Tuesday, 10 March 2020

2020 General Election: UN pushing for House reforms


By Shamindra Ferdinando

The United Nations wants to influence the Sri Lankan electorate. The global body expects the Sri Lankan electorate to vote for women at the forthcoming Parliamentary election. Obviously, the UN wants major political parties to field more women in their nomination lists for the electorate to choose from.

A week long nomination period begins tomorrow (12).

Hanaa Singer, UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, in a special statement headlined ‘More women in power please’, issued to mark International Women’s Day, underscored the need for more women in Parliament.

The statement coincided with media reports pertaining to the possibility of former member of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), Ambika Satkunanathan, joining the parliamentary polls fray. The lawyer and human rights advocate quit HRCSL on March 7. If Satkunanathan reached consensus with the four party, Tamil National Alliance (TNA), she’ll contest the Jaffna electoral district on the TNA ticket.

Satkunanathan had served in various roles at the UN offices, in Sri Lanka, including as the national legal advisor to the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Office of the Senior Human Rights Advisor and national consultant on gender integration/evaluation at the Office of the Resident Coordinator.

She is the chairperson of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust in Colombo, vice chairperson of Urgent Action Fund for Women’s Human Rights–Asia Pacific, a regional feminist women’s fund, and an advisory board member of the Suriya Women’s Development Centre, Batticaloa.

The LTTE assassinated internationally recognized scholar TULF MP Tiruchelvam on July 29, 1999-two years before the LTTE formed the TNA to do its bidding in and outside Parliament. The TNA, at the behest of Velupllai Prabahakaran, recognized the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people.

Singer who leads the United Nations Country Team as the designated representative of the UN Secretary General for development operations, said: "In Sri Lanka, women have seen dramatic development gains over the years. Today, Sri Lankan women have long life spans, inroads with education and health, and a high literacy rate. Yet power gaps persist. The last Parliament had only 12 women in the 225-seat legislative body, short of the global tally of one-quarter. However, the upcoming Parliamentary elections are an opportunity to increase women’s meaningful participation in public life."

Singer added: "And the run-up to the elections present the perfect time for women to engage, enter public life, dismantle bias, and watch development gains grow, because with diversity in representation comes diversity in policies. We need more women in public and political life. We cannot afford to slide backwards. We must forge ahead with women’s equality and make this last decade for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals a Decade of Action and also a Decade of Equality. Gender equality can be achieved in our lifetimes. It begins with a mindset shift and is supported by policy changes, enabling environments, and transformational change in all areas of life."

Perhaps, Singer has conveniently forgotten how women suffered during the war that was brought to a successful conclusion in May 2009. The UN Resident Coordinator also seems to have forgotten how girls/women inflicted death and destruction on behalf of the LTTE. The global community never made a determined effort to stop the LTTE from using girls/women in suicide missions and combat operations. The LTTE used girls/women as cannon fodder, until the very end, on the Vanni east front.

Singer took over the Sri Lanka mission, in early September 2018, following the death of Una McCauley, who passed away in Colombo, at the age of 54, from cancer.

Women as instruments of war

The brutal use of women, as instruments of war continued until Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion a decade ago. A Sri Lankan female suicide bomber assassinated former Prime Minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi at Sriperumbudur, Chennai, in Tamil Nadu, on 21 May 1991. In addition to Gandhi, at least 14 others perished in the first suicide bombing carried out in India. Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, also known as Dhanu, was the assassin. Thenmozhi’s accomplice, another girl of her age, committed suicide to avoid being captured by Indian security services.

Rajiv Gandhi assassination convict S Nalini Sriharan, who has been serving a life term for over 28 years, in May 2017 sought UN help to secure her release. In a six-page letter, addressed to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nalini explained how she and six others were still in prison after serving more than a life term.

Would it be possible to improve parliamentary standards by increasing the number of women in parliament? Surangika Ariyawansha, Executive Director of the Centre for Human Rights (CHR) recently urged the government to increase the female quota in both provincial councils and Parliament.

Ariyawansha, addressing the media to mark the International Women’s Day, said that the 25% female

quota for Local Government bodies had opened the door for many women to enter politics.

"They must now be assisted to enter provincial councils and Parliament. Local councils are a stepping stone for politicians. Given our electoral system and political culture it is difficult for a woman to contest and win elections. The quotas are an effective temporary measure,"Ariyawansha said.

The internationally backed project, to accommodate more women in Local Government, ultimately resulted in the number of LG members being increased by over 4,000, at a tremendous cost to the taxpayer. Political parties endorsed this project foolishly at the expense of those struggling to make ends meet. Today, those who backed enhanced quota for women in Local Government, remained silent. When the writer raised the contentious issue with the Chairman of the Elections Commission Mahinda Deshapriya over a year ago, of accountability as regards the colossal waste of public funds due to the increase of the number of Local Government members from 4,000 to 8,600, he said that the Parliament endorsed it. Deshapriya asserted that as the decision had been taken by the Parliament hence he couldn’t be held responsible.

The then President Maithripala Sirisena publicly admitted that the expansion of the Local Government system was a mistake. Sirisena promised to take remedial measures though nothing was done about it, so typical of the man on many issues.

Nearly 2,000 women secured Local Government seats, taking an impressive 23 percent of slots compared to the less than 2 percent of seats they held just a few years ago. The USAID also backed the project to expand women representation in Local Government bodies.

Now, the civil society wants the Parliament to provide enhanced quota for female members of the Local Government bodies to enter Provincial Councils and Parliament as well.

Sarojini Yogeswaran

UN’s constitution making

project here

Singer, in her statement, made reference to the last Parliament having only 12 women in Parliament.

Thanks to the then UNP lawmaker, Ranjan Ramanayake’s leaked audio clips, how one female ruined the reputation of the August assembly is in the public domain. Perhaps, the UN as well as other interested parties, felt that larger the women representation in Parliament it would make it easier to promote their agenda here.

During the previous yahapalana government, the UN by way of a statement issued by the then High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, dealt with constitutional reforms, including the proposed referendum in his June 2016 oral update to the rights body. The project went awry due to a mixture of reasons. Let me reproduce verbatim Al-Hussein’s statement: "Significant momentum has been achieved in the process of constitutional reform. On 10 March 2016, Parliament adopted a resolution establishing a constitutional assembly to draft and approve a new constitution or amendments by the end of 2016, which would then be put to a referendum in 2017. The drafting process has benefited from an inclusive public consultation process overseen by a Public Representations Committee that received submissions and held district level consultations in the first quarter of 2016".

The UN seems to be seriously interested in changing Sri Lanka. The UN pursued a high profile agenda to suit Western policy, vis-a-vis Sri Lanka. The UN exploited unsubstantiated war crimes allegations to create an environment conducive for international intervention here. The previous government owed an explanation as to how the Geneva, based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) got involved in a process here to completely change the country’s constitution. Over a decade after the end of the conflict, Western powers are pushing Sri Lanka to change its political set up. They also want far reaching security sector reforms in terms of the OISL report, prepared by a special investigation team within the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The OISL report which followed the highly controversial Darusman dossier, paved the way for UN Resolution 30/1. The OISL Report’s list of recommendations included security sector reform. The OISL particularly highlighted the importance of vetting security forces personnel to remove those in respect of whom there are reasonable grounds to believe they were involved in human rights violations.

Against the backdrop of the OISL recommendation, the UN stepped-up scrutiny of Sri Lankan military assigned for overseas deployment under UN command. In accordance with an understanding between the UN and Sri Lanka, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) initiated a project to vet those assigned for UN missions. The screening process was undertaken on the basis of unverified war crimes accusations. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka is yet to take tangible measures to make representations to the UN as regards unsubstantiated war crimes allegations though Foreign Relations Minister Dinesh Gunawardena discussed the issue at the ongoing Geneva sessions. Gunawardena made his statement on Feb 26, 2020.

OISL recommended (1) The formulation of an overall plan for security sector reform to guarantee the civilian nature, independence and professionalism of the law and order forces, and reducing the role of the military in internal security matters (2) Clarify the roles and chain of command for all branches of the security forces, including the different intelligence services, the CID and the TID (3) Develop a fully-fledged vetting process respecting due process to remove from office military and security forces personnel and any other public official where there are reasonable grounds to believe that they were involved in human rights violations and (4) Ensure that no member of the Sri Lankan security forces is sent on a UN peacekeeping mission without vetting to establish that the individual, including commanders, have not in any way been involved in human rights violations or criminal acts. Any allegations of abuses by Sri Lankan peacekeepers while on peacekeeping duties must be fully investigated by the authorities. The above were just a few of the recommendations made in the OISL report under institutional reforms, justice, truth/right to know, reparations in addition to recommendations to the UN system and member states as well as general.

Sudarshini enters Parliament

UN Resident Coordinator, Singer, in her statement, made reference to the last Parliament having only 12 women lawmakers. Among them was Dr. Mrs. Sudarshini Fernandopulle, who was elected on the UPFA ticket. Sudarshini entered active politics after the LTTE assassinated her husband Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle on the morning of April 08, 2008, at Weliweriya, using a suicide bomber. The LTTE assassinations paved the way for several women to enter politics during the conflict. The late Srima Dissanayake entered the presidential fray after an LTTE suicide bomber blasted her husband Gamini Dissanayake along with scores of other top UNPers at a presidential election rally, at Thotalanga, in late Oct. 1994.

At the next presidential election, in Dec 1999, the LTTE made an abortive bid to assassinate Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. She survived the suicide attack to comfortably defeat UNP candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe. The global community turned a blind eye to Sri Lanka’s plight. The country’s political system withered under LTTE pressure.

The global community ignored the LTTE assassination of Jaffna Mayoress Sarojini Yogeswaran on the morning of May 17, 1998, during Kumaratunga’s presidency.

Sarojiri was gunned down by a gunman who called at her home. The gunman fired a T56 at her as she

was talking with the Deputy Mayor, who subsequently quit his post. Sarojini posed a tremendous threat to the LTTE. Although she was cautious and never criticized the LTTE publicly, the group recognized the growing threat posed by her. She earned the respect of the Army top brass in Jaffna and embassies. The LTTE resented this and silenced her. The TULF expected the LTTE to leave Sarojini Yogeswaran alone.

If the TULF leadership thought the LTTE would not assassinate both husband and wife, the LTTE proved what it was capable of. Her husband Vettivelu was gunned down by LTTE gunmen on July 13, 1989, at TULF leader Amirthalingam’s Colombo 7 residence. This was shortly after Sarojini served refreshments to the would be assassins. They also killed TULF leader Amirthalingham before his bodyguards gunned them down. Before the police reacted, former Udupiddy MP M. Sivasiththamparam too received gunshot injuries.

Sarojini’s murder was greeted with a deafening silence. Practically all civil institutions, including the church and the TULF, played into the hands of the LTTE by not naming the LTTE as being responsible for the despicable act. A section of the TULF, obviously, on the instructions of the LTTE, blamed other Tamil groups.

Had Western powers acted decisively when the TULF Leader was assassinated or when former Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi was most daringly blown up, in India, Nanthikadal could have been avoided, definitely. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka, too, had squandered a timely opportunity to remind the international community how it had saved Tamil women from the LTTE, which went to the extent of forming exclusive women fighting units for deployment in high intensity battles. None of those who had been shedding crocodile tears for Tamil speaking women, since the conclusion of the conflict, had voiced concern when the LTTE used women in military operations. They should be challenged to produce at least a press release issued during the war critical of the use of females in combat and suicide missions.

Sri Lanka could rightfully be proud of having liberated all child soldiers from the clutches of terrorists and released them together with male and female fighters taken into custody during the final phase of the conflict.

Those promoting separatist sentiments wouldn’t hesitate to exploit international events to step up pressure on Sri Lanka. Statements issued by various interested parties highlighted their strategy.

The late LTTE theoretician Anton Balasingham’s wife Adele Balasingham publicly encouraged the use of women in combat and hung cyanide capsules around their necks was now living freely in the UK. The global community didn’ feel the need to take up the issue of women in war zones until the LTTE had lost the war. Thousands of lives could have been saved if the international community had intervened earlier.

Sri Lanka’s biggest achievement was bringing the war to an end almost single handedly while the self-proclaimed international community thought the LTTE was invincible and always plodded us to sue for peace or it was more like the peace of the graveyard, but by doing the impossible against the advice of international pundits, saved the lives of women and children. Unfortunately, even a decade after the end of the war, Sri Lanka is still struggling to properly defend the country with interested parties pursuing strategies to further weaken the State and the government. Increasing the number of women in Parliament certainly cannot be a priority for Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka needs to clean up Parliament. Regardless of statements attributed to the then Speaker Karu Jayasuriya regarding the status of Parliament, the House needs to be cleaned up.

Similarly the UN’s priorities shouldn’t be ours. What in the world is the UN doing here promoting more women in Parliament?