Restoring civilian life in post-conflict north is imperative Ė HR Minister

Post-conflict measures are something never thought about by the warring factions during a conflict. The entire focus will be on the war, or providing immediate relief to the victims. However, post-conflict measures have already conceived in the mind of Human Rights and Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, who says his Ministry is now gearing up to meet the challenges that would transpire after the conflict. The Minister also does not confine terrorism to Sri Lanka alone, but adds these are common issues especially within the SAARC region. The Minister also says the problem of terrorism not only affects the political and economic stability of individual countries within the SAARC region, but also affects the entire region as a whole. In an interview with The Nation the Minister said, if the South Asian region can work together in combating terrorism successfully, that will in turn make the region more politically stable and that political stability in the region would encourage greater investment, which will help ushering in the economic development of all the countries in the region.
Following are excerpts:

Q: The fall of Kilinochchi has been considered a great victory for the government forces. But, amidst jubilations and celebrations, do you, as the Minister in charge of human rights, see something beyond this, to act with a sense of responsibility to carry out post- conflict programmes and exercises?
Certainly. The fall of Kilinochchi is a great victory. But now the challenge is to make the environment in and out of Kilinochchi safe by taking away the landmines and other explosive devices which have been put in there. There are no records of what has been put in there, so the clearing of mines will be a major challenge. We must start restoring the administration services including the Police and the judiciary. Water sanitation and electricity should be restored. The people of Kilinochchi who are now IDPs must be resettled in their original places of habitat, thus giving them a safe environment to lead a normal life. In addition, we need to think imaginatively and show a commitment to putting in place income generating avenues and employment generation avenues so that the resettlement would be sustainable. These are the post-conflict challenges that I have been talking about and my Ministry is everready to play a key role in this exercise. We have already started talking to the UN and others about assisting us in the post conflict programmes and they are prepared to assist us.

Q: As the war escalates in the Wanni, the focus nationally and internationally has been on the civilians caught in the war. What is the plight of the civilians?
This is an issue which I have been interested in both from a personal point of view and in the context of a mandate given to my Ministry. But what must be understood is that all what is happening in the Wanni in the context of the military push is being done with the twin objective of not only safeguarding the territorial integrity of the country, but also liberating civilian population living in the Wanni from the clutches of terrorism and extreme authoritarian rule. Thus, giving the civilian population the entitlements that their brothers and sisters in the south enjoy, and that is to live in an environment free of strong arm tactics and enjoy the democratic rights. For example, what was being done in the east is an example of what can be expected after the liberation of the Wanni. The people in the east may not have a perfect normal life as yet, but it is a vast improvement from the life that they had to lead before the liberation of the east.

Q: There is a discrepancy with regard to the actual figures of the IDPs reported to the media. Can you be precise on the actual number of IDPs looked after by the government?
Various reports indicate there are approximately 210,000 to 220,000 IDPs in the Wanni. But, we have a problem with regard to the actual figures. To talk about the actual figure, we have to rely on the respective Government Agents (GAs) and the GAs in turn, will have to rely on the Divisional Secretaries and the Grama Niladharis. We have found in the past there is duplication in the lists of names submitted to us by these respective government officials. For instance, the same name has appeared three or four times on the lists submitted to us. We are questioning these figures and are trying to streamline the whole process of registration so that we could start sending relief to the exact numbers. We understand the figures are inflated to the benefit of the LTTE. One classic example is that in Vakarai, during the fighting between the armed forces and the LTTE, the respective GA said there were 47,000 IDPs. So we sent food for 47,000 people. But when the whole area was liberated there were only 14,000 people. It is no secret that some of the supplies we send were used by the LTTE.

Q: What is the quantity of food that has been sent to Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu during these months?
The World Food Programme has sent an estimated 395 trucks carrying 5,807 MT of food to Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu. This has taken place from October 3 to December 29, 2008. In addition to that, the government has sent substantial amount of food and other relief to these areas.

Q: As the government wallows over the liberation of the east, the people living there and especially the Chief Minister (CM) himself are not satisfied with the kind of liberation that is talked about. For instance, the CM says that there is no proper devolution and that his council is not able to enjoy the benefits of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. How do you view this?
I can understand the impatience of the new Chief Minister, because we know that he is under a lot of pressure to deliver. As much as it is incumbent on the government to back him up, it is also incumbent on him and his board of ministers to fight for their rights by legally embarking on taking over the powers that are vested in the provincial councils by way of the 13th Amendment. I can remember when I started my political life through the provincial system I was the Minister for Health and Economic Infrastructure back in 1988, and I had to fight tooth and nail to take over legally the powers that should have been evolved from the central government to the provincial administration. I am proud to say that I pioneered a lot of the things that provincial councils in this country today are vested with. For example, the first statute from a provincial council was brought by me way back in 1988 when I created the Provincial Road Development Authority of the Western Province (WP) and the Transport Authority of the WP. Before Varadarajah Perumal brought statutes, I did it in the Western Province. I even went to the extent of putting out the first gazette notification from a provincial council, which was never heard of until that time when I legally took over 1,280 miles of roads from the central government to the provincial government. I did not stop at that. I felt that the PCs should have their sources of income and I brought the Private Omnibus Statute, which took over the issuing of road permits to private buses from the central government to the provincial government thus giving the Western Provincial Council independent sources of income. All these were done in a short period of time. Today, other provincial councils have emulated this. So, my advice to the new CM is to start taking over the powers that he is entitled to take over from the central government to the Eastern Provincial Council by enacting statutes and I am quite willing to help him, if my assistance is required as a person who has done this 20 years ago. Having said this, I also strongly feel that the government must continue backing the CM and his administration to the hilt because many people within the country, as well as influential countries internationally, are closely following the developments in the east and if we give the provincial administration in the east the backing to run the province in the context of what has been envisaged in the 13th Amendment, that will create a demonstration effect to the people in the Wanni and other parts of the north that they too can benefit from marginalising the LTTE and supporting the democratic processes. Internationally we would receive a lot of goodwill and support, if we do this. From what I understand, the President understands this and is committed to travelling along this road. What needs to be done is to cultivate a sense of urgency to do this.

Q: While the government forces are engaged with vigour in the fight against terrorism, little has been mentioned about post- conflict rehabilitation programmes in general, to help both the civilians and those engaged in the fighting. What are plans of your Ministry in this regard?
Well, my Ministry is now gearing up for the post-conflict phase because there will be many challenges in this phase, and after the defeat of terrorism in these areas, the political process must take over the challenge and start uniting the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim population by respecting their diversities and thus cultivating a true Sri Lankan identity, which can be harnessed in the national reconstruction and development effort. My Ministry is prepared to play a lead role in the post- conflict phase. After all, today the government is committed to an accelerated development programme in the east. There are plans to develop the Trincomalee port area as an economic hub, thus generating economic opportunities for the people in the east. Local government elections and provincial elections have been held and these are development since liberation. In the similar fashion, something would have to be done in the Wanni as well, once the IDPs are resettled in their original places of habitat. Their aspirations would have to be met by way of an acceptable political solution addressing those issues.

Q: India has expressed concern over the growing human rights violations in Sri Lanka and it appears that the New Delhi government is planning to send Indiaís External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee here. Is Sri Lanka, in your view, prepared to accept his visit aimed at assessing the human rights situation here?
Indo-Sri Lanka relation is important and it is at a high point. Not only Sri Lanka, but India is also facing the scourge of terrorism. We saw how the whole world was shocked and glued to the TV sets when the attacks took place in Mumbai. So, there are common issues in our countries, to talk about and work together at a bilateral level. Many of the SAARC countries face this common problem of terrorism, which has not only affected the political and economic and social stability of individual countries in the SAARC family. It has affected the regional socio-economic and political stability as well, which in turn is important today in a globalised economic environment, in particular to promote economic activity. Investment decision in particular is increasingly being made by important economic players in the world, not so much from a country point of view, but more from a regional point of view. So, if the South Asian region can work together in combating terrorism successfully, that will in turn make the region more politically stable and that political stability in the region would encourage greater investment in the region, which will help in the economic development of all the countries in the region. So, this is an argument that I have been putting forward in disaster management forums in the SAARC region, espousing the notion that countries in the SAARC region must work together in disaster prevention and mitigation, so that regional political stability can be achieved, which would in turn result in socio-economic benefits. So, the Foreign Minister of India coming to Sri Lanka on a bilateral visit and the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka going to India has been a time tested convention and I donít think anyone should read other things into that except to say that such visits are mutually beneficial.

Q: With Barak Obama coming in as the US President, the human rights issue is going to take centre stage. What do you expect from the Obama administration?
When we talk about the US, we are talking about the most powerful country in the world, militarywise, economicwise as well as in the context of influence. So, notwithstanding our foreign policy direction having to be what suits our country best, it is vitally important that we understand and appreciate the influence and the reach of US, and work towards having very good relations with them. The Bush administration was instrumental in designating the LTTE under US law as a proscribed organisation, which then created the demonstration effect for many others to follow. It is undoubtedly established that after the 9/11 incidents, especially the Bush administrationís categorical position on bringing the scourge of terrorism on to the international agenda benefited Sri Lanka immensely in its fight against terrorism. It is also fair to say that as a result of the pragmatic approach that the Bush administration showed internationally towards countries facing the problems of terrorism, the issue of human rights did not take as prominent a place. I anticipate it taking with a new President Obama and his administration. We would have to keep the new administration and the Congress and the Senate in the US informed regularly of the initiative that we are taking in the direction of promoting and protecting human rights in Sri Lanka. In this context the Foreign Ministry and its ambassadors and permanent representatives would have a challenging role to play this year and there are no excuses for not getting their act together to face up these challenges. Our Ministry would of course do whatever we can within our mandate that is given to us to assist.