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FeaturesNewsUN-Sri LankaUN Panel report: Much at stake for Sri Lanka

UN Panel report: Much at stake for Sri Lanka


    * Banging Ban Ki-moon as Bakamoona may not be the best course as diplomatic blunders contributed to this crisis
    * Russia and China will go thus far and no further for Lanka, while India may take neutral stand

By Our Political Editor

Ministers have been “grounded”. A directive from President Mahinda Rajapaksa says they should all be in Sri Lanka on May Day.

‘Manufacturers’ are busy turning out scores of effigies of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Some are depicting him as a ‘bakamoona’ punning on his name. Placards decrying him and his organisation are coming off in hundreds at printing presses.
Floats depicting the UN headquarters are being built. Provincial Councils and local authorities have been asked to adopt resolutions. Pro-government groups are busy collecting signatures to mass petitions.

It is not only the government. Even opposition political parties are vying with each other, despite some disagreements, to set the mood for a another triumphal event — a unified protest against the report by a three-member United Nations Panel that probed allegations of ‘war crimes’ in Sri Lanka in the last stage of the war against the LTTE in 2009. It will easily be the most emotion-charged event to exhibit what the government believes is the patriotic zeal of Sri Lankans. It could only be second to those that followed the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas itself on May 19, 2009.

That triumphalism remains unmatched. There were three heroes then — President Rajapaksa who gave political leadership, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa who co-ordinated the political leadership with the military leadership, and former General Sarath Fonseka who led troops to victory. The latter is now serving a 30-month jail sentence. The events arising from the UN report have fuelled speculation, not without substance, that he may win a reprieve. However, Fonseka displayed his usual ebullience when he turned up in court last Wednesday for the ‘White Flag case’.

The real hero

On the sidelines, he told reporters he was the “real hero” of the war and “others were cardboard heroes.” He claimed it was only he who could “save the country.” The case itself has been postponed for May 4 after his counsel Nalin Ladduwehetty filed an application on grounds of “visible changes in both the internal and international scene”. Consenting to the postponement was Buweneka Aluvihare, Deputy Solicitor General, who is leading the prosecution.

This time, however, the focus is entirely on President Rajapaksa who has offered to sit even on an electric chair than betray the troops who brought victory and global fame to his government. On Tuesday, (April 12) as Sri Lanka prepared to celebrate the national new year, the three-member UN panel comprising, Marzuki Darusman (Indonesia), Jasmin Sooka (South Africa) and Steven Ratner (United States) handed in its 196-page report to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon with the London based Global Tamil Forum’s Suren Surendran.

Titled ‘Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka’, dated March 31 (the last day of its mandate), the report has an Executive Summary running into nine pages. Thereafter, the contents cover a variety of different subjects including ‘Confidentiality of the panel’s records, Towards the final stages of the war, Nature and scope of violations, Methodology of evaluating allegations, Interaction with the Government of Sri Lanka, Credible allegations relating to the conduct of the armed conflict, the number of civilian deaths and the Government’s version of events’. It also contains maps, letters, documents and satellite images.

On Wednesday (April 13), the UN office called the office of the Sri Lanka Permanent Representative to the United Nations at 630, Third Avenue in New York. Envoy Palitha Kohona was away attending a seminar. Major General Shavendra Silva, his deputy, answered the call. He later went to the UN office, collected the copy from UNSG’s Chief de Cabinet Vijay Nambiar. It was faxed page by page to the External Affairs Ministry (EAM). Thereafter, a courier service carried it to the EAM.

Turbo charged response

No sooner did the report reach Colombo, there was a turbo charged response. The External Affairs Ministry sent out a circular to heads of all Sri Lanka diplomatic missions. It said the Panel’s “report is fundamentally flawed.” The EAM asked diplomats in their respective capitals to point out to their host governments that the report “is inconsistent with the mandate given by the UN Secretary General” and added that it was based on “patently biased material.” Hence, the EAM said it was “unacceptable.”
Locally, the government’s response came from its usually acerbic spokesperson, Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella. The UN Secretary General “has no mandate to probe internal issues of a member country,” he said setting out the official position of the government. The fact that a Sri Lanka government delegation had met with such a Panel secretly and thus given it full legitimacy was lost on him. He said the Panel’s report “is entirely misleading and baseless. We are not ready to accept this report.” As a counter measure, however, a team is formulating an official response to accusations made.

On Thursday, External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris briefed Colombo-based diplomats. He told them that the government would ask the UN not to publish the report. This was because the government would use it as a resource for the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Why a ‘misleading and baseless’ report would be a resource document for the LLRC is another matter. However, the UN Panel had made some stinging strictures against the LLRC itself and its composition.

Peiris later addressed a news conference. He announced that the government had asked the UN not to publish the Panel’s report or take action on it. He said such a move would cause “irreparable damage to the process of reconciliation with the Tamil community.”

On the same day, the UN in New York rejected Peiris’ call. “It remains our intention to publish the report in full and without amendments,” U.N. deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq told reporters. “We are continuing our discussions with the Sri Lanka government. We are giving them a fair opportunity for the right of response. But this opportunity is not indefinite. We are waiting for a response. We may release the report as soon as posssible, maybe even later today.” However, the report was not released on Thursday evening New York time, nor later in the week as the UN staff took a Good Friday/Easter holiday thereafter and shut down their offices.

Due to the intervening weekend, the report will in all likelihood be released tomorrow, according to UN officials in New York. Lyn Pascoe, UN Under Secretary General for Political Affairs, had delayed its release in the hope of a government response. That was in the form of a statement acknowledging the UN Panel’s report. In Colombo, however, the government has rejected the report outright.

May Day protest

May Day (May 1), synonymous with international worker’s or labour day, this time will be devoted almost entirely as an event to protest against the findings in the UN Panel report. Mustering a large crowd to throng the Colombo Town Hall grounds and its environs for this is a move akin to conducting Sri Lanka’s diplomacy on the streets. Yet, the government wants to send a strong message to the UN and the international community that Sri Lankans “overwhelmingly” backed President Rajapaksa on the issue. The President’s Office has already sent out an invitation for Opposition and United National Party (UNP) leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to meet Rajapaksa. Wickremesinghe returned from a European visit only on Thursday.

It is still not clear whether he will go for the meeting alone or with a delegation from his party. According to UPFA sources, Rajapaksa wants to forge a consensus with the main opposition and ascertain the prospects of a joint UPFA-UNP statement condemning the Panel report. The UNP position is that the government had allowed the UN a foot in the door by not challenging its suggestion for “an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law” when Rajapaksa met Ban-Ki-moon in Kandy soon after the conclusion of the ‘war’ and had the reference included in the joint statement issued afterwards; then calling the panel “illegal”; and then giving it recognition by sending a government delegation of officials to meet the Panel and secretly argue Sri Lanka’s case.

By this action, the question of legitimacy of the UN panel is no longer an arguable point. The government surrendered that point by sending a delegation to meet the Panel. However, the UNP says that the entire issue cannot proceed towards any war crimes inquiry because Sri Lanka has not signed the Rome Statute that recognizes War Crimes Tribunals. The UNP is taking the credit for not signing the Rome Statute when it was in office between 2001-2004 thus protecting political leaders and senior military officers from any prosecutions in international tribunals. Nevertheless, the UNP points out that the UN findings can be used as a weapon against Sri Lanka’s human rights track record when it comes to dealings with the west on economic issues like the GSP plus.

Rajapaksa meanwhile also wants to send high-powered delegations to member countries of the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) to brief them on Sri Lanka’s position and seek their support as reported in the Sunday Times last week. Among the advantages of such a move, UPFA sources say, is the NAM support should the report of the UN panel come before the June sessions of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Such a prospect emerged after the Panel recommended that the Geneva-based Human Rights Council reconsider its May 2009 Special Resolution on Sri Lanka. The Council at its eleventh special session had resolved to provide “assistance to Sri Lanka in the promotion and protection of human rights” by agreeing to a number of measures.

Beyond the fog of emotion and mounting hype of patriotism lay a plethora of bitter realities. Moderate sections within the government are worried that the aftermath of the big show of strength at the May Day rally may see a polarisation of hardline Sinhala polity. In such an event, addressing whatever grievances of the Tamil minority, would become even more difficult. Accentuating the situation, these sections fear, would be perhaps the widespread and unconscious acknowledgement of the consolidation of a Sinhala centre of power where Tamil minority rights would become irrelevant.

UPFA sources, however, argue that Rajapaksa is conscious of this fact. They say he has planned a series of measures to win the confidence of the Tamil community. One such move was for him to visit Jaffna and stay there for a few days making day-to-day contact with the people. He did this in January this year when he spent three days in Jaffna. He wants to address civilians in the north about the government’s objectives and post-war development plans.

TNA’s stand

Yet, the response of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), with whom the government is holding talks for reconciliation, on the Panel report, reflected a high degree of pessimism. A statement by TNA leader, Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, almost concurred with the UN Panel’s findings. He noted that the “Panel has also found credible allegations associated with the final stages of the war and that the Sri Lankan Army’s military campaign into the Vanni using large scale and widespread shelling caused large numbers of civilian deaths. The Panel states that this campaign constituted persecution of the population of the Vanni, of around 330,000 civilians. The Government’s estimate of the population in the Vanni at this time was only 70,000. The Panel also asserts that these credibly alleged violations demand a serious investigation and the prosecution of those responsible.”

The Sampanthan statement on behalf of the TNA added, “The extra-judicial execution and enforced disappearance of unarmed Tamil civilians and the scourge of the white vans have continued unabated. These and other accounts of horrendous incidents were contemporaneously placed on record in Parliament by the TNA and brought to the notice of all concerned.”

In the light of this strongly-worded statement by Sampanthan who once asked the UPFA government for army protection against threats from the LTTE, the prospects of talks between the UPFA and the TNA on April 27 to address core issues concerning grievances may be a non-starter. A section of the TNA took a slightly different approach when they found a groundswell of resentment at the Sampanthan statement because the TNA was able to bounce back as the voice of the Tamils only because the LTTE had been crushed. This group voiced the point that the military excesses could be overlooked if ‘Tamil grievances’ are sorted out by this government.

A delegation of TNA parliamentarians was in Singapore this week. Their mission, planned earlier, was to talk to an international group about strategies and modalities for the upcoming talks with the government. However, in the light of the new developments, the likelihood of their having discussed strategies to include the aftermath of the UN Panel report is not ruled out.

The trip to Singapore by TNA parliamentarians comes at a time when other Tamil groups overseas have stepped up their campaign against Sri Lanka after the Panel handed in the report. On Wednesday night, Britain’s Channel 4 aired yet another video of alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. A 28-minute documentary aired repeatedly on Al Jazeera followed up with an interview with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Another programme of alleged rape against women aired on Headline News TV (a part of India Today group) on Friday. One of the organisations at the forefront of the campaign is the London based Global Tamil Forum (GTF). They lobbied the UN and other countries. The picture on this page shows a key GTF member, Suren Surendran, with UN Secretary General Ban just weeks ago. That such non-state actors have entrée to the office of the head of the world’s largest international organisation shows its reach, but whether it has that reach without the tacit backing of a powerful country, or two is the question.

Sri Lanka and the West

Another outcome of the post-May Day events would be the widening chasm between Sri Lanka and the Western powers. That is besides the UN to which the government had turned twice for assistance this year after the worst floods that affected the country’s north central and eastern provinces. Since the handing over of the Panel’s report to Secretary General Ban, there has been widespread criticism locally of the West, particularly the United States. Just two weeks ago, the government stalled a visit to Colombo by Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary in the State Department for Central and South Asian Affairs. He was to deliver a message to the government from the Obama administration. Blake is now due in Sri Lanka in early May. He will meet President Rajapaksa, External Affairs Minister Peiris and Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa among others. The US is calling for a “credible” investigation into alleged war crimes.

Earlier, the government said his visit could not take place since External Affairs Minister Peiris was away from Sri Lanka. That it was a flimsy diplomatic diversion became clear since President Rajapaksa and a group of his ministers and officials had previously handled such visits. Peiris was just one of those who took part. Several ministers and UPFA leaders have described the UN panel’s report as a conspiracy by Western powers to destabilise Sri Lanka — a charge that tends to widen the divide between Sri Lanka and those countries. It could also harden their positions towards Sri Lanka.

Significant enough, a similar situation appears to have arisen between Sri Lanka and India too. It is no secret that New Delhi threw its weight behind the Rajapaksa administration for the defeat of Tiger guerrillas two years ago amidst displeasure from certain quarters in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Thereafter, during one-on-one meetings between Rajapaksa and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as well as through diplomatic channels, New Delhi has been pressuring the government to address ‘Tamil grievances’. India wanted the 13th Amendment to the Constitution as the starting point. Whilst pressuring Colombo to heed this, New Delhi had also urged the Tamil political parties to make this a beginning and negotiate for more.

However, post-war developments have caused some strain in relations between Colombo and New Delhi. A perception in New Delhi about an increasing role by China in Sri Lanka, whilst some key Indian backed projects are held up, diplomatic sources in Colombo say, is one of the key factors. Among such projects is India’s offer to construct 100,000 houses for the displaced in the north as well as the power generation project in Mutur. In the light of the handing over of the UN Panel’s report, External Affairs Ministry sources in Colombo said, the government wanted a high-powered delegation to visit India to explain its position and seek New Delhi’s support. But New Delhi is no longer handled by the Ministry, it is handled by the President’s Office.

The troika that dealt with Indo-Lanka relations was to undertake the task. Headed by Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, it was to include President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “New Delhi will be free to receive our delegation only after June,” the EAM source said. The Sunday Times learns that President Mahinda Rajapaksa telephoned Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to apprise him of the developments after the Panel report. This was ahead of his official visit to Bangladesh. An apparent ‘freeze’ in relations may see New Delhi taking a “neutral stance” — which means it will neither lobby nor support Sri Lanka at the international fora over the UN Panel issue, the sources pointed out. Such a move, needless to say, will be a major setback for Colombo that relied on Indian backing at international fora, especially in the wake of the ending of the war when Western powers made a push for an inquiry on purported human rights violations at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, a move that was warded off, partly due to Indian support for Sri Lanka.

Reaching out to China and Russia

The government is reaching out to China and Russia, two veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, to help Sri Lanka out of the current predicament. Both countries played a key role last year in preventing the country being placed on the Council agenda following allegations of civilian killings during the closing stages of the conflict with the LTTE in May 2009.

However, the question is whether the government is conscious of the fact that the Russians and the Chinese have their own limitations. They can offer their helping hand to Sri Lanka, but not indefinitely, and both countries appear wanting to support Ban Ki-moon for another term as Secretary General of the UN. This week, Ban was in Moscow campaigning for his re-election and seeking Russian support for his candidature.

The Russians have been critical of US and NATO action in Libya saying they are over-stepping the UN mandate (to which they gave tacit support). Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told Ban-Ki moon when they met that a loose interpretation of UN resolutions was a “very dangerous tendency in international relations”, but apart from this homily, there was nothing the Russians were going to do to stop the NATO bombings on Libya.

Both these countries have their own political baggage. There are human rights violations in separatist Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia (the Russians do not want these to be aired on the Security Council chamber). There is also the repression in Tibet (which China wants to sweep under the UN rug). Hence, both countries are liable to protect their turf first and how they will react should the US, France and Britain intensify the pressure on Sri Lanka is yet to play out.

If the Western powers take Sri Lanka to the Security Council and adopt a resolution penalizing the country, it is not unlikely that both Russia and China may abstain on such a vote but not exercise their vetoes. Simply put, the Russians and the Chinese will tell the Western powers of a quid pro quo: Don’t interfere in the domestic affairs of our country — and we will look the other way in your battles. Since only nine votes are needed in the Council to adopt a resolution (and no vetoes), the Western powers may succeed in penalizing Sri Lanka, including the imposition of a travel ban and the freezing of assets of those referred to in the report.

The Russians and the Chinese have had much stronger relationships with Iran, Sudan and Libya than with Sri Lanka — mostly relating to investments and arms sales worth billions of dollars. Still when they were confronted with resolutions penalizing these three countries, both the Russians and the Chinese abstained on these resolutions. The Security Council went on to adopt four resolutions — imposing economic sanctions on Iran and a travel ban on senior officials.

The decision to refer Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court (ICC) on war crimes charges was also the result of a Security Council resolution with the blessings of Russia and China. And more recently, two resolutions were adopted by the Security Council to refer Libya’s political and military leaders to the ICC on charges of crimes against humanity and also for the creation of a no-fly zone triggering the bombing of Libya. Russia and China, and abstained on both resolutions.

The Libyan armed forces have traditionally been equipped primarily with Russian weapons systems and Chinese companies have been involved in major construction projects in Libya – earning large sums of monies for the two suppliers. Yet, both China and Russia abstained on resolutions against Libya, paving the way for the ongoing military attacks on that North African country.

Critical questions

So, where does Sri Lanka stand, in relation to Iran, Sudan and Libya? Will Russia and China be prepared to sacrifice their own national interests by sticking their necks out for Sri Lanka? If the Russians and the Chinese were willing to drop three of their strongest allies, how strategic is Sri Lanka in international geo politics? These are critical questions. The only two occasions when Russia and China exercised their double vetoes were to protect Zimbabwe and Myanmar (Burma) from economic sanctions.

In their conclusions, the UN panel has faulted both the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for “potential serious violations.” This is despite taking note of the government’s position that it pursued a “humanitarian rescue operation “with a policy of “zero civilian casualties.” Here are the panel’s conclusions in respect of both the government and the LTTE.

“The Panel’s account of the allegations associated with the final stages of the war thus reveal five core categories of potential serious violations committed by the Government of Sri Lanka:

“(a) Killing of civilians through widespread shelling. The Sri Lanka Army (SLA) advanced its military campaign in the Vanni, using large-scale and widespread shelling, at times with heavy weapons, such as Multi-Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRLs) and other large artillery, causing large numbers of civilian casualties. It shelled in three consecutive No Fire Zones, where it had encouraged the civilian population to concentrate, and after it had indicated that it would stop using heavy weapons. It shelled in spite of its knowledge of the impact, provided through SLA intelligence systems, including UAVs, and through notification by various external actors, including the United Nations and the ICRC.

The majority of civilian casualties in the final phases of the war were caused by Government shelling. The Government sought to limit external pressure and observation by excluding international organisations from the conflict zone.

“(b) Shelling of hospitals and other humanitarian structures. The Government systematically shelled hospitals on the frontlines, some of them repeatedly. Some civilians who had been injured in shelling and who had come to the hospital were re-injured or killed due to this shelling. All hospitals in the Vanni were hit by shells and had to be evacuated. This was despite the fact that their locations were well known to the Government.

“(c ) Denial of humanitarian assistance. The Government systematically deprived persons in the conflict zone of humanitarian assistance, in the form of food and basic medical supplies, particularly supplies needed to treat injuries. To this end, it purposefully underestimated the number of civilians that remained in the conflict zone. Particularly the denial of surgical supplies greatly increased the suffering of the civilians and added to the large death toll.”

“(d) Human rights violations suffered by victims and survivors of the conflict. Despite referring to its actions as a “humanitarian rescue operation,” the Government subjected victims and survivors of the conflict to further deprivation and suffering after they left the conflict zone. Massive overcrowding led to terrible conditions, breaching the basic social and economic rights of detainees, and lives were lost unnecessarily. All IDPs were detained in closed camps and were not allowed to speak privately with humanitarian organisations. Women were subject to further harassment and exploitation in the camps and in detention. Screening for suspected LTTE took place without any transparency or external scrutiny. Some suspected LTTE cadres were executed and others disappeared. Photos and footage of naked female LTTE cadre indicate that they may have been raped or sexually assaulted. Torture during interrogation continued. Suspected LTTE were removed to separate camps where they were held for years, outside the scrutiny of the ICRC, the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission or other agencies.”
“(e) Human rights violations outside the conflict zone. The Government sought to intimidate and silence the media and other critics through a variety of threats, including the use of white vans to abduct and make people disappear.”

The panel says that its account of the allegations associated with the final stages of the war reveals six core categories “of potential serious violations committed by the LTTE.” Here are the categories:

“(a) Using civilians as a human buffer. Despite the grave dangers and terrible conditions in the conflict zone, the LTTE refused civilians permission to leave, using them as hostages and at times using their presence as a strategic human buffer between themselves and the advancing SLA. Civilians were increasingly sacrificed as dispensable “cannon fodder” while the LTTE fought to protect its senior leadership. The LTTE’s refusal to allow civilians to leave the area added significantly to the total death toll in the conflict.

“(b) Killing civilians attempting to flee LTTE control. From February 2009 onwards the LTTE instituted a policy of shooting civilians who attempted to escape the conflict zone, significantly adding to the death toll in the final stages of the war. It positioned cadre along points where civilians were trying to escape and shot at groups of men, women and children whom in their desperation were prepared to wade through the lagoon or cross minefields to try to reach Government-controlled areas. Some drowned in the panic as they tried to escape the shooting.

(c ) Utilising military equipment in the proximity of civilians. The LTTE fired artillery from the NFZs, in proximity to IDP populations, and fired from or stored military equipment near IDPs or civilian installations such as hospitals. They did this even though they knew that it would provoke a response from the SLA and that any retaliating artillery would cause harm to civilians. Sometimes they fired from among civilians before quickly moving away, leaving the civilians on the receiving end of the fire.

(d) Forced recruitment of children. The LTTE operated a policy of forced recruitment throughout the war, but in the final stages greatly intensified its recruitment of people of all ages, including children as young as fourteen. It recruited more than one child per family and beat relatives who tried to resist, in a desperate attempt to prevent their children from being carried away from them to an almost certain death. This policy was enforced with great cruelty and regardless of the hopeless military situation of the LTTE.
“(e) Forced labour. The LTTE forced civilians to bolster their defence lines through digging trenches and other emplacements used for its own defences, thereby contributing to blurring the distinction between combatants and civilians. It thereby exposed civilians to additional harm from shelling.

” (f) Killing of civilians through suicide attacks. During the final stages of the war, the LTTE continued its policy of suicide attacks outside the conflict zone. Even though its ability to perpetrate such attacks was diminished compared to previous phases of the conflict, it perpetrated a number of attacks outside the conflict zone, including a suicide bombing at a screening centre in Mullaitivu on 9 February 2009, in which around 30 people died, and a suicide attack killing Minister Mahinda Wijesekera on 10 March 2009, killing around 15 people.” (Note: Wijeskera was not killed but was badly injured in the incident)
Among the main recommendations made by the Panel are the following:

“(A) In the light of the allegations found credible by the Panel, the Government of Sri Lanka in compliance with its international obligations and with a view to initiating an effective domestic accountability process, should immediately commence genuine investigations into these and other alleged violations of international humanitarian and human rights law committed by both sides involved in the armed conflict.

(B) The Secretary- General should immediately proceed to establish an independent international mechanism, whose mandate should include the following concurrent functions.

(i) Monitor and assess the extent to which the Government of Sri Lanka is carrying out an effective domestic accountability process, including genuine investigations of the alleged violations, and periodically advise the Secretary General on its findings;

(ii) Conduct investigations independently into the alleged violations, having regard to genuine and effective domestic investigations; and

(iii) Collect and safeguard for appropriate future use information provided to it that is relevant to accountability for the final stages of the war, including the information gathered by the Panel and other bodies in the United Nations system.”

The UN Panel’s report confirms that the government of Sri Lanka co-operated with its activities. The report notes “Because the panel was unable to meet with the LLRC, it relied instead on the Government’s written responses, prepared by the Presidential Secretariat, to the Panel’s questions on the LLRC, as well as the views expressed to the United Nations by the Attorney General on these matters at the 22 February meeting.”

It also noted “The Government’s written submissions to the Panel state that ‘members of the armed forces suspected of violations under the Army, Navy and Air Force Acts can be brought to justice by the mechanism of a court martial or tried in civilian courts. Several cases have been filed……’ It is not clear whether any of the several cases relate to military jurisdiction or whether they involve conduct in the final stages of the war. An extremely limited number of cases since the conclusion of the armed conflict cannot amount to a serious attempt to hold military personnel accountable for violations committed in the final stages of the war…………”

In its front-page exclusive lead story on March 6, the Sunday Times revealed that a Sri Lanka delegation led by Attorney General Mohan Peiris, had a secret meeting with the UN Panel. It came at the express request of Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Dr. Palitha Kohona. A letter written by him to Lyn Pascoe, UN Under Secretary-General for Political Affairs is listed as an annexure to the Panel report.
This is what Dr. Kohona said in a letter dated February 16, 2011, “I refer to your letter of 14th February and I am pleased to advise that a high level Sri Lankan delegation will be in New York on 22nd and 23rd February. Further to the discussion your office had with my authorities in Colombo, I would be grateful if you would suggest times for this delegation to meet with senior Secretariat staff along with members of the Panel on 22nd and with only senior Secretariat staff on the 23rd. I am also attaching copies of communications addressed to the Executive Office of the Secretary General by my authorities.”

What is most striking is the last line in Dr. Kohona’s letter. It says “I would be grateful if you will discuss details of the above meetings, either personally or on the phone.” Ironic enough, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN has to ask a senior UN official to brief him on a meeting his country’s own delegation is having with the Panel. The inference that can be drawn is that Kohona was not certain if he was going to be part of the delegation that was to meet the Panel at this ‘secret meeting’ on February 22. This indicates that there was a serious division between Kohona and the authorities in Colombo. Why then did the government allow him to continue as PR than stultify the office he holds by shutting him out of important discussions? How does this make Sri Lanka look in the eyes of top UN officials and is it not most embarrassing to Dr. Kohona himself?

Confused foreign policy

The written testimony to the Panel, the secret meeting by the Sri Lanka delegation with its members and the letter seeking such a meeting are indictments on the conduct of a confused and disjointed foreign policy. At first, External Affairs Minister Peiris declared publicly that the UN Panel is illegal. The Government declared that it would not co-operate. Then, the Sri Lanka Permanent Mission, which is under Peiris’ purview, not only seeks an appointment but also enables a government delegation to testify in secret before the Panel. That is in addition to providing written submissions.

Little wonder, the Panel report has chided Peiris for his contradictions. It noted, “Publicly the Government has been inconsistent regarding the LLRC’s mandate on matters of accountability. On the one hand, senior Sri Lankan officials have often emphasised that the LLRC is a forward-looking process aimed at reconciliation, rather than an instrument of retributive accountability addressing past violations. At the same time, other statements made by Government officials suggest that the Commission is empowered to investigate certain specific incidents of alleged human rights violations. The Minister of External Affairs, G.L. Peiris, has stated publicly that the LLRC’s mandate is “wide enough” to enable it to examine individual allegations of violations of international law. On a later occasion, in a televised interview, he strongly suggested that the LLRC was the appropriate place for investigation of specific alleged war crimes.”

Just last Thursday, Peiris declared that the Panel’s report is wrong and unacceptable. He appealed to the UN not to publish it. When the UNSG Ban named the Panel in June 2010, he termed it illegal. After the Panel functioned for 11 months, one of the organs under his Ministry (the UN mission in New York) seeks an appointment and a Sri Lanka delegation meets the Panel secretly thus giving it full legitimacy. Sri Lankans were kept totally in the dark throughout the process.

Whilst making no comment on the contents of the Panel’s report, except lay bare some of its findings in the national interest, one is constrained to say that such amateurism continues to govern the conduct of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. Was this how diplomacy to retain the GSP plus from the European Union was lost? There is much much more at stake this time.

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