By Gagani Weerakoon
The Head of the State and his Foreign Minister seem to stand poles apart when it comes to getting foreign expertise in the process of investigating war crime allegations.
This was evident when Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera clearly stated Sri Lanka is open to international actors in the war crimes probe and zeroed President Maithripala Sirisena’s remarks on the matter as mere personal opinion.
Samaraweera made these remarks while participating a Q & A session following his address on “Advancing Reconciliation and Democracy” at a leading think-tank, the US Institute of Peace in Washington DC, on 25 February 2016.
Interestingly, Samaraweera was introduced to the audience by Nisha Biswal, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, who dubbed the Foreign Minister as a key player in the remarkable transformation in the US-Sri Lanka relationship.
“His multiple visits to the United States and other capitals, his relationship with Secretary Kerry, Ambassador Samantha Power, and his principled advocacy for restoring Sri Lanka’s standing in the global community – through engagement rather than avoidance; and through cooperation rather than conflict – has won the respect of his peers and resulted in a resolution last September at the Human Rights Council in Geneva which was co-sponsored and co-introduced by Sri Lanka and the United States, along with our other international partners,” she said.
Samaraweera in his address recalling his visit to Washington DC, last February, soon after the election of President Maithripala Sirisena, said much has happened and much has been achieved over the past year and described the relationship between USA and Sri Lanka has blossomed into a very special kind of friendship.
In his speech he insisted that one has to only look at Sri Lanka’s modern history, with its countless missed opportunities, to realize that, what held us back, what plunged us into cycles of conflict, and what prevented the many attempts of saving our nation from such adversity, was the nature of adversarial politics, that was followed, in the past.
“Whenever one side tried to find a solution, the other side got in the way. Fortunately, today, with the demise of the LTTE, no one in our country believes that violence is a solution to our problems. The desire for peace, the desire to ensure non-recurrence is clear. The people of our country, in every walk of life, the rich and the poor, those living in the North, South, East, West, and Centre, desperately want peace to last. They have all suffered too much bloodshed and unimaginable agony,” he said.
The National Unity Government, therefore, is focused on fostering a national consensus around the ‘never again’ principle which everyone in our country relates to, the Foreign Minister told his Washington audience.
“The National Unity Government has not wasted any time in making the fullest use of this historic opportunity. In September last year, the government made a commitment in the form of co-sponsoring a resolution at the Human Rights Council in Geneva to strengthen good governance, foster reconciliation, promote human rights, establish accountability under the rule of law and ensure non-recurrence. Our government is totally committed to the successful implementation of this resolution, not because of any desire to appease international opinion, but because of our conviction that Sri Lanka must come to terms with the past in order to forge ahead and secure the future the Sri Lankan people truly deserve,” he emphasized.
Samaraweera responding to a question from the audience said that Sri Lanka is still open for international actors including judges, forensic experts and other relevant professionals, as he thinks it is only fair that the victims of the war would want some form of guarantee.
He also said that the government is looking into all options and come up with a Special Court that is not only credible but also acceptable to all victims of the war, within the next five to six months.
However, when the person who posed a question raised the point that President Sirisena has clearly ruled out foreign involvement Samaraweera responded:
“What the President has expressed is his own opinion, and in Sri Lanka there are various thoughts on how this matter should be handled. Frankly, we too admit the need of international participation in the process, and even some nationalist parties in Parliament agree. There is general agreement across the board that a Special Court will have to be set up in Sri Lanka if the process is to have any credibility, as the Judiciary has lost its credibility over the past 10 years due to the politicization of the judicial process by the previous government. The victims of the war would want some form of guarantee that the new Court will deliver justice and accountability in a fair manner and for that we are willing to consider the participation of international actors. They could be Judges, forensic experts, investigators and prosecutors. We are looking at all these options.”
Contradiction irks Maithri
As Samaraweera’s remarks started going viral with international media going to town with it and some even openly reporting that he had contradicted President Sirisena, the latter took the matter seriously and was in fact planning to demand an explanation from Samaraweera by Friday night.
In January 2016 the President of Sri Lanka in an interview with the BBC had said foreign Judges and prosecutors should not be involved in an investigation into allegations of war crimes as the country did not need to ‘import’ specialists.
“I will never agree to international involvement in this matter. We have more than enough specialists, experts and knowledgeable people in our country to solve our internal issues. This investigation should be internal and indigenous, without violating the laws of the country, and I believe in the judicial system and other relevant authorities in this regard. The international community need not worry about matters of State interest. These things cannot be done instantly or in a hurried manner. We will certainly reach our target but it’s a gradual process.”
He said that while the UN report released in September 2015 had pointed to Army involvement in war crimes, the report had failed to mention names. He said it was important to determine whether such crimes actually took place.
The President also dismissed reports from the advocacy group Freedom from Torture that people in detention were still being tortured.
He said: “If the Sri Lanka Army is alleged for such crimes, our concern should be to free them from those allegations. If anyone has committed a crime, there’s no doubt that they should be punished. However it is wrong to make the entire Army guilty for what happened.”
In what seemed like taking a step further President Sirisena speaking to Al Jazeera few days after his interview with BBC Sandeshaya rejected the allegations of war crimes.
“I must say very clearly there are no allegations regarding ‘war crimes’, there were war crimes allegations during the early stages. But at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, mainly in the proposals presented in September, there were no ‘war crimes’ allegations against us. They contained allegations of human rights violations only. When you consider the facts surrounding the allegations of human rights violations, we are committed as a member of the United Nations, to implement the main points and proposals,” Sirisena said.
He however, did not miss to hint that he was prepared to use his executive powers when the occasion arises when he said, “I will never agree to international involvement in this matter.”
Following Samaraweera’s remarks President Sirisena had told several of his confidantes that he will take up the matter with the former, and will demand a clarification to the effect that the Foreign Minister’s stance on the matter is actually not what the government believes.
While, we are yet to see whether Minister Samaraweera had accepted the President’s demand, sources close to President Sirisena said, he will be making another statement disputing Samaraweera’s by mid-week if the latter failed to do it on his own.
Powerful State Minister
All seems to be not well between President Sirisena and Minister Samaraweera as the former had not been briefed properly about the activities of his Ministry by Samaraweera in recent times.
This became quite evident during the recent visit of President Sirisena and the Sri Lankan delegation to Germany and Austria.
The President had apparently not been briefed by Foreign Minister Samaraweera following his meeting with German counterpart Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, prior to the meeting between the latter and President Sirisena.
Last week this column reported how everyone in the Sri Lankan delegation was surprised to see the presence of two individuals at the lobby of the Berlin Marriott Hotel on the second day of President Sirisena’s visit to Germany.
They were none other than the President of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) Rev. Dr. S.J. Emmanuel and its spokesperson Suren Surenthiran.
Initially, the members of the delegation were unable to find as to why they were present in the hotel where the Sri Lankan President was or whether they had arrived at the invitation of the President.
The inquisitive delegates, however, were made aware that President Sirisena or his staff had no clue about the two individuals as he was not expecting them for talks. Later on, it was revealed that the two were present at the hotel to meet Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera on his invitation.
It is reliably learnt that President Sirisena is strongly advised to appoint a strong State Minister from the SLFP to the Foreign Ministry, so that he will no longer be kept in the dark over the matters pertaining to the Ministry.