Blundering Foreign Ministry and its Sinhala extremist siege mentality endangers the island in the UNHCR

Q and A with Rajiva Wijesinha ..courtesy of Ceylon Today where the title is different

Q: You were one of the six government parliamentarians, including four ministers, who sent a letter to the President regarding the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution. What was that letter about?

A: That letter was intended to draw attention to the dangerous situation the country was in, which we felt had not been conveyed accurately to the President.

rajiva 55Q: What did you urge the President to do? What did you warn him about?

A: We urged him to address international concerns strategically and have informed discussions to develop a counter-strategy to address what would be raised in Geneva this month. We need to convey systematically the work done by the government since March 2009 towards uniting this country, using competent communicators able also to deal with questions.

We need to recover the lost friendship with our neighbour India, not least because it is difficult to obtain the wholehearted support of Asia, the Non-Aligned Movement and the larger Third World, without having its support. We need to strengthen the relationship with Japan and China since we cannot ignore some recent statements made by them, which suggested the importance of moving swiftly through our own mechanisms on fulfilling our commitments in the area of human rights. We also need to work with African and Latin American States.

Most importantly, we suggested that we need to ensure credibility by fast forwarding implementation of the LLRC recommendations, and having a dedicated agency for this purpose, which acts transparently and responds promptly to concerns and queries.

We warned him about any international investigation and possible economic difficulties after sanctions and boycotts that could be imposed unilaterally. Above all, we warned against increasing hardening of stances that will prevent swift resolution of political problems within Sri Lanka and increasing international intervention in this regard.


Q: Why didn’t you invite the Opposition Members in Parliament to sign the letter as well, which would have made it a bipartition approach?

A: It was thought that concerns should be conveyed swiftly to the President, so those who initiated the letter simply got signatures that were available immediately. This was meant to make clear the concerns of those in the government, the vast majority of those who are aware of the situation I believe, since the basic moderate internationalist approach of the SLFP, which had excellent relations with India and the rest of the Third World, has been eroded by the crude nationalism of the 1980s UNP when Cyril Mathew called the shots.

Q: The President has said he had notreceived the letter. How did that happen?

A: I was not here when the question of a letter was raised, but from the news reports I think the query confused this letter with matters that were raised by other ministers at a meeting organized by Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara. I don’t think those ministers and MPs sent a letter, though a report was given to the President, at his request I believe, on the matters raised. I was not present but I believe a number of SLFP members of the Parliamentary Group raised their concerns forcefully.

Q: The President, in fact, appears to be angry that some of his parliamentarians had the temerity to write a letter critical of his government’s foreign policy. Have you got a feel of the President’s reaction?

A: I gathered from those who delivered the original letter that the President had been most appreciative of them raising their concerns, even though he did not at the time seem to take the concerns seriously. Subsequently, I was told by a very sympathetic ambassador that he had been extremely worried about what was happening in Geneva, and had encouraged other initiatives to limit the damage.

Q: Some of the government’s ministers of nationalist disposition have been critical of the letter. It seems their conduct is endorsed by the President and his coterie. Do you feel that you are at the receiving end?

A: I think those extremists within government, who seem determined to destroy our credibility and the reputation of our armed forces, by insisting on a state of denial even of the obligations the President freely undertook, will be critical of anything that is rational and measured. Unfortunately, though they have managed to terrify the Minister of External Affairs into mute submission to their agenda, the President is more sensible and knows he has to keep all options open instead of alienating our friends.

Q: Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Minister of National Languages and Social Integration, has lamented that the President had ignored the letter. Isn’t it obvious that the government and the President are not prepared to amend their ways?

A: I am not aware that Vasudeva has said the President ignored the letter. What he said was at the time the President seemed to think all was under control. But, the President has been falsely reassured in the past, for instance in early 2013, when some in the Ministry of External Affairs were claiming that the United States was satisfied with what had been done and would not introduce another resolution. This time I fear that the extremists are trying to convince him that an adverse resolution would be a good thing, since then he can win local elections with a thumping majority but, as I pointed out at the last government group meeting, we should not sacrifice the future of the country for supposed electoral gains.

Q: It seems the room for civilized debate within the government is shrinking, making it a mirror image of the country at large. The President’s reaction to your letter is proof. Do you agree?

A: On the contrary, if what I heard about the meeting organized by Minister Vasudeva is correct, and it was with the full blessings of the President, who had been very happy for Dayan Jayatilleka to speak there, the room for debate has increased. The problem is that the majority in the SLFP is generally silent, not least because there are elements in the Ministry of External Affairs determined to denigrate them and cry traitor when they reassert traditional SLFP values. But, the President has been in the mainstream of SLFP politics, and is not a renegade from either the UNP or the JVP. He has never left either his Party or his country.

Indeed, it seems the President has suggested more consultation, because at the last group meeting it was decided to have a meeting to discuss the situation when the minister is back. Sadly, the Consultative Committee has only talked about Geneva when Ravi Karunanayake raised the issue at the meeting he attended in February 2013. The minister has never reported on the resolutions passed in Geneva to the Committee.

I can understand why the minister would not want me on the Committee, but I am sorry that my colleagues in Parliament do not use the Committee for the purpose for which it is intended. The only government members who have attended, apart from the two deputy ministers who functioned there in turn, and once Sajin de Vass Gunawardena (before he was virtually put in charge of the place, though never after that), were Ministers Fowzie and Hakeem and Amunugama, and Dr. Fernandopulle. Characteristically, there was no meeting at all of the Consultative Committee in 2011, when the Darusman Report came out, and the President recalled our then envoy in Geneva, only to elevate her to even greater heights back home, to pursue the same disastrous strategies.

The Chief Government Whip did try to promote discussion through groups of parliamentarians who would study different areas, but the minister put a stop to that too by insisting that he be present, and then failing to make himself available. But I suppose all this is of a piece with the complete devaluation of Parliament that has taken place in the last few decades. I have tried to correct this through amendments to the Standing Orders but, since the Parliament Administration disobeys Standing Orders, the motion has not yet come before the House. The Chief Government Whip, who is extremely conscientious, assures me that the Speaker will call a meeting of the Standing Orders Committee, but this has not been done now for over three and half years. But even the opposition has not raised this matter, so you can see why, day by day, Parliament is becoming merely a rubber stamp.


II:  Jehan Perera: “Face the UNHCR resolution to restore credibility”

There was speculation that the ongoing 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council would see the immediate establishment of a high powered international investigation into war crimes in Sri Lanka and economic sanctions against the country.  The unexpected feature of the draft resolution sponsored by the US is the provision to give the Sri Lankan government another year in which to show progress on the matters included in the resolution.  Despite this seeming concession, the initial response of the Sri Lankan government to the draft resolution has been negative.  The government has rejected the substance of the draft resolution which builds on last year’s resolution as being “fundamentally flawed.”   The present draft includes issues of human rights violations and accountability in the entire country, rather than in the North and East alone and does not limit those issues to the last phase of the war.

The government’s rejection of the draft resolution stems from its consistent position that the international community is engaging in unwarranted interference in the country’s internal affairs.  It takes no comfort in the extension of its period of probation by one year.  The government’s position is that it should not be subjected to yearly and half yearly examinations as a sovereign and independent country.  Apart from this, the other key reason for the Sri Lankan government’s unhappiness with the draft resolution is not difficult to fathom.  It includes the two main points of the previous two resolutions of 2012 and 2013.  It calls on the government once again to implement the recommendations of the LLRC and to set up an independent investigation into alleged war crimes.  In addition, the scope of the draft resolution has been widened in scope in comparison to the previous two resolutions.

The issues that the proponents of the draft resolution are considering have been considerably widened in the draft resolution.  The draft resolution refers to attacks against religious minorities, journalists, human rights defenders and civic activists, and to crimes that target women wherever they live.   In addition the draft resolution proposes an international monitoring of Sri Lanka’s domestic accountability process and calls on the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s Office to do investigations on its own.  The draft resolution calls for the establishment of a truth seeking mechanism and national policy to hold individuals accountable for violations of international law.  It also calls on the government to devolve powers meaningfully in terms of the 13th Amendment and to empower the Northern Provincial Council with the necessary resources and authority.

TAMIL DISAPPOINTMENT: There are clear indications of a strengthening of the resolution in relation to demands being placed upon the Sri Lankan government.  Nevertheless, there is a sense of disappointment in the Tamil polity.  This can be seen in the statements issued by Tamil Diaspora groups.  There was an expectation that the resolution on Sri Lanka at the ongoing UNHRC session would ensure immediate international action against the Sri Lankan government.   The pledge by British Prime Minister David Cameron during his visit to Sri Lanka to attend the Commonwealth Summit was to set up an international investigation mechanism.   It is in this context that TNA leaders and religious and civil leaders signed joint statements that called for the setting up of an international inquiry mechanism.   They placed confidence in the statements made by various world leaders that they would not let the Sri Lankan government off the hook this time.

However, the one year grace period given to the Sri Lankan government means that this mechanism will not be set up immediately.   Given the heightened expectations, the draft resolution has come as a disappointment to those who were hoping for a resolution with an immediate impact and that would give quick results that would solve their problems.  A strong resolution that was accompanied by economic and political sanctions, such as being considered by the Western countries over the Ukraine issue, could have forced the pace of change in Sri Lanka.  It would have meant that either the government gave in to the pressure and complied with the international demands, or else it could have meant a head on confrontation between the government and the international community.  Both of these choices would have eventually worked against the government and rendered it politically weaker.

It  seems that these calculations would have been at the fore when leaders of the Tamil polity decided to go all out to support the establishment of an international inquiry into war crimes.  They did so because they have lost confidence in the willingness of the government to address their political and economic grievances, and not only due to the issue of accountability.  What the government says it is doing on the ground and what the Tamil people are experiencing are far apart.  There is a strong sense of inner suffering and grievance on the part of the Tamil people which is not immediately visible to those from outside who go on rapid appraisal visits.  Now their apprehension is that the matter will need to be canvassed yet again at the 28th session of the UNHRC in March 2015.  The fear of those who want to see action being taken with regard to the resolution is that the passage of another year will lead to a diminution of the level of interest on the part of the international community in Sri Lanka’s affairs.  The sudden emergence of the conflict in Ukraine shows how international attention can easily be shifted from one part of the globe to another.

SEEING REALITY: In the international system it is the government that represents the people.  If sanctions are taken against the government, they invariably will hurt the people as well.  As it stands at present, the draft resolution does not provide for quick solutions to the problems that Sri Lanka in general or the Tamil polity faces.  It calls for another update by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in a year’s time.  This gives the Sri Lankan government the time and space to continue as they have been.  However, what the draft resolution does show is that the issue of dealing with the human rights violations of the past, and now also with those in the present, will continue.  In fact the issues that the international human rights community is considering have been considerably widened in the draft resolution.  The government is not off the hook and those who are more farsighted amongst the government leadership are seeing this reality, which is why they have rejected the draft resolution.

Even if the government has got breathing space for itself and more time to strengthen itself further, the international process that puts pressure on the government to improve its human rights record is set to mount.  In the longer term the Sri Lankan government has to address the issues raised in the draft resolution and, hopefully, it will do so.   There is a need for those who are concerned about the plight of the Tamil people, to find ways of working with the government to improve the life of the Tamil people. The spirit that was expressed by Northern Chief Minister C V Wigneswaran when he addressed the academic community at the recently held conference on Post War Development in the North and East is the one that needs to be the guiding spirit of the present time.  He said that good laws could be subverted by bad rulers, whereas even bad laws could be used to promote the people’s interests by good rulers and he was prepared to work with less than the ideal.

It is important for the Tamil polity to work with the government with an open mind irrespective any possible assistance for solutions from outside.  There is also a need for the opposition to engage with the government to resolve the problem, including those that arise from the UNHRC resolution and its possible fall out. The duty of a responsible opposition is to save the country, not to wait till everyone suffers. Such a forthright and public-spirited attitude will also gain the appreciation of the voting public.  As a first step both UNP and TNA could consider joining the Parliamentary Select Committee, if the government were to amend the Standing Orders of Parliament to ensure that decisions in it will be taken only with their agreement.  The legitimate concern of the opposition is that the government majority in the PSC will bulldoze them after discussing matters with them.  But if the two sides agree to work together and consensually on a political solution that would help contribute to easing tensions both internally and externally.  Getting into a structured process with the opposition would do much to restore the government’s credibility, which it has lost with both nationally and with the international community.  Credibility is key, for without it, no one can do business or solve problems with one another.


III:  GL Peiris’s Speech at Geneva ….

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