Wednesday, 15 January 2020

What will be Prez Gotabaya’s Geneva policy?


By Shamindra Ferdinando

Lord Naseby recently spoke about Sri Lanka in the Queen’s Speech debate in the House of Lords. The Conservative member asserted that there was a huge opportunity for improvement if the UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Commission) project against Sri Lanka was wound up.

Lord Naseby said: "…There are complaints about torture. I have seen the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) three times and asked it whether it has seen torture in Sri Lanka. Every time, the answer has been a clear ‘No’. It is fake news. Today, there is a shadow. That is the claim that the UN started with—of 40,000 killed.

"I have spent 10 years looking at the reports by Gash and the Tamil university teachers, at the census and at all the coverage I could find. The net result is about 6,000 people killed, of which a quarter is Tamil Tigers. Despite all this, we now find that the UNHCR has decided that it wants to try to get war crimes pinned on the Sri Lankan Army. Yet, the reports of Colonel Gash made it clear that the Army behaved admirably and looked after the civilians. If the SLA had wanted to knock them off, then over 295,000 people would not have been safely brought across the lines, would they? I believe that the time has come for the March, 2020 review, when it takes place, to be the wind-up time for that phase of life in Sri Lanka."

Colonel Anthony Gash served in Colombo as the British Defence Advisor during the Eelam War IV (August 2006-May 2009).

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka Parliament lacked interest in addressing the accountability issue though it posed a growing threat to its unitary status. In spite of the change of government, in Nov 2019, following the presidential poll, the Geneva threat remains. Now, it would be the responsibility of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government to explore ways and means of neutralizing the Geneva threat.

The current political turmoil, caused by UNP lawmaker Ranjan Ramanayake’s secret recordings of him making a mockery of the country’s judiciary and the entire legal process, including the police, shouldn’t be allowed to divert the government’s attention from the Geneva sessions. Having accused the UNP-led yahapalana government of betraying the country, in Geneva, by it backing the controversial resolution 30/1 against the country, adopted on Oct 01, 2015, the incumbent political leadership cannot absolve itself of the responsibility for not taking tangible measures to address the issue.

Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) leader Dinesh Gunawardena, MP, in his capacity as the then leader of the Joint Opposition parliamentary group, is one of the few lawmakers who discussed the Geneva issue, both in and outside Parliament. Lawmaker Gunawardena quite rightly recognized the opportunity, presented by Lord Naseby’s disclosure in the House of Lords, on Oct 12, 2017. The then JO Chief in Parliament underscored the pivotal importance in using Naseby’s revelation, based on wartime British High Commission dispatches from Colombo (January 1, 2009-May 2009).

Marapana’s assurance

It would be pertinent to remind the reader about the assurance given by Foreign Affairs Minister Tilak Marapana, in Parliament, on Nov 25, 2017. One-time Attorney General and President’s Counsel Marapana assured that Lord Naseby’s disclosure would be used as ‘an ace’ when the time came and at the right place.

Responding to lawmaker Gunawardena’s query as to why Lord Naseby’s statement hadn’t been used, especially at the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Minister Marapana said that the Government would use Lord Naseby’s statement at an appropriate forum.

Lawmaker 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."

MP Gunawardena alleged that the Foreign Ministry had not properly made use of Lord Naseby’s statement which categorically proved that the Lankan security forces did not massacre 40,000 civilians, on the Vanni front, during the final phase of the war, as alleged by a so-called panel of experts, appointed by then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

MP Gunawardena said: "Although Lord Naseby proved that reports used by the UNHRC are erroneous, the Government’s representatives, like Dr. Harsha de Silva, had made a different statement in Geneva recently."

Minister Marapana told the House that he did not agree with MP Gunawardena’s allegations. The Minister said Dr Harsha de Silva did not make such a statement, as claimed by the MP.

"We are mindful of Lord Naseby’s statement and we really appreciate his efforts. He has done extensive research on it. The forum in Geneva, which Dr. Harsha de Silva attended, was not an appropriate forum to take it up."

The UNP never used Lord Naseby disclosure to defend Sri Lanka. The UNP discarded credible information provided by Lord Naseby. President’s Counsel Marapana who received the foreign affairs portfolio, in August 2017, followed his predecessors Mangala Samaraweera’s (January 2015-May 2017) and Ravi Karunanayake’s (May 2017-August 2017) policy in respect of war crimes.

Following the last presidential election, lawmaker Gunawardena received the Foreign Affairs Ministry. Under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s leadership, the government named the Foreign Affairs Ministry as Foreign Relations Ministry and placed it under Dinesh Gunwardena.

Minister Gunawardena has an opportunity to use Lord Naseby’s disclosure to save Sri Lanka. Having repeatedly demanded that the UNP properly defend the country, in Geneva, the veteran politician can now use Gash’s reports to thwart the Geneva project. The Foreign Relations Minister can certainly consult Lord Naseby in this regard. Gash reports contradicted the primary UN Panel of Experts’ allegation, blindly rubber stamped by the Geneva body. Lord Naseby obtained highly confidential Gash reports in terms of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, though the UK government desperately tried to suppress them on the basis their disclosure would jeopardize UK-Sri Lanka relations. The UK’s claim was nothing but a blatant lie. It realized that the disclosure of Gash reports would have certainly undermined the move to adopt an accountability resolution in Geneva in the aftermath of the 2015 presidential election. If the UK promptly released Gash reports, when Lord Naseby sought them on Nov 06, 2014 from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the very basis for the Geneva resolution would have been disputed.

UN claim

Having faulted the Sri Lanka Army, on three major counts, the PoE (Panel of Experts) accused Sri Lanka of massacring at least 40,000 civilians. Let me reproduce the paragraph, bearing no 137, verbatim: "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 there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. Two years after the end of the war, there is 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."

Lord Naseby on the basis of Gash reports, proved the UN claim wrong. Let me remind the reader that the FCO continues to withhold significant number of Gash dispatches in spite of Lord Naseby requesting for disclosure.

Sri Lanka never officially raised Gash dispatches with the UK or UNHRC. Would Foreign Relations Minister Gunawardena recommend Lord Naseby’s disclosure be taken up with the British and the UNHRC. In the wake of Lord Naseby’s statement, in the House of Lords, the writer raised the issue with Farhan Aziz Haq, Deputy Spokesperson for UNSG António Guterres. Haq told the writer that the Geneva-based UNHRC could revisit resolution 30/1 titled ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’

The US resolution, co-sponsored by Sri Lanka, was adopted on Oct 1, 2015. Sri Lanka accepted the US-led resolution, days after Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva, Ravinatha Aryasinha, rejected the draft at an informal session. Aryasinha is the current Secretary to the Foreign Relations Ministry. As the then Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva, Aryasinha was forced, by the then Yahapalana government, to endorse the Geneva resolution on behalf of Sri Lanka, though interested parties constantly blame the then Foreign Minister for signing it.

Haq said that decisions regarding actions taken by the UNHRC were solely in the hands of the members of the Human Rights Council. He added that it would be up to the member states of the Human Rights Council to decide whether to revisit Sri Lanka’s case. The UNHRC comprises 47 countries, divided into five zones.

The UN spokesperson said so when the writer asked him whether the UN could revisit Geneva Resolution in the wake of Lord Naseby’s revelation that the Vanni death toll was at most 7,000 to 8,000, and not 40,000 as claimed by the PoE, in March 2011, and that Sri Lanka never targeted civilians purposely.

"Decisions about the actions taken by the Human Rights Council are solely in the hands of the member of the Human Rights Council. It would be up to the member states of the Human Rights Council to decide whether to revisit this case", Haq said.

Would the new government request the UNHRC to revisit Sri Lanka’s case? Would Sri Lanka request British government’s help to establish the truth by releasing the entire set of Gash dispatches, including those heavily censored ones, in support of Sri Lanka’s call to revisit the case? The UK, a UNHRC member, owes Sri Lanka an explanation as to why the government withheld vital information pertaining to Sri Lanka while interested parties maligned and humiliated Sri Lanka with unsubstantiated war crimes allegations. This even led to our heroic senior military officers, and men, responsible for successfully leading the fight against the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit, being treated like pariahs by Western countries, and the UN.

The UK had Gash dispatches since 2009 - six years before the UNHRC adopted accountability resolution. If not for Lord Naseby’s intervention, in Nov 2014, leading to the disclosure of a highly redacted section of Gash reports, in Oct 2017, in the House of Lords, the UK would never have released them. Lord Naseby’s move exposed the UK government quite badly. Lord Naseby’s passionate defence of Sri Lanka, both in and outside House of Lords, should be examined against the backdrop of the failure on the part of our own Parliament to reach a consensus on accountability issues.

Sri Lanka Parliament seems primarily interested in perks and privileges of its members. The Parliament never bothered to examine unsubstantiated war crimes accusations even after the House of Lords disclosure on Oct 12, 2017. It might be due to lack of high caliber people like the late Lakshman Kadiragamar, the late S.L. Gunasekera or the late Lalith Athulathmudali, in Parliament, any longer. In response to queries raised by the writer, at separate media briefings, during the previous administration, three ministers, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Dayasiri Jayasekera and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka acknowledged that the cabinet never discussed the contentious issue. The Joint Opposition, too, failed in its responsibility. The JO never made a real effort to pressure the government over the Geneva issue. Instead, the JO helped the Geneva project by joining the treacherous attempt to draft a new constitution meant to do away with Sri Lanka’s unitary status at the behest of the West and the Eelam lobby.

Parliament’s responsibility

Sri Lanka Parliament should take up the Geneva issue. There cannot be any other matter more important than properly using Lord Naseby’s disclosure to save Sri Lanka from the Geneva trap. Unfortunately, Parliament is in turmoil, with UNP lawmaker Ranjan Ramanayake’s disgraceful conduct sending shockwaves through the establishment and the country at large. Although parliament disregarded Lord Naseby’s disclosure, thereby facilitating the ongoing Geneva project against the country, it responded swiftly and decisively in the wake of investigations into incidents involving three lawmakers, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Dr. Rajitha Senaratne and Ranjan Ramanayake.

Shan Wijetunga, Director, Department of Communication of Parliament, on January 09, announced representatives of the government and the Opposition met to discuss as to how the police could arrest a member of Parliament without harming his/her dignity and honour. Having discussed recent developments, the Parliament requested the Defence Ministry and Police Headquarters to formulate a set of guidelines to be followed in case the police wanted to arrest a member of Parliament.

Among those lawmakers who had been present, on Speaker Karu Jayasuriya’s invitation, were Chamal Rajapaksa, Nimal Siripala, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Sajith Premadasa and Ranil Wickremesinghe.

Interestingly both Wickremesinghe and Premadasa figure in the controversy caused by UNPer Ramanayake.

Unfortunately, the Parliament never felt the requirement to call such a special meeting to discuss the UN war crimes accusations, soon after the release of the POE report, in March 2011. The Rajapaksa administration lacked a proper strategy to meet the Geneva challenge, though they did the virtual impossible by defeating the LTTE convincingly in the battlefield, when all the pundits, particularly in the West, said that our forces were incapable of defeating the Tigers.

The war-winning government handled the hard won peace quite badly. There cannot be any excuse for squandering millions of USD on US public relations firms, some of them now under a cloud, in a bid to farcically influence US policy on Sri Lanka. During the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, too, the Parliament had no role in respect of Geneva. The UNP-led coalition signed the Geneva resolution without consulting Parliament.

However, the UNP cleverly used the Parliament to achieve its objectives. The UNP shrewdly involved all political parties, represented in Parliament, in a constitution making process, as directed by Geneva against the country’s interest. The operation was meant to do away with the unitary status. The project could have even succeeded if not for the massive turmoil caused by the Treasury bond scams, perpetrated by Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) in Feb 2015 and March 2016, with the full backing of the UNP leadership.

Between the two Treasury bond scams, the then government betrayed the war-winning military in Geneva. The Geneva resolution set in motion a process that undermined the Sri Lankan State. The Parliament became a tool in the hands of those promoting separatism here, much to the dismay of the vast majority of people. The Parliament, as an institution, failed in its duty to protect the country’s Constitution. Instead those playing politics with the Constitution, at the expense of the country, were rewarded. The TNA, in 2016, declared that the party reached a tripartite agreement, involving the US and the yahapalana government, to include foreign judges in accountability mechanisms. On behalf of the TNA, its spokesman and Jaffna District MP M.A. Sumanthiran made the declaration in Washington. That statement, made in the presence of the then Sri Lankan Ambassador in Washington, career diplomat Prasad Kariyawasam, was never challenged. The Parliament never raised it.

Political parties represented in Parliament should examine the accountability on the part of the House in respect of the Geneva imbroglio, with a view to taking remedial measures. The government should be mindful of the challenges it faced as Western powers seek to manipulate the government. The crisis caused by the Swiss and cases involving lawmakers Patali Champika Ranawaka, Dr Rajitha Senaratne and Ranjan Ramanayake shouldn’t be allowed to divert attention from Geneva.

The new government’s Geneva policy will decide the country’s fate. It would be pertinent to mention that by the time the country goes to the next parliamentary, polls in late April or early May, 2020, the new government’s Geneva policy would be known to the public.