By Rajiva Wijesinha –
Enemies Of The President’s Promise – Sleepy III
Mahinda Samarasinghe was asked to chair an Inter-Ministerial Committee to implement the Human Rights Action Plan, and as usual I had to do much of the work through convening a Task Force to expedite implementation.
I resigned however in 2013 when I found that, though there was much goodwill from many Ministries, and we got a few things done, no formal coordination of activities and initiatives was possible. I realized that it was impossible without proper authority to expedite decisions and action. I told Samarasinghe in my resignation letter that he should request that a Ministry be set up. While he was the obvious person to be Minister, I told him he should suggest the President take over the portfolio and be his Deputy. This upset him, even though I pointed out that he would still be in the Cabinet with his existing portfolio of Plantation Industries.
He ignored the letter, and simply declared that he would not let me resign, but did nothing further about the matter. So, after my resignation, hardly anything happened, with Mahinda Samarasinghe uncertain too about his own position, being often asked to go to Geneva at the last minute for Council sessions. By 2014 he was talking about resigning himself, but characteristically he held on to the position, though in effect doing nothing to promote the Human Rights Action Plan.
Human Rights were grossly neglected by the Foreign Ministry, with no invitations to any Special Rapporteurs, until they were forced to interact more positively from late in 2013. Contrariwise, we had tried to engage with them constantly, and had indeed had invaluable support from the Special Representative on the Rights of the Displaced, Walter Kalin, who came to Sri Lanka three times during the conclusion of the War. But there were no visits after that until the High Commissioner herself came in 2013, followed by Kalin’s successor.
All this was of a piece with Peiris’s failure to recognize, or unwillingness to convey, that the Human Rights situation was worrying for Sri Lanka. Unlike in the days when the dedicated Ministry under Mahinda Samarasinghe coordinated responses to critiques, writing and disseminating the most effective ones, there was now no concerted response to attacks on us. As a result, the impression gradually developed that we could not answer the many allegations against us.
Most pernicious for Sri Lanka was the failure to deal consistently and coherently with the UN on what were termed accountability issues. Well before GL became Foreign Minister, the President had agreed, in a joint communication with the UN Secretary General, to address such issues. Nothing was done about this, and there was no response too later in 2009 to an American query about possible violations of law. This was very politely worded, and included material that would have helped us rebut any serious charges, but the President simply appointed a committee chaired by an octogenarian lawyer, which never met. My constant reminders to members of the Committee, and to Mohan Pieris who was Attorney General, and seen as the front man on such legal issues, achieved nothing, though Pieris kept assuring me that he understood the seriousness of the problem.
With nothing done for nearly a year, the Secretary General appointed his own panel of experts, headed by ‘Kiki’ Darusman of Indonesia, and including an American who had previously suggested that Sri Lanka was a genocidal state. Though members of government demonstrated against this, there was no formal response from the Foreign Ministry, which GL by then headed. The impression created was that this was not a serious issue for the country, but simply an opportunity for politicians to score brownie points by establishing their patriotism.
However government did belatedly appoint its own Commission, entitled the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, headed by former Attorney General C R de Silva, and including two capable former Foreign Ministry officials, former Secretary H M G S Palihakkara and former Legal Adviser Rohan Perera. Though more critical countries seemed to think this would be a whitewash, in fact the Commissioners were such as to inspire confidence in their work. One unfortunate consequence of this, though, was that since Government did not make clear the need to also respond direct to the Americans, the other Committee was disbanded, and what could have been a good opportunity, to use the American Report to indicate how unreliable was some of the information incorporated in Darusman, was lost.
Towards the end of 2010 the LLRC came out with some interim recommendations, but these were not taken seriously. The President appointed an Inter-Ministerial Committee to implement them, headed by Mohan Pieris, but failed to follow up on this, and did not realize that the Committee never met.
So the country was completely unprepared when the Darusman Committee issued its report in April 2011. The report was promptly leaked to the press. Though it is possible that the more aggressive members of the international community had access to it and handed it out to Non-Governmental Organizations opposed to the government, it is also likely that government itself leaked the report, since it appeared in a newspaper with the byline of a journalist with close links to the Ministry of Defence. Again it seemed that the purpose was to whip up feeling against the Report, rather than deal with the issues it raised.
Certainly anger about the Report was understandable since it was manifestly unfair, and seemed to ignore material that was available with officials of the UN who had worked in Colombo during the conflict. But the Foreign Ministry did not seem to understand the implications of this. I told them that they should make common cause with those officials, who were also under attack in the Report, and suggested several queries that should be sent to the UN, but government chose to pretend the Report did not exist.
This was typical of the ostrich like approach which is understandable in the less sophisticated members of government, but which the Foreign Minister should have advised against. It is possible though that his sense of insecurity had been compounded by government inconsistency. After nearly a year of pretending that the Darusman Committee was a body set up in violation of UN norms, government had sent Mohan Pieris to New York to meet its members shortly before the report was issued. This led to vociferous condemnation from the party (minor but disproportionate influential, at least with the President and the Secretary of Defence) led by Minister Wimal Weerawansa, who had embarked on a fast unto death outside the UN Compound in Colombo when the Darusman Committee was appointed. He was saved from succumbing to his principles by the personal intervention of the President persuading him to take some sustenance.
Such farcical behavior recurred in 2011, with GL claiming that Mohan Pieris, whose visit to New York proved fruitless while taking away from the formal government position that Darusman was an execresence it could ignore, had taken up more than he could handle. I told him that the same could be said about him, given that he was also on the team that was negotiating with the main Tamil political party, the Tamil National Alliance. He was not pleased, and I suppose this added to his neuroses when he saw me.
This became obvious when government, in a move it should have initiated earlier, but which was scarcely helpful in the immediate context, decided to set up study groups for Parliamentarians to understand more about international relations. At an inaugural meeting Basil Rajapaksa suggested that I should prepare position papers, but this did not seem to please GL. In fact the study groups never met. The Government Chief Whip told me that GL had insisted they could not meet without his presence and, since he was never available, this proved to be yet another fatuous proposal. Typically neither the President, nor Basil, who seemed to have been instrumental in promoting the idea, bothered to follow up to find out what was happening.
Typical of the incapacity of Government to deal straightforwardly with the Report were the responses it made. These took the form of two books which it was claimed had nothing to do with the report. The Secretary of Defence issued an account of the war, which made clear the tremendous achievement of the forces, often with great sacrifices. But while this should have been done soon after the war, when it came out after the Darusman Report, but without addressing the specific charges in that Report, it proved a damp squib.
I was asked by the Secretary to help with finalizing his Report, and I pointed out that it did not respond to the allegations against us that were now in widespread circulation. His answer was that that was not the purpose of the Report. When I told him that responses were essential, his answer was that that would be done by someone else. It seemed he had asked the Chief of Defence Staff, the former Air Force Commander, to do this, but the task was soon forgotten.
With regard to other charges in the Report, Basil Rajapaksa produced another Report about the humanitarian assistance Government had provided during the conflict. This was entrusted to the Secretary to the Presidential Task Force for the North, who had been Commissioner General of Essential Services during the war, and done a fantastic job in ensuring that the war affected populations received adequate supplies.
I was asked to help with this from the start, and we produced a fairly decent draft, but then it was decided to expand this so that everyone could tell their individual stories. The result was a massive volume that was unreadable, and certainly did not serve clearly to rebut specific charges.
The failure of the government to understand the need for evidence to deal with allegations was appalling. At the initial meeting held in the Presidential Secretariat when the Darusman Report came out, it transpired that no one had thought of looking at records. It was only after I recalled letters from the UN and the ICRC praising our efforts that these were dug out, but even then, they were to be kept in reserve, until the long descriptive books were ready. I felt they should be sent to the UN Secretary General, but I was told to do this myself, since Government did not deem it necessary to respond direct. Needless to say, my letter was not acknowledged, whereas a direct communication from the Foreign Minister would have necessitated a response.
So government contented itself with diatribes against the Darusman Report and made no effort to deal with specific charges. On my own I produced two short booklets that addressed them, the first prepared immediately on the basis of the knowledge I had from my work as head of the Peace Secretariat. I had in those days monitored the news releases of those who supported the Tigers, and had queried the forces with regard to any abuses that were alleged. This enabled me to show that the general charges made in the Darusman Report could not be substantiated on the basis of even the worst case charges during the conflict period.
Government however took no notice of these. The Governor of the Central Bank, who understood the need to communicate, ordered some copies but the Foreign Ministry was not interested. Clearly GL did not think it was his responsibility to respond to the United Nations, and was happy instead to leave matters to Gotabhaya and Basil Rajapaksa, since he saw his main role as keeping on the good side of anyone in authority.
When I realized how ineffective were our responses, I thought a second more detailed rebuttal was essential. To get this ready, I toured the North with the full support of the army, to check on the various sites mentioned in the Darusman Report. I was able then, from evidence on the ground, to establish that four of the five charges in the Report were unsustainable. In particular, I could show that hospitals they claimed had been attacked were still standing, a fact that had been clear enough from my records too. These showed that, over several months, fewer than a dozen shells had fallen – according to Tamilnet, which would obviously have recorded the worst possible scenario – into hospital premises, let alone hospitals.
Again, the booklet I produced then was ignored by Government, except for the Central Bank, which bought some copies, so that I was at least not entirely out of pocket. But I should note that this was par for the course because when, soon after the war concluded, I produced at the Peace Secretariat a booklet called We Help Ourselves, about the humanitarian assistance extended by government, and especially the forces, to the populace held as hostage for so long by the Tiger, this too was ignored.
I had sent copies to the Foreign Ministry and to all our Missions abroad, asking if they wanted copies, but only three responded, including the Air Force chief who was serving in Pakistan, and one of our branches in India. In the immediate aftermath of the War, there seemed no understanding that we needed to tell our story straight away, and establish what we had done, before the forces waiting to denigrate us took over the setting of an agenda.