These Are My Humble Requests To Gotabaya

GotabayaRajapaksa_CI-300x225By R. Sampanthan –

R. Sampanthan

We are discussing today the Votes of the Ministry of Defence, the Minister of Defence being His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Secretary to the Ministry being his brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who rumour has it will probably be a Member of this House fairly soon. We would welcome that.

May I, Sir, in dealing with the Votes of this Ministry, have your indulgence to raise certain issues relating to this Ministry that has an impact on the life of civilians in this country. I do not do this, Sir, in a spirit of confrontation, but I do think that in this House, in particular, we should have the freedom of expression and we should be able to articulate the feelings of the people we represent. After all, we claim to be a vibrant democracy and it is therefore imperative that if that claim of ours is to be recognized and respected, that such freedoms are freely exercised, not merely in this House, but by all people who live in this country.

I wish to first refer to the investigation which has been mandated by the United Nations Human Rights Council, which has appointed a panel of investigators and a panel of experts. These persons have been appointed by the UN establishment. They have not been allowed to enter the country. They cannot carry out any investigations or record any evidence in Sri Lanka. If I might say so, with respect, this is clearly not consistent with the conduct of a party that proclaims innocence. At the time of the military operations and until shortly thereafter, the Sri Lankan Government’s position was that it was conducting a humanitarian operation with the policy of zero civilian casualty. This was the Sri Lankan position when the war came to an end. The true position, however, seems very different. No one can blame the Sri Lankan Government for conducting a war against the LTTE. Different considerations apply in relation to civilians. The Government estimated the civilian population in that area, the Wanni, where the war was raging at around 70,000.

Eventually around 290,000 civilians came out from that area. The true figure of the people there is believed to be over 350,000 civilians. Government officials and civil society activists have testified to that effect.

It was a war conducted without any independent witnesses. Members of Non-Governmental Organizations and International Non-Governmental Organizations were asked to leave that area in September, 2008 without consideration of the consequent harm to the civilian population in that area, because it was these voluntary organizations that were till then largely responsible for supplying the population in that area with drinking water, food, medicine and shelter, particularly in the context of the Government’s gross underestimation of the total population in that area. The ICRC and the UN personnel were asked to leave that area. They were not able to fulfil their mandate in regard to humanitarian and protection issues.

The media, both domestic and international, were kept out of that area. Members of Parliament were not permitted to go to that area. Persons who came out of that area – eventually about 290,000 persons came out – were detained in detention centres called, “welfare centres”. We placed on record in Parliament all that happened at that time, as and when, it happened. What we said in Parliament was not contradicted. Grave civilian casualties raised issues in regard to violations of International Human Rights and International Humanitarian Laws. The matter was eventually taken up by the Human Rights Council. Three Resolutions have been adopted by the UN Human Rights Council, the latest one being in March 2014, which authorized an independent international investigation. This could have been averted if the Sri Lankan Government had set up a credible, transparent, domestic investigation after the adoption of the Resolutions in 2012 and 2013.

Now, the international investigators and the Panel of Experts appointed by the UN establishment are being denied entry into Sri Lanka. Citizens of this country who are possessed of the knowledge and information and who are able and willing to testify before the international investigators in regard to what happened to them and their compatriots are being denied their legitimate right to do so.

This is a denial of their fundamental rights as citizens of this country. This is also a blatant denial of their right to justice. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan Government, through persons in authority, has been publicly stating that any one who testifies before or assists the investigation in any way would be violating Sri Lanka’s Constitution or its laws and would be prosecuted. This is clearly intended to intimidate witnesses and prevent them from making available information or giving evidence on matters within their knowledge, matters that are known to them.

I wish to pose the question whether such action would serve the long-term interests of this country though it may serve the short-term interests of some individuals. No witnesses and victims protection law exists in this country. A Bill was brought to Parliament sometime around 2007/2008, at the time when the Udalagama Commission was investigating certain grave violations of human rights. The Bill was taken up for debate and thereafter, it was abandoned. There had been commitments made to the international community that the victim and witnesses protection law will be passed in this country, but that commitment has not yet been kept.

While on this matter, Sir, I need to refer to a news item that appeared in “The Island” newspaper on Saturday, the 1st of November. I want to specifically deny the correctness of that report. The TNA has no official by the name referred to in that report, nor has the TNA engaged in collecting any such documents as is alleged in that report. While the TNA laments that citizens of this country are being denied the opportunity of appearing before and testifying before an investigative panel appointed by the UN, the TNA is certainly not engaged in any activity, which would not be in conformity with the required standards of such investigative processes.

In the Joint Communiqué, Sir, issued by the President and the Secretary-General of the United Nations on the conclusion of the visit of the Secretary-General of the UN to Sri Lanka on 23rd May, 2009, the Sri Lankan Government committed itself to address the question of accountability. Accountability and reconciliation can be addressed meaningfully only through genuine, credible processes. They cannot be addressed through processes that are spurious and such processes cannot achieve the desired results. The Sri Lankan Government, in my submission, needs to rethink its whole approach to this question of accountability and reconciliation in the long-term interests of this country.

Before I get on to my next point, Sir, may I have your indulgence to refer to some observations made by the Internal Panel appointed to review the working of the UN during the crucial stages of the war in Sri Lanka, certain observations made by the Secretary-General of the UN himself and also certain observations made by the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons who served in Sri Lanka at the time of the functioning of the Udalagama Commission that was tasked with the responsibility of investigating certain grave violations of human rights.

Sir, this is what the Report of the Internal Panel appointed to review the working of the UN during the final stages of the war stated. In fact, there was some dissatisfaction with the way in which the UN establishment functioned during the final stages of the war and this Panel was appointed to go into that question.
The Panel stated, I quote:

“Between August 2008 and May 2009, as the war between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) entered its final stages, an estimated 360,000 or more civilians were crowded into an ever smaller part of ‘the Wanni’ area of Northern Sri Lanka where many died as a result of sustained artillery shelling, illness and starvation. Almost 280,000 survivors were forcibly interned in military-run camps outside the area of conflict.”

A further observation they make is, I quote:

“The UN’s failure to adequately counter the Government’s under-estimation of population numbers in the Wanni, the failure to adequately confront the Government on its obstructions to humanitarian assistance, the unwillingness of the UN in UNHQ and Colombo to address Government responsibility for attacks that were killing civilians, and the tone and content of UN communications with the Government and Member States on these issues, contributed to the unfolding of dramatic events.”

The third observation in regard to the Report of this Panel is, I quote:

“Sri Lanka’s peaceful and stable progress will require a process of accountability and reconciliation and a political solution to the long-standing grievances of all communities, as well as a response to ongoing and new concerns, and prevention and protection in the future. Working closely with the Government of Sri Lanka, the UN needs to take on this further challenge.”

The Panel of Experts, Sir, in their Report, emphasized the need to address accountability and reconciliation in a meaningful way and also emphasized the fact that if accountability and reconciliation were to be addressed in a meaningful way, in a way in which the entire citizenry in this country could accept it, there had to be a political solution. That political solution would enthuse the question of accountability and reconciliation to be addressed in a moderate, reasonable and sensible way.

I wish to quote, as I mentioned earlier, certain remarks made by the UN Secretary-General in September, 2013. In fact, when he made these remarks His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself was personally present.

I quote :

“In a rare admission of “systemic failure” of the UN, its chief has said the world body had failed during the final stages of Sri Lanka’s ethnic war in 2009 that saw military defeat of the LTTE.

Ban made the remarks while addressing the UN General Assembly’s 68th session on Tuesday where Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa was also present.”

These remarks were made in the presence of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. I further quote:

“The Secretary-General said as an immediate step, he will organize a senior-level team to give ‘careful consideration’ to the report’s recommendations and advise him on the way forward. ‘Other action will follow in short order’, he said”

So, in other words Sir, the Secretary-General himself had accepted the fact that there have been certain failures by the UN establishment during certain crucial stages of the war, which needed to be addressed and that those issues are being investigated by the UN system through their internal processes.

I also want to refer finally, Sir, to certain observations made by the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons – IIGEP – when they were in Sri Lanka assisting the Udalagama Commission at the final Press Conference they held on 14th April 2008 before they withdrew from their mandate and left the country. At the final media briefing of the IIGEP on 14th April of 2008, the results of intense military action taken by the Sri Lankan Government against the LTTE having a harmful impact on the Tamil civilians came up and the IIGEP’s response was that such a situation would amount to a clear violation of international human rights and humanitarian laws and would inevitably have its own consequences. The International Independent Group of Eminent Persons comprised of 11 persons from different countries the world over, was chaired by the retired Chief Justice of India, Justice P.N. Bhagwati. This is the observation they made, Sir.

Finally they said, I quote:

“Summary executions, massacres, disappearances, wanton destruction of property and forcible transfer of population can never be justified. No efforts should be spared to uncover responsibility, including recognition of command responsibility, for such actions. The IIGEP has, however, found an absence of will on the part of the Government of Sri Lanka in the present inquiry to investigate cases with vigour, where the conduct of its own forces has been called into question.”

That was in reference to the matters being investigated by the Udalagama Commission and the role of the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons to assist and guide that Commission.

In the course of that final interview, Sir, it so happened that a journalist who was aware of the situation in the North and the East at that point of time, raised this question of what the impact would be on international human rights and humanitarian laws if the Sri Lankan Government disregarding the rights of civilians, disregarding the safety of civilians, disregarding the entitlement of civilians, carried out a ruthless operation against the LTTE and the answer given by them clearly was that it would be unacceptable; that it would be in violation of international humanitarian and international human rights laws. And, exactly all that they quoted as being the possibility: massacre, summary executions, disappearances, displacement, destruction, all of it happened in the course of the war in its final stages.

ගරු අල්හාජ් ඒ.එච්.එම්. අස්වර් මහතා

(மாண்புமிகு அல்ஹாஜ் ஏ.எச்.எம். அஸ்வர்)

(The Hon. Alhaj A.H.M. Azwer) Sir, I rise to a point of Order.

මූලාසනාරූඪ මන්ත්රීrතුමා

(தலைலமதாங்கும் உறுப்பினர் அவர்கள்)

(The Presiding Member)
Order, please! There is a point of Order being raised by the Hon. Azwer.

ගරු අල්හාජ් ඒ.එච්.එම්. අස්වර් මහතා

(மாண்புமிகு அல்ஹாஜ் ஏ.எச்.எம். அஸ்வர்)

(The Hon. Alhaj A.H.M. Azwer)
Why does the Hon. Sampanthan, being a leader of a Party, not speak about the massacres of the Tigers?

මූලාසනාරූඪ මන්ත්රීrතුමා

(தலைலமதாங்கும் உறுப்பினர் அவர்கள்)

(The Presiding Member)
No, no. That is not a point of Order. Hon. Sampanthan, you continue with your speech.

ගරු ආර්. සම්පන්දන් මහතා

(மாண்புமிகு ஆர். சம்பந்தன்)

(The Hon. R. Sampanthan)
I would earnestly appeal to you, Hon. Azwer, not to disturb me.

ගරු අල්හාජ් ඒ.එච්.එම්. අස්වර් මහතා

(மாண்புமிகு அல்ஹாஜ் ஏ.எச்.எம். அஸ்வர்)

(The Hon. Alhaj A.H.M. Azwer)
It is not disturbing. It is my right to ask a question.

මූලාසනාරූඪ මන්ත්රීrතුමා

(தலைலமதாங்கும் உறுப்பினர் அவர்கள்)

(The Presiding Member)
You cannot raise questions at this moment. It is his time. Hon. Sampanthan, please continue.

ගරු ආර්. සම්පන්දන් මහතා

(மாண்புமிகு ஆர். சம்பந்தன்)

(The Hon. R. Sampanthan)
I now get onto my second point, Sir. That is, the Northern Provincial Council and its governance. Sir, governanccan only be with the assent of the governed. Governance cannot take place without the assent of the governed. The verdict of the Northern Provincial Council Election clearly indicates the democratic wish of the people of the North. I wish to place that verdict before you. The elections were held for the Northern Provincial Council in September, 2013. The Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchchi received a total vote of 353,595 which was 78.48 per cent of the total vote at that election. The United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance received a total vote of 82,838 which was 18.38 per cent. Seventy-eight per cent against 18 per cent. That was the difference and the Muslim Congress received 6,761 votes which was 1.50 per cent. The ITAK won 30 seats, the UPFA won seven seats and the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress won one seat. This vote, Sir, is clearly indicative of the wish of the people of the Northern Province as to who should govern them at the provincial level.

That verdict of the people must be respected. Sovereignty is vested in the people. In respect of matters that come within the competence of the Provincial Government, the democratic verdict of the people of the Northern Province must be respected. The Northern Provincial Council Election was not held to cast into the dustbin the democratic verdict of the people in the Northern Province. If that be the attitude of the Government, it must have consequences. Though the current provincial council arrangements are largely inadequate, even the present constitutional arrangements in the form of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution and the Provincial Councils Act came into being largely through the demands of the Tamil people for the sharing of political power in the North and the East and through the sacrifices made by the Tamil people. While in the Northern Province, the Chief Minister and the Provincial Government are being impeded at every turn in the performance of their legitimate duties, in the Eastern Province through an unholy alliance, contrary to the wishes of the people as demonstrated by their democratic verdict at the elections held in September 2012, we have a Chief Minister who will act only as directed by the Central Government. The irony of this situation is that the other seven provinces who never demanded power sharing enjoy a measure of autonomy even beyond the Thirteenth Amendment while frustration pervades the political environment in the North and the East.

This, Sir, I respectfully submit is a travesty of justice and cannot continue. The excessive presence of the armed forces, particularly in the North and also in the East, is a largely contributory factor to the erosion of the powers of provincial governance, and the lack of an environment that can facilitate the fulfilment of the democratic wishes of the local people. The conclusion is inevitable that the Central Government and the armed forces do not want provincial governance in the North and the East to be successful. This is a deliberate subversion of the democratic wish of the people, which has a seriously adverse impact on their future politically, economically, socially and culturally.

It is the duty of the Central Government, I submit, to extend to the Provincial Government all the assistance required to make provincial governance a success under the present constitutional arrangements. The Sri Lankan Government must also realize that it has committed itself to take further steps to make devolution more meaningful and more purposeful. It is also said in this regard that commitments made to the Provincial Government and the Chief Minister of the Northern Province have not been honoured.

Efforts to sabotage the effective functioning of provincial governance must inevitably have undesirable results. Sir, this will be tantamount to stating that only Tamil politicians loyal to the Government can successfully engage in provincial governance, whatever maybe the verdict, whatever may be the democratic wish of the people of the province. The position of the Central Government appears to be, regardless of the verdict of the people of the Northern Province, provincial governance can only be carried out by persons from the province who are loyal to the Government and by the Central Government. Such an authoritarian attitude must inevitably lead to undesirable consequences in the whole country. It will only mean that democracy in Sri Lanka is no longer of any value.

I would like to deal, Sir, next with the question of land in both the Northern and the Eastern Provinces, which is the main problem that we have. Particularly in areas like Valikamam in the North and Sampur in the East, we have done our best to get the Government to be able to look at these things objectively and come to fair decisions. But, we have thus far not been successful in having those lands returned to our people though we have done all that we could do to enable that. High Security Zones were declared in the Northern Province and in the Eastern Province, quite understandably, when the LTTE possessed long range artillery and there was a possibility of that artillery being able to reach security installations in the North and the East. In such a situation, the Government cleared certain areas up to a point beyond the reach of the LTTE artillery to ensure the security of those security installations. That is understandable; that is legitimate. But, now the war is over; the LTTE is over; LTTE artillery is not there. So, there is no need for a High Security Zone. These are lands on which these people have lived for generations and centuries. They have lived on that land. They have farmed on that land. They have cultivated on that land. They have derived their livelihood from that land for generations and centuries. We went to the Supreme Court both in regard to Valikamam and in Sampur, you gave a commitment to the Supreme Court that those lands would be returned to the people; that in keeping with best practices once the lands have been demined and all the explosives removed, that people will be resettled, but it has not been done yet. I raised the matter in Parliament, particularly in regard to Sampur. The Hon. Basil Rajapaksa stood up here and gave us the assurance that the people will be resettled; that people can go back. But, that has not happened.

His Excellency the President went to Jaffna. I would have been a very happy man if he had gone to these camps and seen for himself the position, the situation in which these people are living in several camps in Valikamam. Unfortunately, he did not go. I hope he will go again and when he goes there next time he will see for himself.

I want to make an appeal to the Defence Secretary – you are a very pragmatic person -to kindly give your mind to this question of the people going back to their lands not only in Valikamam and Sampur, wherever land had been taken over by the Army. In all districts of the North and the East, land has been taken over by the Army even after the war came to an end. Kindly return those lands to those people because they need those lands to live, to reside, to carry on their livelihood in keeping with what they have done for several generations and centuries.

I will deal lastly with three matters. I would like to lump them together because I am short of time. The first is, in regard to the functioning of Non-Governmental Organizations. The second is in regard to special passes required by visitors from abroad to go to the North. They can be truly fully foreigners or they can be Sri Lankans who hold a foreign passport for the reason that they have lived in some foreign country for a long period of time. The third is the question of dual citizenship.

I will deal with the dual citizenship first, Sir. Persons are entitled to apply for dual citizenship. A number of Sri Lankans living abroad have applied for dual citizenship because they want to be citizens of Sri Lanka. In whatever circumstances they went abroad , now that this facility is available – it had been suspended for some time but now it has now been reactivated – they want to come and back and get citizenship in Sri Lanka. If they do that, that is going to benefit Sri Lanka more than anyone else because if they come here, they are going to invest, they are going to buy property and they are going to start businesses. They will do various things.

Now, the persons who require passes to go to the North in regard to foreigners, well, it is for you to decide. I should think that if they come on a visa to Sri Lanka, they should be able to go to any part of Sri Lanka. But, in regard to persons who went abroad some years ago, have now become citizens abroad and want to come back because they have their relatives, their parents and their next-of-kin living in the North, they have temples in the North; they have properties in the North. So, they want to come back, they want to invest here, they want to start business here. You should encourage them. That will be good for the country as a whole; that will be good for the people living in the North. So, why should they be subjected to things like passes and inconvenience.

It is my respectful submission that the Non-Governmental Organizations have always made very valuable contributions to the improvement of the quality of life of our people in several ways. I am not saying that they must be allowed to do anything illegal. I am not, for a moment, asking that they be permitted to adopt any modalities which are questionable or illegal. But, if they function in a legal way, I think they must have the right to function without any restriction, without any embarrassment, without any disturbance and without any inconvenience.

These are my humble requests. I would request the Hon. Minister of Defence, particularly the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence to give his mind to these matters and see to what extent these issues can be addressed in a reasonable way.

Thank you, Sir.

*Speech made by R. Sampanthan on the 4th of November 2014 in parliament