SPECIAL REPORT : Part 264April 2, 2019, 8:57 pm
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Northern Province Governor Dr. Suren Raghavan last week caused a debilitating setback to Sri Lanka’s efforts to counter unsubstantiated war crimes allegations.
Having found fault with Human Rights Commissioner Michele Bachelet’s report on Sri Lanka, at a press conference given at the Northern Governor’s Battaramulla office, on the afternoon of March 25, Dr. Raghavan played a different tune on Friday, March 29.
Dr. Raghavan succumbs
Dr. Raghavan issued the following statement, dated March 29, in response to Bachelet’s furious reaction to a statement attributed to him: "It has been brought to my attention that there has been some media reporting on the press interview I gave about my participation at the Geneva UNHRC session and a subsequent reaction from the OHCHR to the same. It is deeply regrettable and unfortunate that some portions of that interview – especially in the English media – had lost its original meaning and intention, either in language translation or for reasons unknown.
As written before I for one more time reiterate that the UNHRC, its Honourable High Commissioner and the entire staff were extremely helpful, professional and cordial. Our meetings were at the highest level of cooperation and goodwill. We all worked together and negotiated for the path of post-war recovery of peace and democracy in Sri Lanka.
"True we discussed our differences and the fundamental reasons for them; further how to overcome them collectively. However, all our exchanges were with full of bilateral respect. I regret if there has been any misquoting and misrepresentation. Madam Bachelet is an exemplary High Commissioner who displayed the highest order of diplomacy and skills which I valued so much."
Obviously, Dr. Raghavan was on the back-foot. Did Dr. Raghavan issue ‘clarification’ on his own or was told do so by political authority?
The writer regrets his failure to attend Dr. Raghavan’s briefing in spite of his media officer Vajira Kodituwakku repeatedly requesting for comprehensive coverage of the first press conference, called by him in Colombo, after receiving the appointment as the Northern Province Governor. President Maithripala Sirisena should be commended for naming Dr. Raghavan as his representative in the North. Dr. Raghavan is the first Tamil Governor in the restive province. Dr. Raghavan succeeded another political appointee, Reginald Cooray, on January 07, 2019.
HRC flays Northern Governor
Raghavan earned the wrath of Bachelet, a former Chilean President. Bachelet launched an unprecedented scathing attack on Dr. Raghavan over the Daily Mirror reportage of President Maithripala Sirisena’s nominee in Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, PC, delegation. Although Dr. Raghavan refrained from mentioning a particular newspaper, Bachelet referred to the Daily Mirror report dated March 26, 2019.
Bachelet alleged the report ‘seriously misrepresents’ her discussion in respect of the UN Human Rights Office report on Sri Lanka with Marapana’s delegation..
The report quoted Dr. Raghavan as having said that Bachelet admitted that certain facts, incorporated in the UNHRC report against Sri Lanka, could not be condoned whatsoever." The report also said he claimed she had advised two of her senior officials, who attended the meeting, "to be more responsible and cautious hereafter."
"Neither of these claims are true," Bachelet said. "Either the newspaper misunderstood the Governor, or the Governor misunderstood – or misquoted – me." The High Commissioner said she stood fully behind the report and the oral statement she made when presenting it to the Human Rights Council, and that she believed it fairly and objectively reflected the situation in Sri Lanka.
"I am deeply disappointed by the spin that has been put on my discussion with the Sri Lankan Government delegation," she said, noting that other news outlets in Sri Lanka were also continuing to significantly misrepresent the Human Rights Council process in Geneva.
The High Commissioner said she and her Office remained committed to assisting the Government and people of Sri Lanka to implement the Human Rights Council’s resolutions 30/1 (2015) and 34/1 (2017). And, last week, the Human Rights Council, in another resolution (40/1), gave the Government two more years to deliver fully on the set of commitments it originally accepted, four years ago.
Bachelet said the Sri Lankan Government should now refocus its efforts on fulfilling its obligation to provide justice and accountability for the grave human rights violations and abuses that took place during the conflict that ended in 2009, and honour its commitments to establish the truth about what happened and to promote reconciliation.
Dr. Raghavan’s dilemma
Dr. Raghavan explained Sri Lanka’s position much better than any other politician when he addressed the media on March 25. Raghavan underscored the difficulty experienced by the government delegation to the 40th Geneva session as by then Sri Lanka accepted the latest resolution having appreciated Bachelet’s report on Sri Lanka. Dr. Raghavan pointed out that Bachelet had made available the report, one and half months before, to the government.
Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM) Mano Tittawella, on being sought a response as regards allegations he issued directive for co-sponsoring of the latest resolution without informing the head of state assured that due process was followed. SCRM set up through a cabinet paper in late 2015 comes under the purview of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Tittawella declined to discuss the matter further.
Dr. Raghavan’s March 25 statement endorsed Minister Marapana’s response to Bachelet at Geneva on March 20. However, Dr. Raghavan’s subsequent response to Bachelet’s hard-hitting condemnation of him raised many an eyebrow. Did the Northern Governor unwittingly contradict the stand taken by Marapana? Did Dr. Raghavan consult the President’s Office and the Foreign Ministry before responding to Bachelet?
Bachelet found fault with Dr. Raghavan though she remained mum so far on Marapana’s strong criticism of her report. In fact, there had never been such a devastating attack on a UN report since Sri Lanka faced Western censure over the conduct of its armed forces. Why did Bachelet refrain from commenting on Marapana whose criticism of her latest report was far worse than the statement attributed to Dr. Raghavan.
President Sirisena played down Marapana’s role by claiming that he (the President) changed the text of the statement. Addressing a gathering on March 27, President Sirisena claimed the original text was different to the one presented by Marapana.
Bachelet mum on
In spite of Marapana pointing out serious shortcomings in the report, Bachelet choose to reiterate her commitment to the same after dismissing Dr. Raghavan’s concerns.
Marapana and his political masters certainly owed an explanation as to why issues raised in Geneva on March 20 were not taken up with the Geneva body when Bachelet made available her report to the government one and half months before the 40th sessions.
Dr. Raghavan questioned the rationale in not making representations on behalf of Sri Lanka when the government was given an opportunity.
In fact, the writer sought an explanation from President Sirisena as to why public money was being squandered on a three-member presidential delegation to Geneva against the backdrop of the government accepting the UK-led resolution after having fully endorsed Bachelet’s report. This issue was raised soon after President Sirisena announced the members of his delegation comprising Dr. Sarath Amunugama, MP, Mahinda Samarasinghe, MP, and Dr. Raghavan. The Northern Province Governor silently sat next to President Sirisena at the President’s House briefing.
In response to the writer’s query, President Sirisena, having declared foreign policy remained his responsibility, vowed to take punitive action against those pursuing strategies contrary to his wishes. Had they not been aware of Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva, Ambassador A.L.M. Azeez, endorsing the resolution? Did the President’s Office seek an explanation from the Foreign Ministry after The Island raised the issue? Although, the issue was raised at a meeting, attended by editors of both print and electronic media, the media largely ignored the contentious issue of Sri Lanka agreeing to the latest resolution even before the first formal discussion on the text. The media simply reported President Sirisena naming a three-man delegation. After the conclusion of the meeting, the writer had an opportunity to speak with Dr. Raghavan regarding matters pertaining to the accountability issue. The Northern Province Governor seemed definitely knowledgeable of ground realities and the daunting task in countering the propaganda project.
Six days after the President’s House briefing, President Sirisena and the UNP, on March 12, decided to field one team under Marapana’s leadership. Lawmaker Mahinda Samarasinghe quit the delegation. The Parliament was told of the decision on March 14.
Addressing the Geneva session, after Bachelet’s oral statement, Marapana faulted and challenged her report. Bachelet cannot ignore concerns raised by Sri Lanka. Having raised concerns in Geneva, the government cannot simply proceed with the accountability process disregarding its own interests.
Bachelet, in her response to Dr. Raghavan, declared she stood fully behind the report and the oral statement she made when presenting it to the Human Rights Council, and that she believed it fairly and objectively reflects the situation in Sri Lanka.
Dr. Raghavan should have used the opportunity to explain the necessity to examine issues raised by Marapana. Instead, Dr. Raghavan distanced himself from Marapana’s stand.
Finally Marapana uses Naseby disclosure
Marapana pointed out the sharp discrepancy in the number of civilians killed, on the Vanni east front, quoted by various ‘sources’ including the UN Panel of Experts’ (PoE) on March 31, 2011, and Lord Naseby in the House of Lords on March 12, 2017. PoE placed the number of killed at 40,000 on the basis of ‘credible sources’ whereas Lord Naseby estimated civilian deaths at 5,000. The Conservative member based his assessment on wartime military dispatches from the British High Commission. Lord Naseby named the then Resident Defence Adviser Lt. Col. Anton Gash as the author of the dispatches obtained from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) following a two-and-half-year battle with the ministry.
The British Lord secured dispatches in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act 2000, though they had been redacted.
Marapana owed an explanation as to why the Foreign Ministry never brought up Lord Naseby’s disclosure with the Geneva body before. For 18 months, the Foreign Ministry neglected Lord Naseby’s disclosure. In fact, Lord Naseby made the revelation over two months after Marapana received appointment as the Foreign Minister. One-time Attorney General Marapana succeeded UNP Assistant Leader Ravi Karunanayake, who lost the vital portfolio soon after the revelation that Perpetual Treasuries owner, Arjun Aloysius, paid the rent of the Karunanayake’s family’s penthouse. Marapana, himself lost the law and order portfolio in Nov 2015 in the wake of a section of the government criticizing him over his relationship with Avant Garde Maritime Services (AGMS).
The Foreign Ministry had ample opportunities to raise the issue with the Human Rights Commissioner, as well as with the British government. The Ministry never wanted to take it up because UNP bosses quite rightly realized Lord Naseby’s explosive disclosure could derail the Geneva process.
The Foreign Ministry could have used Lord Naseby’s disclosure for Sri Lanka’s benefit, but treachery won the day.
The writer received the following response from the Foreign Ministry on Oct 27, 2015, as regards Lord Naseby’s disclosure: "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."
Farhan Aziz Haq, Deputy Spokesperson for the then UNSG António Guterres, in Nov 2017, told The Island that the UNHRC could revisit Resolution 30/1 titled ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’
Haq said that decisions regarding actions taken by the UNHRC were solely in the hands of the members of the Human Rights Council. Haq said it would be up to the member states of the Human Rights Council to decide whether to revisit Sri Lanka’s case on the basis of representations made by a country. The UNHRC comprises 47 countries divided into five zones.
The UN spokesperson said so when The Island asked him whether there was a possibility of UN revisiting Geneva Resolution in the wake of Lord Naseby assertion during a debate that the maximum Vanni death toll was 7,000 to 8,000 not 40,000 as reported by PoE, and GoSL never targeted civilians deliberately.
The Island raised the issue with the UN in the wake of Sri Lanka parliament taking up the issue twice since Naseby’s Oct 12, 2017 bombshell statement in the House of Lords.
Unfortunately, Sri Lanka decided not to exploit the situation. It would be pertinent to mention that at the time of Lord Naseby’s disclosure, the UNP-SLFP coalition had been in power though there were many disagreements between the partners. The yahapalana arrangement lasted till Oct 26, 2018. The coalition pursued a common strategy in respect of Geneva though President Sirisena publicly took a different stand.
About 10 months after Lord Naseby’s disclosure, the writer raised the inordinate delay on the part of the Foreign Ministry to take up British dispatches with the UNHRC. The issue was raised in terms of the Right to Information (RTI) Law enacted in early 2017.
Then Director General (Legal) of the Foreign Ministry C.A.H.M. Wijeratne said that the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) hadn’t dealt with UNSG Panel of Experts (PoE) allegations. "Allegations in the Secretary General’s PoE report, if at all, are for a local investigation process in Sri Lanka to examine."
Wijeratne said so in his capacity as the Foreign Ministry Information Officer, in response to the The Island query: "The House of Lords was told in Oct 2017 of the existence of wartime British High Commission dispatches (Jan-May 2009) from the Office of its Defense Attaché in Colombo which contradicted PoE allegation pertaining to deaths of 40,000 civilians. Would you be requesting members of UNHRC to re-examine allegations directed at the Government of Sri Lanka in the light of this fresh evidence?"
A treacherous act
The Foreign Ministry was determined not to use the British disclosure for the country’s benefit. Why did Marapana fault the Geneva process, on March 20, 2019, after having neglected scores of previous opportunities? Did President Sirisena force the UNP to challenge the latest Geneva report as he claimed on March 27. Perhaps, President Sirisena, too, owe an explanation as to why he refrained from taking action against those responsible for co-sponsoring Resolution 30/1, titled ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’ on Oct 01, 2015 and then extended it in March 2017 for two more years by way of a second US-led resolution. Can anyone of those demanding action against Mano Tittawella and Ambassador Azeez explain what they have done, since Oct 2015, to protect Sri Lanka’s interests following the passage of the original resolution. Can they explain what they have done with Lord Naseby’s disclosure, since Oct 2017?
Bachelet should realize that Minister Marapana’s rebuttal is far more serious than Dr. Raghavan statement. In addition to raising Lord Naseby’s disclosure in defence of Sri Lanka, Marapana faulted Bachelet’s report over reference in respect of the Mannar mass graves and releasing of land previously held by the military in the war zone et al. Marapana criticized the seriously flawed report with the primary allegation against Sri Lanka (massacre of 40,000) challenged on the basis of authentic official dispatches of the current member of the Geneva body, Great Britain.
It would be interesting to see whether the UK would release the entire set of diplomatic dispatches to ascertain the truth. Lord Naseby after trying for over two years, since Nov 2014, was able to obtain only a section of the dispatches. They too were heavily censored for obvious reasons. Let me end this piece by reminding what current British High Commissioner James Dauris said when the issue was raised with him: "Lord Naseby was not speaking for the British Government when speaking recently in a debate in the House of Lords. As a Member of Parliament he is entitled to express his own views."
The BHC stated: "A point that has not been in dispute in all that has been written and said since Lord Naseby spoke is that many thousands of civilians died during the conflict. We continue to encourage the Sri Lankan Government to implement the commitments it gave and which are set out in UNHRC resolution 30/1 and reaffirmed in UNHRC resolution 34/1, including the undertaking to establish a truth-seeking commission. Resolution 30/1 emphasizes the importance of a comprehensive approach to dealing with the past, incorporating the full range of judicial and non-judicial measures, including truth-seeking. The resolution affirms that the commitments given, if implemented fully and credibly, will help to achieve reconciliation. Achieving reconciliation is in the clear interests of every community in Sri Lanka."
The Geneva consensus should be examined taking into account the 2014 electoral arrangement involving the UNP, the TNA and the JVP – a project backed by Western powers and India. Such an examination will help the public ascertain why Sri Lanka co-sponsored the original resolution.