Rejecting allegations that the government is dancing to the tune of pro-LTTE diaspora in Geneva and making blueprints to drag the country’s war heroes before a hybrid court, Foreign Affairs Minister, Mangala Samaraweera says, on the contrary, their expectation is to put the country in order so that the domestic call for a hybrid court which led to the UN High Commissioner’s recommendation, could be put to rest within the course of the next two years.
Minister Samaraweera was exclusively interviewed by the Sunday Observer upon his return from two important visits, to Geneva and Russia.
The excerpts of the full interview:
Q. Do you believe the Government can fulfil the main pledges made at UNHRC within the extended two year period?
A. These are not pledges made to the UNHRC. They are pledges made to the people of the country at the last presidential election. Item No.93 of the 100 day program clearly states, ‘we will not agree to an international inquiry but in order to look into various allegations, including war crimes, we would set up our own domestic mechanism’. That was our pledge to the people.
It is with that intention that I went to Geneva, just one month after the election of President Maithripala Sirisena in January 2015. I requested them to stop the international inquiry which they had already begun with the blessings of the member states.
The Joint Opposition and the Mahinda Rajapaksa clique conveniently forget to mention that. It was passed overwhelmingly by the member states, in Geneva. They were going to look into the allegations with or without the cooperation of the government.
Thanks to the election victory and the newly earned trust we managed to alter that course and come up with our own road map for reconciliation and transitional justice.
It was a four tier road map. The first year talks about the truth seeking mechanism, then, the accountability mechanism, the reparation mechanism and mechanisms to ensure non- recurrence.
Both, the US and the UK and other countries decided to co-sponsor our road map, in 2015. That in itself is a huge victory for Sri Lanka.
In keeping with this we have set up the Office of Missing persons (OMP). There was absolute pandemonium created in Parliament when the Bill was taken up, by this small group of ‘unruly and racist thugs’, as I would call them. But, despite that we passed it. During that commotion we were not able to include one of the amendments presented by the JVP on funding aspects. It has now been approved by the Cabinet and we hope to present that amendment in Parliament soon.
Already, Rs. 1.3 billion has been allocated from the last budget to operationalize the OMP. We will work out the modalities of the truth seeking mechanism and the reparations unit in the next few months and also the mechanisms for non-recurrence, for a wider reconciliation.
Even though we need time, we are very much on track. We call our reconciliation road map, Festina Lente, it means, ‘Making haste slowly’ in Latin, because this is a problem that had been there for decades and one cannot expect the issues to be resolved overnight.
Q.What will be the immediate priority of the Government within the next two years, with regard to implementing the resolution?
A. It is important the OMP is given life to look into the cases of missing persons, it can investigate into persons who went missing during the JVP insurrection as well.
We must also remember the OMP does not have any powers to prosecute. It will simply be an office to look into complaints of missing persons and decide if they are really missing, dead, travelled overseas or just living out of sight. This needs to be done for the sake of the mothers and wives who are still waiting for their loved ones to return.
In the 1980s both, Mahinda Rajapaksa and I were fighting for the same cause as co-convenors of the Mothers’ Front, Sri Lanka. I can’t understand why he is against the same cause now.
The next stage is the truth seeking mechanism. We have still not worked out the final contours of this mechanism, but certain committees are working on it. We have a steering committee headed by Prof. Savithri Gunasekera looking at various possibilities of setting it up. We are also sharing experiences with countries like South Africa, which has vast experience in this area. But, our mechanism will not be an exact replica of the Truth Commission in South Africa. We want it to be uniquely Sri Lankan.
Q.What progress have you made in this area ?
A.As I said, the steering committee is working on it. In the next few months we would be able to finalize the actual architecture of this mechanism.
Q. There is an allegation that the Foreign Ministry is taking the public for a ride, in regard to the UNHRC resolution. Your comments ?
A: Those who are making these allegations are the ones trying to take the public for a ride. We have now proven that not only by words but by deed we have managed to save Sri Lanka from a huge catastrophe.
Had the earlier resolution been passed during the previous regime, probably, it would have been followed by economic sanctions against Sri Lanka by individual countries. By now there would have been travel bans imposed against some of the leaders of the previous government. If so, the former President would not have been able to gallivant around the world in this manner. In the last two years, I helped him with the visas to all the destinations he had been travelling to – Japan, Italy, China, etc.
Q. Do you see it as a mistake by the Government to give him the freedom that he currently enjoys?
A. I don’t think so. We are not here to persecute people, we have not started a political witch hunt against persons, but on the other hand, we will allow the law of the land to take its course. Anyone who has done wrong and stolen national assets, stashed away money in foreign countries will be dealt with according to the rule of law. Until such time, as a Member of Parliament, he has certain privileges.
But, I remember, when he was the sitting President, he made the life of his predecessor, Chandrika Kumaratunga very difficult. Once he stopped our mission in Britain from picking her up at the airport and dropping her at her daughter’s house. She was asked to pay for the taxi ride. If they have done any wrong, nothing in the world will save them from the law taking its due course. But, we are not a Government which persecutes people for their political beliefs.
Q.Many people suspect that a two year extension was sought to accommodate foreign judges, by amending the Constitution. How true is this argument?
A.What is this obsession about foreign judges? First of all, we must understand why the call for foreign judges came. It came from sections of our own citizens.
Because, during the last ten years, the Judiciary virtually became servile to the whims and fancies of the Executive.
We saw how a Chief Justice was unceremoniously thrown out after a midnight sitting of Parliament and one of their obedient servants offered to succeed her. As a result, a call for a ‘’credible international probe’’ was given birth.
During the past 18 months, we have begun the process to restore a credible independent judiciary. The call for foreign judges implies that we have to come up with a credible independent mechanism that can win the trust of all stakeholders. I believe we can do so.
The High Commissioner, during a press conference in Colombo last year said, this is the best possible action, but he said these are recommendations, and the final decision of doing it or not, rests with the government of Sri Lanka. However, the final decision must consider the views of the minorities, if it is to succeed.
Q.Sri Lanka has co-sponsored the resolution, how can we implement only the chosen recommendations?
A. I’d rather you say, the world has co-sponsored our resolution. The earlier resolution was forced on the Mahinda Rajapaksa government since they refused to cooperate.
In many other transitional justice mechanisms the courts were appointed by the UN Secretary General, but here, this whole process is in our hands. It is only fair for them to make requests on areas they think that we are weak.
However, for this process to succeed a final solution must be evolved through the engagement of all stakeholders. That includes the moderate Tamil voice, even within the TNA. We must remember that it was the moderate Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese who elected the Government. We don’t want to see yet another generation being pushed into the hands of extremists.
Q.Are you being driven by an expectation that there will be a call within the community for a domestic mechanism ?
A.We have another two years. We are not going to touch the judicial mechanism straightaway. The constitutional process is equally important.
The devolution proposals are important. They must be given priority this year. If our truth seeking mechanism and Missing Persons office gain confidence of all concerned, the demand by the people, for such a judicial mechanism may also drift away.
Q. Don’t you think that the government failed to exploit the opportunity that resulted due to the change of US political administration?
A.This is again a lame, naïve and ignorant argument put forward by the so called pundits of the Joint Opposition.
They think, with President Donald Trump they could get away with anything.
But, in countries like the US, despite changes of government, their basic commitment to certain values continue.
That is one of the reasons why President Trump and the White House dispatched a special person to meet me in Geneva, Ted Buk.
He assured that the US will continue to support and assist Sri Lanka and that our request for a two year extension will be agreed to.
If they think things have changed, why did the US invite Sandhya Ekneligida to Washington DC and bestow this year’s woman of courage award on her ? The atrocities committed by the previous government were highlighted at this event.
Q. There is also a very serious allegation that the government is dancing to the tune of the pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora ?
A. Actually, it is the opposite. The pro-LTTE diaspora is very much against this government. When I went to Geneva this March, one of the members of the extreme group TETG was shouting slogans.
It is simply evident that the extremist Tamil diaspora are working with the Sinhala extremist elements.
When Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was in Australia, there were two protests on either side of the road, Tamil diaspora on one side and Sinhala extremists on the other, putting on a big drama. We are targeted by the Sinhala extremist websites, because we have won the trust and confidence of people like, Father Emmanuel.
He has openly said, they are willing to work hand in hand for the betterment of the country.
This is a huge step forward. One of the main recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) is to try and win over the diaspora.
We have done so. We can forget about the extremists and choose to walk with the moderates.
Q. Is asking for more time from Geneva a political stunt by the Government in the hope that the heat would fizzle out by then and the call for war crimes probes will be forgotten?
A. As I said before, we are not playing to the gallery. We have our own transitional justice road map. We want to fulfil our commitments to the people.
Only by winning the trust and confidence of the Tamil people, especially, in the North and East, can we ensure that the tragedies that may have happened in the past will never happen again.
Q.You said, a referendum to test the will of the people on the new Constitution is a risk ?
A. I said it is a risk worth taking. It was our fundamental promise to the people that we will present the third Republican Constitution for Sri Lanka introducing further democratic changes, such as, abolishing of the Executive Presidency. I think we owe it to the people of Sri Lanka.
President Sirisena will be the only person who has the courage to do that. Within the first 100 days he took action to dilute the dictatorial executive powers of his office. People must believe that he is turning out to be a Nelson Mandela figure.
Of course, many people are fearful about referendums, especially, after Brexit. There is a risk attached to it. I am confident, if we have a good campaign, if we go to the people and explain the benefits of a new Constitution, we can win them over. I am 100 per cent sure it is a winnable risk and that will most probably mobilize the Rainbow Coalition which brought us into power in 2015.
Q. Could the Constitution making process be the government’s ultimate test that might even cause its downfall?
A. No, I don’t think so. Not at all. In fact, it will strengthen our Government. The country needs a new Constitution, a new direction and a new vision.