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War crimes and experts are no beauty contests


By Jayantha Dhanapala–

Sri Lanka would not have faced a crisis situation if the LLRC recommendations on the ethnic issue were implemented at the right time. Then, the issue of an international inquiry on war crimes and human rights violations would not have arisen. The delay only paved the way for the UNHRC to build pressure on the government. The LTTE has been crushed. It is time to build confidence with the Tamil people. All Tamils are not the LTTE.

Dragging the feet on issues which need urgent attention has aggravated crises in the country. The Paranagama Commission and the three member foreign committee appointed by the President should not be viewed as a beauty contest opined Jayantha Dhanapala, a former UN Under-Secretary-General and a former Ambassador of Sri Lanka to the USA and a permanent representative at the UN Office in Geneva in an interview with Ceylon Today. He is currently the President of the Nobel Peace Prize winning Pugwash Conferences for Science and World Affairs and Acting Chairman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

Q:  What will be the outcome of the next session of UNHRC on Sri Lanka?

A:    The outcome of the UNHRC probe on Sri Lanka is unpredictable at this stage. But the information available reveals that the Tamil Diaspora is attempting to bring charges against Sri Lanka. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also been gathering evidence against Sri Lanka since 2010. Channel-4 documentaries are evident of their moves. In this context, the Sri Lanka Government needs to face the case against the country in the right manner. Instead, the government took a decision not to allow the investigation panel of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights to enter the island. Due to this decision, the government has lost the opportunity to spell out its position. It is a very serious setback. We could have reported facts from our side. The aforesaid decision has stalled it. We cannot expect a positive outcome from the probe in this backdrop.

Q:    President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed three foreign representatives to advise the Commission on Missing Persons. What are your comments?

A:    The Rajapaksa Government which has been rejecting the war crimes charges since 2009 has all of a sudden issued a Gazette Notification on 15 July to broaden the scope of the Paranagama Commission. What is the base for this broadening? Why was it delayed? They had to do it in 2009. If they did so in 2009, the need for an international probe against Sri Lanka would not have arisen. Now, almost five years later, the government says that three experts have been appointed to probe the errors committed both by the LTTE and the government.

Jayantha Dhanapala

Jayantha Dhanapala

I know two of Navi Pillay’s panel very well. Asma Jahangir is former President of Pakistan’s Supreme Court Bar Association and of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. Martti Ahtisaari is former President of Finland and Nobel Peace Laureate. The Chair of the three-member committee of experts appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to advise the Paranagama Commission, Sir Desmond Silva was educated at Trinity College, Kandy with me. In addition, there are three more existing members of the Paranagama Commission. I want to highlight that this is not a beauty contest. If these experts come to know that this is a contest with the international probe, they will definitely resign.

What is the actual goal of this Commission? It has to find the truth and build reconciliation. They have no other political objective. They have come with their knowledge and experience to advise us. They are renowned professionals who maintain high standards internationally. As far as I know, they work according to international principles and humanitarian laws. They work for the advantage of neither the Tamil Diaspora nor the Sri Lanka Government. They will act independently and moderately. Therefore, this cannot be a competition. If the government tries to make this a competition, remember, we will eventually lose.

It is not clear to me why this Commission is appointed at this juncture. The government has done two things here. First the Commission was earlier mandated only to probe the disappearances. Now it has been broadened to probe the human rights violations. The experts will not wait for advice. Do you remember what happened in the Udalagama Commission some time ago? As the former Indian Chief Justice Bhagwati was blamed, he quit the Committee. Udalagama Commission compiled a report that no one has seen or known. Prof. Tissa Vitharana produced APRC report. Nobody knows what happened to that report too.

It is good from our part to have an international probe. The LLRC produced a good report but they had no mandate to look into accountability. It did not have a research wing too. There was no Act to protect the witnesses. Such a Bill was promised a long time ago and it is a non-entity yet. Will people come forward without fear to testify before the Paranagama Commission in such a backdrop? Justice Paranagama said although the international community asks us to have a credible domestic inquiry, the witnesses do not cooperate with us. This is a very old argument.

I have also asked for the details about the disappeared persons when I was the UN Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka at Geneva. But they said the information was confidential and revealing them would be detrimental to the relatives. According to the schedule, the new UN High Commissioner on Human Rights must submit a report in September. The written report of the international probe must be submitted in March 2015. That will pave the way for us to know about the charges against us. We do not know how the report will be but already as per the information of the Human Rights Department at Geneva, there is the possibility of having problems. We have lost the opportunity to answer the charges against us. That is the biggest problem I have.

Q:   The UNHRC urged a domestic mechanism to investigate disappearances. Why cannot Sri Lanka claim that the Commission on Missing Persons is a domestic mechanism?

A:     The resolution passed at the UNHRC clearly mentions in its operative paragraph – 2, the need for a domestic mechanism. They highlighted the same in 2012 and 2013 as well. This Commission is acceptable but I want to say that this investigation on disappeared persons is a huge process. It is needed to inquire from families, the military and the government. In addition, now the Commission is assigned to probe whether there had been any human rights violations. The questioning scope has been enlarged and it is difficult to predict whether the Paranagama Commission will have adequate time to probe all those matters.

Q:     Will the government be able to save face at the UNHRC using the Paranagama Commission as a cover?

A:     I don’t think that will work. It is too late now. We appointed the LLRC a year after the war ended. The LLRC produced its report in December 2011. We could manage with it as the LLRC comprised eminent persons. I also testified before it. Some NGOs did not come forward to testify and I opposed it. My stand from the beginning was that we needed to support this Commission. Finally, they produced a report which is 75% satisfactory in my evaluation. But the LLRC could not find if there were any persons who violated human rights. The reason is that the LLRC had no mechanism of investigation. The witness protection Act was also unavailable. However, the UNHRC admitted the good points of the LLRC report although there were shortcomings.

The resolutions in 2012 and 2013 mostly stressed to implement the LLRC recommendations. We should have implemented a domestic mechanism long before. We may not have faced these problems if those recommendations were implemented. Our delay has posed a massive threat to the State. The fault is with us and not with the foreigners.

Q:     There is a saying that the devil must be sought at the place where he is and not in places where he is not. What are your comments?

A:    We must not speak about the devils because people might misunderstand. But we must do something if the fault is on our side, although we tend to blame outsiders. We know that the Army rendered a yeoman service by defeating the LTTE. But we must probe if anyone had committed wrongs. Otherwise it may damage the image of the Army. For instance, former Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike conducted a probe regarding the killing of Premawathi Manamperi in 1971 and the offender was sentenced to jail. President Chandrika Kumaratunga ensured that the offenders in the Krishanthi Kumaraswami case were punished. Such judgments did not damage the image of the entire Army. Therefore, we need to probe the incidents if there are any. Truth and reconciliation is good for our morale. It is essential.

Q:    You often highlight the South African example. South African Vice President Ramaphosa visited Sri Lanka recently. What are your comments on that?

A:    Truth and Reconciliation process is a fine example which Sri Lanka can take from South Africa. However, President Mahinda Rajapaksa said that he discussed with the South African President parallel to the CHOGM held in Sri Lanka and Ramaphosa would come as a result of it. The decision on this visit was secretive. However, eventually the Deputy Foreign Minister said in Parliament answering a question that he had come to Sri Lanka to discuss his experiences and to seek the possibility of implementing a similar mechanism in Sri Lanka. He visited Jaffna. Minister Wimal Weerawansa spoke against it. We still do not know the outcome of the visit. It is still a secret. It is not clear to us what the government’s process is. These facts must be made public in a democratic country. The government must discuss these problems openly with the people.

Q:    What is your view on the TNA rejecting to participate in the Parliamentary Select Committee to seek solutions to the ethnic problem?

A:     We know that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is not in good terms with the government. Discussions are needed to minimize the differences. They are called to participate at the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC). But the TNA charges that direct talks between the government and TNA had been suspended by the government and now they have no reason to discuss it at the PSC. They think the discussions may not have a positive outcome due to persons in the government like Champika Ranawaka and Wimal Weerawansa who are against the TNA. They want to come to an agreement first with the government and then discuss issues at the PSC. I am not taking the side of the TNA but they must be given a hearing. There was the APRC and there is no need for another Parliamentary Select Committee.

At the APRC, Tissa Vitharana tried his best to create a consensus regarding the ethnic problem. The Mangala Munasinghe report that came before was also a very good report. It was tabled in Parliament. But we do not know what happened to Tissa Vitharana’s report. How can we impress others to come to the Parliamentary Select Committee or to accept it, with a past record like that?

Q:   When war crimes charges are brought, the government always says that the Army waged war with the LTTE with a gun in one hand and the UN Declaration on Human Rights in the other hand. How do you view that position?

A:     Why do we need to be so much afraid of a domestic or international mechanism to probe us, if this statement is genuine? If we are confident about that statement of waging war with gun in one hand and the Human Rights Declaration in the other hand, we have nothing to worry. We have only to prove it.

Q:     What is the guarantee for the safety of the persons who testify before the Paranagama Commission in the context the witness protection Bill is not being made into law? Minister of Media and Information, Keheliya Rambukwella, has issued a warning to the persons who may testify before the foreign monitors…

A:   I came to know that there is a group of Sri Lankan expatriates who know very well the way the war was fought. In such a context, if they testify and prove the cases, it will be a great blow to Sri Lanka’s future. They see a grave risk on their lives. The government media and several Ministers insulted the persons who participated at the UNHRC in Geneva calling them traitors. But that is a human right of any person. Nimalka Fernando, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu or any other person has a right to speak about the human rights violations of this country at international human rights conferences. The sovereignty of individual States is a very limited concept in the modern world.

Endorsing and ratifying international covenants means we are sacrificing a part of our sovereignty. Without understanding this, people scream meaninglessly about damaging the sovereignty and interfering and so on. Every country has to undergo this phenomenon and we cannot define it as interfering in internal affairs. We have endorsed the UN Charter and a number of other agreements including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other conventions aimed at elimination of discrimination against women, torture and so on. The international community acts on that understanding.

UN has 193 member States. They all act together to improve human rights conditions. That is why a Commission was appointed last week to look into the war crimes in Gaza. Such probes are held not only against us. Therefore, it is not a treachery to testify before these Commissions.

Q:    Is it a problem related to the sovereignty of the country or is it arrogance of the government?

A: The people of the country must look into this problem. People must be aware whether these actions of the government are taken on the personal wishes of politicians or they are for the benefit of the country. People understand them through the exposures from the media.

Q:     Why does the government take negative stands on the problems that must be resolved diplomatically?

A:    Our foreign policy has been weakened. When we look back, we can see that the country had no problems that affected the reputation of the country internationally during the time of former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Our foreign policy was very good and we chaired the Non Aligned Movement also. We maintained relations with countries like US, Russia or China based on our principles. It is clear that we do not respect the foreign policy now. For example, we supported Palestine in the Gaza issue. But some in the government are on the stand that Israel must be backed. I understood through media reports that the Ministry of Defence is on a stand that is supportive towards Israel. This is evidence that the government does not act based on positive principles.

Q:   Do you mean that the Government of Sri Lanka is diplomatically naïve?

A: Yes. They have no diplomacy. Our Foreign Ministry is weak in all senses. See, during Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s time, she was the Foreign Minister. We were proud of a Foreign Minister like Lakshman Kadirgamar. His campaign against the LTTE was very successful. Other countries listened to him. But today no country listens to us. Why?

Q:     What could be the maximum threat to Sri Lanka at the next session of the UNHRC?

A:     The UNHRC has powers to make recommendations. These recommendations go to the UN Security Council which decides economic sanctions. We know China and Russia may use veto against universal sanctions. But that will not defend us. Most of our economic relations are with the European Commission and the US. If they impose economic sanctions against us, it will be highly detrimental to us. The garment industry may be affected severely as our products are mostly bought by the US and European countries. Individual countries also can impose sanctions.

Some countries can reject visas for Sri Lankan citizens. If the UNHRC panel rules that certain persons have committed war crimes, they may be blocked entrance to those countries. They can be banned travelling by air. They may face personal punishment too. If they go to a country which has barred them, they can be sued. The Security Council can direct them to the International Criminal Court. But Russia and China have a veto there too. As Sri Lanka has not endorsed the Rome Declaration on War Crimes, Sri Lankans cannot be taken to the International Criminal Court or to the electric chair.

Q:  Do you have an idea about what the Rajapaksa Government is doing at this juncture? What are they really doing?

A:   Actually the government has focused only to guarantee victory at the next election. The war crimes charges or the human rights charges are not big issues to the Rajapaksa regime. The government does not care about the damage to the nation through these allegations. Selfishness is the criteria of the government. That is what I can say to you because I cannot understand this. I cannot understand the reasons for this calamity.

This is a highly crucial moment the Head of State must take decisions. It is not necessary to consider whether the decisions are popular or not. If President Mahinda Rajapaksa can come to a clear political stand without listening to the extremist elements in the government, he can be a personality like Nelson Mandela. Will President Rajapakse do the same and lead our nation to a permanent peace and stable reconciliation?

Q:   One of LLRC’s main recommendations is the devolution of powers. But it has not been implemented yet. That is why there is pressure from Geneva to implement the recommendations. What have you got to say?

A:   For instance, why cannot we sing the National Anthem in both languages according to the recommendations of the LLRC? What is wrong in that recommendation? I cannot understand.
I have been in a place where such National Anthems were sung in both languages. What is the meaning if Tamil nationals cannot sing the National Anthem in their own language? Are they not citizens of our country?

[Original caption:  Local and foreign HR Committees no beauty contests Jayantha Dhanapala]

Interviewd by By Niranjala Ariyawansha (Ceylon Today)

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