spots

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa with the armed forces commanders and the Inspector General of Police at Thursday's 73rd anniversary of Independence.

The Government this week walked back on its move to hand over the Colombo Port’s East Container Terminal (ETC) to India and Japan, drawing strong protests from both New Delhi and Tokyo.

The decision by the Cabinet of Ministers on Monday came after growing protests by trade unions and influential sections of the Buddhist clergy. Prominent government leaders lent support. At the helm was Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa who declared publicly that “we will not give ECT to anyone. We will keep it under our control.” By his own admission in an interview with the Daily Mirror, our sister paper, he declared he had maintained a low profile in the recent months. The ECT issue, however, propelled him to take a tough position and display a show of strength.

That he made those remarks amidst reports that the Cabinet was set to formally decide on the award to India and Japan last Monday made it the talking point among political and diplomatic circles in Colombo. This is particularly in the light of a statement by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at his “dialogue with the village programme” in Yattapatha, Walalawita in the Kalutara district on January 23. According to a statement from the President’s Media Division, he said, “The former government had a Memorandum of Understanding with the Indian government regarding the East Container Terminal (ECT). When there is an agreement between two countries, it cannot be cancelled arbitrarily.”

He, however, emphasised, the news release said, that in “the process of entering into agreements with other countries, we will never give our resources in a manner that affects our sovereignty.” President Rajapaksa declared he had told this to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the details of the ECT where the source of income would be from transhipment of cargo. He had similarly explained to the United States the stance of his government even in respect of the proposed MCC project.

In his address to the nation on the 73rd anniversary of independence, the President re-iterated that “the policy of not selling national economic hubs to foreigners remains unchanged.” Of course, the President was speaking about the sale of national assets but has remained strongly in favour of foreign investment whilst discouraging the policy of resorting to loans.

The contours of the proposed ECT project envisaged the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA) holding 51 percent of the equity. The rest was to be shared by India’s Adani Group, whose owner Gautam Adani, is a confidant of Premier Modi. A yet to be identified Japanese partner and John Keells, a blue-chip company in Sri Lanka, were together to form the investors.

When he was President, Mahinda Rajapaksa launched the East Container Terminal project at a cost of US$ 200 million. It had a length of 404 metres and further development to extend it to 1320 metres was needed. Added to that is the requirement of storage facilities and equipment including cranes at a cost estimated to be around US$ 590 million. The ECT area has a depth of 17 metres to enable large ships to dock. The only other terminal with this facility is the Chinese built Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT) which is virtually clogged now. The other terminals in the Colombo Port are Jaya Container Terminal, the Unity Container Terminal, and the South Asia Gateway Terminal (SAGT)

Minister Mahinda Ameraweera confirmed to the Sunday Times “the Cabinet decided not to give away the ECT to India (and Japan). He said, “Instead the ministers decided to fully operate the terminal through the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA). Ports and Shipping Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena tabled a Cabinet Memorandum for this purpose. It was decided to appoint a committee to pursue action to help the SLPA.”  Plans are to launch a three-year development project encompassing three stages.

At the media briefing that follows Cabinet meetings, spokesperson Minister Keheliya Rambukwella, declared, “From the beginning we considered to work in a manner where we could manage geopolitics in a scientific basis to get economic benefits.” He said the Government appointed a committee that submitted its report to the Cabinet. He claimed that it made “the strongest recommendation” that the administration of ECT should be by the SLPA. If there was a necessity, it is the Western terminal, now under construction, that should be considered for “another party.” Rambukwella claimed, “In the future there can be further discussions. We did not decide whether we are giving it or not. There were many requests made. We have to consider three factors – economic, administrative operations and geopolitics.”

Needless to say, that those remarks are at variance with what President Rajapaksa said at his Dialogue with the Village on January 23. Moreover, Rambukwella has been very economic with the truth when he made the public remarks that “we did not decide whether we are giving it or not.” After a lengthy session, the Cabinet had indeed decided and that is no “top secret.” Ample proof comes in the form of the responses that followed, both from New Delhi and Tokyo. Why give the public and the outside world a wrong impression and raise serious doubts? How does that help?

Rambukwella also claimed “the current government did not propose to give the ECT to India. This was a trap which was created by the previous yahapalana government. The then Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, was on a visit to India in April 2017. Minister Malik Samarawickrema and Indian External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj signed an agreement for 17 projects. One such case was the development of a terminal in the Colombo Port. Mattala International Airport was to be given to India. India was also to develop the Trincomalee Port, he said.  The Media Minister also revealed  in response to a query that President Rajapaksa had re-negotiated the tripartite agreement and insisted on the 51 percent for SLPA and the rest for the two other partners.

As a result of that agreement, Rambukwella added that former Ports and Shipping Minister Sagala Ratnayake signed an agreement with India that the ECT should be developed by India together with Japan and Sri Lanka. This was signed on May 28, 2019, said Rambukwella. In making those remarks, he is confirming that there exists an agreement between three governments, Sri Lanka, Japan and India, to develop the ECT. This is much the same as other agreements, like for example the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987. That led to the creation of Provincial Councils. Hence, this raises the all-important question of whether New Delhi was informed. Or was it only a unilateral decision by the government of Sri Lanka?

The answer seems to come from Palitha Range Bandara, General Secretary of the United National Party (UNP), at a news conference on Wednesday. He said, “India has made clear that unilateral decisions cannot be taken to withdraw from agreements reached. This clearly shows the immaturity of the government.”

We lost the friendship of two countries, India, and Japan, he said, adding that there is a dispute and different ministers are making different statements.

The first credible news of the Government’s change of mind came last Sunday. Reporters and camera crews were invited to Premier Rajapaksa’s residence, ‘Carlton’, in Tangalla. He told a news conference that the ECT would “not be given to anyone.” Pointing out that “people voted for us not to continue UNP policies,” he asserted that “we will keep the ETC.”  It was known in government circles that a memorandum would be placed before the Cabinet the next day, Monday, to go ahead with the deal with India and Japan.  India last week gifted to Sri Lanka 500,000 vials of vaccine for Covid-19. Japan is Sri Lanka’s largest aid donor.

On Monday, however, there were a string of other developments. Trade union leaders who staged protests met Premier Rajapaksa in Colombo. He gave them an assurance that the ECT would not be given to any party. Behind the scenes, two Ministers, who were once close confidants of President Rajapaksa – Wimal Weerawansa and Udaya Gammanpila – were talking to colleagues to oppose the impending Cabinet memorandum. Like minded ministers rallied around and there were signs that opposition was building up. The lobbying made clear there was sufficient support. So, they agreed that Ports and Shipping Minister, Rohita Abeygunawardena, should present a memorandum urging that the ECT should not be given to India and Japan. He said the SLPA should develop it.

In what seemed an apparent reference to his detractors, President Rajapaksa said in his National Day address to the nation on Thursday that “Various parties claim that they worked to ensure my election as President. That may be true. People from every section of society gathered around me to support my campaign. I believe that the vast majority of these people did so not in search of personal benefits but because they expected me to serve the nation diligently. I am always prepared to fulfil the genuine expectations of the public that supported me with honest intent. However, I will never take decisions that will damage the country and to please those who seek gains for themselves personally or for their businesses.”

Some in the group opposed to giving the ETC appeared collectively at a news conference at the Grand Monarch hotel at Talawatugoda in Battaramulla. Among them were ministers Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gamanpilla and Vasudeva Nanayakkara. Also present were State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera (General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party), Prof. Tissa Vitharana and Gevindu Kumaratunga.

The news had reached the Indian government in New Delhi. A spokesman for the Indian High Commission in Colombo said thereafter, that “I would like to reiterate the expectation of the Government of India for expeditious implementation of the trilateral Memorandum of Cooperation (MOC) signed in May 2019 among the Governments of India, Japan, and Sri Lanka for the development of ECT with participation from these three countries. The commitment of the Government of Sri Lanka in this regard has been conveyed several times in the recent past, including at the leadership level. Sri Lanka cabinet also took a decision three months ago to implement the project with foreign investors. All sides should continue to abide by the existing understandings and commitment.” The Sunday Times learnt that the reference to the “leadership level” were meetings President Rajapaksa had during his visit to New Delhi with Indian Premier Modi and later with visiting External Affairs Minister Dr. Subramaniam Jaishankar.

Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay met Premier Rajapaksa on Tuesday to convey his government’s strong protest over the decision not to hand over the ECT to India and Japan. He said the government in New Delhi was deeply concerned over the matter. He also met President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to convey the same sentiments. Japanese Ambassador Akira Sugiyama also met Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena to lodge a protest. The Embassy of Japan in Colombo said, “the Embassy has conveyed its regrets to the Government of Sri Lanka. However, the Embassy will refrain from providing further details since this is a diplomatic communication.”

Besides the fear of ruptured relations, Premier Modi’s government in New Delhi appears to be “seriously concerned” over the government decision. A diplomatic source said, “This is a unilateral abrogation of the trilateral agreement India, Japan and Sri Lanka signed. If such government-to-government actions cannot be followed, what will happen to existing investments which are also the result of agreements. India is at a loss to understand Sri Lanka’s action which is highly damaging. It feels Sri Lanka lost a good opportunity. India has maintained close trade, cultural and security relations. It has not been told a word about the ECT deal being cancelled before the Cabinet took a decision. This would naturally have a rupturing effect on bilateral relations.” The source said that contrary to reports, the West Terminal in the Colombo port has still not been offered to India. Added a high-ranking political source from the ruling Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) led alliance in New Delhi, “It appears to us that it is a hoax from the beginning. Sri Lanka was not going to give it to us.”

One of the immediate responses of the Indian Government was to urge Sri Lanka to settle an amount of US$ 400 million owed to India under a SAARC currency swap facility. Despite the ongoing foreign exchange crisis, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka raised the money and paid up. An Indian High Commission spokesperson had a strongly worded message: “It is reiterated that India abides by all of its international and bilateral commitment in letter and spirit.” The spokesman said, “We have seen speculative reports about the US$ 400 million settlement of currency swap facility by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL). In this respect, it is pointed out that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and the CBSL had concluded the US$ 400 million currency swap agreement on 24th July 2020 under the SAARC Currency Swap framework. This swap facility was drawn by CBSL on 31st July 2020 for an initial period of three months. A three-month rollover was provided at CBSL’s request till 1st February 2021. Further extension would require Sri Lanka having a successfully negotiated staff level agreement for an IMF programme, which Sri Lanka does not have at present. CBSL settled the swap facility with RBI as scheduled and this was clarified by CBSL on 5th February 2021.“ However, the CBSL continues to deny that a request was made to settle the amounts.

Punching above its weight seems to be the order these days on the part of the Government of Sri Lanka. The utterances from both New Delhi and Tokyo demonstrate extreme displeasure on the reneging of the MOC on the development of the ECT. Undoubtedly such actions will be with dire consequences being dished out to Sri Lanka both on the political and economic fronts. Would not this action deter future investments from the two countries?

Whilst acknowledging that the merits of the ECT dawned on the Government at this late stage, it may have been more prudent to discuss off the public platforms Sri Lanka’s related concerns with the respective countries, in a bid to arrive at a mutually agreed solution. That too is considering the extreme importance of their strong traditional friendship, and India being the country’s closest neighbour. Expectedly, the Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT) where China is involved would have stirred the interests of India and Japan for the ECT. The Government of Sri Lanka is sensitive to it, and therefore need to balance the country’s known strategic location with its national and international interests. For this, adherence to the policy of neutrality could assist.

UNHRC sessions

In Colombo’s diplomatic circles as well as sections of the government and the opposition, the talking point was also about the upcoming UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva. In the weeks earlier, government leaders have been seeking India’s support to carry out “damage control” by lobbying the member nations of the UNHRC. Now, the pointed question is what India’s own position would be, particularly in the light of Monday’s cabinet decision on the ECT. Both India and Japan are members of the 47-member Council.

The other members are Argentina, Austria, Bahamas, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Czechia (Czech Republic), Denmark, Eritrea, Fiji, Italy, Philippines, Somalia, Togo, Uruguay, Armenia, Brazil, Germany, Indonesia, Libya, Marshal Islands, Maurtania, Namibia, Netherlands, Poland, Republic of Korea, Sudan, Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, Plurinational State of Venezuela, China, Cote d’Ivoire, Cuba, France, Gabon, Malawi, Mexico, Nepal, Pakistan, Russian Federation, Senegal, Ukraine, United Kingdom and Uzbekistan.

Venezuela has been considered the Bolivarian Republic following the adoption of the new Constitution of 1999, when the state was renamed in honor of Simón Bolívar. Under the Bolivarian government, Venezuela went from being one of the richest country in Latin America to one of the poorest.

Plurinational State of Bolivia, is a landlocked country located in western-central South America. The constitutional capital is Sucre, while the seat of government and executive capital is La Paz. … One-third of the country is within the Andean mountain range.

There was acute embarrassment for Sri Lanka on January 28 at the United Nations, when our Permanent Representative in New York, Mohan Peiris, chose to wax eloquent during the discussion segment of the UN General Assembly’s 51st plenary session on the presentation of the annual report by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres. According to a voice cut obtained from the UN, the onetime Chief Justice stated “…..It appears that terrorist groups with terrorism  are making use of much civilized mechanisms to unleash a different kind of terrorism. I am asking should our mandates extend to interfering with local process such as our change of regime which is critiqued in a recent report of the UN.”  Peiris was alluding to the UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michele Bachelet’s report to the Human Rights Council. He said “We are all in together. You have helped us together to eradicate terrorism. I ask you, where is the impartiality, where is the universality, where is the non-discriminatory practices that we are expected to maintain in the international community.” The remarks came when the Secretary General’s report on the working of the organisation was discussed.

Peiris said, “It is 12 years since the end of the conflict, and we have come a long way from those times to contemporary times. The temperature in the country, to use an expression, is very low now. It is peaceful, but it appears that our problems began just there. It appears that the global temperature for Sri Lanka, particularly in the Human Rights Council has been maintained at an all-time high and that is all-time high and that is regrettable.” Further his tongue in cheek opening gambit of being “fascinated” with the theme “We must make it happen together,” which he observed as having been a “countless number of times” during the Secretary General’s presentation set the pace for confrontation with the head of the world body.

This voluntary intervention by Peiris drew strong remarks from UN Secretary General Guterres. According to his comments, also obtained from a recording from the UN, Guterres said, “Now I understand the position expressed by the representative of Sri Lanka, but I think it is important to recognise in today’s world there is a growing concern and a growing interest that many international institutions relate to that from the human rights dimension and the legal system dimension in relation to post-conflict situations, namely the problem of reconciliation and accountability.

“I hope that all the interventions are taking place at the present moment will help the process of effective reconciliation and effective accountability that recognising of accountability is not always easy. Especially when a country needs to heal soon, truth is without effective truce and reconciliation it will not be possible to move forward and accountability is an important instrument in that regards, but I can only hope that the Sri Lankan people, and Sri Lankan government will take seriously these two needs,  reconciliation and accountability, and reduce the interest of other entities also be directly involved with it.” Though other Peiris’ speeches were posted on the website of Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission to the UN in New York, there was no reference to this intervention. Sad enough.

It is regrettable that Peiris chose to make such an intervention when the long-followed Sri Lankan strategy has been to ensure the containment of this issue in Geneva, being the mandated principled body for human rights matters globally. Such rmarks only serves to oxygenate the clarion call of Tamil political parties and the NGOs that the Sri Lanka’s human rights situation issue be referred to the General Assembly and the Security Council in New York. While there is some truth in the remarks made by Peiris, there is no room for theatrics at this juncture on the run-up to the UNHRC sessions. For the Geneva meeting, a well-crafted strategy is the need of the hour. Peiris is no novice to the Geneva processes having been a member of the Sri Lanka delegation to the UNHRC sessions on many instances in the pre yahapalana era. The government of Sri Lanka must also be mindful that Secretary General Guterres could be seeking endorsement this year for his second term. He may seek successes in his delivery in which Sri Lanka may feature considering that the western group together with NGOs in the past had upheld the failure of the UN on Sri Lanka. The same western groups are now busy to have the Sri Lankan peacekeeping troops deployed in the world’s trouble spots withdrawn.

Confusion was not only in New York. There was even more in Colombo over the UNHRC sessions. Cabinet spokesperson Rambukwella told the regular news conference last Tuesday that “we made our point to the UNHRC regarding this matter from 2009 to 2010. With the change of government in 2015, the then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera co-sponsored the resolution on behalf of Sri Lanka. It is very important to explain and resolve matters at a diplomatic level. We will provide the necessary answers to relevant matters raised. We know of political pressures on countries by groups and organisations. Therefore, appropriate answers will be given. We do not need to answer all questions. We will legally answer the necessary questions.”

However, co-Cabinet spokesperson Minister Udaya Gammanpila struck an entirely different note. He told a news conference to address issues connected with the ECT,  that the Government has decided to reject the Human Rights High Commissioner’s report.

“There is no believable evidence regarding matters mentioned in the report. The UNHRC has not been able to reveal sources or produce believable evidence,” he added.

This position was confirmed by Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. He told the Sunday Times, “We will meet representatives of the core group in Sri Lanka tomorrow (Monday) to give them the reasons why we rejected the Report of the UN High Commissioner for human rights. He said the Government has protested to what he called the “leak” of the Human Rights Commissioner’s Report. Contents of the Report appeared in the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) of January 24.

Commenting on the resolution on Sri Lanka being taken up on February 22, UNHRC spokesperson Rupert Colville told the Sunday Times, “OHCHR hopes the Government will focus on the substance of the report and the very important recommendations that have been made by the High Commissioner for Human rights.” In London, the Global Tamil Forum which is spearheading a campaign against the Government is joining with the Centre for Human Rights and Global Justice of the New York University for a webinar on Friday. Three Sri Lankans are among those listed to take part.

It is noteworthy that in the preparation of the Report the OHCHR sent a detailed list of questions to the government on November 23 last year. The relevant inputs have been provided by the Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva on November 28 also last year.

The Report also states that the OHCHR held a constructive meeting with the government representatives in virtual format on January 7. It also refers to the government provided comments on the Report. The government having constructively engaged in the process of the formulation of the Report, it should be first examined on the extent of the input which had been provided being reflected in the UNHRC Report. If the OHCHR has fallen short in this respect, the government could categorically allude to this failure in raising concerns on the issue.

In this context it is presumed that the communication from Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission in Geneva dated January 27 conveyed the rejection. However, it is observed from the Human Rights Commissioner’s Report released on the same day has references to footnotes according to the said communication from the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka. If the rejection of the UNHRC Report has been through the co spokesperson Minister Gammanpila, would it not have been more appropriate to air Sri Lanka’s concerns of the Report under the formalised agenda of the HRC sessions especially considering that some update and observations had already been provided by the Government. Also, the Report refers to the delivery of some undertakings by the Government. Would it serve the Government positively in a total rejection of the Report or strongly articulate the concerns and their basis which may be a better option in order to secure the support for Sri Lanka by member countries?

Foreign Minister Gunawardena said, “We will also explain to the core group  representatives the domestic process including the recent appointment of a Commission of Inquiry, the review of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and the comments made by the Human Rights High Commissioner. He said that “the core group of countries in Sri Lanka include the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Canada.” This meeting was earlier scheduled for last Friday and was put off. Invited to attend were Minister G.L. Peiris, State Minister Tharaka Balasuriya and MP Mahinda Samarasinghe. The latter counts experience on issues related to the UNHRC. He served as then President Rajapaksa’s special envoy for human rights and later as Human Rights Minister. They are due to attend tomorrow’s meeting.

The move to brief the core group represented in Sri Lanka seems only an explanatory exercise. It is highly unlikely that their capitals, which would have made up their minds, would change their positions. The unfortunate aspect, if one may say so, is the fact that Sri Lanka is shutting the door for diplomatic engagement. The repercussions that may flow from that could be more damaging, as it could lead to isolation of Sri Lanka internationally. The country cannot afford this.  The country’s diplomatic machinery in several capitals has been sadly lacking and this adds to the country’s woes. This seems to be lost on most in the group that met with President Rajapaksa and later at the Foreign Ministry to formulate an answer. They rushed  in haste to reject the Report. Unfortunately, the Government has further burdened itself by rejecting the Report wholly as stated earlier. It also exacerbates the action being envisaged by the detractors.

As revealed earlier, the UN High Commissioner’s report calls upon member states to refer the situation in Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court (ICC), resort to; “actively pursue extra territorial or universal jurisdiction” and “prosecute international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka.” It has also called for “targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and travel ban against state officials and other actors credibly alleged to have committed or be responsible for grave human rights violations or abuses.”

The UK, which has taken the place of the United States in spearheading the resolution on Sri Lanka, just last week imposed a travel ban and asset freeze on four senior members of Zimbabwe’s security forces over the deaths of 23 protestors, according to the Guardian newspaper’s website.

There was reference in these columns last week to the Secretary of a Ministry calling then then UN Human Rights High Commissioner Louise Arbour a football. Rajiv Wijesinha has owned up that he was the one involved. He said in a lengthy letter that Arbour was called a “football” in an article in a newspaper headlined “Louise Arbour as a Political football.” He adds that he was not a Secretary then but was the Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat. The error over the description is regretted. However, that event did lead to Arbour refusing to address the news conference. She was later persuaded to take part.

While not supporting the resolution by the two groups, the Government, would, however, need to strategise on its content. That is an urgent need instead of rejecting the Report and being cornered.

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