SPECIAL REPORT : Part 311March 3, 2020, 9:20 pm
Foreign Relations Minister Dinesh Gunawarena addresses Geneva sessions
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Having received the appointment as Foreign Relations Minister last November, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) leader Dinesh Gunawardena, MP, experienced a torrid time, with his ministry under siege, following the Swiss bombshell accusations that government agents, on the evening of Nov 25, 2019, abducted an employee of its Embassy in Colombo.
The Swiss, on behalf of Western powers, opened a new front against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government.
International media was also brought into the operation with the New York Times taking on the administration. In an article titled ‘Sri Lankan Critics Fear a Crackdown Is Underway, and Some Flee’ with strap line ‘A Swiss Embassy employee was abducted and asked about asylum applications and investigators were banned from leaving just days after Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected’, The New York Times pilloried President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The NYT like a US mouthpiece reported the concocted abduction even before Swiss Ambassador Hans Peter Mock had a chance to complain about it to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. By jumping the gun the NYT self-exposed how partial it was in carrying out a one sided story without so much as a word from the government of Sri Lanka, the real victim of that journalistic hatchet job.
Gunawardena, who had never held the Foreign/External Affairs portfolio in spite of being a member of the cabinet, since 2000, received the foreign relations portfolio from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Gunawardena had been a member of the cabinet of ministers, both under Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa. Gunawardena hadn’t been considered for the post, even during the 50-day Maithripala Sirisena-Mahinda Rajapaksa government, in Oct-Dec 2018. The government opted for Dr. Sarath Amunugama.
Swiss cause turmoil
Within a week after assuming the Foreign Relations portfolio, Gunawardena had to cope up with high profile Swiss Embassy operation that rattled President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s minority government. The Swiss provided political asylum to Inspector Nishantha Silva of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) on Nov 25, 2019 and then three days later had the audacity to complain to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa of his government agents molesting Swiss Embassy employee Garnier Francis Banister. The Swiss refused to give local authorities access to her. Garnier resided at the Swiss mission, while Switzerland stepped up pressure on Sri Lanka. Switzerland accommodated Nishantha Silva, who handled several sensitive cases, and accused government agents of abduction in a bid to cause turmoil. The Swiss move was meant to isolate the government.
The move caught the new government by surprise and was also meant to undermine President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the onset of his term. Western powers orchestrated the operation as part of their overall strategy. Had their original plan to evacuate Garnier, along with her family, in an air ambulance, succeeded, Western powers would have certainly used it against Sri Lanka at the ongoing 43rd sessions of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council. Geneva hatchet men/women had no qualms about using unverified information against Sri Lanka.
Foreign Relations Minister Gunawardena, in his lengthy address delivered on Feb 26, challenged the Geneva process.
Dinesh wants accountability resolution revisited
Gunawardena said that the previous government blatantly accepted the much-flawed OISL Report, which was used as the basis not only for Resolution 30/1, but also to unjustly vilify the Sri Lankan military. Minister Gunawardena pointed out how the Geneva process moved on in spite of an abundance of evidence to the contrary, contained in; (1) domestic reports such as the LLRC and the ‘Paranagama Commission’ (2) information presented on Oct 12, 2017, before the UK House of Lords by Lord Naseby, challenging among other things the vastly exaggerated civilian casualty figures. Lord Naseby made the disclosure on the basis of wartime British High Commission dispatches from Colombo (January-May 2009) to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The British made a desperate bid to prevent Lord Naseby obtaining those dispatches though the politician succeeded by seeking the intervention UK Information Commissioner (3) other reports from the UN and international agencies, including the ICRC and (4) leaked US diplomatic cables.
Minister Gunawardena also referred to the statement made by his predecessor and one-time Attorney General Tilak Marapana, PC, at the March 2019 Geneva sessions. Let me reproduce the relevant section of Minister Gunawardena’s speech verbatim: "It is ironic that, in March 2019, the previous government, which co-sponsored Resolution 30/1, in October 2015, began the process of dismantling its dictates through the statement, made in this Council by my predecessor, which acknowledged the very real constraints that had been ignored four years before at the time of co-sponsoring this resolution. That statement sought to qualify the parameters of co-sponsorship of the Resolution. It questioned; (1) the Resolution 30/1’s characterization of the nature of the conflict and the estimated number of deaths (2) pushed back on the alleged culpability of the security forces (3) curtailed the effect of security sector reform demanded and (4) asserted that the Sri Lanka Constitution precludes involvement of foreign judges and prosecutors in the judicial mechanism proposed.
Minister Gunawardena emphasized that though Minister Marapana, on behalf of the government, faulted the process; the administration refrained from taking remedial measures.
The government delegation comprised State Minister of Public Administration and Home Affairs Mahinda Samarasinghe, Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinha, Additional Secretary to the President, Admiral (retd.) Jayanath Colombage, Senior Deputy Solicitor General Nerin Pulle, and Acting Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva Dayani Mendis. Director General of the UN and Human Rights Division of the Ministry of Foreign Relations M.R.K. Lenagala, Senior State Counsel Kanishka Balapatabendi, Brigadier E.S. Jayasinghe from the Ministry of Defence, and Coordinating Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Relations Subash Sri Wijethunga, were also part of the Sri Lanka delegation to the 43rd session of the HRC.
Obviously President Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn’t believe in sending an oversized delegation to Geneva at taxpayers’ expense.
Mangala at the helm
At the onset of the Eelam War IV, in 2006, Mangala Samaraweera served as the Foreign Minister in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government. Hardly anyone would remember Samaraweera warning the LTTE of dire consequences of continuing the war at a UN event in Colombo in 2006. A few months later, Samaraweera lost the ministry following clashes with the Rajapaksas.
In the wake of a damaging political row with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and serious differences with the then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Samaraweera was replaced, in early 2007. The Rajapaksas brought in Rohitha Bogollagama in place of Samaraweera. Turncoat Bogollagama served as Foreign Minister during the war and was replaced by Prof. G.L. Peiris, in 2010. The academic held the vital portfolio until Rajapaksa’s defeat in 2015. Since the change of government, in January 2015, four held the Foreign Ministry portfolio, beginning with Mangala Samaraweera (January 2015-May 2017), Ravi Karunanayake (May 2017 to August 2017), Tilak Marapana (Aug 2017-Oct 2018), Dr Sarath Amunugama (Nov 2018-Dec 2018) and Tilak Marapana received the same portfolio in Dec 2018 after Maithripala Sirisena-Mahinda Rajapaksa gave up governmental power in the wake of their failure to prove a simple majority in parliament.
A reference to Marapana
Dinesh Gunawardena, in his capacity as Foreign Relations Minister, used available information in public domain in Sri Lanka’s defence. It was his responsibility to ensure Sri Lanka presented all available information to individual members of the Human Rights Council to pave the way for reexamination of unverified accusations. Minister Gunawardena is one of the few politicians who defended the armed forces, both in and outside parliament. Gunawardena questioned the then Foreign Minister Marapana, in Nov 2017, in parliament, over their failure to use Lord Naseby’s disclosure. Although Marapana promised to do so, his government conveniently forgot to make use of Lord Naseby’s disclosure. However Marapana made reference to Lord Naseby in his March 2019 address in Geneva. Marapana said: "There has been persistent and repeated reference in official documents of the OHCHR and this Council to exaggerated numbers as the alleged death toll during the last stages of the conflict. These assertions remain in direct contradiction to independent assessments sent by foreign missions, UN agencies as well as other international organizations, including the ICRC – and some heavily redacted accounts of which have been presented not only in the House of Lords, in the UK, on 12 October 2017, citing dispatches by the UK Defence Attaché in Colombo during the last stages of the conflict, but also in writings by academics and journalists which is found in the public domain. The Government of Sri Lanka believes that it is indeed erroneous that more attention has not been paid to the above mentioned information, by agencies including the OHCHR, which is required to seek the truth."
Minister Marapana also pointed out the absurdity in the High Commissioner for Human Rights accusations/assertions as regards the so called Mannar mass graves. Minister Marapana said: "As for the ‘mass graves’ in Mannar, referred to in para 23, of the High Commissioner’s Report, despite the test results obtained from a USA laboratory have revealed that the said skeletal remains date back to 1499-1719 AD – a period when Sri Lanka was largely under European colonial rule, the report presupposes ‘other mass graves might be expected to be found in the future’. An assumption of this nature in a public report, on a matter of this magnitude and seriousness, is not acceptable, and may even cast a doubt as regards other assertions in the report."
The UNP owes the country an explanation as to why absolutely no action was taken following Minister Marapana’s statement at the 40th Geneva session. The UNP paid a very heavy price for the Geneva betrayal. Their actions contributed to the massive defeat the UNP suffered at the Feb 2018 Local Government polls and the Nov. 2019 presidential polls. Unfortunately, the UNP hadn’t still realized how its foolish foreign policy undermined the party.
UNP strategy goes awry
Had Gotabaya Rajapaksa lost his bid to contest the Nov 16, 2019 presidential election, Sri Lanka’s stand in Geneva would have been definitely different. Fearing Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s candidature faced a serious threat, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) got Chamal Rajapaksa to pay the deposit to contest in his place in the event their worst fears came true. UNP strategist Dr. Rajitha Senaratne used two felons, in a high profile propaganda project meant to demonize Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the run-up to the Nov. 16 poll. Sections of the media, including those foreign agencies, worked overtime to undermine the Rajapaksa campaign with an influential section of the SLFP throwing its weight behind Sajith Premadasa’s campaign. Don’t forget Sajith Premadasa would have ended up in a far worse situation if the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) didn’t back his campaign in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
The UNP took a treacherous stand on the Swiss Embassy affair. UNPers, including Sajith Premadasa and Rajitha Senaratne, unhesitatingly backed the Swiss Embassy accusations directed at President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government. Having badly lost the presidential election as well as fighting among themselves for control, members of the UNP parliamentary group obviously enjoyed the difficulties experienced by the government.
With the blessings of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Foreign Relations Ministry handled the Garnier affair differently. Having conducted a thorough inquiry into accusations made by Ambassador Hanspeter Mock, on behalf of Garnier, while keeping her under Swiss protection, the Foreign Relations Minister Gunawardena briefed Western envoys. Foreign Secretary Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha, accompanied by Defence Secretary Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, briefed the Swiss Ambassador and the Deputy Chief of Mission, on Dec 01, 2019, as regards the findings. The Foreign Relations Ministry set the record by issuing a statement immediately after Aryasinha and Gunaratne briefed the Swiss in Colombo. However, they continued to resist investigations by denying local authorities access to Garnier. The Swiss finally handed over Garnier, to the CID, on Dec 16, 2019. During the proceedings, before Colombo Chief Magistrate Lanka Jayaratne, it transpired that Garnier’s mother and three children were on a vacation in Singapore and would be back before the commencement of the 2020 first school term. Defence Attorney Upul Kumarapperuma made the revelation after Senior State Counsel Janaka Bandara speculated on the possibility that Garnier was likely to receive political asylum in Switzerland, as her mother and children were there already. Who paid for their vacation in Singapore?
‘Project Garnier’, if it succeeded, could have caused irreparable damage to Sri Lanka’s reputation. Geneva would have gone to town with Garnier’s story. The Swiss put pressure on Foreign Relations Minister Gunawardena. Swiss ambassadors Jorg Frieden and Hanspeter Mock ‘stressed that in the present case, the principle of the presumption of innocence applies and that the health and safety of its embassy staff take priority,’ in a meeting with Minister Gunawardena. Earlier, Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis in a telephone conversation with Minister Gunawardena pointed out that the ‘high level of media coverage, lack of privacy safeguards and public statements prejudging the outcome of the proceedings in this case not only endangered the Swiss Embassy staff but also eroded the trust and confidence required to jointly clarify the incident.’
The Swiss conveniently forgot that the New York Times and various other media organizations, including Al Jazeera, reported the Garnier abduction as the gospel truth.
Following a meeting with the Attorney General, the Swiss warned that in this high-profile case, Sri Lanka’s reputation as a country that upholds the rule of law, was at stake.
In the run up to Geneva, the US declared that the Army Chief who is also the Acting Chief of Defence Staff Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva and his family wouldn’t be allowed entry to the US. The US move was also part of the strategic campaign to harass and unsettle Sri Lanka ahead of Geneva. Since the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government co-sponsored the Geneva Resolution in Oct 2015, Sri Lanka never defended, during sessions, their senior military figures by name. Before Lt. Gen. Silva was categorized by the US on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations, war-winning Army Chief Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka and Maj. Gen. Chagie Gallage and several other officers were denied visas by Western countries. Sri Lanka remained silent. However, Foreign Relations Minister Gunawardena, much to the dismay of those seeking to haul Sri Lankan up before foreign judges, defended Lt. Gen. Silva. Minister Gunawardena said: "As highlighted before this Council on several occasions, Sri Lanka has consistently refuted the credibility of the false and unsubstantiated allegations levelled against Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva, the present Commander of the Sri Lanka Army and Actg. Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). Sri Lanka considers that the continued arbitrary accusations made against Lt. Gen. Silva in the OHCHR Reports and other statements made in this Council and unilateral actions by certain countries, are unacceptable and a violation of the principles of natural justice. We also stress that there are no proven allegations against individuals on war crimes or crimes against humanity in the OISL report or in any subsequent official document. It is an injustice to deprive any serving or retired officer of the Sri Lankan security forces or the police of their due rights."
Nationalist groups appreciated the stand taken by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government in Geneva. A sustained campaign is necessary to convince the Geneva body to revisit accountability resolution on Sri Lanka. Perhaps, Foreign Relations Ministry should officially request the UK to make available all wartime dispatches from Colombo to help ascertain the truth. Now, that Sri Lanka has brought up Lord Naseby’s disclosure at the 43rd Geneva sessions, the UK, if genuinely interested in post-war reconciliation, cannot suppress information that may help set the record straight.