President Rajapaksa in phone conversation with President Xi, seeks to learn about Chinese Communist Party’s governing experience Colombage’s diplomatic faux pas leaves Sri Lanka in blushes UNHRC begins process to recruit experts for secretariat on Lanka; Govt. opposes Bachelet’s move to seek more funds from UN General Assembly   The repercussions of the diplomatic disaster [...]

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Sri Lanka shows appreciation to her ‘all weather’ friends abroad

By Our Political Editor
View(s):

  • President Rajapaksa in phone conversation with President Xi, seeks to learn about Chinese Communist Party’s governing experience
  • Colombage’s diplomatic faux pas leaves Sri Lanka in blushes
  • UNHRC begins process to recruit experts for secretariat on Lanka; Govt. opposes Bachelet’s move to seek more funds from UN General Assembly

 

While the government’s ties with India are under strain, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena this week met Russia’s Ambassador Yuri Meteriy and China’s Ambassador Qi Zhenhong at the Foreign Ministry. The Minister thanked them for their support for Sri Lanka, at the recent UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva. Ambassador Materiy is in conversation with Minister Gunawardena.

The repercussions of the diplomatic disaster are surfacing just days after the Human Rights Council in Geneva adopted the toughest resolution on Sri Lanka.

The United Kingdom together with? the core group (non-UNHRC members included) are examining ways and means of hurriedly pursuing issues related to future human rights violations — the key element in the resolution.? As the Operative Paragraph 6 said, it is “to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including member states with competent jurisdiction.”

The UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michele Bachelet has urged member states to apply principles of universal or extra-territorial jurisdiction to violations committed in Sri Lanka. She has recommended exploring possible targeted sanctions and travel bans against credibly alleged perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses. There are also indications that the United States, the United Kingdom or France could raise the stakes at the UN Security Council. However, it is certain to be vetoed by both China and Russia. But the exercise does have adverse repercussions in the form of a negative image of Sri Lanka.

A new Secretariat will function under Human Rights High Commissioner Bachelet. The Office of the High Commissioner has already advertised calling for applications for the identified new positions. This includes One Senior Legal Advisor with experience in criminal justice and or criminal investigations and prosecutions to co-ordinate the team. He or she will be responsible for collection strategy; the development of a central repository to consolidate, preserve and analyse information and evidence; co-ordinate the processes of reviewing and sharing of information with national authorities for universal jurisdiction and extra territorial jurisdiction cases and other accountability purposes in line with relevant United Nations guidelines; develop accountability strategy and engage with accountability mechanisms including specialised investigators, prosecutors, judges, and other legal practitioners both for information sharing purposes, to promote accountability and advice on the development of accountability strategies; and liaise with other Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), other independent mechanisms and other UN systems to ensure co-ordinated approach.”

There will be two investigators or Human Rights Officers with a background of criminal law to research, collect and analyse information and documentation pertaining to serious human rights violations, and international criminal law matters. Others include two Legal Officers, two Analysts, an Information and Evidence Officer, two Jurists – Linguists, a Victim Support Officer, and a programme Assistant.

Funding amounting to US$ 2,800,900 is required for the remaining part of this year for this new team. Thereafter for 2022, a sum of US$ 2,064, 400 is estimated. This fund requirement is to be brought to the attention of the UN General Assembly when it meets for its 76th sessions in New York in September. It would have to be approved by the Fifth Committee which is charged with financial administration of the UN system. In this instance, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva should have questioned the recruitment of staff before funds are approved.

The government is making a strong bid, with the help of diplomats from China and Pakistan to defeat the motion for additional funds initially at the Fifth Committee. This is by lobbying UN member states. Like the defeat of Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council in Geneva, this will be no easy task. However, it is imperative for Sri Lanka through its proxies to have it established that the extra-budgetary resources are unacceptable. If at all, expenses should be through the regular budget. However, the move for a new Secretariat under the Human Rights High Commissioner will not be dropped. Diplomatic sources said that Australia and Norway were ready to offer the funds should a move to defeat the appeal for funding by UN body goes through. However, the same sources said they were “very confident” such a situation would not arise.

Reports emerging from diplomatic consultations among the sponsor and core group of countries show that many options were being discussed. What happens if members of the new Secretariat under the UN Human Rights Commissioner are not allowed to visit Sri Lanka? There have been suggestions for those concerned to visit as tourists. There will also be references to trophy footage and evidence on the violation of humanitarian law. In the coming weeks, there will be “especially important measures adopted by some core group members to take forward the resolution,” said a western diplomatic source.” He said, “await official announcements” but declined to elaborate.

Though there were disastrous effects from the diplomatic blunders in both Geneva and Colombo over the passage of the Resolution on Sri Lanka, the government is not unmindful of developments thereafter. It is also adopting measures to counter information gathering on “future violations of human rights” by the envisaged Secretariat at the OHCHR. Foreign Tamil organisations numbering seven and located in a number of western countries have been proscribed through a Gazette notification. Also named are 339 individuals who will not be allowed entry into Sri Lanka. Usually such a list is circulated among immigration authorities the world over and is retained in their data bases. Efforts are being made by Tamil groups to appeal to western governments not to act on them because they will encounter ban on visits.

They include those in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Germany, and France. A main group proscribed is the UK-based Global Tamil Forum (GTF) which, together with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), has been at the helm of pushing through the Resolution on Sri Lanka. This is the second time such a proscription has been reimposed after the withdrawal by the previous yahapalana government in 2016. It then applied to seven organisations. The proscription is in keeping with the United Nations comprehensive convention on international terrorism, said a government official who did not wish to be named.

This proscription means that any person who has any dealings with those named in the Gazette notification would be treated as an offender. Such a person will be liable for arrest. The idea is to prevent them from transmitting any complaint or in helping in many other ways. This measure is coupled together with another action. The government is closely monitoring Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and International Non-Governmental Organisations (INGOs) which are dealing in US dollars. Remittances from different sources are being identified. This again is to prevent, among other matters, funds being used to gather information on alleged victims of human rights violations and fee for lawyers who produce affidavits.

It is not Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, but Education Minister and Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Chairman G.L. Peiris who reflected the government’s concerns this week. He told a meeting of SLPP lawyers at the Water’s Edge last Wednesday that “false information had been submitted to the Human Rights Council.” Peiris said even “the opposition should come forward to reject false propaganda against the country, We should with one voice fight against false propaganda.”

The main opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB) pooh-poohed the call. General Secretary Ranjith Madduma Bandara said, “It is the actions of the government that led to damaging results at the Human Rights Council. We cannot support anti-democratic actions after the presidential election in 2019. They did away with independent commissions, destroyed the independence of the judiciary and strengthened a dictatorial rule. They appointed even retired military officers to positions held by civilians. You can now see the UNHRC response.”

However, Madduma Bandara emphasised that the SJB “would always defend the troops, the war heroes, who have made a great sacrifice during the separatist war. There is a great difference between them and what the government is now doing, he said. “As for any invitation to us from the government, our party leaders would have to decide,” he added.

Onetime Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, held a news conference to defend his role in co-sponsoring resolution 30/1 at the Human Rights Council this week. He made a revelation little known to most Sri Lankans. He had won the approval for this co-sponsorship not only from the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, but also from the then President Maithripala Sirisena. The latter had continued to deny that such approval was given by him and declared he was not consulted. Samaraweera confessed to a friend that the draft statement he made co-sponsoring resolution 30/1 was also discussed with Sirisena at his hotel suite during a visit to a foreign country. He was booked in the next room.? Samaraweera insisted that he walked from his room to the suite nine times to make corrections to the draft. He explained that the text and all other issues connected to this resolution to then President Sirisena in Sinhala and he had granted approval too. Yet, the subject did not come up before the Cabinet of Ministers for approval then. Samaraweera cautioned that “if you are going to accuse those who criticise you as your enemies, Sri Lanka is going nowhere.”

The post-Geneva-resolution week has also seen other significant developments. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa telephoned Chinese President Xi Jinping for a lengthy conversation. A high-ranking source said the current developments in Sri Lanka were discussed and the Chinese leader had assured all support. The Chinese Embassy said in a statement that President Rajapaksa hoped to learn about the Chinese Communist Party’s governance experience. Rajapaksa congratulated Xi Jinping over the century the Communist Party has reached. The Chinese President has also re-iterated his invitation to President Rajapaksa to visit China.

A notable feature in the past weeks has been the absence of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. He has undergone knee surgery and is recuperating. Earlier, it was his efforts that led to Pakistan supporting Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council. He invited Prime Minister Imran Khan to Colombo. Premier Khan’s diplomacy in seeking the government to withdraw mandatory cremation of Muslim Covid-19 victims paid off, though initially it led to burial of the bodies in Iranativu island off Mannar. Minister Douglas Devananda protested and it was shifted to Ottamavadi in the Batticaloa district.

The visit to Pakistan also led to closer military co-operation between troops from the two countries. Pakistan Army personnel have carried joint exercises with their Sri Lankan counterparts in the past weeks. The latest was an exercise in dealing with mobs during a riot or other event threatening a law-and-order situation. Chief of Defence Staff and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva visited Pakistan and met both the political and military leadership there. One of the arrangements made is to enhance training of Sri Lankan troops in different specialised areas.

Premier Rajapaksa was also able to secure the support of Bangladesh with a visit to that country. It was the 50th anniversary celebrations of independence and the centenary of the birth of the late founder leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In the years when he was President, he was actively involved on matters related to the Human Rights Council sessions.

Needless to say, that a not so noticeable foreign policy shift is in the making for Sri Lanka — leaning towards China and Pakistan whilst straining relations with India. That seems to be consolidating. In the light of an emerging economic crisis, Beijing has extended to Sri Lanka a currency swap of US$ 1.5 billion. Now, Islamabad is stepping up military training with Sri Lanka whilst relations with New Delhi continue to remain sour. This was evident when the 52 Indian fishermen were arrested whilst poaching in Sri Lankan waters. The Indian High Commission released a statement reminding Sri Lanka of the modalities agreed between the two countries. This outlined the manner of the conduct of bilateral diplomatic practice. Government sources speak of a telephone call from New Delhi to a Sri Lankan VVIP in this regard. The fishermen were released thereafter.? In addition, the government gazetted the setting up of the Colombo Port City Economic Commission. The idea is to hurriedly pave the way for Chinese and like-minded investors in view of the reluctance of western nations. Concerns were further exacerbated by the depreciation of the rupee to the US dollar.

The Sunday Times learnt that India is also re-calibrating its relations with Sri Lanka. Indications emerged after a meeting of high officials held with former diplomats and senior intelligence officials to ascertain their views just weeks earlier. There are a number of factors that contribute to the strain with New Delhi. The main one was the government’s refusal to cede the East Container Terminal in the Colombo Port, despite a pledge to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This was followed by the move to allow a Chinese company to carry out an alternative energy project in the island of Delft off the Jaffna peninsula. The government argues that it has no hand in the project for which tenders were called at the behest of the Asian Development Bank. Now, the new leanings will also be cause for concern to India. It was made no better by Foreign Secretary, Jayanath Colombage, that India would support the Resolution on Sri Lanka.

Now, Colombage is denying that he said it. Acting on his behalf, Ratnasingam

Kohularangan, Director, Publicity at the Foreign Ministry, has sent in a letter to the Sunday Times? stating that? a paragraph in last Sunday’s political commentary is “erroneous.” The Sunday Times sought clarification on what was “erroneous.” They responded by saying that they “wish to refer to the following paragraph in the article under reference which states as follows:

“A significant feature of the voting at the Human Rights Council was India’s abstention - ……………. However, last week Foreign Secretary retired Admiral Professor Jayanath Colombage declared in Colombo that India would support Sri Lanka ……………..”

“Taking note of the above, the Ministry wishes to refer to a longer excerpt of the interview (with English translation) held at the Media Centre for National Development on 16 March 2021 with the participation of the Foreign Secretary Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage.

“English translation: India is a very important factor for us, being a powerful country in this region. At present there are only 4 countries in the region, representing the Human Rights Council. They are Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Pakistan is already supporting Sri Lanka in a very strong manner. India is still following a very moderate policy for various reasons, like Mr. Mohan said. We also need to understand that an election will be held on April 09 in Tamil Nadu, I think. This too may have been a reason for India’s silence.

“Also, I must mention that the first letter sent by our President in this regard was to the Prime Minister of India. Because he was the first one to be asked for help. Through this, we expected to find the support we have within this region. I have mentioned 04 countries here. So, the opinion that we are trying to compile and socialize will have a problem,? if we do not get the support of these four countries in the region. I think India too, is in a very difficult situation at the moment. We keep our hopes on India’s promise that, it will not allow any injustice to Sri Lanka. But we still do not have a clear understanding of what that means. There are various opinions on this. But it is not us who decide, so we have to wait and see. The other important thing is that several other countries are waiting to make decisions based on India’s decision. So that is a very strong factor and India is essential for us. But we must remind here that, we gave a special place to India, after this government came to power. Especially with regard to this Strategic Security, we promised that we will never be the Aircraft Carrier. Therefore, we are working very close to each other. Also, India has a policy called Neighbourhood First. In this situation, we expect that India would help us. “

The letter also contained a lengthy paragraph in Sinhala, reportedly a transcript from the webinar conducted by the Media Centre for National Development on March 16. No copy of the recording, however, was made available. Several efforts by the Sunday Times to secure a copy to verify further the authenticity of the Foreign Secretary’s claim were not successful. Hence, the truth or otherwise of the claim could not be conclusively established. Calls made to Milinda Rajapaksa, the Director of the Media Centre for National Development, also went unanswered.

Other than material in the letter which has no relevance whatsoever to the contents in the political commentary, there is only one word that is in dispute. Retired Admiral Professor Colombage denies he said, India would support Sri Lanka. Thus, the word support is all that he is contesting. Of course, he has all the right to point out if he feels there is something wrong in relation to him or his Ministry. However, he is raising issue only after international news agencies, satellite television channels and newspapers the world over had reported the remarks attributed to him that India would support Sri Lanka at the voting of the resolution may be due to other dictates. Why is he walking back on a statement attributed to him and widely reported the world over? As is well known, a statement regarding the position of another country emanating from the high seat of excellence in diplomatic practice is unbecoming to that office.

The catalogue is too long to list here but here are few of the many reports in this regard. The state-run Daily News on March 18 front-paged under the headline a story which said “India assures of its support at the UNHRC – Foreign Secretary.” The introduction to the story: Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanath Colombage yesterday confirmed India has assured of its support to protect the country’s sovereignity during UNHRC sessions. “Being the superpower they are, Sri Lanka greatly appreciates their position,” he said speaking at the Third Dialogue hosted by the Media Centre for National Development. The Hindu newspaper, published in Chennai, on March 18, declared in their headline “India assures its support at UN Human Rights Council – Foreign Secretary.” The introduction said, “India has assured of its support at the United Nations Human Rights Council before member countries vote on a new resolution in the island nation’s rights record.” The story made clear “sources in the External Affairs Ministry in India told Hindu that no decision on the vote has been “conveyed” yet whilst Mr Colombage said Sri Lanka “greatly appreciates” India’s position being the superpower they are.”

After it was reported in the Hindu, India Today, Hindustan Times and a plethora of Tamil media outlets in Tamil Nadu, political leaders there protested strongly to Prime Minister Modi. They cited the remarks attributed to Colombage that India would support Sri Lanka. They took strong exception to Colombage’s remarks. This was reported in these columns last week.

Are not those remarks of support, just ahead of the UNHRC meeting, a conclusive assertion that India would vote with Sri Lanka? Otherwise, how did all the media outlets uniformly report the matter? How then can Professor and retired Admiral Colombage claim that our report that he publicly said that India would extend its support is erroneous. That too, after more than 30 days since the resolution was adopted in Geneva. Colombage’s penchant for media interviews is well established. His gaffes on such occasions and cutting a sorry figure are also known. However, he has chosen the media interviews to concertedly conduct the runup of the resolution in Geneva and spin on its aftermath. Hence, he has spearheaded an unrelenting strategy centred on the media. It has come at a great cost to the country’s image.

Just this week, he gave an interview to Deutsche Welle, the German state broadcaster. It is well known that Germany is a strong backer of the Resolution on Sri Lanka. Interviewing the Foreign Secretary was veteran journalist Tim Sebastian, who was formerly with the BBC. “Aren’t you ashamed,” he asked Colombage after pointing out that the UN Human Rights Council passed a landmark resolution because of “your government’s abject failure”. Click here to see the full text of this interview in video format.

The anchor went for the jugular, venting the allegations heaped up by the west against Sri Lanka. The country’s reputation was brought to nought. Before the UNHRC vote and after, Foreign Ministry officials are trying hard to get BBC’s Stephen Sackur to interview Foreign Secretary Colombage. So far, the efforts have not been successful. Sri Lanka’s foreign policy of neutrality bandied around by the country’s present administration has caused some confusion in its application.? Does this mean that Sri Lanka does no longer belong to the group of Non-Aligned countries — a segment too large and traditional not to be related to, equally in this instance of need?? There is another aspect that needs to be examined where the country’s foreign policy is concerned. When such critical allegations are allowed to be made, which is a hallmark of these interviews, they could take a toll on Sri Lanka’s attractiveness for foreign investment and tourism.

What the Foreign Ministry would have done is to send the recording of the remarks to prove Secretary Colombage’s version of the events.

One may recall that the country’s most illustrious Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, with whom I was honoured to be associated, gave an interview to Stephen Sackur on BBC’s Hard Talk, a few months before his assassination. At the end of the programme, Sackur confessed to Kadirgamar that he was hard to crack.

Britain’s twice Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, once remarked that “there is no diplomacy like silence.” Added Will Durrant, an American Philosopher “To say nothing when speaking is half the art of diplomacy.”? Many a Foreign Secretary has followed this dictum scrupulously when in office. Secretary Colombage is an exception. This is by no means to say all the time a Foreign Ministry Secretary should remain silent.? There is a distinct difference between a spokesperson and a Secretary. He or she has to choose the words. One is also not sure whether what he says is government policy or his personal views. Here again, as the interview mentioned above shows how contradictory his utterances have been. It is not difficult to discern that his remarks have done more damage than good.? More often he takes up a position which the Foreign Minister should take if indeed that was necessary.

To sum up the position now, Foreign Secretary Colombage says the resolution passed in Geneva was the result of foreign powers fighting against Sri Lanka’s neutrality. Foreign Minister Gunawardena says the resolution is illegal. In Geneva, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative C.A. Chandraprema says the government has rejected the resolution. Separately, Minister Peiris is inviting opposition parties to build a common front to face the Geneva issues which are based on lies. The government’s senior leaders, including key ministers, have not uttered a word so far. There is no one voice or one stated official position.

These developments come in a month when most communities in Sri Lanka mark significant events. Christians observe Easter Sunday today, amidst memories of how Muslim extremists wreaked havoc and violence two years ago. The avurudu or the national New Year is on April 13 and 14. Muslims begin the holy month of Ramadan thereafter.

In a message to mark what is “the noblest festival in the Christian calendar,” President Gotabaya Rajapaksa says, “Two years ago, when the Easter Sunday was being celebrated by the Sri Lankan Christian community with utmost devotion, they became victims of most brutal attacks by extremists. The sorrowful memory of pain and loss caused by this tragic incident had no room for the culprits as well as groups, who are responsible for this dastardly attack to escape the arm of the law. Also, the government is determined to ensure national security in order to prevent recurrence of such tragedies in the motherland.”

Though all reports related to the Easter Sunday massacres have been sent to the Attorney General’s Department, there is no word yet about the action they propose to take, In addition, the Police Department has also not initiated action departmentally against several officers who have been named for their criminal offences and misconduct. Now, Colombo’s Archbishop Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith had placed a deadline of April 21 for government action or face the consequences from the protests they will organise in Sri Lanka and abroad.

A series of serious issues confront the government. Main among them is the conduct of the country’s foreign relations and a cohesive strategy to meet issues arising out of the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka. That needs officials with a high quality of professionalism and experience. Every day that passes, the government suffers a colossal damage. Instead of waiting till new issues related to the resolution crop up, it is imperative that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa acts promptly to save Sri Lanka and its people from gung-ho diplomacy that is causing great damage.

The other issue is action on the Commission of Inquiry reports on the Easter Sunday massacres. These developments come at a time when the prices of essential commodities are rising sky high. A kilo of Chillie powder is about Rs 1,000 with other commodities also rising in prices. The latter is an issue that leads to the popularity of any government nosediving. Allowing matters to free wheel is not only dangerous but also hugely damaging. The message from all this to government leaders is clouded by the lack of a strong opposition. Little wonder the internecine issues over the jaunty leadership continues in the SJB whilst the United National Party, the country’s oldest is politically dead.

 

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