By R. Sampanthan, (MP,TNA).
Mr. Deputy Chairman of Committees, we are discussing through this Adjournment Motion the Resolution adopted at the 30th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on Promoting Reconciliation. This is the fourth Resolution relating to Sri Lanka adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in consecutive years; the others being in 2012, 2013 and 2014 respectively.
It could be said that we brought this situation upon ourselves. As a sovereign country and as a long-standing Member of the United Nations, which commanded the friendship and respect of fellow member States, we had every opportunity to steer more favourably the course of events on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka, if that was in deed what we truly desired, while, at the same time, also recognizing our responsibility as a Member of the United Nations and our commitment as such Member to that august body. Sri Lanka is a party to and has subscribed to several covenants adopted by the United Nations, pertaining to human rights, which Sri Lanka is bound to accept and comply with.
When the Secretary-General of the United Nations visited Sri Lanka in May, 2009, almost immediately after the war came to an end, there was a Joint Communiqué issued by the President of Sri Lanka and the Secretary-General, where Sri Lanka agreed to address the question of accountability relating to the manner in which the war was prosecuted during, particularly, its final stages. This was a commitment which the Sri Lankan Government failed to honour.
It was in these circumstances that the Secretary-General of the UN appointed a Committee of three experts, headed by Mr. Darusman of Indonesia, to advise him on the question of accountability in Sri Lanka. It was that Report of the Darusman Committee which initially brought into the public domain the violations of international human rights laws and international humanitarian laws by both sides to the conflict. The violations by both sides were clearly and specifically recorded in that Report.
The Sri Lankan Government rejected that Report and referred to that in the most derogatory terms. Even when the United Nations Human Rights Council Resolutions were adopted in 2012 and 2013, there was ample opportunity for the Sri Lankan Government to address the issue of accountability through a domestic process, which Sri Lanka arrogantly and recklessly refused to do. Sri Lanka unreservedly rejected those Resolutions that were adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in 2012 and 2013, though those Resolutions were carried convincingly at the Human Rights Council Sessions in 2012 and 2013 respectively.
The Sri Lankan Government, which was drunk with power at the domestic level, where authoritarianism was on public display; where the rule of law had deteriorated to such a degree that impunity was rampant and where all institutions, whose independence was crucial and essential for good governance, were treated with utter contempt and became subordinate to the rulers, seemed also to have mistakenly believed that even internationally its conduct could be as arrogant and reckless.
This uniform conduct at both the domestic and the international levels was driven by shallow thinking to serve a very narrow and self-serving political agenda, which was to retain political power in the country at any cost, even by crudely inciting feelings of chauvinistic nationalism and pseudo-patriotism on the continued imaginary footing of a threat to the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The United Nations and every member of the international community, big or small, and even political forces within this country, ever since the concept of sharing powers of governance meaningfully began to be addressed more than 25 years ago, have unequivocally subscribed to the unity, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka and all democratic verdicts in the country in the same period have once again clearly established that reality. The verdicts of all the people in the country at the Presidential Elections in January – 2015, despite the constitutional and electoral manipulations and despite the full deployment of the resources of the State to the advantage of the incumbent – and at the Parliamentary Elections in August, 2015 have clearly demonstrated that the people of this country are not prepared to continue to be victims of such selfish, self-centred maneuvering and scheming and that in their view, Sri Lanka must march unitedly to a prosperous and better future based upon the universal principles of justice and equality, truth, democracy and good governance.
We need to be conscious of the fact that there are forces in this country, who, in order to pursue their narrow political agenda of capturing political power, will continue to resort to this agenda of spreading ill will and discord amongst our people based on such imaginary fears and suspicions and this should not be allowed if we are to develop into a modern State, exploiting our full potential and enjoying a quality of life comparable with many other prosperous States the world over. This is something which everyone, who has the best interests of Sri Lanka at heart, should remember.
If I may revert to the UN Human Rights Council Resolution, Sir, it was the Resolution adopted in 2014 that mandated an investigation by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights with the assistance of three much-respected international experts. Even in 2014, there was every opportunity available to the Sri Lankan Government to commence a transparent, independent and a credible domestic process to address the question of accountability in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was adamant that it would not do the right thing.
A Resolution in 2014, mandating an investigation by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights became inevitable. The Sri Lankan Government rejected the Resolution adopted in 2014 and publicly declared that it would not assist the investigation. It went on to prevent the investigators from arriving in Sri Lanka to proceed with the investigation and thereby even impeded and obstructed the investigation. The people of this country need to ask themselves the question whether the Sri Lankan Government was not being palpably unreasonable and foolish in doing so and whether it was not the most short-sighted conduct on the part of the then Sri Lankan Government that has brought upon this country the present situation. The investigation was conducted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and its Report was available to be tabled at the Sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in March, 2015.
There was a change in the office of the President in January, 2015 in Sri Lanka, followed by the assumption of office by the new Prime Minister and consequent to a more cooperative and rational approach adopted by the new Sri Lankan Government, the tabling of the Investigation Report was postponed to September, 2015.
The General Elections in August, 2015 have confirmed the continuance in office of the same Prime Minister and also enabled the formation of a National Government incorporating the two main political parties in the country. The Investigation Report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has been presented at the 30th Sessions of the UN Human Rights Council, and a Resolution has been adopted on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka. This has been done on the basis of consensus and Sri Lanka has been a co-sponsor of the Resolution. All members of the UN Human Rights Council have agreed to and supported the Resolution. This is indeed a significant achievement which has the support of the entire international community. Sri Lanka was defeated in 2012, in 2013 and in 2014, when Resolutions were adopted at the UN Human Rights Council. Sri Lanka has been able to win back the trust of the international community and redeem the country from the path of confrontation and conflict that was rather unwisely pursued by the former regime. This course of action, in my submission, is in the best interest of Sri Lanka and all its peoples.
Sri Lanka and its peoples should not be isolated from the international community. Our relationship should be built on mutual trust and confidence. Such trust and confidence also depend upon the country’s performance and the international community’s assessment of the country’s performance domestically. Very much more needs to be done in Sri Lanka. In many an area we have not even started or merely started on what needs to be done. We have a long way to go before we can achieve real progress on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka. We need to however recognize and acknowledge the difference in attitude and approach between that of the former regime and the present regime. This has been the main reason for the High Commissioner for Human Rights agreeing to the tabling of the Investigation Report being deferred until the 30th Session in September, 2015 and the Resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council not being as strident or stringent as it could have been otherwise. This only enhances the need for the current Sri Lankan Government to discharge its duties and responsibilities with commitment expeditiously and effectively so as to provide the necessary relief to the long-suffering civilian population in the North and East. Very much needs to be done and I am sure, the Government is aware of that, and the Government must address this issue as expeditiously as it can.
The way to start could be by honestly and fully implementing the Resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council. Having co-sponsored the Resolution and the Resolution having been adopted on the basis of consensus amongst all members of the UN Human Rights Council, it would be in Sri Lanka’s interest to ensure that the Resolution is fully, honestly and effectively implemented. The Resolution has the preambular paragraphs and the operative paragraphs. We have all read the Resolution. It may not be necessary for me to analyze the various paragraphs in the Resolution. The Resolution is clear and, in my submission, well-balanced.
If I may comment briefly on the judicial mechanism, I would only state that if it was exclusively international, a section of the people in this country could be apprehensive, that it would be prejudicial to their interests or the interests of their kith and kin or people close to them and could therefore be opposed by that section of the people. If it was exclusively domestic, yet another section of the people could be apprehensive that it would be prejudicial to their interests and could therefore be opposed to it. In support of such apprehension on their part could be their past experiences. In both instances, it would be the perception of the people that would matter and not what the real position is.
In the circumstances, a via media would be the best course of action; would be the least controversial and perhaps inevitable. If we are to genuinely promote reconciliation and accountability, we would need to take along with us all our people on this journey. The Resolution addresses this question adequately. We need to ensure that the Resolution is strictly observed and implemented. What is important is that we do not promote hostility amongst our people. The effort must be aimed at bridging the existing gulf.
The whole purpose of this exercise is to address the issues that pertain to the civilian population. The civilian population, at all times, have certain definite rights that need to be safeguarded. No one is advocating any rights on behalf of the LTTE. In fact, very serious charges of grave violations are being levelled against the LTTE in the Investigation Report of the UN Human Rights Council. The law has to be maintained. The country knows what happened to tens of thousands of youth in the South during the JVP insurrections in the early 70’s and the late 80’s. Non-combatant civilians have a right to be protected; have a right not to be subjected to avoidable harm. If the war has been conducted not merely with the purpose of militarily defeating the LTTE, but also with the objective of subjugating a section of the population and thereby sustaining oneself in complete power, if need be militarily and if in that process there have been grave violations of international human rights laws and international humanitarian laws, that surely needs to be examined and addressed. No one is above the law. But all the evidence available would seem to suggest that some people concluded that they were above the law.
Why, Why and Why?
Why was the number of civilians in the conflict area estimated at only 70,000, when all reports indicated that the number of civilians in that area was well over 330,000? Eventually, almost 300,000 civilians came out of that area establishing that the figure of 70,000 was palpably false.
Food, medicine and drinking water was sent only for 70,000 people.
Why were the non-overnmental organizations sent out of the conflict zone in September, 2008, particularly after such a gross underestimate of the total number of people in that area?
Why was access made difficult for the UN agencies and for the ICRC? Why was the media restricted? Why was the media only permitted guided-tours in that area? Why was everyone, including Members of Parliament, prevented from having access to the people in that area?
In fact, Sir, I sent the then President a letter signed by all the TNA Members of Parliament, everyone of us, and requested that we be permitted to go as a team to that area and see for ourselves what was happening during the final stage of the conflict? There was no response to that letter.
Why was there such secrecy? What was sought to be hidden? There seems to have been a thinking that what was desired could be done however unlawful or illegal and that no answers needed be given for what was done. Such a situation is surely unacceptable and cannot be allowed in a country which respects the rule of law.
I do not wish to go into matters that could be the subject of investigation and trial through the judicial processes. All I would say is that this issue cannot become a political football to be kicked around as you please. If we make this issue a political football and kick it around as you please, I think, I would have to state that you will end up kicking the ball into your own goal. We need to seriously and calmly address the issue of what needs to be done. Truth, justice, reparation, and non-recurrence are the crucial words. The Resolution is comprehensive. I have not the slightest doubt that most Hon. Members of this House want the Resolution to be implemented and the right thing to be done. I would like unanimity on this issue. What we need to do is what would be in the best interest of the country. The victims must not be looked upon as enemies. They are a part of the population of this country. They are entitled to justice on the basis of truth; they are entitled to reparation; they are entitled to guarantees of non-recurrence; they are entitled to a future that ensures their self-respect, their dignity and their equality. The achievement of such a goal is well within our reach and let me, Sir, request all my Colleagues in this House to work towards the achievement of this end.
This, in my view, Sir, is a legitimate demand, which we have not conceded all this time. I think the Debate that has been taking place in this House, both yesterday and today, has reflected that a vast majority of the Members of this House have now themselves come to realize that this cannot be a story that will never end, that this matter has got to be brought to a close. We are confident and happy with the meeting that took place in the Presidential Secretariat yesterday where the President has summoned all the political parties to discuss this Resolution and we could see sobriety and a desire on the part of many who attended the meeting to achieve that goal of ensuring that the truth is established, the justice is restored, that there is reparation provided to the people and that there will be no recurrence of whatever happened in the past which should necessarily entail that there is an honourable political solution that can bring this conflict to an end.
I thank you.
( Speech made at the Parliament on 23rd October 2015 by R, Sampanthan, Leader of the Opposition.)