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People around MR think like Ostriches“ Rajiva Wijesinha

2013 Aug 21

By Sachin Parathalingam


The government is gearing up for the visit of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, on 25 August, amidst widespread speculation that she is going to deliver a stern message regarding issues concerning human rights and accountability. Pillay's visit comes at a difficult time for the Rajapaksa administration with the recent Weliweriya incident and the impeachment of former Chief Justice, Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake, still fresh on the agenda.


Reports indicate that Pillay has sought a meeting with the deposed Chief Justice as well. UPFA Member of Parliament and former secretary to the Human Rights Ministry, Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, who staunchly defended the government in the international arena over allegations concerning war crimes as documented in the Channel 4 video, shared his views with Ceylon Today on the significance of Pillay's visit and the impact domestic developments could have on shaping Sri Lanka's human rights track record.




Q: Do you view the arrival of High Commissioner Pillay as an opportunity or as a warning to the government?

A: This could be a great opportunity for the government but some elements in it may treat it as something to worry about, which could have unfortunate consequences.



Q:The UN is still exerting pressure on the government to investigate alleged war crimes and has voiced displeasure over the government's apparent failure to launch a credible investigation. Will this be a key message of Pillay to the government?

A: This element, which has been grossly exaggerated, will come up, but I believe there are more important things on her agenda.



Q: Why has the government been unable to convince the international community of its genuine commitment to address accountability issues as indicated through the adoption of successive UNHRC resolutions to this effect?

A: Because it panicked over what it saw, correctly, as unfair treatment. Instead of dealing swiftly with every minor charge about which there was prima facie evidence, it developed a discourse, which saw all charges as traitorous, rather than false. The rot set in with the manner in which it responded to Sarath Fonseka's charges, which could have been refuted through his own, very different words some months earlier. After that, it became difficult to deal properly with the residual charges – such as those noted in the government's own LLRC report – as some elements in government feared that Sarath Fonseka and his supporters would cry treachery themselves. This is a simplistic fear, because such support is minuscule, but the government's agenda in this regard is being set by those who profit by panic.



Q: Has the External Affairs Ministry been ineffective in projecting an accurate picture of the progress Sri Lanka has made, post-war, to the international community?

A: Totally!


Q: Critics assert that it is not so much the failures in the External Affairs Ministry but limited progress on the ground which has caused the international community to express displeasure over Sri Lanka and its human rights/accountability track record. Do you agree?

A: We have made considerable progress on the ground, which the External Affairs Ministry has failed to project. For a couple of years, our image was projected by the terrible Pieris twins and, though they were critical of each other, and seemed to have very different perspectives, as I saw during the March 2012 farce. I was stunned when then American Ambassador told me, we were being ambiguous about the LLRC report. I said she should listen to the accredited spokesmen of government, not individual critics (she had cited Weerawansa). She wanted to know who the accredited spokesmen were, and when I mentioned the Pieris twins, she said that they had both lost all credibility. Though Ms Butenis was playing her own little games, I realized then what a sorry state we were in.



Q: A Presidential Commission has just been appointed to investigate disappearances that occurred during the final stages of the conflict. Why has it taken four years to appoint such a Commission?

A: The President has often wanted things done, which those around him simply delay. He is an instinctive politician, with generally very sound instincts, but he cannot conceptualize. Unfortunately, he continues to have faith in those around him who can conceptualize, but they have allowed their intellect to go to sleep.



There are clear examples of his instructions being ignored. He wanted me appointed Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights in December 2007, which took six months. In April 2011, he thought the Committee to implement the Interim Recommendations of the LLRC was active, and when he realized it had never met, he wanted me put on the Committee. His Secretary was persuaded to ignore that request, but though I was then specifically asked to monitor its work, in my letter of appointment as Adviser on Reconciliation, it was only a few months later that I was told the Committee had never met. Because of its obsession with Defence-related matters, nothing was done about even more important questions such as land issues.


The President wanted an Action Plan for the LLRC prepared in December 2011. This only happened when he finally entrusted it to his Secretary, instead of the Pieris/External Affairs Ministry combo that had done nothing. He wanted civil society representatives on that Action Plan Committee but G.L. Pieris objected and they were dropped. The Task Force did not meet for six months after Cabinet had adopted the plan, and it is only active now after Mrs. Wijayatilaka, who was largely responsible for producing the Action Plan quickly, was put in charge.



Q:Critics allege the President appointed this Commission to appease Pillay and the UN, ahead of her visit to give the government some leverage during discussions. Is this true?

A: I hope not, but there are people around him who think like ostriches, and believe that, after she goes away, the matter can be forgotten – until the next crisis hits us. Let me give you an example of how obtuse people can be. In October 2009, the Americans sent us some queries about potential war crimes, which were put in a very civilized form, and could easily have been answered. The most serious related to what Sarath Fonseka had said in Ambalangoda, about him ignoring instructions to spare people carrying white flags, and I pointed out then that this should be investigated.



The President appointed a Committee, which hardly met. I told them several times that I had material to refute the allegations – including verbally to the most active member of the Committee, Jayamaha, at the President's Christmas Party in December 2009 – but they slept on the matter, and I was only called up in the middle of 2010 when I was abroad. Later I was told the mandate of that Committee had been subsumed in the LLRC, which was not the case, since those allegations are not specifically addressed.



Q:The opposition holds the view that this Commission is nothing more than a political gimmick and a time-buying measure. Your thoughts...

A: Not from the President's perspective, but the views of others may prove more powerful. He does not micro-manage, which I used to think was a good thing, having seen what happened when President Premadasa micromanaged. But I realize that, whereas Premadasa had very capable officials, the President Rajapaksa is not so fortunate, and he needs to make sure his instructions are carried out. He certainly should not listen to those who think time can be bought, because the last three years have shown that this is not possible.



Q:Reports indicate that Pillay is going to meet deposed Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake. Isn't this a snub to the government which has consistently attempted to vilify her?

A: Given the controversy the impeachment caused, it is understandable that the High Commissioner would want to meet

Dr. Bandaranayake.



Q:Pillay meeting Dr. Bandaranayke will be interpreted as a show of tacit support and an acknowledgment that she was unjustly removed from her post. Will the President interpret her move to visit Dr. Bandaranayke in this manner?

A: I think he will understand that the High Commissioner is working in terms of her mandate. I hope however, government people who meet her will be able to show the rationale for the impeachment.



Q:Do you think the government is unhappy that Pillay is going to meet the former Chief Justice?

A: There will be some people in the government who will be unhappy with anything Pillay does.



Q:Several independent legal commentators including the Bar Association of Sri Lanka have opined that Dr. Bandaranayke is being unduly persecuted post-impeachment, and the charges levelled against her by the Bribery Commission are fake. What do you have to say about this?

A: At the time I thought that there were several things Dr. Bandaranayake had done that were unsuitable for a Chief Justice and which needed investigation. However, given that the Bribery Commission has informed COPE in several instances that matters we brought to their notice do not warrant indictments, I wish they used the same standards they seem to be applying to Dr. Bandaranayake in all cases.



Q:Pillay herself voiced serious concern over the impeachment. Why do you think both she and a large chunk of the international community viewed the impeachment as a cause for concern?

A: The impeachment should have been better handled, if only to fulfil the ringing assertion of the PSC that 'the appearance of bias, even if there is no actual bias,' is sufficient to taint a decision. The Standing Order about impeachments is absurd. My pleas to the Speaker to reconvene the Committee on Standing Orders to make necessary adjustments fell on deaf ears, so I have now introduced some amendments myself. Typical too is that these have not been noticed by journalists, even though they are the most important intervention with regard to improving parliamentary practice that has occurred in several decades. But I suspect no one else is interested in process and structures, given we no longer understand what Parliament is about, after the introduction of this ridiculous hybrid Constitution.



Q:Has the impeachment of the 43rd Chief Justice worsened the perception within the international community that the government is not committed to human rights and Rule of Law?

A: It has certainly worsened perceptions, but I am not sure we should think of international perceptions, instead of concerning ourselves more with what our own people feel, think and expect.



Q:The PSC, which probed the charges against Dr. Bandaranayake was criticized for allegedly taking arbitrary decisions and denying Dr. Bandaranayke an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses. Does the President regret the behaviour of the PSC, when ultimately he has to deal with the international community?

A: I think there was a lot of pressure on him to expedite action, because there were all sorts of allegations with regard to Dr. Bandaranayaka obstructing government legislation. These were absurd, because for instance the judgment she gave on the Divi Neguma Bill, which caused such heartburn, was later seen as perfectly sensible – though the government failed to follow the Constitutional provisions required for Bills that should be passed with a two-thirds majority. The President should regret the behaviour of the PSC, not because of needing to deal with the world at large, but because the desired results could have been achieved more cleanly, with structural changes made to ensure that Chief Justices did not wield excessive powers.



Q:The recent incident in Weliweriya where the Army was used to crackdown on peaceful protestors was condemned both locally and internationally. Will this worsen the perception abroad that citizen's rights are not respected?

A: I expect this to be a key theme in Pillay's deliberations with the government. I don't know the situation on the ground, so I cannot say the use of the Army was unnecessary, but certainly its use of live ammunition was, and this increases worries both locally and abroad.



Q:What will be the consequences in terms of our foreign relations and international image as a result of this incident?

A: I think we should be more concerned about the feelings of our own people. With regard to our international image, as we cannot get across the good things we are doing effectively, and as those making the running against us cannot distinguish truth from falsehood, this will, I suspect, make little difference.



Q:Several opposition figures continue to allege that citizens in the North and East still continue to live in mud huts and are devoid of basic facilities. Do you agree?

A: The opposition is talking nonsense as usual. Our resettlement programme was extremely successful and, though there are some shortcomings, we have every reason to feel proud of resettlement and the facilities available. I wish the opposition would be more serious about areas in which we could do much better, that is Human Resource Development, where in both the North and the rest of the country, we are not doing enough.



Q:There are several cases which reflect a steady degeneration in Law and Order, for instance the murder of British tourist Khuram Shaikh where a Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman is allegedly complicit. Should not cases such as these be avoided at all costs when looking at preserving our international image?

A: This case was particularly bad, and we should have acted long ago. Cases of impunity should be avoided primarily for the sake of our own citizens.



Q:Do you agree that there appears to be a trend of releasing on bail, those offenders with political patronage who are accused of criminal activity while not sparing others?

A: Far too many people accused of serious crimes are released on bail or get unwarranted privileges in prison, whereas far too many people are remanded for petty crimes. Patronage is a factor, but not the only factor for this situation. Unfortunately, we have not embarked on the radical reforms necessary in this regard, even though the President announced these in his 2011 Budget Speech – another example of his good ideas coming to naught because of incompetence and neglect.



Q:Are we playing into the hands of countries seeking to exert pressure on Sri Lanka by allowing this trend of impunity to continue?

A: Yes, but it is more important to root out the initial reasons for such pressures being applied, reasons that have not been addressed.



Q:As a senior academic and MP, are you not concerned with the apparent steady deterioration in the Rule of Law as mirrored by these cases?

A: I don't agree that there has been a steady deterioration in the Rule of Law, given that the process began many years ago. People have forgotten the impunity the country faced with regard to cases such as those of Ananda Sunil and Richard de Zoysa, the barracking of Supreme Court Judges and the insults to their judgments, the indiscipline of the Forces in the 80s. All these have changed for the better, but certainly more needs to be done.



Q:How would you respond to criticism that you exhibit double-standards by defending the government internationally but criticizing it locally?

A: The charges laid against the government internationally which I defended it against, more ably it is generally acknowledged (including I gather by the Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Executions, following my analysis of Channel 4) than by anyone else, were absurd. The fact that I am no longer deployed for this purpose is a mark of the failure of the Ministry of External Affairs to understand the damage being done by these charges still circulating. The criticisms I make locally relate primarily to incompetence, which are charges I have also made in the past. Such criticisms are in the interests of the President, since he is often cocooned against the shortcomings.



Q:You did not support the impeachment of the former Chief Justice, and have been extremely critical of the ruling UPFA recently. Why do you continue to support a government that you appear to have fallen out of tune with?

A: Despite some shortcomings, this is the best government we can possibly have at this period.

I have not fallen out of tune with the government, since I have great faith in the President's vision of equitable rural development, though sorry that Human Resources Development does not keep pace with his vision. On matters such as Resettlement, Reconstruction and Rehabilitation, I am proud of our record, as also of the work of the Armed Forces – which is why I was so upset by what happened at Weliweriya, as it could lead to further questioning of their role, which I think must be enhanced rather than diminished.

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