Tuesday, 22 December 2015

New year: War Crimes probe, labour disputes to the fore


Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera announced last September at the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council that he would consult all stakeholders on setting up of the accountability mechanism by end February, 2016. The resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka also called upon the Government of Sri Lanka to give the Council a verbal report on progress at the June, 2016 session.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government faces numerous challenges, next year, though it retains a commanding majority, in parliament, as reflected by the passage of budget 2016 last Saturday. The coalition will face the daunting task of managing the deteriorating national economy as well as a range of other issues, including the proposed war crimes probe, undoubtedly a sensitive political issue. Just five months after the last parliamentary polls, the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe alliance is struggling to come to terms with ground realities with some sections of the alliance pulling in different directions. With post-war Sri Lanka at crossroads, one of the most politically sensitive years in Sri Lanka’s contemporary history draws to a close paving the way for 2016. The signs are that it’ll be a year of turmoil.

Had the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa taken heed of sound advice, given by General Secretary of the Communist Party, D.E.W. Gunasekera, not to call a early presidential election, he could have averted a disaster. Messrs Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Prof. Tissa Vitharana joined the CP leader in warning Rajapaksa of dire consequences unless he addressed contentious issues, immediately. The warning was given in the wake of the SLFP-led UPFA’s lackluster performance at the crucial Uva Provincial Council election on Sept. 20, 2014. As D.E.W. Gunasekera told the writer, after having met Rajapaksa, at Temple Trees, the Uva result should have prompted Rajapaksa to rethink strategy. Unfortunately, the former President hadn’t been interested in the left party leaders’ advice. Instead, the war-winning President went along with the then Economic Affairs Minister Basil Rajapaksa’s strategy.

The Rajapaksa project was meant to further consolidate their hold in the wake of the passage of the 18th Amendment, in early September, 2010, to the Constitution, as well as impeachment of the then Chief Justice, Mrs Shirani Bandaranayake, in January, 2013. The first woman to head the country’s judiciary, the 43rd CJ Bandaranayake was dismissed, disregarding rulings from the Supreme Court that the process was illegal and threatened judicial independence. The then National List MP Gunasekera had the guts to turn down Rajapaksa’s request to vote in favour of impeaching the CJ. Another National List MP Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha did the same.

Having thrown his full weight behind both, the 18th Amendment, which cleared the way for Rajapaksa to seek a third term, and the subsequent anti-Bandaranayake move, Maithripala Sirisena switched his allegiance to the UNP. In spite of a massive propaganda campaign, conducted by the previous government, Maithripala Sirisena convincingly defeated Rajapaksa at the January 8 presidential polls.

President Maithripala Sirisena thwarted Rajapaksa’s bid to return as the Prime Minister of an SLFP-led UPFA administration at the expense of proposed constitutional reforms. The President went to the extent of publicly stating why the electorate should reject Rajapaksa. Having thwarted Rajapaksa, Maithripala Sirisena entered into an unprecedented partnership with UNP leader Wickremesinghe to steer the country. The Rajapaksa Camp hadn’t been able to overwhelm the ruling coalition, though at the on set of the Maithripala Sirisena’s 100-day programme, the former President seemed to have the strength to stage a come back. The Opposition or the Abayarama parshavaya, as it is widely called, is struggling to sustain its campaign.

The coalition shamelessly abused the 19th Amendment to its advantage. Those in power today exploited the much touted law to freely appoint Ministers, Deputy Ministers, as well as State Ministers, contrary to the basic principles of the Yahapalana government. They, in fact, used the 19th Amendment to justify a large cabinet on the pretext of having a National Government. Under any circumstances, the present arrangement cannot be considered as a National Government. The government faces a plethora of contentious issues with the post-budget crisis and the proposed war crimes inquiry being the main issues. Failure to address them, sensibly, can cause political instability and uncertainty. Fallout can plunge the country into unprecedented turmoil and reverse the ongoing process meant to bring in a brand new Constitution as envisaged by the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration.

Having defeated Rajapaksa, at the January polls, the Yahapalana rulers caused a debilitating setback to the longstanding China-Sri Lanka relationship by suspending the $ 1.4 bn Chinese-funded Colombo Port City project early this year. Some foolish politicians, and officials of the ruling coalition, made offensive statements. They simply forgot that the Chinese sustained Sri Lanka’s war effort. Following a series of deliberations, the government recently gave the Chinese the go ahead for their flagship project. Strangely, the war winning UPFA, too, last month, condemned the Jewish State, another country whose support paved the way for Sri Lanka’s ultimate triumph over the LTTE, in May, six years ago.

The year old government need to follow a sound foreign policy, without being branded as any particular country’s ally. Whatever the disputes the Rajapaksas had with the US, after the conclusion of the war, the superpower backed Sri Lanka’s war effort. The US made it possible for Sri Lanka to finish off the LTTE in less than three years. That is the truth. But, unfortunately, the previous government bungled in its approach towards the US.

Of the challenges faced by the one-year-old administration, nothing can be as difficult as implementing the Geneva resolution, adopted on Sept. 30, 2015. The government will have to soon announce its decision on the proposed mechanism to inquire into accountability issues during the war. Among those who had been closely involved with the Geneva process, leading to the Sept. 30 resolution, is UK-based Global Tamil Forum (GTF) spokesperson, Suren Surendiran, whom the writer first met in March, 2012, during UNHRC sessions in Geneva. Subsequently, the writer met Surendiran and GTF President, Rev. Father S.J. Emmanuel, in March, in London, where they stressed the importance of bringing the post-war national reconciliation process to a successful conclusion. The GTF delegation was in London to meet the Sri Lankan government delegation visiting the UK, on the invitation of Prime Minister David Cameron.

With high level deliberations taking place, regarding the proposed war crimes inquiry, Surendiran responded to several questions pertinent to the issue at hand. The GTF official reacted from Reykjavik in Iceland.

Q: Is there a deadline for setting up of a war crimes court?

A: Yes, there is as far as I know. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera announced a last September at the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council that he would consult all stakeholders on setting up of the accountability mechanism by end February, 2016. The resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka also called upon the Government of Sri Lanka to give the Council a verbal report on its progress at the June, 2016 session.

Q: Will you (GTF) appear before it?

The GTF will fully co-operate with the UNHRC resolution. However, it is the victims and their statements, along with the witnesses, including the various military, government and other civil service personnel, remaining LTTE members, photographic, video and other evidence that will be key to be examined by this special court. Remember over 290,000 people came out of the war zone at the end of the fight. Most are still living. All of them were direct witnesses.

Crimes committed post end of the war in May 2009, has even more victims and witnesses.

Q: Do you (GTF as well as other organisations which represent the interests of Tamil people living in SL and overseas) want 100 per cent implementation of the Geneva resolution approved on Sept. 30?

A: Beyond whether the GTF and other organizations want full implementation of the resolution, it is Government of Sri Lanka’s responsibility and by co-sponsoring the resolution, it’s her commitment to the UN and wider international community, to implement the resolution in full. It is the humanity’s obligation to the tens of thousands of victims to ensure justice is served, after all which is what the resolution is trying to achieve.

Remember there are victims of crime from all communities in Sri Lanka, including the military who had thousands disappeared during the war.

Q: What GTF’s relationship with the TNA?

A: We are two separate entities. GTF has a friendly, healthy and cordial working relationship with the TNA which includes the elected representatives of our people in Sri Lanka.

Q: TNA refused to field ex-LTTE cadres on its Aug. 17 parliamentary polls nomination lists. Did TNA consult GTF before the decision was made?

A: Of course, not! Like I said in my earlier answer, TNA and GTF are two separate entities. We have separate decision making bodies.

Q: The Paranagama Commission proposed international technical assistance and observer status for countries, thereby ruled out international judges, including Commonwealth judges. What is your position?

A: GTF fully supports the resolution, passed by the UNHRC, in September, 2015, which, incidentally, was also co-sponsored by the Government of Sri Lanka. The resolution calls for international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and other international specialists to be included in the accountability mechanism.

Q: Former President CBK recently declared that the proposed war crimes probe would focus on the top chain of command of the SL military. She asserted that those who ordered atrocities should be held accountable instead of targeting those who carried out orders. Please comment on CBK’s statement.

A: I believe that is a widely shared notion.

Q: Can you compare Sierra Leone war crimes probe and the proposed investigation in SL.

A: I am not a war crimes expert, however from what I know I realize that in Sri Lanka, during and after the war, many, and various crimes, were committed by both sides breaching numerous local and international laws.

Q: Finally, who backed GTF’s struggle which led to the Sept 30 Geneva resolution and the role played by foreign and local media.

A: GTF is an umbrella body representing various country organizations. To create awareness of the plight of Tamil people in Sri Lanka and to resolve their issues we proactively engage international and local media, other governments from countries where a large number of Tamil people live, international human rights and other organizations.

Q: Did you receive local (Sri Lanka) media coverage and backing to propagate your stand before Jan 8 revolution?

A: Yes, we did but it was strictly limited to a very few English print media including The Island. There was never a possibility of GTF being interviewed in the State media outlets like The Daily News or the Rupavahini. There were never any opportunity given to us by any Sinhala media outlets, be it print, voice and visual. Any coverage of GTF or any Tamil Diaspora news on these state media were either false propaganda or at best manipulated heavily to portray a negative image of GTF.

However, since 8 January 2015, the space for freedom of expression in Sri Lanka has changed dramatically. Even state media outlets, like the Rupavahini and Daily News, report on GTF and have given space and coverage for us to air our views. They also reflected accurately.

Q: And on the international scene, what GTF’s stand on the UK joining US, European bombing campaign targeting Syria?

A: GTF is a Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora organization that only concerns itself with issues related to Tamils in Sri Lanka. GTF is absolutely committed to a non-violent agenda and it seeks a lasting peace in Sri Lanka, based on justice, reconciliation and a negotiated political settlement.

Obviously, the GTF as well as other Diaspora organizations, expect the full implementation of the Geneva resolution. The resolution called for Commonwealth and other international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and other international specialists to be included in the accountability mechanism.

Retired High Court judge, Maxwell Paranagama, on behalf of the Presidential Commission that investigated disappearances and accountability issues, proposed international observers as well as foreign technical assistance to the domestic war crimes probe. The proposal had the backing of a group of international experts which assisted Paranagama in accordance with the Second Mandate of the Commission.

Unfortunately, the government is yet to initiate discussions with the previous political leadership as regards war crimes investigation mechanism. Those now in power seem to be blind to the pivotal importance in consulting the previous leadership, both political and military. The previous government, too, cannot absolve itself of the responsibility in failing to properly respond to war crimes accusations. Had there been a proper examination of accusations, the anti-Sri Lanka project, during the previous government, wouldn’t have succeeded. The Rajapaksa Camp obviously still cannot comprehend mistakes made during the previous administration in the run-up to January 8 presidential poll. In spite of the contentious issue of the war crimes probe being high on the Maithripala-Wickremesinghe government’s priorities, the administration is likely to be distracted by trade union disputes. Although the government managed to avert a recent strike by giving in to a spate of workers demands, trouble is brewing in both state and private sectors with the powerful GMOA as well as the Ceylon Bank Employees Union (CBEU) preparing for a struggle in the new year. The reversal of a range of revenue proposals, due to pressure from the SLFP, will certainly place the national economy in a difficult situation hence the need to focus on the forthcoming crisis.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe himself told parliament of the country having to face dire consequences of ISIS caused crisis in the Middle East as well as Europe. The Premier went to the extent of asserting the need for his government to seek IMF assistance to overcome the impending crisis.