A resolution received by the Congress in Washington DC last Monday calls upon the Obama administration to “place restrictions on the entry to the United States for anyone it identified as responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity” in Sri Lanka.
The timing of this strongly worded resolution is significant. Firstly, it comes with barely a week to go for UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay’s announcement on who will serve in an international investigation of alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. She will also spell out the terms of reference of the process that will be backed by a team of advisors and experts. Second is that the resolution has also been referred to the two important arms of the US Congress — the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Committee on the Judiciary. The former has oversight over the Department of State whilst the latter deals with violations of US laws. Travel restrictions also involve the Department of Justice together with the House Committee on the Judiciary.
The movers of this bipartisan resolution are Congressmen Rush D. Holt (Democrat – New Jersey), Bill Johnson (Republican – Ohio) and John F. Tiernay (Republican – Massachusetts). Forwarded for the 113th Congress (second session), the resolution (H. Res. 587) expresses support for “internal rebuilding, resettlement, accountability and reconciliation within Sri Lanka so that Sri Lankans from all ethnic and religious communities may benefit from the end of the country’s 26-year old civil war.” It notes that May 19, 2014, “marks the 5-year anniversary of the end of the 26 year conflict between the terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and the Government of Sri Lanka.”
Though the Government of Sri Lanka “has repeatedly invoked the LLRC as a domestic mechanism to address issues arising from the war’s conclusion,” the resolution has charged that it has “simultaneously distanced itself from many of the LLRC’s final recommendations.” Four years “since the tabling of the LLRC report in Sri Lanka’s Parliament, it says “very few of its recommendations have been successfully implemented, forcing the United Nations Human Rights Council in March 2014, to pass a resolution calling for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to conduct a comprehensive investigation into allegations of serious violations and abuses of human rights.”
The resolution argues that the “LLRC report has not adequately addressed issues of accountability for possible war crimes and crimes against humanity that may have been committed by the Government of Sri Lanka and the terrorist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.” It “commends the representatives of United States on their leadership” on UNHRC Resolution (A/HRC/25/L.1.Rev.1) adopted on March 27, establishing an OHCHR investigation “into allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other human rights violations committed by both sides during and after the war in Sri Lanka and to make recommendations regarding accountability.”
It was only on February 27 this year that eleven members of the US Senate introduced a bipartisan Senate Resolution (S. Res. 364) expressing support for “Sri Lanka’s internal reconciliation process and the significant overall progress the country has made.” Despite expressing concerns over “possible restrictions to the media freedom and religious freedom in Sri Lanka,” this resolution, the result of a joint lobbying exercise by the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington DC through two different PR agencies, at considerable cost, called upon the “United States Government and the International Community to offer meaningful assistance to the Government of Sri Lanka to make its domestic endeavours toward reconciliation more effective, while respecting the country’s sovereignty, stability and security.”
his Senate resolution formed the basis for an advertising campaign the UPFA Government launched locally, particularly with full page accounts in newspapers. This was to suggest that US Senators were in favour of a domestic inquiry mechanism as against the Human Rights Council move for an international probe. Now another resolution, this time seemingly complementing the UNHRC’s international investigation, has emerged before the US Congress. Western diplomats believe this sets the stage for follow up action once the international probe is completed.
The latest resolution makes a call for “development and policing decisions” to be left in the hands of Provincial Councils. This is whilst welcoming the September 21, 2013, Northern Provincial Council and North Western Provincial Council polls which “were a good first step in devolving power to the provinces.” Perhaps due to an oversight, it makes no reference to the Central Provincial Council election which was held at the same time. The House resolution cites the UN Human Rights Council resolution (S-11/Assistance) of 2009 to confirm that the “President of Sri Lanka is committed to a political solution with implementation of the country’s 13th Amendment to bring about lasting peace and reconciliation….”
When euphoria in UPFA circles over the outcome of the Indian polls recede, the issues over the 13th Amendment, a policy stance of Governments in New Delhi, are sure to surface. Diplomats in Colombo say the new Modi administration will call upon Colombo to “fulfil” promises given in this regard. In April 2012, Sushma Swaraj, then Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha told President Mahinda Rajapaksa of this Bharathiya Janatha Party (BJP) stance. It was no different to the position taken up by the then Congress Government making it clear that they were essentially bipartisan when it came to foreign policy issues. Ms Swaraj is expected to be given a senior cabinet portfolio.
The removal of Chief Justice 43 Shirani Bandaranaike, “decreasing space for dissent, continued militarisation throughout the country, and intimidation of journalists and critics of the Government have created a sense of impunity and creeping authoritarianism,” says the US Congress resolution. It adds that “there have been repeated reports of attacks on places of worship and those practising their faith, restrictions on the media throughout Sri Lanka, and few instances in which the perpetrators of such attacks have been held to account.”
Whilst calling upon the “Government of Sri Lanka to allow for greater media freedoms and ensure freedom and protection of the press and of religion,” the resolution also wants it to “prioritise the process of demilitarisation throughout the country, including removing military involvement from civilian administration.” It also wants the Government to “begin negotiations with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on a political solution.” There is also a request in the resolution to the TNA. It says that they “acknowledge past relationships with the LTTE and make a firm commitment to reconciliation and a long-term political solution that would ensure a peaceful and unified Sri Lanka.”
The Government is awaiting formal intimation of the OHCHR international investigation before responding to matters arising out of it. However, both President Rajapaksa and External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris have often repeated both here and abroad that Sri Lanka will not accept the probe nor allow investigators into the country. Yet, they feel a response either indirectly or otherwise to the terms of reference would become necessary. This is why, as revealed in these columns last week; the Government has begun consulting different views from experts. One such case is Rajapaksa’s request from Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Shariff for the assistance of a legal advisor.
There was an inadvertent error last week in these columns that the advisor in question was Chaudhury Aitzaz Ahsan. His photograph also appeared. The name and thus the photograph were of the wrong person. However, all other details revolving around the talks the visiting Pakistani legal advisor had in Colombo, as reported in the political commentary, were accurate.
The Pakistani legal advisor who was in Sri Lanka was 69-year-old lawyer Dr. Mohammad Azam Chaudhry, a dual citizen of both Pakistan and France. He served as Legal Officer of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva from 1979-1982 and thereafter as UNHCR representative in Spain till 1986. Earlier, he was Legal Officer of the World Tourism Organisation in Madrid, Spain. Fluent in English, Urdu, French and Spanish, Chaudhry shared a Nobel Prize awarded to the UNHRC in 1981. Many UN bodies in Pakistan are clients of his law firm.
Talks that External Affairs Minister Peiris had with lawyer Chaudhry did cause some flutter in the corridors of his ministry. A senior official said that an opinion could easily have been sought from Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative at the UN, Palitha Kohona. Kohona who holds both Sri Lankan and Australian citizenship headed the UN’s Treaty Section before he quit to join Sri Lanka’s Foreign Service. As revealed last week, the tenor of the talks was far from being cordial. Peiris was terse enough to say that the Pakistani advisor was invited so the Government could hear the different legal positions and not to learn what to do.
According to UPFA Government sources, the issue of the OHCHR international investigation figured in a meeting President Rajapaksa had with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon in Shanghai. This was on the sidelines of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). Questions on this were raised at the UN noon news briefing last Wednesday.
A journalist: “I wanted to ask you about Sri Lanka. I saw the readout of the Secretary-General’s meeting with President Rajapaksa and Sri Lankan media, or actually not media, the President’s office in Sri Lanka has quoted Ban Ki-moon as saying ‘I appreciate your leadership to implement the LLRC (Learnt and Reconciliation Commission)’. The President’s office quoted Ban as saying, while also expressing his appreciation of the President’s commitment to the democratic process. So, I wanted to know, are these quotes accurate? And… and particularly, how do they relate to the report I asked you about on Monday by Yasmin Sooka, previously on the panel of experts showing that the President… quoting Mr. Nambiar as saying that President Rajapaksa said let’s go all the way in 2009 i.e. kill… surrendering Tamil Tiger leaders.”
Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric: “You know, as for who speaks for the Secretary-General, the Secretary-General speaks for himself, I speak for him and other senior UN officials. So, in terms of what the Secretary-General said and the points that he made, I would follow the readout. I’m not going to start to confirm what others are quoting the Secretary… what other readouts may be quoting the Secretary-General as saying.”
For Mahinda Rajapaksa, who leaves tomorrow for New Delhi for the swearing in of Indian Prime Minister-elect, Narendra Modi, both domestic and international issues are mounting. On the domestic front, two partners of the UPFA Government have become the subject of concern. Both the National Freedom Front (NFF) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) refrained from taking part in the debate and at the voting during the United National Party’s (UNP) motion of no confidence on the Government. Yet, the UPFA was able to secure 151 votes or two thirds in the 225 member Parliament to defeat the motion. Both parties have been incensed after the Government went ahead with three different “integrated projects” worth billions of rupees which they say would see the emergence of casinos. The crunch came on Friday when the two parties met at the official residence of NFF leader, Wimal Weerawansa at Paget Road for more than two and half hours of talks. When it ended, both sides had decided that no details of the discussion should be divulged to the media. The JHU team comprised Ven. Athureliya Rathana Thera, Champika Ranawaka, Udaya Gammanpilla and Nissanka Sri Warnasinghe. The NFF team, besides Weerawansa, included Deputy Minister Weerakumara Dissanayake, Piyasiri Wijenayake, Deepal Gunasekera and Mohamed Muzammil.
At the start, a little time was taken to resolve what those taking part in the discussion would drink. Soft drinks were served but no one preferred them. So tea and coffee were ordered. “Oya Kalu Kopi nevei ney” (that is not Black Coffee. Is it?),” asked Warnasinghe. With the courtesies over, Ven. Rathana Thera initiated the discussion by asking Weerawansa what the situation was. He first explained the crisis his party was having. He revealed that President Rajapaksa had telephoned him on Friday morning and asked a meeting to discuss the 12 point NFF “reform proposals.” He had agreed and was hoping to set out his party’s position. “Whatever the outcome, we will have to face it,” Weerawansa said. Minister Champika Ranawaka felt there should be a national movement with a defined agenda so they can fight for a just society. A considerable amount of time was spent on discussing issues related to an impending presidential election. Another was a focus on expenditure related to development activities with little or no returns.
Weerawansa’s erstwhile Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) said it believed the Construction Minister was being used (by Rajapaksa) to win back votes lost by the UPFA. JVP parliamentarian Vijitha Herath told the Sunday Times “The government’s popularity has declined. This was evident from the outcome of the recent Provincial Council elections. The smaller parties are being used to try and draw these votes back. This is a plan of the Government to make use of Weerawansa and try to draw back the votes.” He said, “Weerawansa who accuses the Secretary of the Finance Ministry does not speak against the President who is the minister in charge of the subject. He also continues to enjoy the perks of the Government while engaging in criticism. During the last Provincial Council elections in the North, Weerawansa was involved in a similar act. He threatened to leave the Government if the NPC polls were held. Yet, the polls were held. Nothing happened thereafter”. Minister Susil Premajayantha, General Secretary of the UPFA, said, “The President has given the freedom for constituent parties to air their independent views. Mr. Weerwansa’s comments will not be a problem to the Government. We do not expect that to last for more than two months.” He, however, did not make clear why a time limit was placed.
However, Minister Weerawansa’s strong statements seem to have crossed the threshold of collective responsibility. His biting criticism against Jayasundera appears as a scathing attack on President Rajapaksa himself. It is he who executes the Government’s economic and fiscal policies through the Treasury Secretary. This is why some UPFA leaders were busy trying to win over NFF members. They succeeded in having two members of the UVA Provincial Council cross over, one to the UPFA and another to the UNP. Several others came under pressure in different ways. Amidst those warnings of consequences, President Rajapaksa telephoned Weerawansa on Friday morning. He told him that he was willing to discuss NFF’s 12-point proposal the next day (Saturday) and asked whether a delegation would come around 11 a.m. He made clear there would be others from the UPFA taking part in the discussion. Weerawansa agreed.
At the meeting yesterday, Minister Weerawansa handed over to President Rajapaksa a copy of the 12-point “reform proposal” after which a lengthy discussion followed. A UPFA source said Rajapaksa rapped the NFF leader for his recent public utterances and asserted that he was never hesitant to take decisions for the betterment of the people, be it political or economic. He said the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the major partner in the UPFA, would study the NFF proposals and respond.
Associated with Rajapaksa were Ministers Susil Premachandra and Dullas Allahapperuma. Accompanying Weerawansa were Deputy Minister Weerakumara Dissanayake, Piyasiri Wijenayake and Mohamed Muzammil. Weerawansa was a notable absentee when the weekly ministerial meeting, put off due to Vesak holidays, was held last Monday. The next day, he was not at the Government Parliamentary Group meeting. Although he said he would travel to Matara for the Victory Day celebrations that marked the fifth anniversary of the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas, he failed to turn up. That Sunday afternoon he held his own ceremony at Sausiripaya. Weerawansa spoke for two hours at what was a war heroes’ commemoration event. There were more sniping on Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera and his cabinet colleague Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake. “Sudu Banda (Dissanayake) was trying to defend Punchi Banda (Jayasundera),” he charged.
Here are excerpts from his lengthy speech:
“They said that Sri Lanka’s economy is only second to China. If we are only second, our tax collection has to increase. The development in China is visible. Here, we see a decline in the economy. If the economy is developing there should be more factories and industries coming up. We should see if we have got new investors, collected additional taxes and shown development. There are some African countries where there are highways, but children with malnutrition stand on the roadside.
“In the United States, the infrastructure was developed for the benefit of industries and transportation of agricultural products. In our case, we are developing the infrastructure and waiting for the factories to open. We have got our wires crossed. Investing in infrastructure alone is not going to help families of the war heroes. Development of infrastructure alone will not expand economy. Currently 35 per cent of state income is used to pay interest on loans. Here loans are taken to develop infrastructure. The failure to see this is the problem. About 40 per cent of the people in this country earn less than two US dollars (or around Rs 260) a day. This means that a section of the society has not gained the benefits. Some persons in Kantale and Seruwila do not have water for agriculture. The villager comes to Colombo for security guard’s job….
“Many loans are taken to invest. These are shown as development. When I say these things, some in the Government do not like it. Today, our loan ratio has reached 80 per cent. A fleet of luxury Mercedes Benz vehicles were imported for use during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November last year. They were handed back to the same company to be sold at Rs 30 million each. When would-be buyers called over, they said the cars were all sold out. They also said that the price was only Rs. 25 million since military drivers have driven them during the CHOGM. The Government could have advertised these vehicles and sold them for higher amounts. There are persons who could afford them. We only became privy to these developments when the people who failed to buy the vehicles complained.
“The milkfood companies that suffered losses due to an issue related to quality were looking for a way to recover them. They claimed they wanted an increase on the grounds that world market prices had risen. They were taken by Finance Ministry officials to the President. They showed some figures that were a year old. The Government granted tax concessions and suffered heavy losses. Now the world market prices have dropped by 20 per cent. Will the Finance Ministry officials take them to the President again?
“If we need to develop the local milk industry, the taxes on milk imports should be increased. There is a discussion on how to give concessions to James Packer’s casino. No such thing is done to develop the dairy industry. President Rajapaksa went to China earlier. Finance Ministry officials including Punchi Banda (Jayasundera) were told to prepare documents so they can negotiate a loan for the Hambantota Port. However, this was not included in the documents prompting the President to say he would not take part in the discussions. Eventually, the documents were prepared. The Finance Ministry officials are not allowing the growth of this harbour but are only making it a transhipment facility….
“It is not Packer’s casino that should be given concessions. They should be granted to local industries to pave the way for development. People need an economy where those in the village will draw the benefits. The economy has fallen into the hands of a very small group. I am not saying it has gone into the hands of the politicians…..If we cannot change these policies there is no use. Only if these policies change would the people benefit……..”
Treasury Secretary Jayasundera declined to respond to Weerawansa’s criticism. He said that would be both ‘unlawful and unethical’ but opined that any criticism should have been levelled at ministerial meetings. However, Minister S.B. Dissanayake told the Sunday Times “The UPFA is made of 14 political parties. Each party has its own views. There are people who criticise the UPFA while remaining within. Such criticism should not be done as they have collective responsibility. The UPFA should be able to withstand them.” He said that parties with opposing views will not leave. They are only trying to keep the public informed.
Sections in the UPFA believe that Rajapaksa’s meeting with Weerawansa would end the controversy with the UPFA partner. However, there are a few who are sceptical and say the issues would fester because there would only be “patch work.”
These developments come at a time when like the NFF which formulated its 12 point “reform proposals,” the JHU is also preparing its own. “It will contain further measures to ensure there is good governance, economic and social development,” its General Secretary Champika Ranawaka told the Sunday Times. On the issue of corruption, he said, the JHU was seeking changes to the 1994 law which created the Commission to Probe Allegations of Bribery or Corruption. “This Act is not sufficient. We are studying the Singapore and Hong Kong examples and will draw in what is better suited,” he said. He added that experts in different fields were assisting the JHU in the formulation of the new proposals which would seek to recommend structural changes in many sectors. Thereafter, the proposals would be sent not only to President Rajapaksa but would also be distributed countrywide.
The backdrop for the proposals by the NFF and the JHU, both partners in the ruling alliance, remains the upcoming presidential elections next year. President Rajapaksa’s trouble-shooter, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, has embarked on a grassroots level campaign. The Government is pushing ahead with new laws to address public grievances.
Not to be outdone, Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe has effectively shot down any move to field a common candidate. He told the United National Party (UNP) parliamentary group that the party would contest both the presidential and parliamentary polls under its Elephant symbol. That effectively shut the doors on aspirants who wanted to be common candidates. One is the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, who together with his backers visited both the UNP and the JVP headquarters to make presentations on the need for a common candidate. Wickremesinghe stopped short of saying that he would be the presidential candidate. Yet, he has asked a party team to formulate a new manifesto and other plans are afoot. Going by the behind-the-scenes interactions in the UNP, insiders say, more “surprises” are on the way. They are no doubt aimed at “further strengthening the party,” as one source said but all such moves, when it comes to a political party, are fraught with happiness to some and sadness to others.
Hence, even without a formal announcement of a presidential poll, a campaign of sorts seems to have already begun. The coming weeks and months will only see it heighten. It will be no surprise to the country by the time the official announcement comes.