Strong, small Govt. team for Geneva

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and Eastern Province Governor Austin Fernando left for Geneva on Friday night to engage in crucial lobbying and advocacy prior to the UNHRC session that begins tomorrow, September 14 in the Swiss city.

In contrast to the small, high capacity team that went on Friday for this year’s sessions, in 2012, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government sent a delegation of 71 members to Geneva ahead of that year’s Human Rights Council session when Sri Lanka faced a US initiative that pushed for an international probe. Despite the 71-member delegation, Sri Lanka lost to the US sponsored resolution that year with a margin of nine votes.

Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to Geneva, Ravinatha Aryasinha, a seasoned campaigner on the UNHRC front, is expected to join the top-level Sri Lankan delegation in Geneva, before the council session. Meanwhile, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne left for Geneva last evening to join the ministerial team.

Following on, from many positive measures initiated by the government in recent months, Washington has already assured Colombo that it would move a resolution at the Geneva session supporting a credible domestic inquiry by the Sri Lankan government within a reasonable period.

20151131065036734_20The majority of UNHRC member nations are expected to support the US-sponsored resolution in the belief that the new government of Sri Lanka, which is continuing policies begun after the change in the presidency on January 9, is committed to concrete measures towards reconciliation. This positive outlook in Geneva is a major relief for the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government.

The foreign ministers and permanent representatives of 47 member States of the UNHRC will take part in the session starting on September 14. The Council’s current member States includes 13 African countries, 13 Asian Pacific countries, eight Latin American and Caribbean countries, six Eastern European countries and seven Western European and other countries. China, Russia and India are on the Council in this session.

As Sri Lanka has already worked with those governments supporting the new US proposal, Foreign Minister Samaraweera’s team will not oppose the resolution containing the US proposal and, therefore, a vote is not likely to be called at the Council.

Minister Samaraweera will hold a special discussion with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Al-Hussein today. At the meeting, the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister and the UN Human Rights Chief are expected to exchange their views on issues related to accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

UN report

Meanwhile, the UNHRC report on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka during the final phase of the war will shortly be presented to the Human Rights Council session in Geneva. It has already been speculated in Sri Lanka that the report contains the names of 42 people in connection with war crimes charges.

An advance copy of this report was expected to be handed over to the Sri Lankan government parallel to US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Asian Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal’s visit to Sri Lanka, two weeks back. The Sri Lankan government received an advance copy of the report last Friday.

However, according to western diplomatic circles, the US’s move to push for a resolution supporting a credible domestic investigation by Sri Lankan authorities will mitigate the negative impact of the UNHRC report – at least to a certain extent. At the same time, it will compel Sri Lanka to ensure that the domestic investigation will take place in a manner acceptable to international parties, including the UNHRC.

“The new government has restored the international community’s faith in the judicial system of Sri Lanka. That is why they have given a green light to a domestic investigation. But, the US support for a domestic investigation would not be a blanket one, as speculated by some. We will have to conclude the domestic investigation within a certain period of time and if we fail to stick to the time-frame we will come under pressure to face an international investigation. This is the reality we have to understand,” a top level government official, who was part of the government’s initiatives on the accountability front, told the Sunday Observer.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government is expected to take certain steps in the direction of strengthening accountability and reconciliation even as the UNHRC session gets under way. Among them will be the tabling of the report of the Presidential Commission Investigating Cases of Missing Persons (PCICMP) in Parliament towards the end of this month.

The report was handed over to President Maithripala Sirisena by its chairman, Maxwell Paranagama, a retired Supreme Court judge, two weeks ago. The Paranagama Commission’s report mainly deals with issues related to violations of international humanitarian law or ‘war crimes’ allegedly committed by both parties and the recommendations to prevent a repetition.

At the same time, plans are afoot to publish the much talked about report of the commission headed by retired Justice Nissanka Udalagama which probed the killings of 17 NGO workers just months before the commencement of the final phase of military offensives against the LTTE.

The CID conducted investigations into the killing of 17 Non-Governmental Organization workers on August 4, 2006 in Muttur. The outcome of the inquiry was forwarded to the Attorney General on April 18, 2007, under the Reference Number CR1/185/2007. However, many sections in the international community raised doubts over the bonafides of the Sri Lankan government when it came to inquiries into the killings.

In 2006, faced with an international outcry, the government appointed an eight-member Commission of Inquiry (CoI) headed by Justice Nissanka Udalagama to investigate a series of incidents, including the killing of five students in Trincomalee and the massacre of aid workers of Action Against Hunger (ACF) in Muttur.

Although the commission concluded its work, its report was never published by the government. The government’s move to desist from publishing the Udalagama report made a serious negative impact on Sri Lanka’s human rights track record over the past few years. Even the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, appointed by Rajapaksa’s government to address concerns of the international community, recommended its publication.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government’s initiative to publish the Udalagama Commission report is expected to be construed as a ‘progress step’ by the international community at this year’s Geneva session.

Another key move that is in the offing is the appointment of a special prosecutor in connection with investigations into war crimes charges. Although ultra-nationalist forces in the South may view this action with suspicion, the international community expects significant action by Sri Lanka in this regard, especially in line with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s joint statement with UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon.

Attorney General controversy

The Attorney General came under criticism from civil society organizations in the country with the outcome of court cases against Kumaran Pathmanathan and former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa concerning the Avant Garde private security firm. It all began when a coalition of civil society movements including trade unions and the Puravesi Balaya last week lashed out at the Attorney General for apparently taking an ‘arbitrary decision’ to conclude the cases filed against LTTE chief arms procurer Kumaran Pathmanathan alias KP and the floating armory of Avante Garde Security Services Limited.

Speaking at a press conference in Colombo, Puravesi Balaya Convenor Saman Ratnapriya openly criticized the conduct of the Attorney General, the chief legal officer of the government, saying he has taken an arbitrary decision to conclude these cases even after a Deputy Solicitor General (DSG) had recommended to him by a report to proceed with the cases. Ratnapriya said that a copy of the report that was sent by the DSG to the Attorney General asking him to proceed with these cases, was with him.

Rathnapriya urged the President to appoint a committee comprising suitable persons to look into the decisions of the Attorney General regarding these cases.

“There is no legal provision to take forward these cases due to the position taken by the AG,” he said adding that there was no legal sanction to maintain private armouries in the country. Rathnapriya’s outraged remarks came just a day after the Attorney General explained his position on the Avant Garde and Kumaran Pathmanathan cases.

The controversy took a new turn on Friday when the Legal Officers’ Association of the Attorney General’s Department said in a statement, that they unequivocally stood by the decisions of the Attorney General. The statement also said the decisions taken by the Attorney General were in full compliance with the law and procedure.

“The Association wishes to first place on record that the Department has, throughout its history of 130 years, continuously followed a procedural system which has well stood the test of time and ensured that the final decision taken with regard to any case or legal opinion is based on a thorough examination of all available material and, where necessary, after calling for additional material and after consultation with more than one officer.

Therefore, the recommendations contained in a preliminary report of an officer to whom a matter has been initially assigned may not always accord with the ultimate decision. However, the decision will always be a carefully considered one.”

Avant Garde

“In the Avant Garde floating armoury case, the officer who was originally allocated the file prepared an initial report which was based on statements and investigation notes made available by the CID.

Based on that report, the Attorney General consulted other senior officers and also called for observations from the Ministry of Defence, Sri Lanka Navy and Director, Merchant Shipping. It is only after considering the views expressed by all officers who were consulted, as well as the observations received from the said authorities, that a final decision was made as to whether there was sufficient evidence to adduce charges. It is in the interest of justice and in the highest traditions of the Department, therefore, that its internal procedures were followed and will continue to be followed.

In response to media reports on Kumaran Padmanathan (KP), the Association claims that the criticisms are based on “assumptions based on misreported facts” pertaining to proceedings before the Court of Appeal on the last date in CA Writ Application No.08/2015. It is stressed that the case is not one before a criminal court with specific allegations and charges against KP. Instead, the case has been filed under public law seeking the remedy of a writ of Mandamus on the Attorney General to prosecute KP in relation to several specified incidents and unspecified incidents.

As already clarified, the Senior Deputy Solicitor General who represented the Attorney General on August 31, 2015, communicated to court the preliminary information received from the police at that point in respect of some of the incidents referred to in the petition and requested further time to submit a comprehensive report after obtaining more information.

This was pursuant to the Court of Appeal having directed the Attorney General to assist court.

The very fact that court granted further time until October 28, 2015 to submit a report after receiving all the information demonstrates that the Attorney General did not make any submission exonerating KP. This is manifest from the journal entry in the court record.

Mis-reporting

Regrettably, mis-reporting of what transpired in court on the last date has led to a complete distortion of the facts, causing misconceptions among the public. The erroneous media reports have also been misused by those with malicious motives who have descended to such depths as to level vicious personal attacks on the Attorney General.

In fact, the most significant development in the KP matter is the strong action taken by the Attorney General in terms of the powers vested in him under the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code, whereby he has directed the IGP to conduct a comprehensive investigation into all criminal incidents where KP may have been involved and report whether there is evidence implicating him, so that KP may be charged in accordance with the law.

However, this progressive step has not received the media attention it deserves,” the statement said.

However, in the eyes of the public, the inability to take action against the floating armory and LTTE”s Chief Arms procurer Kumaran Pathmanathan are matters of contention. Although a lot of media hype was created around the two cases, they are likely to end up as damp squibs with the Attorney General’s failure to proceed with the cases.

First Cabinet meeting

The first Cabinet meeting of the national unity government was held on Wednesday under the patronage of President Maithripala Sirisena at the Presidential Secretariat.

When the President chaired the last Cabinet meeting of the 100-day interim government on August 5, he greeted his ministers saying, “We will meet again after the election”.

As the President expected, the majority of his 100-day government’s Cabinet ministers were present last Wednesday.

The first issue of the new government was raised by Minister Mahinda Amaraweera who underscored the current issue pertaining to paddy purchasing. He categorically said paddy should not be stored at the Mattala International Airport.

At this point, President Sirisena stressed the need for adopting a long-term solution to address this problem, without resorting to ad-hoc measures like in the past.

The other important topic discussed at the Cabinet meeting was the forthcoming Local Government election. The tug-of-war that prevailed in the previous Cabinet over the new electoral system re-emerged at this meeting too with some ministers alleging that the earlier demarcation had been done in such a manner that it would favour the United People’s Freedom Alliance.

The ministers said that under the present system the number of wards had been increased from 3,000 to 4,000 and demarcated in a haphazard manner not taking into consideration important factors such as the social and cultural background of the people.

Accordingly, a Cabinet sub-committee was appointed to look into the various shortcomings and demarcation of wards. It is likely that a fresh initiative will be made to re-demarcate the wards in terms of the 19th Amendment to the constitution.

In the meantime, the Ministers decided to hold the local government election in March for which nominations will be called in January.

Portfolio exchange

The manner in which deputy ministers and state ministers were appointed last week was greeted with mixed reactions by the people on the ground. While some said that it was a measure towards ‘reconciliation’ between the two main political parties that remained rivals for nearly 65 years, others noted that certain ministerial appointments made a mockery of Parliamentary democracy.

For instance, for the first the time in Sri Lanka’s political history, two deputy ministers exchanged their ministerial portfolios soon after taking oaths! They were Nimal Lansa and Arundika Fernando, elected representatives of the UPFA who served as ruling party members under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration.

Nimal Lansa, who was first appointed as the Deputy Minister of Tourism and Christian Affairs, was reluctant to work under his Minister John Amaratunga who represents the same electorate. While Lansa is the UPFA organizer for Wattala, Amaratunga functions as the UNP organizer for the same electorate. Lanza informed President Sirisena that he could not work as the ‘Deputy Minister’ of Amaratunga, as he had some ‘issues’ with the UNP Minister.

As a remedial measure, Lansa had a discussion with his Parliamentary colleague Arundika Fernando over an exchange of portfolios. Fernando, an MP for the Puttalam district, was originally given the Home Affairs portfolio. As a result of that ‘deal’, Lansa and Fernando agreed to exchange their ministerial portfolios, setting a new trend in Sri Lanka’s political establishment.

In another development, Ranjan Ramanayaka, a staunch critic of wrongdoers of the former government, was appointed as the Deputy Minister of S.B. Dissanayake, a politician who faced various allegations in the recent past. During the election period, Dissanayake – who once make a derogatory remark about former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga – was often at the receiving end of Ramanayaka’s criticism. The Gampaha district Parliamentarian found himself in a difficult situation when he realized that he had been appointed as the deputy minister of Social Services Minister S.B. Dissanayake.

Cabinet

It was no secret to many in the political circles that prominent figures who campaigned for good governance such as the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera, were disappointed over certain ministerial appointments. They said that the government should have taken measures to reduce the number of ministries by mutual agreement, without burdening taxpayers. At the same time, there were serious concerns over some MPs who were given ministerial portfolios, especially from the UPFA camp.

Voicing the concerns of civil organizations who campaigned for ‘good governance’, veteran film maker Dharmasiri Bandaranaike, a stalwart of the Purawesi Balaya organization, said that the civil society of the country was “utterly disappointed” over the manner in which the ministers were appointed.

“Those who were rejected by the people had obtained ministerial portfolios. Is this the ‘change’ we fought hard to bring about?” Bandaranaike asked in an interview with BBC Sandeshaya.

“Overthrowing the Rajapaksa regime which seemed invincible was not an overnight process. It was a collective exercise by a large group of people. But, if things proceed in the present manner, it would be the end of Sri Lanka’s politics,” the much-respected film maker said.

“People do not question leaders of the government over recent developments. It is we who have to answer their questions as we meet them on the streets, on a daily basis,” Bandaranaike stressed.