”Every single survey from 2006 onwards was fully supportive of the President fighting the LTTE but equally supportive of a political solution, so one cannot accuse the Sinhalese of being racist. Both the government and the TNA will have to recognise that there are extremists on either side who would prefer not to have a compromise. We must respect the extremists without giving into them where their views are not in the interest of progress. ”
An Interview with Presidential Advisor on Reconciliation, Parliamentarian, and former Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha MP
Question: Sri Lanka currently faces considerable pressure to allow an international, independent probe into war crimes allegations. Why is the government so reluctant to allow any external inquiry? Does it not make sense to allow such an inquiry instead of providing a rallying point for PRO-LTTE activists worldwide?
It is true that these allegations have become a rallying point for LTTE activists, but the international practice is that you don’t go for an international inquiry unless and until it is proven that domestic mechanisms are inadequate. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency in recent years among some countries to immediately say domestic mechanisms are inadequate without even studying them properly.
This goes into the question of sovereignty which the UN used to be very firm about. With the emergence of a unipolar world, some countries began to feel that the moral perspectives were entirely theirs. There is an idea that powerful countries decide what a just war is and what is not.
The paradox about the Sri Lankan situation is that it is universally agreed that the war against the LTTE was a necessary war. The LTTE was given several chances to negotiate and when the government decided that it could no longer allow terrorism to continue, the world concurred with this. But now, there is unreasonable pressure being exerted without any real basis for allowing such an inquiry.
Q: With regard to domestic mechanisms, of the criticisms levelled at the LLRC is that it cannot be expected to produce a fair report when those with close ties to the government are asked to judge its conduct. So can one expect this Commission to come out with an impartial report?
That’s a preposterous assertion! Who headed Britain’s inquiry into the Iraqi invasion? It was Sir John Chilcot who was a permanent secretary, and happened to be the father of Dominic Chilcot who was very a political ambassador. He was certainly not a civil servant in the classic sense of the word. So every country has to look to its experts.
The allegations made against C.R. De Silva are based on a completely flawed reading of his role with regard to the IIGEP and some confusion arising from a Western constitutional provision where the Attorney-general is a member of the Cabinet.
In Sri Lanka, the AG is not a member of the Cabinet. The AG in Sri Lanka has always been outside the political system unlike in Britain or America.
Q: Several international organisations including the UN have repeatedly stressed the need to deal with issues of accountability and the LLRC’S mandate does not mention accountability or violations of the laws of war. Should this not have been clearly stated in the mandate?
Sri Lanka should be more concerned with reconciliation, and the LLRC has not focused enough on reconciliation. To my mind, there was undue emphasis on lessons learnt, and this included a lot of discussion on what had gone wrong with the peace talks. That is an important aspect of course, but I don’t think the Commission should have spent so much time on it.
It was not the LLRC’S fault because the people making submissions wanted to talk about what had gone wrong. The Commission’s first interim report showed that they understood the importance of focusing on reconciliation. It was an excellent, brief reminder of what should be done to promote reconciliation and I think they did a very good analysis.
The government was at fault for not publicising those recommendations, not monitoring their implementation effectively, and not conveying this to the public.
In my letter of appointment, I was asked to monitor and communicate the work done in response to the LLRC recommendations but I am extremely sorry that our bureaucracy has not let me even begin this.
Although the Foreign Secretary was very helpful in sending me all the documentation before, I have had to work informally to try and get this across. The implementation is going on. They are doing a reasonably good job although it could be better. But because there is a lack of information, no one quite understands precisely where the lacunas are.
I don’t think the problem is particular to this issue but it is largely attributable to the breakdown in the communication skills of our bureaucracy in general. This is one reason why some of the excellent work that the government is doing is simply not known leading to questions that could easily be settled if it were known.
What is evident in the testimonies given before the Commission is that people don’t want retribution but clarity. Most representations by ordinary people showed that they were unaware of what had happened to their loved ones, and many of the complaints date back to the 20th century. So there was a complete lack of responsibility, let’s leave out the word accountability.
When I took over as Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, I found that very little progress had been made in the preceding years to settle the outstanding disappearances that were registered with the UN Working Group on Disappearances in Geneva.
The vast majority of those figures related to the JVP period but we had not done enough. I am glad to say that during two years I was there, we responded actively and WG noted in its report that SL had engaged very actively and helpfully. But after the Ministry was closed, the same problem arose and many communications from Geneva were ignored, and this earned us a bad name. So there was a complete breakdown in responsibility.
Q: So you’re saying that there is a need to re-establish the Ministry of Human Rights?
There is a need for a dedicated institution, and this has been one of the key recommendations in the Human Rights Action Plan. It cannot be done on a make-shift basis. As to whether that is a separate ministry or whether that is a dedicated unit in the Pesidential Secretariat or the Foreign Ministry is not for us to decide. That is a decision for the executive to make. It should address not only international concerns, but more importantly domestic concerns as well.
Q: Although the government has maintained that the reconciliation process could be adversely affected due to these allegations, the counter argument is that a genuine process of reconciliation cannot take place if conflicting parties do not acknowledge events of the past. In this case, there are very serious allegations being levelled at the government, so does it not make sense for Sri Lanka to make way for an international probe that would acknowledge and lay to rest concerns over events that may or may not have taken place?
The assertion of war crimes and so on is not advanced by the ‘victims’. It is what I would call an international emphasis taken up by a few organisations in Colombo. Look at the examples being cited – South Africa and Cambodia. Can you compare Sri Lanka to these countries? In both these cases, a rogue regime was got rid of. In one case through negotiations, and in the other through a military offensive that the West opposed, so that it continued to back Pol Pot for a dozen years.
In both cases, the real fear was that there would be hatred expressed in violent action against the perpetrators who had been defeated. Nelson Mandela said we have to forgive these people so let them confess, and we’ll have a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It was those who committed apartheid who had to confess. You don’t find instances of Mandela getting up and saying I was a terrorist, although that’s what he was accused of.
In Sri Lanka, the terrorist movement is dead so it is the people who defeated the terrorists who are being told they must confess to crimes.
Opening wounds and rubbing salt into them is not correct. I am certainly of the view that egregious crimes have to be considered but where is the prima facie evidence?
It is not incumbent on the Sri Lankan government to launch a witch-hunt. There are those who argue that we will get a political settlement if we press on human rights and accountability, which is wrong-headed. That only raises the people’s temperature.
Q: As a Government representative at the talks with the TNA, how optimistic are you that it will have a positive outcome?
I strongly feel that if the moderates on both sides can trust each other and work together – and they are by far the majority – we will see positive results. Every single survey from 2006 onwards was fully supportive of the President fighting the LTTE but equally supportive of a political solution, so one cannot accuse the Sinhalese of being racist.
Both the government and the TNA will have to recognise that there are extremists on either side who would prefer not to have a compromise. We must respect the extremists without giving into them where their views are not in the interest of progress. The government is absolutely sincere, and some of the work been done to promote reconciliation are documented in the following websites: www.reconciliationyouthforum.com; www.youtube.com/reconcilesrilanka; and www.peaceinsrilanka.org courtesy: Daily Mirror