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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

PM Wickremesinghe’s Interview with Channel 4 & Issue of Foreign Judges

A British TV channel that was mired in controversy over reporting the war in the past was given clearance by the Government to visit Sri Lanka. A Channel 4 television crew from London was in Colombo and travelled to Jaffna. This was to report on the post-war situation. A report the channel aired thereafter included excerpts of an interview with Premier by presenter Jon Snow. Here is the transcript:

Jon Snow: It took six years and there is still no investigation?
Prime Minister: We are putting together the mechanism for accountability and reconciliation. By May or so, before the UN Human Rights Council meets in Geneva, we will have our proposals ready.

JS: The critical issue as far as the international community and the Tamils are concerned is the international dimension. The President said last week there will be no international involvement in this investigation.
PM: We have not ruled that out. I am just telling you that whatever else is given they must finally also benefit. It’s a long process that we started. We are standing by our commitments on the Geneva resolution.

JS: In the end it comes down to trust. Doesn’t it? And trust is in short supply.
PM: We are putting it together. I don’t think there is anything to be worried about. I put my neck out more than anyone else. We will get you one. By May all these doubts will go off.

JS: There is a tremendous need to get to the truth of why the UN estimates, I think correctly from our own evidence that 40,000 people died on those killing fields.
PM: Actually Jon there were large numbers of those who were killed. We have a question whether it was 40,000. But we are interested in finding out the actual number.

JS: When we produce our original evidence we were told that they were all fake. Now the Government accepts that they are true.
PM: I know the story about you and the previous regime but all we are saying is the numbers. There has to be casualties in that type of fight. We stand ready with the international community to determine what the final numbers are.

JS: Last week when it came to discussing the disappearances, people who cannot be found, you said they are dead. It has taken six years for anybody to come forward and say there is nobody missing and they are dead. Is that true? Are you certain there are no detention centres?

PM: There are no detention centres in the north or the south.

JS: Are you certain?
PM: I am sure.

JS: Is any form of detention known to the Government?
PM: The 292 who are in detention are known to the Government.

JS: Is that all?
PM: That is all. No one else.

JS: The problem is that we have specific cases of which people are recorded as having surrendered and seen in detention one year on. But they cannot be seen later in the day and they have not come home.
PM: They are most probably dead.

JS: But why die in detention?
PM: This is why the Missing Persons Office and the TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) are there for. We have to find out what happened. At least people want an answer.

JS: A lot of blame has been pointed towards Rajapaksa, former President and former Minister of Defence. Does the facility exist if they are found to have abused their power for them to be prosecuted?
PM: Anyone in Sri Lanka can be prosecuted if there has been abuse of power. That is an offence. Unfortunately many abuses of power are not offences in Sri Lanka. They can be investigated by a Select Committee of Parliament or by a Commission of Inquiry but whatever is an offence under the laws of Sri Lanka, yes, anyone can be prosecuted.

JS: Including them?
PM: Including them.

Premier Wickremesinghe told the Sunday Times this week; “We will have participation from foreign judges. This is nothing new. There have been occasions when foreign judges served here in the past too.” He said South Africa would assist in the setting up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). At present a discussion is under way to determine whether those who will face charges, if found guilty, will have one or two appeals, one in the Court of Appeal and the other in the Supreme Court.
Notwithstanding this, different pronouncements by different leaders in the Government have continued to cause confusion. Last Thursday, Minister Rajitha Senaratne, the official Government spokesperson, was asked about the probe into alleged war crimes. This was during the weekly media briefing he conducts after Wednesday’s ministerial meeting. Here is an account of what transpired:

Q: The President told the BBC recently that there was no requirement to have foreign judges for the investigations on alleged war crimes. Did the Cabinet discuss this matter?
A: Our position is that it will be a local investigation. Even the Prime Minister has taken the position that it is a local investigation, but with foreign components. It can be foreign assistance or foreign technology. Even the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa brought persons like Desmond de Silva. We will not even do that.

Q: Will this be legal assistance?
A: If necessary we can get. If the Commission requires we can get it.
Q: The President says no foreign intervention.
A: That will not be allowed at any cost. Intervention is different to assistance.
Q: The US ambassador says something different.
A: That is their opinion
Q: They have a different opinion and you have a different opinion. Therefore can this be resolved?
A: We can resolve it. What the UN says is that the inquiry should be held by judges who are acceptable, keeping to the standards. We have persons of the calibre of Justice Weeramanthri. The judges will be local, if there is any other assistance required we will obtain it, but not judges.

Quite clearly, a lack of clarity has remained a fundamental issue since the Human Rights Council adopted the US-backed resolution which was co-sponsored by Sri Lanka. Without doubt, as the resolution itself says, it is for the Government of Sri Lanka “to establish a judicial mechanism.” As for the rest of the provisions in the resolution, it is incumbent on the Government to explain both its position and own commitment since Sri Lanka has co-sponsored the resolution. One stance to meet the political exigencies of an impending local poll and another for all other reasons can turn out to be both disastrous and costly. The previous Government’s credibility was virtually destroyed by contradictions and duplicity. A repeat can only be costlier now.
Sunday Times


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