Tuesday, 13 November 2018

A fresh examination of Geneva Resolution required



By Shamindra Ferdinando

President Maithripala Sirisena’s former ministerial colleague, Sarath Fonseka, one-time Commander of the country’s war-winning Army, is on record as having said that Geneva intervention had never been discussed in the cabinet.

The then Wildlife Minister Fonseka said so in response to a query raised by the writer at a media briefing in Sept 2018. Defeated Democratic Party (DP) candidate Fonseka was accommodated in the cabinet in place of National List MP M.K.D.S. Gunawardena who passed away in January 2016. In late June 2016 Fonseka took UNP membership and was appointed UNP Kelaniya Organizer.

Fonseka’s colleagues in the yahapalana government’s cabinet in November 2017 (Dayasiri Jayasekera in his capacity as the co-cabinet spokesperson) and August 2018 (Mahinda Samarasinghe in his capacity as the SLFP spokesperson) revealed that Geneva hadn’t been taken up at the cabinet. Samarasinghe admitted that the far reaching Resolution titled "Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka’ co-sponsored by the then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera on Oct. 1, 2015 hadn’t been discussed at all. Samarasinghe also told the writer that the Rajapaksa government didn’t take up the 2009 Geneva Resolution in cabinet.

All political parties have conveniently forgotten that Geneva is pushing for a new Constitution here.

Dayasiri Jayasekera reacted angrily at a post-cabinet media briefing at the Government Information Department when the writer sought an explanation as to the failure on the part of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe duo to use revelations made by Lord Naseby in the House of Lords in Oct 2017 in Sri Lanka’s defence.

Interestingly, President Sirisena refrained from making reference to Geneva issue at all in his lengthy statement to the nation on Oct. 28, 2018. President dealt with circumstances leading to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s dismissal as Prime Minister though no reference was made to Geneva imbroglio. President Sirisena found fault with Wickremesinghe for many issues, from treasury bond scams to selling of state assets, except Sri Lanka’s accountability process. It would be pertinent to mention that President Sirisena did nothing officially since Samaraweera co-sponsored Resolution 30/1 to reverse the Geneva process though he assured the nation that foreign interventions wouldn’t be allowed as long as he held the presidency.

Australia’s denial of visa to Maj. Gen. Chagie Gallage in late 2016 on the basis of war crimes alleged to have committed by the 59 Division on the Vanni east front in 2009 exposed the failure on the part of Sri Lanka to defend her armed forces.

In fact, Wickremesinghe’s successor Mahinda Rajapaksa or other spokesmen for the new government desisted from blaming the UNP for the accountability process though former External Affairs Minister and Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Chairman Prof. G.L. Peiris flayed the UNP over the opaque constitution making project. Addressing the media at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) last Sunday (Nov 4), Prof. Peiris strongly criticized the ongoing constitution making process while warning of dire consequences in case of full implementation of the Geneva Resolution.

However, co-government spokesman and Ports and Shipping Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe at the first post-cabinet media briefing at the Government Information Department on Oct.29 quoted President Sirisena as having assured foreign envoys on the previous day the new government’s commitment to national reconciliation process. Obviously, Samarasinghe’s reference was to the Geneva-led process and therefore it would be pertinent to examine the entire gamut of issues leading to the co-sponsorship of the Oct 1 resolution.

Ven Abeytissa’s advice

Having assumed duties as Finance and Economic Affairs Minister, PM Mahinda Rajapaksa, on Oct 29, amidst the blessings of the Maha Sangha, received advice from Ven. Dr. Medagoda Abeytissa Thera, Chief Incumbent of the Sunethra Maha Devi Pirivena. The Ven Thera said: "You have only one agreement. That agreement is with the people. You have no agreement with politicians, various cliques groups and Diaspora. People expect you to resume your programme terminated in 2015. I wish you strength to take the country forward."

Scholar monk Ven Abeytissa played a significant role in ‘Eliya’ organization, one of the outfits formed after the change of government to back wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

PM Rajapaksa, No 02 in the new government, shouldn’t forgot the circumstances leading to the then SLFP General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena switching his allegiance to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe in late Nov 2014. PM Rajapaksa and his supporters as well as Sirisena-Rajapaksa dispensation should closely examine the 2010-2015 period to ensure they do not repeat past wrongdoings. The bottom line is that the new administration cannot under any circumstances afford to resume the programme rejected in January 2015.

Having brought the war to a successful conclusion, in May 2009, the previous administration behaved irresponsibly thereby creating a perfect environment for interested foreign powers to exploit discontented political parties here to influence the electorate. Their candidate Maithripala Sirisena succeeded, in January 2015, though Gen. Fonseka failed, five years before, by a staggering 1.8mn vote margin.

The new dispensation should address major issues which caused the downfall of the Rajapaksa administration. The Rajapaksas suffered a debilitating setback for want of cohesive strategy to address accountability issues. Their scandalous mishandling of the Geneva situation facilitated a despicable political project that overwhelmed Sri Lanka in late 2014. Years after the conclusion of the war, Wikileaks revealed how the US had intervened, in the political project, to form a UNP-led coalition in 2015. The US role in forcing the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to throw its weight behind Fonseka, in spite of accusing the SLA of widespread human rights violations, is in the public domain. The fact that the then US Ambassador Patricia Butenis, in a classified missive to Washington, accused Fonseka of war crimes, did not deter the US from backing the General to the hilt.

Even today, those who had been opposed to foreign intervention here do not realize that Western powers brought the TNA into the UNP-led alliance in 2010 and 2015 on the basis of unsubstantiated war crimes allegations. The Rajapaksa government’s silly response to Western project made things easier for those wanting to haul Sri Lanka before foreign judges. The war-winning government never bothered to prepare a comprehensive defence, utilizing information made available by foreign governments and organizations, including the UN. Instead, Sri Lanka’s ‘defence’ was handed over to various US firms. Perhaps, the Rajapaksa administration wrongly believed the US system could be manipulated through propaganda projects.

Interestingly, the US, on its part, invested heavily in the political change in Sri Lanka, in 2015. No less a person than the then US Secretary of State John Kerry revealed in 2016 US spending USD 585 mn in Nigeria, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. This was in addition to USD 3.4 mn made available to the yahapalana government between the January 2015 presidential and the Aug 2015 parliamentary polls.

The External Affairs Ministry lacked strength to decide, or advice the government, on a strategy to counter war crimes allegations. Then External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, too, failed in his responsibility (2010-2015). Instead of building a strong case, on available information, the war-winning government paid millions of USD to lobbyists, legal and public relations experts through the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) both during and after the war. The External Affairs Ministry facilitated the operation. Some of the payments were made during Rohitha Bogollagama’s tenure as the Foreign Minister (2007-2010). The government never bothered to at least inform the cabinet and parliament about the massive payments made to the US lobbyists.

After the change of the government, in January 2015, the writer sought information as regards those controversial payments from the then Governor, Singaporean Arjuna Mahendran, in the wake of the first treasury bond scam perpetrated on the afternoon of Feb. 2015. Mahendran revealed there had been million dollar payments, channeled through the CBSL, between May and November 2014. The writer asked Mahendran as to why the UNP didn’t really go after the previous government over there US payments especially in the wake of criticism of the first treasury bond scam. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government that had been embroiled in the first treasury bond scam, perpetrated the second one in 2016 March. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government never conducted a proper investigation into the US payment scam, which cost the Sri Lanka taxpayer dearly.

The Rajapaksa government never acknowledged undisclosed payments made to US firms, in addition to some British firms. To-date, payments made to lobbyists, legal and public relations firms for work done in respect accountability issues and image building exercises, remain a secret.

The civil society organizations, too, refrained from commenting on such scandalous payments.

Perhaps, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, or those who backed Sirisena at the 2015 presidential poll weren’t comfortable in attacking the Rajapaksa government over squandering public funds.

Perhaps, the new government should make a full disclosure on such payments or the UNP should forcefully raise the issue, both in and outside parliament.

A new strategy needed

Dr. Sarath Leelananda Bandara Amunugama veteran civil servant and politician who had served both the UNP, the SLFP-led People’s Alliance and SLFP led UPFA received the vital foreign ministry portfolio following the constitutional coup that brought an end to Wickremesinghe’s rule in late Oct 2018. The top retired public servant with experience in serving the UNESCO, Amunugama is the fourth to hold the foreign ministry portfolio, since January 2015.

Now, it would be Dr. Amunugama’s responsibility in convincing the new government to take appropriate measures to have original unsubstantiated allegations inquired into without delay. In fact, proper investigation should be the new dispensation’s priority. Instead of opposing international assistance/interventions, Sri Lanka should secure their backing to establish the truth. Dr. Amunugama can receive comprehensive briefing as regards the Geneva issue from newly appointed Foreign Secretary, Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha, who functioned as Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva at the time Sri Lanka co-sponsored Geneva Resolution 30/1.

Ambassador Aryasinha held the post of Additional Secretary/ Economic Affairs and Trade in the Foreign Ministry since April 2018. Perhaps, Dr. Amunugama should receive comprehensive briefing from Aryasinha as regards reasons for Sri Lanka rejecting the Geneva proposals at a meeting called by Sri Lanka Core Group about 10 days before Sri Lanka co-sponsored it. It would be a grave mistake to hold Minister Samaraweera responsible for co-sponsoring the Geneva Resolution, instead of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government.

Key UNP strategist and Matara District MP Mangala Samaraweera headed the Foreign Ministry (2015 January to 2017 May), UNP Assistant leader and Colombo District MP Ravi Karunanayake (2017 May to 2017 Aug) and UNP National List MP Tilak Marapana, PC (2017 Aug to 2018 Oct).

Current Foreign Minister Dr. Amunugama (UPFA National List), who served the yahapalana administration from its inception should examine the following (1) Report of the Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka released on March 31 2011,(2) US Defence Advisor Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith’s explosive declaration in Colombo at the first defence seminar organized by the SLA in early June 2011 (3) Amnesty International publication ‘When will they get justice?: Failures of Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission released in September 2011 (4) the entire set of WikiLeaks cables pertaining to Sri Lanka (5) Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian Peace Efforts 1997-2009 (6) a letter wartime Norwegian Ambassador Tore Hattrem wrote to the then influential MP and presidential advisor, Basil Rajapaksa. The following is the text of Ambassador Hattrem’s letter dated Feb 16 2009 addressed to Basil Rajapaksa: "I refer to our telephone conversation today. The proposal to the LTTE on how to release the civilian population, now trapped in the LTTE controlled area, has been transmitted to the LTTE through several channels. So far, there has been, regrettably, no response from the LTTE and it doesn’t seem to be likely that the LTTE will agree with this in the near future."

At the onset of Marapana’s tenure, Lord Naseby gave Sri Lanka the required ‘ammunition’ to counter war crimes allegations - deliberate killing of 40,000 civilians by indiscriminate shelling of ‘no fire zones, hospitals and makeshift medical facilities and denial of humanitarian assistance to those trapped there.

The writer sincerely hopes Dr. Amunugama will spend time studying Lord Naseby’s revelations made available to President Sirisena and Mahinda Rajapaksa some time ago.

Having obtained a part of wartime (January-May 2009) British High Commission, Colombo dispatches in May 2016, in terms of the Freedom of Information Act(2000), Lord Naseby strengthened Sri Lanka’s defence. Lord Naseby successfully secured the Information Commissioner’s intervention after Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) turned down his request for Colombo dispatches submitted to FCO on Nov 6 2014. For almost three years FCO suppressed information that could have shielded Sri Lanka in Geneva. The British deliberately resorted to such despicable action to pave the way for Oct 1, 2015 Geneva Resolution following the change of government. Let me point out that the then SLFP General Secretary Sirisena switched allegiance to the UNP less than three weeks after Lord Naseby sought the FCO disclosure of wartime dispatches.

Lord Naseby’s Nov 6 2014 request to FCO: "Details of the dispatches written by Colonel Anton Gash, the Defence Attaché of the British High Commission in Sri Lanka, to the UK Foreign Office during the period of January 2009 to May 2009. These dispatches described his assessment of what he had seen during this period of the Sri Lankan civil war."

Marapana, in spite of assuring parliament, in late Nov 2017 that Lord Naseby revelations would be used appropriately, refrained from taking it up in Geneva. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe dispensation couldn’t interfere with Geneva project primarily because of its commitment to foreign judges, in the Sri Lanka judicial mechanism, to probe war crimes. The tripartite agreement on foreign judges was revealed by TNA heavyweight M.A. Sumanthiran in Washington in June 2016. Jaffna District MP Sumanthiran’s statement was made available to the writer by TNA leader R. Sampanthan’s Office with a request to publish it.

Sumanthiran declared that they had reached a tripartite consensus in respect of foreign judges, defence attorneys, investigators, etc., in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism under the UNHRC Resolution 30/1 adopted unanimously.

Attorney-at-law Sumanthiran told an American ‘Congressional Caucus for Ethnic and Religious Freedom in Sri Lanka’, in Washington, that the government of Sri Lanka, the TNA and the US had been involved in the negotiations leading to the agreement.

The declaration was made in the presence of Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Washington, Prasad Kariyawasam. Ambassador Aryasinha succeeded Kariyawasam just before President Sirisena moved against Wickremesinghe.

MP Sumanthiran revealed that the resolution was moved in Geneva following an understanding that the participation of foreigners wouldn’t be contrary to Sri Lanka’s Constitution. Declaring that he had been personally involved in the negotiations, with the United States of America also participating in that particular process, Sumanthiran said: "There were some doubts created, as to whether the Constitution of Sri Lanka would allow for foreign nationals to function as judges and we went into that question, clarified it, and said yes they can".

Sumanthiran told the Congressional Caucus that the resolution adopted in Geneva, had been negotiated and they settled for a hybrid model though they originally asked for an international inquiry.

The TNA didn’t find fault with The Island coverage of the issue. The government, too, didn’t dispute the reportage.

In the wake of PM Rajapaksa being advised to resume his programme, terminated in 2015, it would be pertinent to mention that Sri Lanka paid a very heavy price for past blunders of its leaders. Mahinda Rajapaksa is no exception. The unpardonable refusal to enact the National Audit Bill for over a decade paved the way for corrupt politicians and officials to rob the national economy, enactment of 18th Amendment in early September 2010 in the wake of Mahinda Rajapaksa securing a second presidential term, impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake in January 2013, Kandy night races held in spite of objections by Mahanayakes, and waste, corruption and irregularities at an unprecedented scale at national carrier SriLankan Airlines during Nishantha Wickremesinghe’s tenure ruined the then government. At the time President Sirisena appointed Presidential Commission of Inquiry on SriLankan and Mihin Lanka inviting Mahinda Rajapaksa to take over premiership would have been the last thing on his mind. Perhaps, Sri Lanka should have a ‘Truth Commission’ to enable political parties to acknowledge past blunders and explore what went wrong. Brazen manipulation of parliament must stop forthwith. No less a person than President Sirisena on Oct 28, 2018 accused parliament of deliberately delaying CIABOC investigation into treasury bond scams.