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Sri Lanka: The Accountability Process is Already Underway – Mangala Samaraweera


Following the Parliamentary election last week and the victory of the United National Front for Good Governance led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, the new Parliament as you know will convene on the 1st of September, next Tuesday. The Cabinet, reflective of the formation of what we call a national or unity government, is expected to be formed shortly thereafter.

This new Government under the leadership of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, aims to overcome one of the main ills that plagued our country since independence – that is the temptation of political parties to follow a narrow path of confrontation in order to achieve short-term political gains over the long-term interests of the people of our country.

The formation of a National Government will ensure the formation of national policies and the passage of important legislation including the provision required to adopt a new Constitution that will include a Bill of Rights that takes into account not only civil and political rights but economic, social and cultural rights as well. A Constitution that addresses the requirements of all citizens and communities; one which would allow greater participation for the public in decision making processes relating to matters in their respective areas. These measures, we expect, would enable more accountable and more responsible government in the country. Such a Constitution, we believe, with electoral reform and restoration of stronger Parliamentary government would be essential to ensure reconciliation and durable peace with justice and rule of law.

President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe work with full realization, that, in order not to allow the country to slip back into unfortunate conflicts such as the insurrections in the South and the problems in the North that led to terrorism, it is important that all citizens must feel that they are equal partners with equal rights. They are firm in their resolve to address the root causes which led to the conflict as recommended in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.

This brings me specifically, to an issue which has, and continues to receive a lot of media attention. This relates to the nature of Sri Lanka’s engagement with the United Nations, the Human Rights Council, the High Commissioner for Human Rights and his Office.

Last few years saw Sri Lanka drift from this position of engagement. Our relations with the UN system as a whole became strained especially following the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009.

As you all know, the change of Government on January 8th enabled Sri Lanka to once again seek to pursue policies of engagement with the international community and international organizations including the United Nations.

In this context, I gave priority, soon after assuming office in January, to establish contact with the UN Secretary-General and with the High Commissioner for Human Rights while also reaching out to our bilateral partners to renew our ties.

Soon after my meeting with the UN Secretary-General on the 13th of February in New York, he dispatched the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Mr. Jeffrey Feltman to visit Sri Lanka at the end of February – early March to follow-up on our discussions. Mr. Feltman called on President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe as well.

At the end of his visit, he addressed the media. He made the point that: “As requested by Sri Lanka, the United Nations is committed to assisting in the process of accountability and reconciliation, through the Peacebuilding Fund and other facilities, as appropriate. But it is first and foremost for Sri Lankans themselves to shape how to address issues of the past in order to find a common future.”

You are all aware that soon after the end of the conflict in 2009, the previous Government did two important things:

One, the Government made a Joint Statement with the United Nations at the conclusion of the UN Secretary-General’s visit to Sri Lanka in May where it undertook, on behalf of the people of this country, to take certain steps including on accountability.

Soon thereafter, on the 27th of May 2009, Sri Lanka proposed a Resolution in the UN Human Rights Council titled ‘Assistance to Sri Lanka in the promotion and protection of human rights’ which was adopted by the Council. This Resolution too contained a series of measures to be taken by Sri Lanka including endorsement of the Joint Statement between the Government and the UN.

Thereafter, the Government appointed the Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation which made a series of recommendations for implementation.

There is full realisation, Your Excellencies, that it is the lack of commitment to address issues locally – i.e. meet the promises made to one’s own people locally and carry out the duties towards one’s own citizens as well as realise the promises made in international fora coupled with the general breakdown of the rule of law and democratic space in the country over the years following the conflict that led to the call by the Human Rights Council in March 2014, for an international investigation on Sri Lanka.

This lack of commitment on the part of the previous Government, to carry out its duties towards its own people changed with the election of President Sirisena on the 8th of January 2015.

As you are aware, item 93 of President Sirisena’s manifesto in January expressed the intention of the common candidate,
if elected, to address issues of accountability through national independent judicial mechanisms.

Moreover, on 4 February 2015, the Government, through its ‘Declaration of Peace’, promised to ensure non-recurrence of such tragedies in this country.

The President, Prime Minister and Members of Government have consistently stressed the importance of achieving meaningful reconciliation for durable peace and prosperity in the country on several occasions. The President has stressed many times that the greatest challenge that we have is to unite the minds of the people from the North and the South for a national reconciliation framework. On the 19th of May 2015 at the Armed Forces Day in Matara, the President emphasised that a process of reconciliation involves searching for the truth, achieving justice, dispelling fear, doubt and mistrust among all communities and building trust among communities.

Since the 8th of January, the Government has taken a series of steps including strengthening civilian administration in the North and the East, releasing land to their original owners, resettling the internally displaced, strengthening freedom of expression, and working with the United Nations Peacebuilding Fund and the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Reconciliation as you know will take time. It is an essential process for our country involving the broad areas of truth seeking, justice, reparations and non-recurrence. It also involves the important element of consultations to ensure ownership of processes, guarantee long-term sustainability and ensure that the deep grievances of all communities and within communities are addressed. Therefore, the mechanisms that we aim to set up and the processes that we aim to set in place will have to be evolved through wide consultations.

Accountability or truth seeking will at no point be a witch hunt the way some sections of our society are already attempt to portray. It will be about upholding the rule of law and building confidence in the people of all communities in the criminal justice system and the importance of being accountable.

It is about creating a culture in the country where society at large values the concept of being accountable not only in terms of criminal liability but in every sense including public accountability. Our objective is to create a culture based on the rule of law to prevent impunity for all violations including for violations of human rights.

This process is already underway. Justice that has long proved elusive is now becoming a reality and Sri Lanka’s courts are again vigilant in protecting all its citizens. The alleged perpetrators responsible for the massacre of eight civilians, including three teenagers and a five-year-old child, in Mirusuvil, Jaffna in the year 2000 were tried, and one of them was found guilty, in June this year. Our law enforcement officers are also now able to investigate without hindrance many of these cases. In fact, four members of the armed forces were arrested this week in connection with the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda. By exposing such miscreants who tarnished the image of the armed forces over the years, we will be able to regain the armed forces’ lost reputation as one of the most disciplined and professional armies in the region. As we restore the armed forces credibility, we look forward to contributing to peace and stability around the world through greater engagement in peace-keeping and humanitarian activities.

- Excerpts from the address made by the Minister Samaraweera  at the meeting with  the Colombo-based diplomatic community on Aug 28.

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