SPECIAL REPORT : Part 235September 11, 2018, 9:45 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka’s recent admission that the cabinet had never discussed Sri Lanka’s response to alleged war crimes allegations highlighted the culpability on the part of the National Unity Government for depriving the country of a proper defence.
Cabinet regularly meets on Tuesday morning with the participation of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe
The Sinha Regiment veteran and war-winning Army Chief said so at a media briefing at his ministry at Rajagiriya in response to a query posed by the writer. Fonseka’s disclosure was quite a shock. Fonseka claimed that since he joined the cabinet the issue had never been discussed with him. Fonseka explained that security matters had been discussed with him before the change of government in January 2015. Referring to Sri Lanka’s response to war crimes accusations, Fonseka said not a word had been spoken with him about it.
Obviously, Fonseka, too, hadn’t taken up the issue for obvious reasons. Fonseka’s Army brought the war to a successful conclusion in May 2009.
The UNP accommodated Fonseka in the cabinet in late February 2016 following the demise of National List MP M.K.D.S Gunawardena. The UNP rescued Fonseka after his Democratic Party failed to secure a single seat at the August 2015 parliamentary poll. Fonseka received the regional development portfolio.
Can the government justify its failure to explore ways and means of countering war crimes allegations especially against the backdrop of evidence contrary to the Geneva Resolution unanimously adopted in early October 2015?
Before discussing Fonseka’s revelation further, it would be pertinent to examine two other statements made by Fonseka’s colleagues in Nov 2017 (Dayasiri Jayasekera in his capacity as the Cabinet spokesperson) and Aug 2018 (Mahinda Samarasinghe in his capacity as the SLFP spokesperson).
Both Jayasekera and Samarasinghe acknowledged that cabinet of ministers had not discussed Sri Lanka’s defence nor examined the Geneva Resolution, respectively. The revelations made by Lord Naseby’s on the basis of wartime British High Commission dispatches (January-May 2009) exposed the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government deliberately depriving Sri Lanka a proper defence. Instead of utilizing Naseby disclosure in the House of Lords in mid Oct 2017, the government struggled to suppress UK dispatches. The following story was carried on Nov 16, 2017: War crimes: Cabinet spokesman provoked by query on govt. response to Naseby move
Cabinet spokesman and Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera yesterday (Nov 15, 2017) said that a statement made by Lord Naseby in the House of Lords would be used by the government appropriately at the right time, though the Cabinet was yet to discuss it.
Jayasekera said that they wouldn’t take up issues pursued by The Island the way the newspaper wanted. It had not been taken up by the Cabinet on the basis it wasn’t considered so grave a matter, the minister said. The minister initially asserted that Lord Naseby’s statement wasn’t directly relevant to the Geneva issue.
The SLFPer said so when The Island asked him whether the Cabinet of Ministers had discussed Lord Naseby’s defence of the previous administration as well as the armed forces on Oct 12 pertaining to war crimes allegations before it was taken up in parliament on Nov 14.
The Island also sought their stand on President Maithripala Sirisena’s admission on Nov 9 that some retired and serving army officers had been refused visas by certain countries.
Having faulted The Island for raising a question on the same lines, the Minister alleged that his comments in respect of the Geneva issue two weeks back at the post-Cabinet media briefing hadn’t been properly reported by The Island. Jayasekera also said that The Island was there only to raise the Geneva issue.
The Island rejected the Minister’s accusations and pointed out that the government’s opinion on Naseby’s statement was sought as the British Lord had said that a maximum of 7,000-8,000 died on the Vanni front not 40,000 as alleged by a UN panel and Sri Lanka never purposely targeted the civilian population. Lord Naseby also pointed out that of them, one fourth were LTTE cadres.
Minister Gayantha Karunatilleke and Military Spokesman Maj. Gen. Roshan Seneviratne refrained from commenting on the issue.
Minister Jayasekera said they really appreciated Naseby’s defence and it was a victory for Sri Lanka."
The relevant section of the story carried on Aug 18, 2018: Cabinet never discussed 2009, 2015 Geneva Resolutions – MS
One-time presidential human rights envoy and the incumbent Ports and Shipping Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe on Thursday (Aug 16) acknowledged that Sri Lanka’s decision to co-sponsor the Geneva Resolution 30/1 in Oct 2015 hadn’t been discussed by the Cabinet of Ministers.
Vice President of the SLFP and party spokesman Samarasinghe said that the Foreign Ministry had handled the post-war process that led to the agreement on the Geneva Resolution. Samarasinghe asserted that there was no requirement to take it up at the Cabinet.
Samarasinghe said so when The Island asked him whether the Cabinet of Ministers had discussed the issue in the run up to the controversial decision to co-sponsor Geneva Resolution in Oct 2015 and acted on revelations that came from wartime British High Commission dispatches from Colombo that cleared Sri Lanka of killing 40,000 civilians on the Vanni east front in the final phase of the war.
Samarasinghe acknowledged that Lord Naseby’s revelations made to the British House of Lords, too, hadn’t been discussed at the Cabinet.
Samarasinghe explained that the previous Rajapaksa government adopted a similar strategy in respect of the U.N. Human Rights Council resolution passed in May 2009 celebrating the battlefield defeat of the LTTE.
Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon in May 2009.
The then minister for Disaster Management and Human Rights Samarasinghe emphasized that the procedure leading to the resolution had been handled by the mission there in consultation with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Defence Ministry.
Sri Lanka itself submitted the resolution stressing its sovereign right to act without outside interference, which received the approval of the Human Rights Council.
Samarasinghe said that neither the 2009 nor 2015 Resolutions had been discussed at the cabinet but following the second declaration President Maithripala Sirisena on several occasions categorically rejected foreign judges in a domestic judicial process.
President Rajapaksa headed the 2009 Cabinet while President Sirisena has chaired the Cabinet of the National Unity Government since January 2015.
Comparing the status of judiciary during the previous administration and post-2015, Samarasinghe said that the international community hadn’t pursued a hostile agenda following the change of government. Samarasinghe asserted that the international community realized the much improved judiciary and, therefore hardly put any pressure on the government to accept foreign judges.
Samarasinghe pointed out that the UNSG Panel of Experts (PoE) comprising former Indonesian Attorney General Marzuki Darusman, US attorney-at-law Stevan Ratner and South African human rights activist Yasmin Zooka in March 2011 accused Sri Lanka of massacring 40,000 civilians.
Samarasinghe recalled his role during the previous administration in defending Sri Lanka against unsubstantiated war crimes allegations directed at the military.
In an obvious reference to a leaked US diplomatic cable from Geneva a few months after the end of the war, Samarasinghe said that the LTTE could have been defeated much earlier if the then government and the military hadn’t taken the civilian factor into consideration.
Samarasinghe discussed the possibility of some of those categorized here as dead and missing living overseas. The Minister expressed serious concern over the refusal on the part of Western governments to cooperate with Sri Lanka to identify genuine cases of missing persons. Samarasinghe said that further difficulties had been caused by those Sri Lankan receiving citizenship in Western countries taking new identities.
Samarasinghe said that he had urged Western governments to assist Sri Lanka’s efforts to ascertain the truth."
Can there be an explanation for a government refusing to clear itself of responsibility for war crimes in spite of receiving an opportunity to do so?
Sarath Weerasekera on the offensive
One-time Navy Chief-of-Staff Sarath Weerasekra flayed the government over Fonseka’s disclosure.
A recent reply received by the writer from the Foreign Ministry in response to queries raised in accordance with the Right to Information law revealed the ministry is certainly not keen on pursuing the Naseby disclosure. Mangala Samaraweera functioned as the Foreign Minister in the National Unity Government before being replaced by Ravi Karunanayake in May 2017. Karunanayake quit the ministry in Aug 2017 in the wake of the revelation of him and his family’s damning relationship with Arjuna Aloysius, owner of disgraced primary dealer, Perpetual Treasuries implicated in treasury bond scams perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016. Karunanayake’ resignation paved the way for one-time Attorney General and President’s Counsel Tilak Marapana. Unfortunately, Marapana and Defence Secretary Kapila Waidyaratne, a former Senior Additional Solicitor General in spite of their legal background steadfastly refrained from reviewing the situation.
Lanka having co-sponsored resolution against itself in Oct 2015, the Foreign Ministry seems hell bent on somehow keeping the Geneva project on track.
Weerasekera last week compared the UNP-led government handling of Geneva Resolution with the Feb 2002 signing of a Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) by then PM Ranil Wickremesinghe, at a public gathering at Godakawela, Ratnapura chaired by wartime Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Weerasekera, who had served as an UPFA lawmaker representing the Digamadulla electorate for one term said that the UNP never bothered to consult the Cabinet or parliament before entering into the Oslo-arranged agreement that recognized an area under the LTTE control.
Displaying The Island front-page reportage of Fonseka’s media briefing, Weerasekera said that the government owed an explanation as to why such a vital issue was never taken up for discussion. The CFA strengthened the LTTE politically, socially, economically and militarily at the expense of the Sri Lankan state. Under cover of the CFA, the UNP ruined the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) on the pretext of investigating an alleged bid to assassinate the then UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. In the wake of the change of government, the government vigorously pursued the DMI, Weerasekera explained, urging the public to be cautious of the UNP strategy.
Weerasekera said that the parliament hadn’t addressed the war crimes issue though it discussed every other issue. The parliament discussed the relevance of British High Commission dispatches several weeks after Lord Naseby’s disclosure in the House of Lords. Foreign Minister Marapana assured parliament that British High Commission dispatches would be used as an ace at the appropriate place at the right time. Marapana said: "We are not saying that we will not use Lord Naseby’s statement. We certainly will use it at the proper time and at appropriate forums. There may be a time when the UNHRC will ask us to conduct investigations into the allegations of war crimes. We will use this statement when such a time comes. Otherwise, our opponents will find counter arguments so we must use it as an ace."
The Foreign Minister was responding to a question raised by Joint Opposition Leader MP Dinesh Gunawardena, as to why Lord Naseby’s statement was not used especially at the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. The UNPer asserted that the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council in Geneva wasn’t the forum to take up Lord Naseby’s disclosure.
So far, the UNP-led government hasn’t taken up the matter with Geneva. Since Marapana gave an assurance to parliament to Naseby disclosure as an ace in late Nov 2017, Human Rights Council has met twice in March and June though Sri Lanka conveniently failed to make any reference to Naseby. It would be pertinent to ask the Foreign Minister whether he intended to raise the issue in the course of the ongoing Geneva sessions. The SLFP has done absolutely nothing to influence the UNP-run Foreign Ministry to make representations on behalf of Sri Lanka.
Surprisingly, both the UNP and the SLFP so far haven’t requested Western powers to remove the threat to pusue alleged war crimes, though Lord Naseby on the basis of British High Commission dispatches from Colombo asserted that no one in the then Sri Lankan Government ever wanted to kill Tamil civilians. Lord Naseby said: "Furthermore, the UK must now get the UN and the UNHCR in Geneva to accept a civilian casualty level of 7,000 to 8,000, not 40,000. On top of that, the UK must recognize that this was a war against terrorism, so the rules of engagement are based on international humanitarian law, not the European Convention on Human Rights."
Lord Naseby explained how the British government desperately tried to prevent the disclosure of wartime dispatches from Colombo. The Conservative politician revealed step-by-step how he sought official intervention in terms of the freedom of information submission following UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office suppressing Colombo dispatches. Don’t forget even the released dispatches were severely censored but the very little revealed was sufficient to challenge the main UN allegation.
The yahapalana government is obviously concerned about the growing challenge to unsubstantiated the charge of 40,000 civilians massacred in 2009. In fact, this is the main accusation among five allegations contained in the executive summary of the panel’s report. Let me reproduce the relevant section verbatim (point number 137 in the report): "In the limited surveys that have been carried out in the aftermath of the conflict, the percentage of people reporting dead relatives is high. A number of credible sources have estimated that it could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. Two years after the end of the war, there is still no reliable figure for civilian deaths, but multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage. Only a proper investigation can lead to the identification of all of the victims and to the formulation of an accurate figure for the total number of civilian deaths."
Marapana declaration that Naseby’s disclosure would be used at the appropriate place should be examined against the backdrop of Sri Lanka having to fulfill its obligations by March 2019 in terms of of the Oct 2015 co-sponsored resolution. Once the obligations are met Nasebys’ disclosure is irrelevant. The former AG is allowing the Geneva agenda to progress unhindered, while the Joint Opposition struggles to cope up with political developments.
The JO never really raised the Naseby issue though it was taken up in parliament in the last week of Nov 2017 by way of an adjournment question. The JO never sought an explanation from Marapana as regards his pledge to parliament that Naseby’s disclosure would be used at the appropriate place and at the right time. The parliament Sectoral Oversight Committees on international relations and national security, cabinet as well as political parties represented in parliament haven’t taken up accountability issues. Parliament owes the public an explanation as to why people’s representatives have allowed war crimes accusations to overwhelm the country by steadfastly refusing to present genuine evidence to debunk those accusations. Fonseka’s disclosure must have stunned the public. Imagine a government neglecting its own defence and shamelessly colluding with those foreign powers out to hang war crimes tag on Sri Lanka. For want of parliament intervention as well as the collective responsibility of the cabinet, a few individuals have taken charge of the Geneva project. If not for treasury bond scams perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016, the UNP could have achieved much more progress and perhaps even managed to enact a new Constitution by now. The UNP never really recovered from the treasury bond scams that caused irreparable damage to its relationship with President Sirisena due to the latter launching devastating attacks on his partner in the run up to Feb 2018 Local Government poll. The Joint Opposition/Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna would never have achieved victory at the LG poll if not for both the UNP and the SLFP suffering due to treasury bond scams. They each suffered debilitating setback electorally, but the Geneva project seems still on track.