Seeing Red on Bread

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UN going the whole hog

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The newly formed Civil Society Platform (CSP) on Monday (13) dealt with entire range of accountability issues and the re-imposition of a state of emergency on the pretext of addressing food distribution. The media received the comprehensive statement endorsed by 30 organisations, and 36 individuals, soon after the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) declared its intention to go ahead with fresh investigation, as mandated at the 46th session.

The hard-hitting CSP statement should be examined against the backdrop of a dialogue between a new collective of civil society activists, grouped as Sri Lankan Collective for Consensus (SLCC). The civil society appears to be divided over their strategy in respect of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government. However, UN Rights Chief, Michelle Bachelet, one-time Chilean President, in her hard-hitting statement, at the onset of the 48th session, made reference to the meeting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had with SLCC on August 3. That is a quite a development. But, nothing has changed in Geneva and the war-winning country is on the UN agenda.

A recent statement, issued by the Executive Director of the National Peace Council (NPC), Dr. Jehan Perera, on behalf of SLCC, dealt with several contentious issues.

The statement issued, subsequent to a meeting the group had with newly appointed Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, raised the following issues: the declaration of State of Emergency, Cabinet of Ministers giving the go ahead for the Legal Draftsman to prepare ‘NGO legislation,’ continuing harassment of NGOs, abolition/amendments to the Prevention of Terrorism Act (reference was made to those who had served the LTTE and the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage suspects), implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, and holding of long-delayed Provincial Council polls, land issues in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, language issue, hate speech and misuse of the ICCPR Act, step-motherly treatment of Tamil-speaking people, by denying them participation at national events, and targeting of the Muslim community.

The above litany, however, sounds only too familiar and the chorus is the same. They have packaged themselves under the new name SLCC, but being backed by the West, have been pushing the same agenda for decades. The CSP is no different. No one ever bothered to ask for an explanation from the TNA for recognising the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil-speaking people, in 2001, thereby paving the way for the Eelam War IV a couple of years later. Similarly, no one ever inquired into the clandestine relationship between UN Colombo and the LTTE. Geneva is also silent about the origins of Sri Lanka terrorism (Indian intervention).

As happened in Afghanistan, with the now infamous independent media of the West, which unquestioningly only pushed the narrative of the military industrial complex of mainly the US and the UK, for decades, have now suddenly metamorphosed into finally questioning what went wrong, only after all their lies about Afghanistan and elsewhere began to crumble overnight. Interestingly, they are pointing fingers at everyone else, except at themselves, for not having done the job as an objective media. Theirs has been, for quite some time, an embedded media that cheered on the military industrial complex and the Wall Street. May be there, too, it was all due to filthy lucre.

Prof. Peiris, who had served as the Foreign Minister during the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term (2010-2015), received the same ministry on Aug 16. The academic, who once headed the government delegation for Oslo-arranged talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has assured the SLCC of the government’s readiness to work with the civil society.

The SLCC statement, headlined ‘Promise of a fresh approach for resolving national issues’, at the onset, insisted that the discussions the group so far had with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the then Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, Justice Minister Ali Sabry, Youth and Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa, Regional Cooperation State Minister Tharaka Balasuriya and Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanath Colombage failed to yield the desired results. So they still want the pound of flesh paid for by the West and nothing less?

Prof. Peiris seems confident that the government’s interaction with the civil society can be utilised in their dialogue with the international community, whereas the SLCC assured the new administration of its support to address concerns among the international community. However, their support would depend on the government’s readiness to address the issues raised by them.

In addition to Dr. Perera, who had represented Sri Lanka at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), in March 2018, on the invitation of the late Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, several other prominent civil society activists joined the discussion with the government. It would be pertinent to mention that the SLCC has quite justly accepted that it did not represent, what it called, the larger civil society and recognised themselves as a group of individuals, drawn from multiple sectors of society, religion, academia and non-governmental organisations, dedicated to a country established on the high sounding ‘ideals of pluralistic coexistence, human rights and justice’, but found nowhere in the world, especially not among the self-appointed good guys of the West. Just look at how they still treat their Blacks, especially by their famed law enforcers.

The SLCC comprises (1)Ven. Kalupahana Piyaratana Thera – Inter religious Alliance National Unity, Chairman, Human Development Edification Centre working for peace Reconciliation and Ecology for more than 25 years. Peace activist for more than two decades (2) Bishop Asiri Perera – Retired Bishop/President of Methodist Church (3) Rev. Fr. C.G. Jeyakumar – Parish Priest Ilavalai and Lecturer at the Jaffna Major Seminary, Human Rights Activist (4) Dr. Joe William – Founder member and Chairman of National Peace Council, Director, Centre for Communication Training and Convenor, Alliance for Justice (5) Prof. T. Jayasingam – Director NPC, former Vice Chancellor of Eastern University and former member, Public Service Commission of the Eastern Provincial Council (6) Prof. Kalinga Tudor Silva – Professor Emeritus Dept of Sociology, University of Peradeniya (7) Dr. Dayani Panagoda – Social Activist, former director of Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process and Lecturer, former member of the Official Languages Commission (8) Ms. Visaka Dharmadasa – Peace Activist, Chair of Association of War Affected Women (9) Dr. Jehan Perera – Executive Director of NPC (10) Dr. P. Saravanamuttu – Founder and Executive Director, Centre for Policy Alternatives (11) Hilmy Ahamed – Vice President, Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, Civil activist with 35 years of communicating on issues of Peace and Justice, Chairman of Young Asia Television (12) Sanjeewa Wimalagunarathna – Former Director of Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (13) Rohana Hettiarachchi – Executive Director PAFFREL (14) Javid Yusuf – Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, former Principal, Zahira College and Founder member and Governing Council member, National Peace Council NPC (15) Varnakulasingham Kamaladas – President, STA Solidarity Foundation, Vice President Batticaloa-Ampara Hindu Temples Federation, former President of Inland Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (INAYAM) Batticaloa, and (16) Ms. Sarah Arumugam – Human Rights Lawyer.

SLCC responds

Dr. Perera emphasized that they were prepared to work with any party to achieve genuine post-war national reconciliation.

The livewire behind the NPC Dr. Perera responded swiftly to several questions posed to him regarding the latest civil society initiative.

(1) The Island: Did the SLCC reach consensus with what it called ‘wider Sri Lanka civil society’ regarding the dialogue you are having with the SLPP administration?

SLCC:

No, we did not. SLCC is a loose collection of individuals drawn from civil society organisations that have reconciliation and peace building aims in their work. We have no one leader or office-bearers. Each of us is part of other networks where we have discussed the stands we take. But we do not speak as their representatives. Our common position is commitment to a united Sri Lanka that is founded on ideals of pluralistic coexistence, human rights and justice.

(2) The Island: When did you set up the SLCC?

SLCC:

We could say it was on June 23, 2021. That was the day we decided on our name. This followed two earlier consultations, organised by the Association of War Affected Women (AWAW), which were held in Kandy, to have an in depth discussion on the lessons learnt through our reconciliation process. We felt there was a need for a group, such as ours.

(3) The Island: Did you have discussions with the TNA (Tamil National Alliance) or other Tamil parties, represented in Parliament, regarding the current initiative?

SLCC:

We have not met with the TNA as yet, though we plan to meet them, and other parties, too. Earlier on we met with Charitha Herath of the SLPP, leader of the DPF Mano Ganesan, General Secretary of the SJB, Ranjith Madduma Bandara. More recently we met with Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa. We had arranged for a meeting with the Chairman of the National Movement for Social Justice, Karu Jayasuriya, but this was postponed and we hope to have it soon.

(4) The Island: Who decides the agenda?

SLCC:

Agendas of the meetings are decided by consensus, prior to the meeting, based on the need and the responsibilities of those whom we meet. Usually, following a self-introduction, we present the issues highlighted in the memorandums we have submitted.

(5) The Island: You represent the NPC, Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu represents the CPA and all others in the SLCC are members of various civil society groups. Do the SLCC members represent those organisations in the ongoing dialogue?

SLCC:

Those in the SLCC are mostly heads of organisations, who will naturally be in line with the positions of their organisations in any discussions on principle or decisions arrived at. But they are here as members in their personal capacities.

(6) The Island: Did the SLCC ever discuss these issues with the late Mangala Samaraweera?

SLCC:

No, we did not.

(7) The Island:

On the basis of BHC cables (Jan-May 2009), Lord Naseby, in Oct 2017, challenged the massacre claim of 40,000 on the Vanni east front as mentioned in the Darusman report. In June 2011, US Embassy staffer, Lt Col Smith, at the 2011 Defence Seminar, in Colombo, denied war crimes accusations (weeks after the release of Darusman report).

(8) The Island: Did government representatives or the SLCC referred to/discussed/raised the need to examine the BHC cables during discussions?

SLCC:

We limited our discussion to issues that we presented in our memorandums to them with a view to be forward looking. This included the Office of Missing Persons and its work. We did not discuss the death toll, at the end of the war, or issues of war crimes.

Contentious issues

Some of them had been involved in previous peace initiatives, including the Oslo project, finalised in Feb 2002. The SLCC has essentially pursued issues that had been taken up by a section of the international community (those who voted for Geneva resolutions or conveniently abstained) both during the conflict and after. Let me reproduce the SLCC’s stand on three key issues verbatim as mentioned in a memorandum handed over to Prof. Peiris.

Prevention of Terrorism Act:

Until the promised amendment of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, to cease using this law to detain people and to expedite the release of those taken into custody, under its draconian provisions, either on bail or totally where there is no legally valid evidence to justify their continued detention, especially when they have not even been charged. This applies to both long term LTTE prisoners and more recent Muslim prisoners with only a peripheral relation to the Easter Sunday bombings.

Provincial Councils:

Improve the implementation of the 13th Amendment and expedite the holding of provincial council elections so that the ethnic minorities may enjoy a measure of self-governance in the areas where they predominate.

Targeting of Minorities:

The issue of Muslims being targeted continues to fester in proposed legislation regarding personal law, the continuing refusal to permit burial of Covid victims, except in a single designated location and the imprisonment, without trial, of a large number of Muslim persons, following the Easter bombings. All communities need to feel that they have been fairly consulted and treated without discrimination for national reconciliation to become a reality.

The 13th Amendment is quite a contentious issue, especially against the backdrop of India stepping up pressure over its implementation. The government is in a quandary as regards the much delayed Provincial Council polls. Today, the government, the Opposition, the civil society and the international community had conveniently forgotten the origins of the Sri Lankan imbroglio. Clandestine Indian intervention long before the July 1983 riots, most probably precipitated by the then 20th Century Fox JRJ openly flirting with the idea of giving the Trincomalee deep harbour to the US. The subsequent building up of terrorist power, leading to the forcible deployment of the Indian Army in Northern and Eastern regions, in July 87, paved the way for the 13th Amendment. Sri Lanka almost disintegrated.

Unfortunately, successive governments quite clearly failed to examine the current situation in a proper perspective. There had never been a genuine attempt to set the record straight. The incumbent government, too, pathetically failed to address accountability issues properly. Dr. Perera’s response to The Island query, based on Lord Naseby’s challenge and Lt. Colonel Smith’s denial of war crimes accusations six years before, revealed the failure on the government’s part to recognise the threat facing the country’s unitary status. Prof. Peiris and the SLCC owed the public an explanation how they discussed matters, including Office of Missing Persons, or OMP, leaving the primary accusation that the military killed 40,000 Tamil civilians on the Vanni east front. That is the charge Sri Lanka continues to face in Geneva, though Prof. Peiris’s predecessor, Dinesh Gunawardena, declared, in the Feb-March 2020, sessions, the government’s decision to quit the 2015 resolution. In fact, Sri Lanka is now facing a new investigation and actions so far taken by the incumbent government seems insufficient. As long as HRC turns a Nelsonia eye to all the grave crimes the West has committed and continuing to commit, from Palestine to Libya, Iraq, Syria, etc., how can we expect any fairplay from it. Maybe Minister Gunawardena played the only card there, we could have played, considering the ground realities.

The rationale in seeking the support of the civil society should be studied, taking into consideration the government’s failure to revisit accountability issues. Instead, having repeatedly promised the electorate in the run-up to the 2019 presidential and 2020 parliamentary polls, a robust defence at Geneva, the government appeared to have accepted the agenda, pursued by Ranil Wickremesinghe and the late Mangala Samaraweera.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government established the OMP, in August 2016, less than a year after the signing of the Geneva resolution. The OMP came into being under controversial circumstances with the then Joint Opposition (now SLPP) accusing the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government of jeopardising national security. Today, the incumbent government has accepted responsibility for taking forward the much maligned and controversial Geneva process, much to the disappointment of those who genuinely believed an attempt would be made to reverse the project.

Key architects of the yahapalana project are in the current Parliament. Ranil Wickremesinghe is the solitary UNP MP. The former PM entered Parliament on the National List whereas Maithripala Sirisena returned from his home base Polonnaruwa after having contested the last general election on the SLPP ticket. Sirisena’s SLFP is the second largest constituent with 14 lawmakers, including one National List MP. As regards the accountability issue, the government seems to be moving in a direction contrary to the much publicised promises made.

In the absence of cohesive Sri Lanka response to Geneva threat, interested parties, such as the Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, have been freely bashing Sri Lanka. Massive foreign funding to the civil society lobby here and various other outfits are meant to ensure they follow the dictates of their sponsors. Often repeated claims that they refrained from taking government funding should be examined taking into consideration how these groups pursued Western interests and those of various other parties.

Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka (1997-2009)

, released in 2011, two years after the eradication of the LTTE, provided an insight into foreign funding for a particular purpose. The Norwegian study dealt with funding provided to various peace merchants assigned the task of propagating the inevitability of a negotiated settlement in the absence of military muscle to bring the war to a successful conclusion. For Norwegians funding for such initiatives had never been a problem. Sri Lanka is a case in point. They lavishly spent on the dicey Sri Lanka project on the basis that the LTTE cannot be defeated militarily, the then government has no option but to accept a deal even at the expense of the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

The Norwegian report revealed the funding of Sri Lankan outfits to the tune of USD 28 (NOK 210 mn) mn during the conflict. The recipients included Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe’s Foundation for Coexistence (largest single beneficiary with USD 6 mn during 2004-2008 period), the then Minister Milinda Moragoda’s MMIPE for humanitarian demining, Sarvodaya, Sewalanka (its former head Harsha Kumara Navaratne, an original extremely talented breakaway from Sarvodaya and now a member of the Human Rights Commission will soon relinquish office to take over Lanka mission in Canada as HC), Sareeram Sri Lanka National Foundation, Hambantota District Chamber of Commerce, One-Text Initiative, the National Anti-War Front also led by Dr. Kumar Rupasinghe, the National Peace Council, the Center for Policy Alternatives, the Forum of Federations and the People’s Peace Front.

The Norwegians also provided funding to the TRO (Tamil Rehabilitation Organization) an LTTE front organisation. The Norwegians went to the extent of providing funding to the then LTTE Peace Secretariat though it knew the group was rapidly preparing to resume hostilities. When Norwegian funding of LTTE front organisations drew strong condemnation, they funded the setting up of a Buddhist academy in Kandy in addition to reconstruction of Buddhist temples on the southern coast destroyed by Dec 2004 tsunami.

However, Prof. Peiris in a note recently submitted to diplomatic missions, based in Colombo, ahead of the 48 Geneva sessions, emphasised that the March 2021 resolution adopted by a divided vote hadn’t been accepted by Sri Lanka, rejected establishment of an external evidence gathering mechanism targeting Sri Lanka and questioned the rationale in spending meager financial resources on such a politically motivated Geneva initiative. The FM’s note dealt with progress made as regards port-war reconciliation with the focus on OMP operations, Office of Reparations, Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, Sustainable Development Goals, National Human Rights Commission, Presidential Commission of Inquiry, Accountability, PTA, Pardon to ex-LTTE cadres, Resettlement of IDPs, Releasing of Lands, engagement with the civil society (Prof. Peiris referred to the discussion President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had with SLCC on Aug 3, 2021) and International Human Rights and other Treaty Obligations and Engagement with the UN Special Procedures Mandate Holders.

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