Colombo Telegraph

The Credibility Gap

By Dharisha Bastians –

Dharisha Bastians

“I received information from a third party. Either myself or the government does not know anything about Eknaligoda – it is only God who knows.”    – Former Attorney General Mohan Peiris, in a statement before the Homagama Magistrate on 5 June

Former Attorney General and now legal advisor to the Sri Lankan President,  told the 47th Session of the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) in Geneva on 8 November 2011, that his government had information that journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda who has been missing since January 2010, was alive and secretly living outside Sri Lanka. In a prepared statement regarding Sri Lanka’s human rights record from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Subcommittee on prevention of on Prevention of Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the former AG said “an investigation into the abduction of Prageeth Eknaligoda is being conducted by the Homagama police and by the Colombo Crimes Division. Investigation is being continued. So far no one has been arrested in this connection.” Following the official presentation however, during a question and answer session, Peiris made the claim about Eknaligoda taking refuge in a foreign country and claimed that the campaign to win his release was a farce.

Nearly seven months later – Peiris answering a summons before the Homagama Magistrate, where a habeas corpus petition filed by Eknaligoda’s family in the Court of Appeal has been redirected for inquiry, rejected the statement he made before CAT in Geneva and claimed he could not remember the officer who informed him Eknaligoda was overseas. Adding insult to injury, the former state prosecutor told the court, not without a degree of frivolity, that the government knew nothing about Prageeth’s whereabouts and ‘only God knows’ what had become of him.

Credibility and impunity aside, what was really startling for those sitting in the Homagama Magistrate’s court on Tuesday was the former AG’s complete lack of consideration for a family that has been in limbo for two years, unable to find closure because there is absolutely no reason to believe Prageeth is dead – nor any to believe he may still be alive. Here was the man, who had offered Sandhya Eknaligoda, the missing journalist’s wife the first glimmer of hope since her husband disappeared two years ago, that he was alive and well in a foreign land, now rejecting those same statements uttered in Geneva and denying the government had any information about him with supreme nonchalance before a local court.

That citizens of Sri Lanka can go missing this way, and that the man who was formerly the country’s foremost state prosecutor, could stand before a judge and casually dismiss statements he made as a representative of the Sri Lankan government before an United Nations Committee, sends a disturbing message out to the world: That Sri Lankan officials think nothing of fibbing before international bodies set up to track human rights records of its member states only to return home and reject the statements out of hand.

Of course, this is not a new strategy for the ruling administration. Nor, apparently is it one that it plans to change any time in the near future, no matter how warm the international waters become as pressure mounts on Colombo to act on reconciliation and accountability issues.

In parliament on Tuesday, the government claimed that an action plan on implementing the LLRC recommendations was not provided to the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the visit of the Sri Lankan delegation headed by External Affairs Minister G.L Peiris to Washington last month. The claim was made by Leader of the House Nimal Siripala De Silva who was responding to a question by a JVP MP.

The JVP was alleging that the government had submitted a secret plan of action to the US Government with regard to the LLRC but was keeping the people in the dark about the move. Minister De Silva retorted that no plan had been submitted, adding that there had been no such mention of a plan by the US State Department Spokespersons during the press briefing following the meeting between Peiris and Clinton.

Needless to say, such claims are easily disproved.

State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland, on 18 May made the following statement about the meeting between Secretary Clinton and Minister Peiris:

“The Secretary met this morning for about 45 minutes with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Peiris. The foreign minister presented a very serious and comprehensive approach to the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission`s implementation and the plans that the government has, including plans to make it more public and accessible both to Sri Lankans and to those outside Sri Lanka, what the government intends to do in the implementation realm. So she really said good plan, now you really need to make it public, now you really need to show your people, the world, the concrete implementation steps going forward.”

For Sri Lankans it ought to be disturbing that its government believes it can pull the wool over the peoples’ eyes so comprehensively as to attempt these bald-faced untruths over and over again – and in parliament, that most sacred repository of the peoples’ sovereignty no less. But the damage it does to Sri Lanka’s credibility internationally is astounding.

But this seems of little concern to the Sri Lankan Government. The disastrous mishandling of the assurances provided to Indian Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna in January about the government’s commitment to a power sharing agreement with the Tamil people would go beyond the 13th Amendment or 13 Plus is another glaring case in point.

Just days after Minister Krishna returned to New Delhi, President Mahinda Rajapaksa did an about turn and denied providing any such assurances to the Indian Minister, creating a furore in the Indian media, riling up Tamil Nadu politicians and severely embarrassing New Delhi. The flip-flopping on the issue even prompted Minister Krishna to draft a stern letter to the External Affairs  Ministry couched in diplomatic language in March, on the sidelines of the UN Human Rights Council 19thSession in Geneva, demanding that Sri Lanka clarify its position on 13 Plus.

Similar forked tongue maneuverings took place shortly after the visit of an Indian parliamentary delegation led by Indian Opposition Leader Sushma Swaraj in April, with Presidential Spokesman Bandula Jayasekera claiming that the President did not reiterate his government’s commitment to the 13 Plus power sharing arrangement.

But for the government of President Rajapaksa it appears that lying as a policy is a strategy it believes works in its favour most of the time. It fails to realize that with each lie told by Sri Lankan officials both across the world and back home, the credibility gap grows wider and wider, and it will soon reach a point when the international community, nor indeed the local populace can no longer accept as fact any declaration or commitment made by the Sri Lankan Government.

This week, President Rajapaksa decided to attend Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London, despite early warnings about massive protests that would greet his arrival in Britain and anger about his participation at luncheons with the British Monarch at the Commonwealth Economic Forum.

Predictably, and invoking memories of the Oxford Debacle of 2010 when President Rajapaksa’s speech to the Oxford Union had to be cancelled because of fears for his security, yesterday the Commonwealth Business Council cancelled the morning session of its Economic Forum which President Rajapaksa was to address at 10:30 a.m. GMT because of planned protests. “After careful consideration, the morning sessions of the Forum on 6 June have been cancelled and will not take place. The event will therefore commence with lunch at 1300hrs followed by the originally planned afternoon sessions beginning at 1400hrs,” Diamond Jubilee Commonwealth Business Council announced on its website on Tuesday night. To say this is an embarrassment for Sri Lanka is an understatement. And unfortunately, it was an embarrassment that a little foresight could possibly have avoided.

The President delayed his arrival in Britain by a day, because of news of massive protests in the English capital, and crowds have been growing angrier since his arrival in London, with protestors constantly gathered outside the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane where the Sri Lankan President is staying. News had also reached Colombo last evening that massive demonstrations were underway in London at the Luncheon hosted by the Queen for leaders of the Commonwealth of Nations.

Quite apart from the embarrassment for Sri Lanka, there is also the added concern of the City of London having to deploy additional law enforcement to stave off any real security threat to the Sri Lankan President from Tamil protestors who are waving LTTE flags at the demonstrations. President Rjaapaksa being in London at the invitation of the British Government meant that unlike during the Oxford fiasco, the host government is obliged to ensure the visiting head of state’s security during his official tour.

Analysts say that while it is astrological reasons that are prompting President Rajapaksa to spend as much time as possible overseas in the next few months, Britain was possibly a poor choice of venue. But this speaks to the psyche of the present administration, which while denigrating and snubbing its nose at the West and its values at every turn, is also constantly seeking acceptance and ratification from those countries.

As the battle rages on in London’s streets and President Rajapaksa struggles to maintain a brave smile in the face of cries about ‘genocide’ and ‘war crimes’ by the protesting Tamil lobby, credibility becomes of paramount importance. If Sri Lanka is to be taken seriously, if the battle against the LTTE residue prevalent in the Tamil Diaspora is to be won by the Sri Lankan state, it must first and foremost learn how to win friends and influence those who matter in the world. As international calls for accountability and reconciliation and power sharing with the Tamils of the North and East grow louder, the battle between the Sri Lankan state and the claims of the Tamil lobby also escalates. Whose word will the world take? Can we prove our case?

These are the challenges facing the Sri Lankan Government as it contends with a UNHRC resolution adopted in March and the upcoming Universal Periodic Review in Geneva later this year. Continuing to execute lying as a policy, to create smokescreens about the state of Colombo’s human rights record, only serves to make international challenges seem more insurmountable than ever and mires the country and this political regime, in a twisted web of deceit that could potentially damage its credibility beyond repair someday soon.

Courtesy Ceylon Today

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