By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan
Chargé d’affaires of the Delegation of the European Union to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Paul Godfrey, tells Ceylon Today that the Government of Sri Lanka set out on an ambitious agenda to fulfil its commitments to the UN resolution but unfortunately has faced several blockages and roadblocks in its progress.
“What we see is that there is a certain degree of scepticism about the changes and a certain degree of resistance in some quarters to the changes proposed. It’s up to the senior leaders of the country to reassert their control on these areas and show that progress continues, and if necessary, people who are blocking those processes are removed from their positions,” the British diplomat who has served in Brussels before coming to Sri Lanka in 2015 said.
?: What is your overall opinion and concerns about the current Unity Government of Sri Lanka?
A: The government had a very ambitious agenda when it set out, including the mandate under which President Maithripala Sirisena was elected and then the government winning in the parliamentary elections. Clearly, that was a very broad far reaching programme, and I think there was a very good progress in some areas but in the other areas, unfortunately, there have been several blockages and roadblocks along the way. We have to see if the progress in some of the areas will be maintained over the rest of the period in Office.
?: Former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera was commended by the international community for the great effort he took to address the national problem in the international arena. What do you expect from the new Foreign Minister Thilak Marapana?
A: There is no doubt that Minister Mangala Samaraweera was very effective in communicating the government’s message to the international community in forums such as the United Nations and at Geneva. He was very clear and erudite. I don’t know the new Foreign Minister Marapana personally but he is an experienced politician who has held a number of ministerial posts previously and we expect he will be able to deliver some of the government’s policies that have been set out in areas such as the Geneva resolution and obviously maintaining good relations for instance with countries in the region and in Europe.
?: As soon as Marapana took Office, he made a comment that there is no room for foreign Judges participating in the special court to address alleged war crimes, which is also the view of many. Your views on this?
A: Sri Lanka made a commitment through the UN resolution which indeed Sri Lanka sponsored both back in 2015 and again this year that there would be a judicial mechanism that involves, the exact language was, ‘foreign and Commonwealth personnel’.
That is what we have in book and that is what we as the international community can see as the process. Our position is that we want to see the resolution fulfilled. Our stance is not about the passports of the people involved in the process, but the process itself. What’s important is that the process should be victim-centred also recognizing the just and legitimate concerns of the victims in the process that contributes to national reconciliation. For us, it’s a fair judicial process that addresses the most serious crimes that are alleged to have happened during the conflict and afterwards. That is fundamental. It’s the healing process that provides lasting reconciliation for all Sri Lankans regardless of their backgrounds or their ethnicity. We as the international community are waiting for the government to bring forth a proposal and I think we are disappointed that we haven’t seen more progress in this area already. I was hopeful when the Office of the Missing Persons Bill was passed in August last year that we would have taken further steps by now, both to see that the Office is operationalized along with other steps such as the Truth Commission and the Office on Reparations being set up, but yet, these still seem to be on the ‘drawing board’. We hope the government will soon make clear their plans and once we receive the plans then we can look at it in detail.
?: You mentioned about judges from the Commonwealth but we have not heard anything about that lately. Are the Commonwealth judges in the framework the UNHRC‘s final say?
A: The key thing is not the passport of the personnel involved. That’s the language of the UNHRC resolution sponsored by Sri Lanka, the US, the UK and a number of other countries. The EU is not a formal member of the Council, although a number of EU Member States are, but we support the text of the resolution. That language of Commonwealth judges came from the Government of Sri Lanka. I think in terms of exactly what they have in mind – there are examples such as Sri Lankan judges in the Fiji islands which is another Commonwealth country. So there could be opportunities where there is particular expertise from other jurisdictions whether they be Commonwealth or European as those are things for the Sri Lankan Government to work out. What is important for us is the integrity of the process.
?: Did the GoSL hint at least they are going for Commonwealth judges? As of now what have you heard?
A: I don’t see any moves in the immediate future by Sri Lanka to establish a special court or a judicial mechanism. That may be because it’s outside the framework of the international community and that’s understandable. As I said before, we look forward to the fulfilment of the resolution. We are now about 18 months into the resolution and we hope to see progress in the coming months.
?: There is a common belief that unlike the former regime, this Unity Government has ‘succumbed ‘to the international community and trying to please them while they are in fact interfering in the internal issues of a sovereign State. How will you explain the role of the foreign countries involved in Sri Lanka‘s affairs?
A: We are living in a multinational and interdependent world where no country is an island the way it was back in the 19th century. So, whether it is Canada, Cambodia, or the Central African Republic, the international community is involved in every country. Now, in terms of the particular engagement with Sri Lanka, obviously, there was a long and bloody conflict in this country, as a result of which a number of people in the international community had to be engaged with Sri Lanka. Not least, there was the refugee population from Sri Lanka arriving in the EU countries and that was the situation then. Then President Mahinda Rajapaksa invited the United Nations to come to Sri Lanka in 2009 to look at the situation and obviously resolutions were passed by the international community to address the situation in the last few months of the war. There is a long history of both Sri Lanka inviting international engagement and indeed, a population in various countries pressing for international engagement in Sri Lanka. In terms of our engagement now, through processes such as the Human Rights Council resolution and GSP plus, Sri Lanka has reiterated commitments made by all governments going back many years, to international rule of law, and what we now want to see is that those commitments are respected. With the application for GSP Plus, which I was involved with, there were specific undertakings on the progressive implementation of the international conventions to which Sri Lanka has signed up.
You have both a history of where Sri Lanka has signed up to these conventions over a long period of time, and the commitment by this government to progressively implement those conventions. So the international community is going to take a view on whether or not that process is happening. We are offering a concession that is 2.6bn Euros worth exports from Sri Lanka a year. It is not that Sri Lanka is not benefiting from this process and it’s quite a significant benefit from the EU.
?: The former regime says this government has co-sponsored the UN resolution and so they are in a ‘fix‘ and that they were able to tackle the international community better than this without co- sponsoring resolutions. Is it easy to work when co-sponsoring or not?
A: Sri Lanka co-sponsoring the resolution was probably the single most important gesture that demonstrates to the international community at least, that this government is going to make a break with rather narrow nationalistic policies that had been pursued by the previous administration and clearly there is a political game to be played with the national interests put forward by the former President and the people who support his way of thinking. But I think this was a critical and an important measure that could lead to reconciliation and a durable peace in Sri Lanka which after all is fundamental for all development and prosperity of this country. Even the previous government accepted that a return to conflict was something that would jeopardize economic and development progress in the country. So it’s critical that the foundation of reconciliation is a sound one and not built on military lines and security.
?: The EU recently said there is no change in the EU support for the full implementation of the UNHCR resolution. Many also think Sri Lanka failed overall in implementing key issues related to the UN resolution, namely repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), setting up of the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP), the special court to address war crimes, Constitutional reforms, a revived Judiciary system etc., where some of them are part of the EU conditions to gain the GSP Plus concession that was granted May this year. Is the EU monitoring the progress and is the time running out for SL, in your opinion?
A: On the UN resolution, we the EU are supporters of the resolution but the resolution itself is not the part of the conditions for GSP Plus. The resolution was first put forward in 2015, and then again earlier in March this year. So we now have a two-year period in which the GoSL is expected to deliver on the commitments made in the resolution. The international community has recognized that the resolution itself was very ambitious in its scope and that’s why they agreed to a further two-year period on top of the initial 18 months. It’s still an ambitious agenda and it’s imperative that the government makes progress on that agenda. It cannot be left until a few months prior to the end of the resolution.
In terms of GSP Plus, we are now initiating a formal monitoring process and a team from Brussels will be here from 5 to 13 September, and will begin the process of monitoring the implementation of the 27 international conventions which make up for the GSP plus. So our assessment would be made purely in terms of the implementation of those 27 conventions. The counter-terrorism legislation and areas such as torture, rights of children are part of that.
?: You said you would assess Sri Lanka based on certain conditions. What if you find they are not implemented? What sort of steps would be taken next?
A: First, we would have to assess how serious the shortcoming is. Then, we would initiate a dialogue with the government, (which we would do in any case) that there are some areas where no progress is seen and that we would like to see progressing. If it’s serious, it would be addressed through one of the European Commissioners writing to Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister highlighting the areas of concern, and the particular steps Sri Lanka has to take in order to maintain GSP Plus. This process is exactly what happened in 2010.
?: When is the next review of the GSP Plus?
A: We review every two years and the first review will be published in January 2018 and following would be in January 2020.
?: Do you think people of Sri Lanka know the importance of Transitional Justice, Special Courts, Office of the Missing Persons because every time this is brought up there is a huge protest from all corners. Is this a worry?
A: The misrepresentation of transitional justice by certain politicians is a worry and is actually a pernicious practice. I think there are a lot of people across different communities who obviously want to know what happened to their loved ones. There are soldiers from the Sri Lanka Army who are missing too. All the loved ones want to know what happened to their sons and daughters. That is to me a fundamental in transitional justice. The truth behind what happened to these people should be disclosed. If they are alive, state where they are and if they are dead reveal where the remains are buried. Secondly, the new Army Commander gave a clear message which, I’m told was particularly well-worded in Sinhala, that people who are murderers and criminals cannot be ‘war heroes’. That is a clear understanding. The Army which contributes to the security of the people are heroes and persons who murder civilians can never be war heroes.
?: What is your view on the report Sri Lanka would table in Geneva if they haven‘t made progress on the key undertaking of the UN resolution as you projected too?
A: Sri Lanka has been given time till March 2019 to fulfil its commitments. I think it would be reasonable to want to see by March 2018 that the basic building blocks are put in place for the process to be successful by the deadline on March 2019. There is still quite a lot of work to do before that process can be judged to be on track. At this point, you cannot have 100% confidence that Sri Lanka will be able to deliver its commitment by March 2019. It needs to really put in place the building blocks now. The UN will make an assessment on the resolution and the review will start normally in January next year. That assessment would be delivered in Geneva where Sri Lanka will have the opportunity to respond to it. If necessary, the Council can submit another resolution based on what they have from the report. As I said, more progress needs to be seen in transitional justice but I think more straightforward areas such as land returns, the Constitution, implementation of various international conventions and human rights standards are areas that are actually the way forward and not so difficult to implement. But, it has to actually be delivered now. The resettlement of IDPs and refugees are a critical area that has not been settled completely. Detainees under the PTA, some of whom have been held for more than 12 years without trial, is unacceptable in any jurisdiction. Also, operationalizing the OMP has been delayed. These are urgent areas that need to be looked into.
The Constitution is the other critical area. The government has begun the process of a very worthy consultation with communities across Sri Lanka to get their views about what a new Constitution should entail. It would be unfortunate if reactionary elements are allowed to derail that process.
?: Since the government came to power, certainly people are enjoying freedoms much better than before. Yet, we see the government is stuck in its progress overall or the process is slow. What is the understanding you have on this?
A: There is a major ‘change programme’ that the government has set out. Whenever you have major changes, it can be difficult to ensure that everybody in the system is pushing in the same direction. What we see is that there is a certain degree of scepticism about the changes and a certain degree of resistance in some quarters to the changes proposed. It’s up to the senior leaders of the country to reassert their control of these areas and show that progress continues, and if necessary, people who are blocking those processes are removed from their positions. I think there have been some positive changes recently and we want to see the early momentum is recaptured now and taken forward through the changes that are being made.
Pic by Sarath Kumara