Peiris-Samarasinghe differ in Geneva as US talks tough

g.l.peris and Mahinda Samarasinghe

It was 6 p.m. on Wednesday February 22 when President Mahinda Rajapaksa greeted his cabinet ministers turning up at “Temple Trees”. That was first for a meeting together with electoral and district level representatives of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). Thereafter, he was to chair the weekly cabinet meeting.

The telephone operator hurriedly put through a call to him. It was External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris. He was calling from Geneva. The time in the Swiss city was 1.30 p.m. With the government’s, albeit the Sri Lankan nation’s, attention focused on the UN Human Rights Council, there was concern as Rajapaksa pressed the telephone receiver hard in his ears. What he heard was news that he least expected. Peiris complained that his ministerial colleague, Mahinda Samarasinghe was not ‘co-operating’ with him. He alleged that Samarasinghe, who is the President’s Special Envoy for Human Rights did not share any documents and was functioning ‘independently.’

At least four cabinet ministers who were around could not help but listen to the conversation in Sinhala. An angry Rajapaksa sternly made clear to Peiris he could not intervene in the matter. He said, as Minister of External Affairs, it was Peiris’ responsibility to ensure there was rapport with his colleague Samarasinghe, and to stop whining. The latter’s role was special envoy. In that capacity, he had to interact with the Permanent Representatives from different countries assigned to Geneva, delegation leaders and other diplomats at the Human Rights Council. Peiris was in overall charge as the Minister of External Affairs. In that position, it was incumbent on his part to ensure he maintained good relations, not only with delegations of foreign countries but with his own.

Rajapaksa did not stop at that. He was even angrier that both, bickering and in-fighting in Geneva among officials in the Sri Lanka delegation were at a high. He asked about the wisdom of having Kshenuka Seneviratne, Additional Secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, in the entourage to Geneva. She had reportedly had differences with Tamara Kunanayakam, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative at the UN in Geneva. Whilst Seneviratne was perceived as close to Minister Peiris, Kunanayakam, a human rights activist turned former UN employee who retired on medical grounds, was close to Minister Samarasinghe. With strong words of advice and wisdom not to pursue different agendas but only that of the country, the call ended abruptly.

Besides the ministers, seated listening to the conversation was Rohita Bogollagama, former Minister of External Affairs and Peiris’ immediate predecessor. He was defeated at the January 2010 parliamentary elections which he contested from the Colombo District. With uncertainty over Duminda Silva, now undergoing treatment after the October 8 Kolonnawa shooting incident returning to Parliament, what separates Bogollagama from becoming an MP is Silva’s inability to remain a functioning parliamentarian and Chandana Kathriarachchi who secured more preferential votes than Bogollagama.

A former Deputy Minister, Kathriarachchi pleaded guilty to the charge of unlawful assembly near the Nampamunuwa murder site. He was sentenced to five months rigorous imprisonment suspended for ten years by the Colombo High Court. The Attorney General earlier withdrew two charges including committing grievous injury and causing murder that had been filed against this former UPFA parliamentarian and three others after they pleaded guilty to one charge of unlawful assembly. In the event Silva has to give up his seat, whether Kathriarachchi is qualified in view of the conviction, remains a legal question. These developments have made Bogollagama an MP in waiting.

It seemed that any misdemeanour or past sins by Bogollagama when he was Minister of Foreign Affairs were forgiven. Rajapaksa had sighed a sense of relief when he was defeated at the time, but now turned to him and recalled the importance of engagement when it came to diplomacy, an aspect Bogollagama was particularly good at despite other shortcomings. He recalled an instance where Bogollagama had accompanied him to a world event. When heads of state had entered a stately hall for a banquet, together with their Foreign Ministers, Bogollagama had a surprise for him. No sooner the dinner had ended, he had brought along influential US Senator John Kerry to be introduced to him. “Mr. President. Your Foreign Minister has briefed me about your country,” he had remarked after shaking Rajapaksa’s hand. “That is what we need,” said Rajapaksa. There is very little doubt in those words of wisdom today as Sri Lanka defends itself in Geneva.

In fact, that is precisely what Peiris should have done when the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton invited him to visit Washington “on a convenient date in March” for talks on the issues she raised, analysts feel. She had said “the visit would also provide a valuable opportunity for you to meet with think-tanks and our Congress to brief them on the government’s intentions and action plan. Your presentation of a meaningful action and credible action plan in Washington would contribute to our dialogue on these issues and help shape our thinking about how best to encourage and support progress going forward.” The Sunday Times learnt that President Rajapaksa was in favour of Peiris visiting the US and engaging Secretary Clinton.

The External Affairs Minister, however, decided he would go in April though it is not clear whether Washington is ready to receive him at a date and time of his own choice. In any event, the UNHRC sessions would have ended by April. Instead, Peiris began another African safari from Geneva. That took him to Uganda and he will arrive in Botswana today. As reported last week, Botswana is one of the African countries that are expected to vote in favour of the proposed US backed anti-Sri Lanka resolution. Whilst in Uganda, an official statement quoted Peiris as saying, “External intervention at this time is singularly unhelpful and will indeed inflict grave damage on a sensitive internal process which is moving forward…” He made these remarks on February 28 at a series of meetings with leaders of the Ugandan Government. Peiris had meetings with Uganda’s Vice President Edward Sekandi, Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi and Foreign Minister Oryem Okello, the statement said.

It is no secret that in the conduct of diplomacy, such actions like ignoring an invitation and going for relatively lesser engagements involving others are taken serious note of. In this instance, such scant regard is for a request made by the Secretary of State of the world’s most powerful nation, the United States. If that stance was the result of an acknowledged government policy, right or wrong, one would praise Peiris, the little David, for standing up to a Goliath, the US. However, other events were to prove there was no such stated policy. It was his making.

Before his departure, Peiris, who as Minister of External Affairs, is responsible for the conduct of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy made some strong remarks to the local media covering the UNHRC in Geneva. Speaking to one, he said that the US-backed resolution should be deferred till October. This is until Sri Lanka’s turn for the Universal Periodic Review where the HRC scrutinises human rights records of member countries comes up. “The government would then have ample time to implement the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC),” he declared.

The fundamental question that arises in a situation like this is to whom should Sri Lanka make a request to defer such a resolution? One need not be a hardnosed diplomat to come up with the answer. It is obviously to the backer of the resolution. In this case, the US. In not engaging Secretary Clinton, has he not lost this opportunity? Ironically, Sri Lanka’s External Affairs Minister, who spoke so confidently about defeating the resolution when he was in Colombo, was backtracking in Geneva. In essence, he now wants a postponement of the issue.

Speaking to another local media outlet, Peiris, when “asked whether the Sri Lankan delegation now in Geneva would reach an agreement with the US regarding the strongly-worded resolution,” replied that the government’s position was “not negotiable.” In other words, leave alone engaging Sri Lanka’s perceived adversaries, the man who directs the country’s foreign policy says that the issues raised are “not negotiable.” Even if he did not say this as a direct response to Secretary Clinton’s letter inviting him to Washington, an extension of his argument clearly means an engagement is not necessary since matters at issue are “not negotiable.” Is this the official policy of the government of Sri Lanka?

It became clear it was not, when President’s special envoy and Sri Lanka delegation leader Mahinda Samarasinghe made a statement to the HRC on Tuesday. It also became clear Sri Lankan ministers were taking contradictory positions on vital issues concerning the country. In this instance, it was over such important issues concerning the country’s future before the UN Human Rights Council. Here are edited excerpts from Minister Samarasinghe’s speech which highlight the relevant issues:

“In my statement to the Council last September, I urged that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission must be given the time and space to complete its mandate. We continued to brief the international community in Geneva of the interim recommendations made by the LLRC and the measures taken by the Inter-Agency Advisory Committee on their implementation. As you know the Commission has now delivered on its mandate and submitted its report, including a series of recommendations, to the President of Sri Lanka……..

“In our view, the Report contains a detailed and perceptive analysis of past errors, including those that led to the failure of the peace process, and several recommendations for the future……….
“The LLRC Report, on the other hand, places before us material of the basis on which the Commissioners arrived at their conclusions, which are substantive and verifiable. The Commission has dealt with and made recommendations on a whole gamut of issues including aspects of accountability — something which several of our partners and interlocutors have failed to acknowledge; the resettlement of IDPs; the rehabilitation and re-integration of ex-combatants, the detention of suspects; bringing an end to the possession of unauthorized weapons; the deployment of security forces; land issues; issues with regard to restitution; implementation of the language policy; socio-economic and livelihood development; administrative issues; and on the need to arrive at a national consensus with regard to fulfilling the legitimate aspirations of all communities living in Sri Lanka.

“I am happy to observe that advances have been made with regard to many of the recommendations in the Report. The Government will continue to address these issues in a systematic and thorough manner. Some of the areas in which gains have been made include the resettlement of IDPs; demining; rehabilitation of ex-combatants; implementation of the language policy; the recruitment of Tamil speaking police officers; the removal of the military from facilitation of civil administration in the north making available land previously used for security purposes for resettlement/return; and carrying out a comprehensive census in the Northern and the Eastern Provinces. There are also other recommendations in the Report which need to be comprehensively addressed.

“The material placed before the Commission points to several specific episodes which, in its view, warrant further investigation. The Government is committed to a mechanism for gathering and assessing factual evidence relating to the episodes indicated, buttressed by a strong investigative arm. The findings thus arrived at will form the basis of a decision on whether criminal proceedings can be instituted. The material yielded by this investigation will be placed before the Attorney-General for a decision in respect of instituting criminal proceedings, where warranted. The Attorney General is currently studying the recommendations in the report with regard to allegations of violations of International Humanitarian Law. Military Courts of Inquiry in keeping with international practice have commenced investigations into specific incidents identified by the LLRC.

“The mandate of the Court of Inquiry is to investigate, inter alia, civilian casualties and the Channel 4 video footages; including whether any deliberate and intentional attacks were made by the Army on civilians, with a view to causing them harm or damage, or on any hospitals or no-fire zones. If so, the persons responsible for any such activity and to make recommendations with regard to the measures that should be taken with regard to such persons.

“In respect of the controversial Channel 4 footage, the Court of Inquiry has been specifically mandated to ascertain whether any member of the armed forces was involved in the events depicted, authentic or otherwise and to recommend the measures to be taken. A similar Court of Inquiry has been convened by the Sri Lanka Navy to inquire into relevant allegations…….. As you can observe, Sri Lanka has taken clear and definite steps towards implementation of the recommendations of the domestic process, barely two months after the report was made public. We have evolved a mechanism to look into accountability issues raised in the LLRC report, both in the form of civil and military structures………..

“In the light of this commitment by Sri Lanka, there is no justification or urgency whatsoever in floating a resolution calling for the implementation of the LLRC’s recommendations and engagement with the High Commissioner, when this has already been effectively undertaken by the Government. What we now need from the international community is objectivity in assessing Sri Lanka’s efforts. More than anything we need to ensure that the process is allowed to advance unimpeded……….……

“In light of Sri Lanka’s demonstrated commitment to an internal reconciliation process, including the implementation of the range of recommendations of the LLRC by the adoption of a road map for implementation as I outlined earlier, its continued engagement with the Member States of the Council and its participation in dialogue with treaty bodies and through modalities such as the UPR, the persistent request for engagement within the formal processes of the Council by some states can only be viewed with misgivings…..”

Firstly, there is a contradiction in what External Affairs Minister Peiris has told the local media and the somewhat hardline position he is taking on the proposed US resolution and what President’s special envoy minister Samarasinghe has told the Human Rights Council in Geneva. If Peiris wants time to implement the LLRC recommendations and says that matters relating to the US sponsored resolution are “not negotiable,” Samarasinghe has done just the opposite. He has directly addressed the issues raised in the draft US-backed resolution (published last week in these columns), setting out point by point the measures taken by the government of Sri Lanka and made a fervent plea to the US and its backers not to move any resolution. The latter reflects a policy of engagement with the international community.

Whether this is going to bring about a change of mind by the movers is another matter altogether. Though the draft resolution was made available just days ahead of the UN Human Rights Council sessions, the fact that the issues in focus were carefully studied and a response was made in Geneva, though late, is both noteworthy and praiseworthy. It has made clear that instead of saying the issues are “not negotiable,” Samarasinghe has in fact placed before the Council the government’s response openly for public discussion.

However, the fact that such a studied response was not made much earlier is what has come as a big challenge to Sri Lanka’s credibility. It had left more than an element of doubt in sections of the international community whether most of government’s exhortations were to ward off a resolution. One such missed opportunity was when the LLRC report was presented in Parliament on December 16 last year. On that occasion, if a senior UPFA leader had spelt out a road map for its implementation and given an outline of how it was going to take place, the looming threat in Geneva would easily have been avoided. In fact the Sunday Times reported exclusively that President Rajapaksa was to present the report and give such a guideline.

However, there was a change of mind. It is significant to note Samarasinghe speaking about a “road map” – a subject on which President Rajapaksa showed some hesitance during talks with two visiting dignitaries. They were Maria Otero, Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, and Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary in the Department of State for South and Central Asian affairs. At this meeting, the Sunday Times learnt that Rajapaksa held the view that a road map was not necessary. In fact, at one point, Peiris who was at the same talks was to add that “we are doing a lot of things but we cannot tell you everything.” Yet, Rajapaksa was to urge Peiris to put in place a mechanism to enforce recommendations of the LLRC within one month. If this was done, there is no public announcement in any form.

In the light of the pronouncements made by Minister Samarasinghe, the only hurdle that still remains is the question of credibility. Questions are being raised by some western diplomats in Geneva whether the assurances were only till the government tides over the UNHRC sessions.

This week, the US-backed draft resolution was being circulated among member countries that have voting rights. It is to be knocked into final shape after consultations with a number of member countries. There were indications yesterday that the final resolution would be handed over to the Secretariat coming Wednesday. In terms of procedure, a resolution will have to be handed over to the conference Secretariat 72 hours before the closing date of the sessions. In this instance, the Council sessions will end on March 23. That makes clear the resolution would have to be listed before March 20 the latest.

Some reports from Geneva have caused concern among ministers of the possibility of the resolution going through. However, Samarasinghe and his delegation are still hopeful Sri Lanka will be able, with the support of friendly countries, to have it stalled or rejected.

Samarasinghe has been meeting envoys of Non Aligned Countries, the African Union and the Islamic states to canvass support. There were some interesting moments when Samarasinghe arrived at the Geneva airport accompanied by Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva and government’s legal advisor, Mohan Peiris. Sri Lanka’s Geneva UN envoy Kunanayakam, who greeted the trio at the airport, said that the US mission in Geneva was circulating an e-mail message. She alleged that in the e-mail, to diplomatic missions in Geneva, there has been reference to Sri Lanka “collaborating with the US” on the proposed resolution. From the airport, the trio went straight to their hotel. Samarasinghe telephoned President Rajapaksa to brief him on the situation. For the next two hours, they busied themselves leaving other chores behind. On Rajapaksa’s instructions, the trio drafted a response, asked Ms Kunanayakam to sign it and circulate it to the diplomatic missions. Earlier, the draft was shown to Peiris and his approval obtained. The Sri Lankan response denied any such “collaboration” and accused the originators of the mail of mischief.

There were also some acutely embarrassing moments for the Sri Lankan ministers and other members of the delegation when they had an ‘interactive’ session with other delegates, INGO representatives, members of the Tamil diaspora among others. Minister Samarasinghe introduced Minister Douglas Devananda as “one of our Tamil leaders from the North who polled the highest number of preference votes.” There were accusations by those present that the LLRC report has made strong and critical strictures against Devananda for his alleged links with paramilitary groups. Devananda, who was escorted by two well-built white security guards, tried to defend himself but was drowned by the cacophony of voices.

Sections of the western diplomatic community in Geneva say they are confident the resolution will be carried through. Discounting reports that there were plans to withdraw it, one diplomatic source in Geneva said the US would not have initiated the resolution if it was going to withdraw it or was not sure of its numbers. Sri Lanka has already utilised the time allotted – 12 minutes – during the high level segment of the Human Rights Council.

On Friday, the UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillai, though widely speculated, did not make a statement on Sri Lanka. Making a statement on Friday was Maria Otero. In a three-page prepared speech, she made a one paragraph reference to Sri Lanka where she hinted that the resolution would be moved. The remarks scotched rumours from Geneva that the US-backed resolution was to be withdrawn. This is when she said “Action now in this Council will sow the seeds of lasting piece on the ground.” Here is the relevant paragraph:

“We know from experience that there can be no lasting peace without reconciliation and accountability, but the United States is concerned that, in Sri Lanka, time is slipping away. The international community has waited nearly three years for action, and while we welcome the release of the LLRC report, the recommendations of the report should be implemented. We have engaged Sri Lanka bilaterally on these issues since the conflict ended in 2009, and stand ready to continue to work with them. Action now in this Council will sow the seeds of lasting peace on the ground.”

On February 23, when Samarasinghe, the delegation leader arrived in Geneva, the US Ambassador to the Human Rights Council Eileen Chamberlain Donahue, held a news conference. Though Syria and Egypt figured more prominently, Donahue devoted considerable time to Sri Lanka, which she declared was an item of “top priority” for the United States. This media event just four days ahead of the Council meeting reflected the US position. Here are relevant highlights:

“I ‘m going to move to another top priority for the United States which is a difficult and much more nuanced initiative so I’m going to take a little bit of time to explain it. It’s on Sri Lanka. As I said, a year ago we were struggling to get the Council machinery to deal with crisis situations, and this past year we have a lot of evidence that the Council is now able to deal with crisis situations. We’ve had multiple special sessions on Syria, we had the special session on Libya, and we’re doing a relatively good job of confronting things as they occur and capture the world’s attention.

“The case of Sri Lanka is different and difficult. It is essentially dealing with large-scale civilian casualties, allegations of government involvement in large-scale civilian casualties during a civil war that took place over many years, but ended in 2009. It’s not an on-going crisis. And for that reason, it’s slightly more challenging. In the circumstances of the world today the fact that it’s not a crisis makes it slightly more difficult. However, we firmly believe that doing a Human Rights Council Resolution on this subject is warranted and important because we believe there cannot be impunity for large-scale civilian casualties and that if there is to be real reconciliation it must be based on an accounting of the truth and serious implementation of changes.

“So we are working to convince the Sri Lankan government that there has to be greater evidence of serious implementation of the recommendations in their own domestic report and greater accountability in order to satisfy the victims and the various communities that feel like they have not yet been heard.

“The last comment on this is that up until now, up until this session it has seemed like we’ve had two options at the Council. Either do nothing and remain silent, which from our point of view would have been in some ways an endorsement of the adequacy of what the government has done, and we knew that was not acceptable. On the other hand, the other choice that people have called for is an International Commission of Inquiry where the international community takes over and ensures that there’s some kind of international accountability.

“We are trying sort of a third way here. We are acknowledging what the government has done, saying that it is valuable, as are their efforts at progress on a variety of fronts in terms of reconciliation. However, we are also saying at the same time what you’ve done is not enough and it’s not adequate for your own population, for purposes of reconciliation and lasting peace you need to do more.

“Media: I have a question regarding Sri Lanka. Given the seriousness of the allegations that have been made by the Commission of Inquiry, the [inaudible] Sri Lanka, and given the extent of the NGOs like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, what they are proposing, is very soft glove approach in the resolution. Is it just a first step, that you say if they aren’t cooperating on this you have harder, stronger measures in the bank, or is it all [you want]?

“Ambassador Donahue: No. What we want is real accountability, real implementation, and real reconciliation. That is what we want as an outcome. The question is what can we do at the Human Rights Council that supports that? In our judgment, we could have of course followed the proposal of the NGOs and others to ask for a Commission of Inquiry, basically say that the domestic efforts had not been valuable, and that there was a need, complimentarily had failed, and that the international community really was now responsible. We did not think that either – There was a question of the likelihood of success which we always, we have to be pragmatic. What can we do?

Secondly, we are in it, it’s a very challenging thing to figure out what will actually work in the present in Sri Lanka? We are walking a very fine line right now, still trying hard to get the Sri Lankans to consent to our initiative. As of Monday night when I spoke to the Sri Lankan Ambassador, the answer was no. No. They don’t like it. We think it’s unwise for them to resist and we’ve made it clear, it will go forward and it will succeed.

“But at this juncture we felt it a better balance to reach out a hand. Secretary Clinton has invited the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka Peiris to come to Washington. She herself has said some aspects of your domestic work have been very good. At the same time she has said clearly and they have made this public in the media, not adequate. Your efforts at accountability are not adequate. So it’s not – this binary option – silence -or everything they’ve done domestically is worthless and we’re not working with them – neither of those seemed like the right approach.

“To your question of is this the end, is that all, hopefully not. “So either the Sri Lankans will consent, or if they don’t consent they’ll see the outcome and they might ultimately see they’re going to have to do more and they will do more.

“The alternative is that – this resolution doesn’t preclude action in June or September or at any other time. So all options will still be on the table. This is just a step that we came up with that we thought could succeed and have possibly a positive effect on what the Sri Lankans do.”

Even before the commencement of the UN Human Rights Council sessions, Ambassador Donahue has made clear that the resolution backed by her country is there to stay. Hence, the critical question is whether it would now be passed.

There were shades of the ostentation in Geneva, like at St Kitts when Sri Lanka made a failed bid to host the Commonwealth Games in Hambantota. Sri Lanka’s 52 member delegation (not 56 as erroneously reported last week) was lodged at the upscale luxury Inter-Continental Hotel in Geneva. It is an 18-storey tower in the centre of the diplomatic district. Surrounded by parkland, rooms offer beautiful views of either Lake Geneva or the Alps. It is close to the International Red Cross, Red Crescent Museum and the United Nations Office. Some of the charges at the hotel showed the colossal amounts the government has to spend to sustain the large Sri Lanka delegation to Geneva, one of the most expensive cities in the world.

It also raises the question whether a smaller delegation made up of those dealing with key elements of issues before the Council was not possible. After all, Sri Lanka has taken part in many a world event in the past 64 years since independence without large contingents that have to, sometimes fly in chartered flights or move around in foreign capitals in motorcades. The lowest room charge (single) is 499 Euros (about Rs 80,977) plus 75 Euros taxes (about Rs 12,171) per night. This showed that nearly Rs 100,000 per night had to be spent on a member of the delegation. Thus, it would be a million rupees to sustain one person for ten days. The figure would be more for Ministers. A Deluxe room is charged at 699 Euros (about Rs 113,433) plus 75 Euros taxes (about Rs 12,171) per night. A junior suite is 999 Euros (about Rs 162,117) plus 75 Euros taxes (about Rs 12,171). A cup of tea costs 8 Euros (about Rs 1,298), orange Juice (about Rs 1,622) and a small bottle of water 9 Euros (abouy Rs 1,460).

External Affairs Minister Peiris hosted a lunch as well as a dinner for Geneva based envoys and other invitees. Some 30 ambassadors took part besides a larger number from the Sri Lanka delegation. Besides the charges for the reception hall, the cost per guest for the event was over 200 Euros (about Rs 32,456). This is besides costs for private security escorts to some Sri Lanka delegation members and a fleet of luxury black Mercedes Benz cars. Mobile telephones were also issued to members of the delegation.

In fielding such large delegations for events related to Sri Lanka, the critical question is whether the country could afford all the extravagance. And all this is because the basic homework is not done in the first place. It was two weeks ago that prices of fuel were raised to unprecedented levels. Not many Sri Lankans are aware that three state institutions – Mihin Lanka, SriLankan Airlines and the Ceylon Electricity Board – owe the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation several billions of rupees for providing fuel.

The price hike has forced the consumer to bear the cost of the gigantic bills run by these three state concerns. Similarly, the extravagant tamashas abroad eventually costs the taxpayer. This week, some government politicians were backing efforts to urge businessmen to contribute to a fund. It is to be channelled to overseas Sri Lankan groups to hold protest rallies in the countries they live in support of Sri Lanka. Whether a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council is passed or not, the colossal amounts spent would be as hurting as much as the diplomatic moves against Sri Lanka. That is at a time when the economy has begun to face unprecedented challenges.


Courtesy: Sunday Times