by Rajeewa Jayaweera
Thirty four months into President Sirisena’s administration, Sri Lanka continues its convoluted engagements with the international community and multilateral bodies on the vexed issue of UNHRC 30/1.
On October 12, 2017, Lord Naseby (LN), a longtime friend of this country, initiated a short debate on Sri Lanka in the House of Lords. After repeated requests to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), he had obtained 39 pages of highly redacted dispatches between January 1 and May 19, 2009, after seeking the intervention of UK’s Information Commissioner. Documents obtained divulged views expressed by former US Ambassador Robert Blake, military expert Major General Holmes, UN country team in Sri Lanka, former UN media spokesman Gordon Weiss, and former British Defense Attaché in Colombo, Lieutenant Colonel Anton Gash. Among other things, Colonel Gash had stated: “certainly there was no policy to kill civilians by Sri Lankan army.” LN stated civilian casualties to be in the range of 7-800 rather than 40,000 estimated by the Panel of Experts (POE) of United Nations Secretary-General. He further urged the British government, one of the prime movers of UNHRC Resolution 30/1, “Now is the time to offer the hand of friendship and act to lead the international community to recognize what the truth really was.”
On October 27, spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Colombo, responding to a question raised by The Island, dismissed LN’s assertions by stating “The Government of Sri Lanka remains committed to national processes aimed at realizing the vision of a reconciled, stable, peaceful and prosperous nation. Engaging in arguments and debates in the international domain over the number of civilians who may have died at a particular time in the country will not help resolve any issues, in a meaningful manner, locally, except a feel good factor for a few individuals who may think that they have won a debate or scored points over someone or the other.” This was despite the relegation of LLRC and PC reports, both local processes, to the archives.
President Sirisena, on November 02, dispatched a letter of appreciation to Lord Naseby for his efforts. He wrote, “Your interventions, in particular, would assist Sri Lanka in its efforts towards truth-seeking and countering some of the propaganda leveled against the country.” A copy of his letter is reproduced herewith. It was delivered to LN by the High Commissioner, on Tuesday, 21 November afternoon, nineteen days later.
It would appear, President Sirisena and State Minister of Foreign Affairs Vasantha Senanayake view LN’s efforts in a completely different light from others in the Foreign Ministry, and whoever else directing this country’s foreign affairs.
In the world over, Heads of State / Government and their Foreign Ministers speak in one voice on foreign affairs and the other national issues. Sri Lanka, since January 09, 2015 would appear to deviate from this time-tested practice. The President and his successive Foreign Ministers on occasion have followed different paths, much to the detriment of the country’s interests. Whereas President Sirisena is on record stating he will not permit any Sri Lankan to be hauled before war crime tribunals and will also not allow foreign judges to participate in Sri Lankan courts, his Prime Minister, two former Foreign Ministers, and the incumbent have failed to state the President’s decision at international forums.
UNHRC Resolution 30/1, based on the report on Accountability in Sri Lanka, was prepared in 2011 by PoE appointed by the United Nations Secretary-General, also known as the Darusman Report. Some of the critical elements in the report were 4,000 submissions by over 2,300 (point 17 / page 5) nameless and faceless persons living in Europe, some under assumed names, and an estimated 40,000 civilian causalities during the final phase of the conflict (para 37 / page 41). The witnesses, their identities nor their submissions would be made available for cross-examination for a period not less than 20 years.
Sri Lanka, for its part, set up the Lessons Learnt & Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) followed by the Paranagama Commission (PC). The Darusman Report trashed the LLRC Report as ‘deeply flawed’ and ‘does not meet international standards for an effective accountability mechanism’ (Executive Summary/page V).
Despite all their flaws, LLRC and PC were homegrown initiatives, conducted not by politicians but by learned citizens of reputation, some with international standing, assisted by a legal Advisory Council consisting of members with extensive experience in such matters.
The Darusman Report is by no means flawless. Glaring examples are; estimated 40,000 civilian deaths during the last phase of the conflict and exonerating LTTE from the international crime of Human Shields (para 237 / page 65). Suffice to state, concealment of piles of skeletons or mountains of ashes resulting from an estimated 40,000 bodies in an area that is not heavily forested is a virtual impossibility, especially by the teams involved in mine clearing operations in the North. In this context, 7-8,000 deaths estimated by the PC would be a more plausible figure.
The Legal Advisory Council assisting the PC comprised a team of international legal and military experts. Key among them were Sir Desmond de Silva QC, Prof. David Crane, Sir Geoffrey Nice and Maj. Gen. John Holmes. Sir Desmond was involved in Human Rights violation and war crime issues in Sierra Leone, Belgrade and Syria. Prof. Crane was the Chief Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone and has spent 30 years working for the US federal government. Sir Geoffrey was the deputy prosecutor to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Despite former Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s attempts to ridicule these eminent personalities in an essay titled ‘Foreign Panel: Knights in shining armor?’ published in August 2014, both UN and UNHRC consider them professionals and avail their services frequently. The learned Samaraweera also ridiculed Sir Desmond by referring to an inquiry report authored by him as a ‘sham’ and ‘whitewash,’ a view shared by few in the UK, other than the IRA and widow of assassinated Patrick Finucane.
The Rajapaksa administration left office after successfully defeating LTTE terrorism, but having failed to build bridges with most western countries. A hostile international community barring China, Russia, Pakistan and a few South and South East Asian countries were gearing themselves to take Sri Lanka to task with the threat of economic sanctions. Under the circumstances, President Sirisena’s government was not in a position to reject the UNHRC Resolution 30/1 in toto. However, they opted for the other extreme of cosponsoring the Resolution on October 01, 2015 in its totality. They failed to realize, the US, EU and Indian troika, having had a hand in regime change, would not push the newly elected government over the precipice paving the way for the return of their bête noire, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Whether the decision to cosponsor Resolution 30/1 was a collective decision by President Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, a decision by the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, or a unilateral decision made by Samaraweera is one of the few secrets in the country.
The Rajapaksa administration did little to implement recommendations made by LLRC. Neither did the Yahapalanaya administration.
Despite the additional time requested by the PC to complete investigating complaints received, the commission was wound down. The PC report was produced in the English language. The government has not translated it into Sinhala and Tamil languages to date. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe tabled the report in parliament. Given the poor linguistic skills of English language of parliamentarians, few, if any, understood or made use of it. President Sirisena too, for the same reasons, failed to grasp the invaluable though incomplete work by commission members, and formulate a strategy to counter the abominable lie of 40,000 civilian casualties, during the Geneva Resolution.
The failure in making the PC report a part of Sri Lanka’s response to the UNHRC Resolution, and placing on record, its estimated number of civilian deaths of 7,721 to 10,000 (para 24 / page XiX) was a mistake of Himalayan proportions. In this context, LN’s revelations become relevant as the figures quoted by him are similar to those in the PC report. Jointly, they could have been utilized to counter the mythical figure of 40,000 even at this late stage.
Following the uproar in Sri Lanka, after it cosponsored the Geneva Resolution, President Sirisena declared he would neither permit any Sri Lankan citizen to be hauled before war crimes tribunals nor foreign judges in Sri Lanka.
As already stated, the Foreign Ministry issued an ill-thought-out media statement on the Naseby initiative.
On November 14, JO MP Dinesh Gunewardena proposed a resolution in parliament on the debate in the House of Lords. During the adjournment debate State Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vasantha Senanayake rejected MP Gunewardena’s statement of “attempts were being made to trivialize the value of Lord Naseby’s work and to label it as irrelevant.” He insisted, it “is not my personal view and that it is not the view of the Foreign Ministry of Sri Lanka.” He read from a letter sent by him thanking LN for his “great efforts in the past” and “what you have contributed in the last few months is particularly important at a crucial time.” It was a total contradiction of the media release by the spokesperson of his ministry. It is hoped, “As far as Sri Lanka is concerned we are quite certain that the original version, without redaction, will in no way be embarrassing to us,” stated in Senanayake’s letter, will be of use to LN in his future efforts. Senanayake referred to “my position in the Lord Naseby affair” during his address, whereas what is relevant is that of the government he represents.
Senanayake, during his address also stated, “Your arguments go to show that the number of civilian deaths was significantly smaller than is being bandied about are clear and irrefutable.” That is the message required to be placed in the international domain by the government, even at this late stage.
However, Sri Lanka continues its disjointed and amateurish efforts in the international arena. Deputy Minister of National Policies & Economic Affairs, Dr. Harsha de Silva, represented Sri Lanka at the recent 28th session of Universal Periodic Review (UPR) held in Geneva from 15-17 November. Before his departure, he confirmed to The Island, LN’s revelations had no direct relevance to UPR, indicating a lack of understanding of the UPR. Out of three recommendations made in the US Statement at the UPR on Sri Lanka, two called for: Fully implement the commitments agreed to in HRC Resolution 30/1 and Hold security forces and government officials accountable for human rights violations and abuses.
Sri Lanka faces criticism at UPR, UNHRC and every other possible international forum based mostly on issues stemming from UNHRC 30/1. 40,000 civilian deaths are one of the elements of the Geneva Resolution. To this end, it is necessary, Sri Lanka makes use of LN’s recent revelations and any future revelations, to quote his own words, “to lead the international community to recognize what the truth really was.”
Meanwhile, a move is currently underway in the UK to counter LN’s revelations. Fifty men of Tamil origin have surfaced in London with claims of torture and rape by Sri Lankan soldiers. What countermeasures are being undertaken by our High Commission in London?