By G.K. Nathan –
There were worldwide calls from International human right organizations, human right activists, a large number of media and Tamil diaspora to boycott Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka. The boycott call was in response to the failure of President Rajapaksa to take action for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity that occurred under his regime. The Rajapaksa regime is continuing to ignore the need for accountability even after repeated calls, also failed to implement all the United Nation Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolutions passed at the 19th session in March 2012 and 22nd session in March 2013. President Rajapaksa succeeded in his second attempt to hold CHOGM in Sri Lanka, after three decades long armed conflict ended four years ago in May 2009; the expectation to attend to alleged charges was not met by Sri Lanka. Late attempt to change the CHOGM venue was also not successful; three countries Canada, India and Mauritius decided to boycott the CHOGM in Sri Lanka. Of the 53 members of CHOGM, only 24 Heads of government attended, the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron attended CHOGM, against opposition from various quarters in the country; but said that he will “shine a spotlight on the situation in Sri Lanka”. He said “No Fire Zone” a recent documentary on war crimes and crimes against humanity that had occurred during the last stages of the conflict has had an impact. True to his words he stood in ‘the lion’s den’ and publicly forewarned that failure in the next four months to positively respond to the call and conduct an independent investigation in Sri Lanka, the UK as a member of the UNHRC will put forward a proposal for an Independent International Inquiry at the 25th session of UNHRC in March 2014. The same message was conveyed to the President Rajapaksa when Prime Minister David Cameron, privately met the President. The President’s reaction at a media interview at CHOGM was, “it is an internal matter and it is nobody’s business” and as well as “people living in glass houses should not throw stones”.
Prime Minster David Cameron visit to North and the Outcome
Prime Minister David Cameron determined and courage’s visit to Jaffna, the old capital of Jaffna Tamil Kingdom in the North, made a worldwide impact. Rights of the people of the Tamil Kingdom was not recognized at the time of Independence and the imposition of a Unitary Constitution unsuited for a multilingual, multireligious, multiethnic country in 1948 by the UK, the last colonial power did not augur well for the minority Tamils. The first two colonial powers Portuguese and Dutch recognized the differences between the Sinhala and the Tamil Nations and administered as independent units, but the British united them for administrative convenience, which set the foundation for the ensuing conflict, since Independence. True to his word, David Cameron is the first Head of government to visit Jaffna, since Independence; he shone the light on the plight of the Tamil people under military occupation for the world to see. The three events he attended in Jaffna are a reminder, to the world of the predicament of Tamils in Sri Lanka:
1) Meeting with the Chief Minister of Northern Province Council at the Jaffna public library which was burnt down in 1974 with invaluable collection of documents and artefacts of past glory of Tamils by Sinhala hooligans with the blessing of the then cabinet minister. Standing on the balcony of the renovated library and looked down at the hapless victims of the conflict, holding photographs of disappeared loved ones, as their only hope; surrounded by military which controls everyday life of people in the North. As he travelled from one to the other engagement, everywhere he was met by victims holding the photograph of their loved ones, not knowing what has happened to them; army tried to intervene.
2) Prime Minister David Cameron in trousers with shirt sleeves rolled up went to meet and mix with the displaced people living in appalling conditions away from their own home. They came out with hope that the Prime Minister has come to see their plight; they greeted the PM in the customary way with their hands clasped together with a smile, PM reciprocated the same way. The reaction of the people showed, they believed that there is light at the end of the long dark tunnel they are going through in their life; saddened that they cannot go back to their own home and resume normal and familiar life, once again; four years after the end of military conflict
3) The next stop was at the “Uthayan” Newspaper published from Jaffna, which experienced a number of attacks and about half a dozen staff murdered, so far. In April 2013, their office at Kilinochi was subject to attack twice, contrary to claims made by the government. Attacks have increased since the current regime came to power in 2006, allegedly by militant groups and more often by armed forces. The disappearances and attacks are common to newspapers that do not support the government, in all 20 journalists either killed or disappeared, under Rajapaksa’s regime. Prime Minister’s visit to the “Uthayan” newspaper office, stresses the importance of the media freedom in the country.
Prime Minister’s visit to Jaffna helped a plane load of journalists to visit Jaffna and see the situation, for themselves and report to the world, otherwise it would not have happened. Journalists, who came to Sri Lanka to cover the CHOGM2013, were told that they are free to travel anywhere and meet anyone; soon they found out that it is not to be the case. A group of victims, who have not seen their loved ones, since the end of military conflict, came by bus from Jaffna to create awareness during CHOGM, but they were detained at the Colombo borders and not allowed to enter the city.
The CHOGM2013 was held in Colombo, Sri Lanka with the hope that the positive coverage worldwide and elevation of President Rajapaksa to Commonwealth Chairperson-in-office will make the world to turn a blind eye to authoritarianism, with facade of democracy. On the contrary Prime Minister David Cameron’s ultimatum either to hold an Independent investigation or the matter will be raised at 25th session of UNHRC in March 2014 spoilt the expectation. Ms Navi Pillay, High Commissioner of UNHRC, at end of one week tour of North East Sri Lanka, held a media news conference on 31st August 2013, which was not complimentary and issued a warning that the current regime is heading towards authoritarianism. Strong and determined, warnings from two key International figures do not augur well for President Rajapaksa to escape public scrutiny at UNHRC at 25th session in Geneva. It should be noted that the debate which took place in British Parliament Prime Minister said “I challenge anyone in the House to watch even part of the Channel 4 documentary about the events at the end of the war-when there were appalling levels of casualties among civilians and not to believe that there should be a proper independent inquiry.”
CHOGM 2013 and Key Members’ position
The key members of the Commonwealth and regional leaders are Canada, the UK, South Africa, India and Australia. One of the key members Canada, called for boycott of CHOGM2013, having failed to change the venue to a different place after GSL failed to respond to the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Even though what happened during the last stages of the war have become public knowledge with release of documentaries from Channel 4 and the latest one being the “No Fire Zone”. Sri Lanka is in denial mode and refused to make any amends or shift in their position to a verifiable independent inquiry. Although, all key members have a role to uphold the Commonwealth Charter, influenced by the regional politics a few of the key leaders are willing to turn a blind eye to Sri Lanka’s failure to uphold the Charter of the Commonwealth.
The Canadian government forthright position resulted in boycotting the CHOGM2013 and was represented by the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and for International Human Rights Mr Deepak Obhrai. In comparison with others may be a junior in the government, but his words and deeds truthfully reflected the Canadian government’s stand. Visiting Jaffna he met with Chief Minister, Bishop of Jaffna and “Uthayan” Newspaper staff and talking to a journalist in Colombo said “that there was a clear deterioration in democracy, rule of law, freedom of the press and the freedom of religion in the North.” He disagreed with Commonwealth Secretary General Sharma that there is progress on the ground in Sri Lanka. Anyone who witnessed the treatment meted out to journalists and protesters in Colombo and Jaffna, even in view of the world media, will agree more with Mr Deepak Obhrai than with the Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma.
The UK decided to participate at CHOGM2013, against countrywide call to boycott, but UK’s presence became unavoidable because of the HM Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of the Commonwealth and Her Majesty was represented in Sri Lanka by Prince Charles. Nevertheless, the initiative taken by the Prime Minister David Cameron to move for a conditional call for an Independent International Inquiry at UNHRC has brought better results than just boycotting. The large number of media personnel from the UK who were following the Prime Minister to Jaffna, raised the awareness of the true situation in the North. Authoritarian nature of GSL was highlighted by cancelling all commercial flights to Jaffna as well as Channel 4 journalists were followed by plain clothes detectives, as reported in the media. A day earlier four Channel 4 journalists attempt to visit Mulaitheevu, former stronghold of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), to report on the current situation there, was thwarted. Four journalists travelling by train were stopped by protesters mid-way at Anuradhapura by protesters holding placards written in English, blocked the train for hours at the station. Instead of giving protection to the travellers to reach their destination, journalists were sent back to Colombo, by the army and they were forced to pay for their return journey. Who knew about their travel plan and who stopped them? If this is what happens to foreign journalists, where is promised media freedom?
South Africa represented by President Jacob Zuma’s silence at the Commonwealth summit, on human right abuses in Sri Lanka, undermines the position of South Africa and legacy of Nelson Mandela across the world. In complete contrast, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu said that CHOGM should not be held in Sri Lanka. What puzzles the most is, a country that experienced apartheid and oppression by the minority and liberated itself under the leadership of Nelson Mandela could not make a public statement of assurance to the oppressed minority in Sri Lanka. South Africa that established the “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”, to bring people together could have shared words of wisdom to strengthen the Commonwealth Charter and persuade Sri Lanka to pursue the path followed by Nelson Mandela. Did South Africa lose a golden opportunity in the world arena?
Prime Minister of India decided to stay away from CHOGM in Sri Lanka and was represented by the External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, who remained incommunicado with the media and failed to travel to North, as others did. It is surprising that India being the regional power with special interest in Tamils in Sri Lanka, which forms a small part of the 80 million worldwide Tamils, majority live in India, did not consider interaction with Tamils in Sri Lanka, is important. Another opportunity, the External Affairs Minister had is to meet with Tamil National Alliance (TNA) delegation led by leader and veteran Tamil politician R Sambanthan, included in the delegation are two other Members of Parliament M A Sumanthiran and Suresh Premachandran, Salman Khurshid did not make himself available for the meeting. It was left to an official, the Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh, to meet the TNA delegation. The delegation also told the Indian Foreign Secretary of the feeling of insecurity about the missing persons, the concerns about the independence of judiciary and media freedom and sought an acceptable political solution to their problems. Contrary to the achievement of British Prime Minister who visited Jaffna and exposed the true situation to the world, Indian External Affairs sources have said ‘UK PM’s Lanka visit counterproductive’. India which signed the Indo-Lanka Accord in July 1987, which has not moved forward an iota for 26 years, with failed model of diplomacy, is not in a position to be critical of others. In complete contrast to India’s stand, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang told reporters at a press briefing on Monday, in response to a question about the CHOGM summit that appeared under the title China calls on Sri Lanka to ‘protect and promote human rights’. Where is India’s current hidden diplomacy leading to?
Australia handed over the Commonwealth Chairperson-in-office to Sri Lanka at the just concluded CHOGM. Australia facing arrival of refugees as “illegal maritime arrival” from trouble spots in the Indian Ocean, one of them is Sri Lanka. To the Prime Minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, having good working relationship with Sri Lanka is critical to honour his call “we will stop the boat” during the recently completed general election. He abandoned the Commonwealth Charter and ignored alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity and said at the forum “We are here to praise as much as judge,” abandoning human rights values which the Australian uphold weakens the standing. In a nutshell, the title of the article “Tony Abbott’s stance on Sri Lanka’s human rights craven and irresponsible” reflects his position, which is governed by the internal politics, of sending the refugees back for which Sri Lanka’s cooperation is needed, this is the last straw he has to hang on to implement his send back the refugees policy.
The stand taken by Canada and the UK made the others to take note of normally sedate CHOGM and highlighted the human rights violations in Sri Lanka, during the conflict which ended in May 2009, and happening even now. The visit of David Cameron to Jaffna, reminded the world that human right is not respected in Sri Lanka under the authoritarian regime of President Rajapaksa; the journalists who were promised that they are free to roam the country and report, were followed by plain clothe detectives and prevented from reporting, freely. The victims of the conflict who wished to present their request were prevented from doing so. The factitious Commonwealth summit that ended in Sri Lanka did not bring laurels to Sri Lanka. On the contrary, Sri Lanka’s hope just pouring bucket of dollars to stage CHOGM will absolve the country from serious allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity have failed to eventuate. But, Sri Lanka’s human rights record was glaringly absent from the final communiqué.
President Rajapaksa’s Record of Failures in taking Remedial Actions
President Rajapaksa came to power on 19t h November 2005, during his regime from 2006 to 2012, there were in all 15 Commissions of Inquiry and Committees appointed by President Rajapaksa. There were, 8 Commissions of inquiry of which four on human rights and other four on procurement etc; similarly there were 7 Committees appointed and four looked at human right issues. Looking in details at the outcome of the President Rajapaksa appointed Commissions and Committees, there is sufficient evidence that calling for internal investigation will bring about any outcomes, other than to procrastinate the process, further. The only option left is to follow with David Cameron’s call for an Independent International Inquiry to be taken up at the 25th Session of the UNHRC in March 2014. Brief outlines given below of the outcome of the Commission of Inquiry and Committees appointed do not justify giving any more opportunity to President Rajapaksa:
Commissions of Inquiry related to Human Right Violations
a) Presidential commission on the disappeared to examine “circumstances that lead to abductions, disappearances, unidentified dead bodies and unexplained killings reported throughout Sri Lanka” was appointed on 13th September 2006 and completed on 23 March 2007 and the report submitted to the President
b) The Udalagama commission was appointed to “inquire into serious violations of human rights which are alleged to have arisen in Sri Lanka”. There were numerous massacres that occurred of which 15 cases were identified and the commission was appointed on 2 November 2006 and after more than two and a half year commission was withdrawn on 7 June 2009. The commission submitted the report of seven cases that were completed to the President.
c) International Independent Group of Eminent Person (IIGEP) was appointed by the President due to international pressure to observe the work of the Udalagama commission. President invited 11 eminent International jurists and appointed them in February 2007. The IIGEP terminated its mission before the completion, because lack of: effective victim and witness protection, transparency and timeliness in the proceedings, full co-operation by State bodies and above all conflict of interest in the proceedings.
d) Two-member Commission of Inquiry to probe the assassination of Batticaloa district Parliamentarian Joseph Pararajasingham on or about 25 December 2005 was appointed on 24 April 2006 and completed work submitted to the President, in March 2007.
Committees Appointed on Human Right
e) Inter-ministerial committee appointed to look at human rights appointed on 25 May 2006, there was no public mention thereafter.
f) Monitoring committee on abduction and disappearances appointed on 28 June 2007, no information publicly available.
g) Committee on abduction of children for use in armed conflict appointed on 28 June 2007, no information available publicly, but UN documents suggest it is continuing to function
h) Inter Agency Advisory Committee (IAAC) to facilitate the implement interim recommendation of Lesson Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) on 27 October 2010. The LLRC submitted the progress report to the President in February 2011. The LLRC expressed displeasure at the non-implementation of the interim report.
Above records of President Rajapaksa do not give any assurance that he was ever genuine in resolving the long standing conflict between the Sinhala and Tamil Nations, and seek justice for the victims. The above commissions and committees were set up to counter, criticism from rest of the world. Sufficient resources were not provided to complete the undertaking in time, but when completed and reports were submitted, they were neither publicly released nor follow up actions taken. The commissions and committees were used as either to divert the criticism or as a delaying tactics. Two more opportunities came President Rajapaksa’s way in the year 2005 and 2006.
The first one is the rebuilding of Eastern Sri Lanka after the Indian Ocean Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004, which devastated the Eastern coastal belt and over 35,000 people perished; promise of US$4.5 billion dollar aid was made, from a number of countries. To manage the aid money for reconstruction work, a Post Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS) was set-up in 2005 with representatives from all communities, LTTE (CFA was in force) and the government. Extreme Sinhala Buddhist parties which helped President’s election challenged the set-up of P-TOMS in the High court which upheld the objection. President Rajapaksa, instead of taking remedial action, he sided with extremist groups which were supporting him, espousing his short sighted policy resulted in dissolution of P-TOMS, aggravated the relationship between Sinhala and Tamil people, which eventually left to increased military confrontation.
The second opportunity came to him when the first international agreement referred to as “Indo-Lanka accord to share power” signed between governments of India and Sri Lanka in 1987, which remained not fully implemented because of successive Sinhala governments’ unwillingness to fully implement the accord and India’s indifference and/or ineptitude. They also made promise to India that they are willing to widen the devolution package. During Rajapaksa Presidency the extremist groups challenged the merger of the North-East Provinces, the traditional homeland of Tamils; on technical ground it was declared null and void. Once again President Rajapaksa failed to uphold the merger, by taking remedial action in the Parliament, even though he had the required majority to restore the accord and build the bridge between the divided communities.
President Rajapaksa discarded the opportunities to bring peace and prosperity that came his way by developing Tsunami devastated areas working together as one, as well as to devolve power as agreed in the Indo-Lanka Accord. Instead, wanting to continue the war, he unilaterally withdrew from the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) in January 2008 and openly, declared a war against the Tamils, saying he is fighting a war against “Tamil terrorists” with “zero causalities”, while the International community as well as the UN were indifferent to all atrocities occurring in the war zone. In truth, 118,036 men, women and children perished in the war between September 2008 and May 2009; as determined by “The Social Architects (TSA)” who carried out a detailed survey in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka, the traditional homeland of Tamils. This figure is much higher than 40,000 quoted by Panel of Experts and later, 70, 000 determined by UN Internal Review panel, both appointed by UN Secretary General, both were not allowed within Sri Lanka to undertake a proper evaluation of casualty figures or conduct any investigation. The poor victims need the help of the International community, to resolve victims’ dilemma whether their loved ones are living or dead; if they are dead they can do the last rites and move on with their lives. This is the least the victims expect from the International community.
A year ago, November 2012, the Internal Review Panel appointed by the UN Secretary General in their report said that War in Sri Lanka was grave failure for UN and now the CHOGM that just ended in Sri Lanka failed to uphold the Commonwealth Charter with respect to human rights violations in Sri Lanka, as seen in the communiqué. Implementing the call from Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK, to appoint an Independent International Inquiry via the UNHRC process at the 25th Session in March 2014 is the only other option left.