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Continued engagement, key to win over UNHRC members

2014 Mar 18

By Manjula Fernando

Former Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said Sri Lanka should not only plan a post Geneva strategy after March but also a post Indian parliamentary elections strategy if the country needs to project itself well into the future sans external interferences.

Former Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama

In an interview with Sunday Observer he said, “President Mahinda Rajapaksa as a leader commands the majority support of the people. Equally, he has to get the reflections of the Indian leadership in navigating this interim period where international pressure is now mounting on Sri Lanka.”

Continued engagement was the key to win over members at UNHRC he said.

“They knew our country had to fight terrorism, in a manner that we can defeat terrorism, not to nurture terrorism. That is why there was no need to manufacture arms in Sri Lanka, they came from abroad via international sea lanes and air lanes. No one then said these arms are coming to ‘liquidate’ the civilian population of the North,” Bogollagama said.

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: What is your take on India's parliamentary polls outcome and the course of bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and India in the event of a new government?

A: This is a unique opportunity for Sri Lanka to look at an agenda that can really measure up to current day expectations from both sides. Elections in India are critically important for Sri Lanka, in terms of a new government getting created and Sri Lanka's current international issues, both can be addressed very well with a new administration.

The negative aspects can be reduced or eliminated with a new team in office. That is an obvious opportunity. The current reading on the Indian election map, speaks of a BJP victory. A coalition led by the BJP, when The Hindu Chief Editor and publisher Dr. N. Ram met me about ten days ago in Sri Lanka, we discussed very closely the developments taking place within the Indian electoral map. Early estimates are getting far changed where the congress position is concerned. Congress was expected to win 146 seats but now it is receding, it may hit as low as 100 or less. BJP is registering an upward trend. It will secure 200 - 220 seats or even more. But 272 seats are needed to from a government. In this context a wide coalition will come in led by the BJP. Their Prime Ministerial candidate is Narendra Modi. He is registering an impact in the electorate and amongst the people. He is getting recognised as a fiercely capable and an independent leader who is going to drive the Indian election to an unprecedented victory for the BJP. These are the predictions of political analysts.

Q: What does it mean for Sri Lanka?

A: Even now the Indian foreign policy as far as Sri Lanka is concerned, getting heavily influenced by Tamil Nadu. This was evident in 2013 when Dr. Manmohan Singh was speaking on Sri Lanka's resolution, He was virtually holding a brief not for the Government of SL or in terms of bi-lateral relations, but largely in terms of the Tamil Nadu impact.

Everyone will stick to that policy because the parties want to form a Government. Regional leaders help maintain the majority in parliament. In this backdrop, Chief Minister Jayalalitha will be a formidable, recognisable and a capable regional leader who will influence the formation of the next government in India. Therefore we have to study, her reflections on Sri Lanka in terms of the so called international investigation the US is seeking. With that we have to plan not only, post Geneva strategy after March, but post Indian parliamentary elections strategy as well.

A new Government in India will be a challenge and an opportunity – a challenge because we have to understand the new issues. We have worked with the Congress and PM Manmohan Singh. But BJP's positioning of India – Sri Lanka relations, we are yet to know. That is a challenge but if you study it well and make the right approach, we may be able to turn it into a winner.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa as a leader commands the majority support of the people. Equally he has to get the reflections of the Indian leadership in navigating this interim period where international pressure is now mounting on Sri Lanka. This is an opportunity for Sri Lanka to engage in a very vigorous manner with the Indian Leaders.

Q: Is it possible for Sri Lankan Government to have cordial relations with Tamil Nadu state government given that the LTTE elements there have done much damage to ensure the two stay apart?

A: Jayalalitha had remained a committed advocate of a political line of development for the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. A reason behind Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's Indo-Lanka peace accord during President J.R. Jayawardena, resulting in the 13th Amendment.

Jayalalitha had remained an advocate of devolution. And devolution to the extent of large autonomous Tamil administration in the North. She had been very frank and open about it.

Her regional party is dictating on the thinking of the Tamil polity in Sri Lanka and their supporters in South India and having a nexus with them.

The nexus with Tamil Nadu and Delhi is measured not only on grounds of Sri Lanka, it has various other connotations, social, economic and political. The survival of Government in Delhi will largely depend on the strength they get from Tamil Nadu and Jayalalitha is a key factor there.

Q: How can we get about it?

A: We have to now look at a new agenda being created for our relations, taking on our strengths where Tamil people are treated equally. I think President Mahinda Rajapaksa, can claim a lot of credit for that. No earlier leader in Sri Lanka has held elections in the Northern province. President Jayawardena could not hold elections.

After the 13th amendment was brought in, Varadaraja Perumal declared a separate state. Subsequently the Northern PC was in a state of inaction during the terms of three former Presidents - President Premadasa, D.B.Wijetunga and Chandrika Kumaratunga.

Today within about 36 months of defeating terrorism, President Rajapaksa was able to restore democracy in the North with a provincial administration. For the first time, all nine Provincial Councils are functioning today. President Rajapaksa appointed the Northern administration not because it is within the constitution of Sri Lanka. It was timed to give the message that Tamil people are part of our electoral make up as much as that of the administrative development.

That must have been the thinking of the President in holding the elections without waiting for all the ‘post-terrorism’ development work and rehabilitation to complete. The results spoke for itself that the election was free and fair. He knew the result in advance since the majority in the NP were Tamil.

He played broad politics, not narrow politics. This is a major stepping stone for our relationship with Jayalalitha and Delhi in the years to come. The social impact of the overall peace and development associated with economic pursuits of the people are other positives.

We have to position our relations in terms of people centric rather than of Tamil Nadu and Jaffna or Delhi and Colombo centric.

We have to throw some proactive items in the bi-lateral agenda between Delhi and Colombo. If we are to work with Narendra Modi as PM, we need to know how he look at fundamental issues in terms of relationship – whether he likes to sacrifice our relationship due to some hold up situations concerning the Tamil people, weather he would not want to have Sri Lanka as one of its closest partners for the greater good of the Indian ocean ring economies, of which Sri Lanka can be a valuable partner.

And also the inter trade and intra trade within the SAARC region, increased trade positiveness and trade balance are some of the items that can be thrown in the BJP agenda.

Q: Sri Lanka has achieved a lot in the past nearly five years after the end of terrorism, a fact many visiting foreign dignitaries have admitted, but the international community or India for that matter seem less convinced. Why?

A: I think there is a historical factor there. We have to understand that. Sri Lanka's developments are not new to UNHCR and the United Nations of New York. They were aware of the fact that we have been fighting a bitter, conflict with the world's most gruesome terrorist group which believed in nothing but destruction and killing of innocent. We have been asking for humanitarian assistance during the humanitarian operation. UN gave us assistance through WFP, they ran camps, we had ICRC, we had many Western missions including the Sri Lanka Monitoring mission led by Norway.

Sri Lanka was part of a major global exposure, when we entered the final phase of battle with the LTTE after Mavil Aru, the world was ready for such a development. That is why they did not try to stop us. If they wanted they could have easily got before the Security Council or the UNHRC and moved us to a restrictive position.

But nothing of that was experienced, because Sri Lanka was transparent. I as Foreign Minister, regularly lobbied the countries across the world. When there was a resolution and a motion to be discussed in the UK's House of Commons, I used to contact the relevant parties and explain our situation and seek answers for their action, then they will in tern give us an explanation.

This was the manner in which we engaged the entire world community. There were regular exchange of information, not each others’ views. We readily gave them information, in addition to their missions reporting them of what was happening. A lot of Foreign ministers used to call me and inquire about certain incidents - our explanation went a long way - so they did not restrict us from our actions.

They knew our country had to fight terrorism, and in a manner that we can defeat terrorism but not nurture terrorism. That is why there was no need to manufacture arms in Sri Lanka, they came from abroad via international sea lanes and air lanes. No one said these arms are coming to ‘liquidate’ the civilian population of the North.

But there were situations where I used to complain to the UN bodies based in Colombo, that LTTE was using some of the UN armoured vehicles, meant only for UN.

I used to summon Buhne and ask why they are being found in LTTE hands, they had sufficient explanations to offer, that they have either been hijacked or the drivers have vanished with them. It showed the type of closeness we maintained.

From Pooneryn to the final point in Mullaitivu lagoon, the world saw how LTTE held a human shield. I have shown photographs to my counterparts how LTTE cadres fire at Tamil civilians to prevent them from fleeing.

We took the international community to the operations rooms to witness how the operations continue. Today they have found, among many things that Sri Lanka has to answer accountability issues.

When the UN Secretary General Banki Moon came to Sri Lanka on May 23, 2009, I accompanied him during his 14-16 hours of stay here. He travelled with me, he witnessed the key places of the humanitarian operation, we exchanged views and finally there was a joint statement. In that the devotion for accountability was only one line, where Sri Lanka will take steps in terms of accountability.

In the statement there were no mentioning that Sri Lanka has committed war crimes. In fact, the UN would have known that there were crimes against humanity, war crimes, etc by then. At that time they could have insisted that Sri Lanka has to account for war crimes, but there were no such things. Individual countries have now got into the bandwagon including the US. Nowhere I have seen a country specific resolution being repeated like this. The US moved the first one in 2012 and without waiting for any action to materialise within 12 months or 11 months they bring in the next resolution and again a third. It has become routine. UNHRC in Geneva has been made a post box in order to communicate matters to Sri Lanka.

The UK did not subscribe to the US draft resolution on Sri Lanka but Prime Minister David Cameron few days ago came out and said they want to support it.

Q: The US resolution does not speak of an international probe?

A: Though they don't speak directly, it creates path for an international probe. They talk of an oversight by the High commissioner. It is like asking Sri Lanka to to do something under the supervision of another body. The Human Rights High Commissioner can direct the operation and if we fail in terms of their expected yard stick, she may report it to the Secretary General who in tern can move a procedural resolution in the Security Council. There can be a chain effect. It is not as innocent as it looks.

It has been build up with a lot of intricate, penetrating diplomatic know how to impose the will of the UNHRC on Sri Lanka. If they called for an international probe in plain terms, we could have easily rejected it.

It's a matter of US stand, it has shown that they can muster their numbers. We can leave aside the issue of numbers. But morally we have a right to defend ourselves. And we can talk to the world at large, what are they trying to seek in terms of an international probe, when Sri Lanka has means, mechanisms and the capacity within which are well established. We follow the English law, we follow the Roman Dutch law as our common law, we follow the statutes. The Governments get elected in Sri Lanka at regular elections.

The electoral process is very much transparent. These are the issues that we have to now confront.

Q: What should be the main thrust of our fight back in Geneva?

A: I would not like to use the word fight. I like to use the word engage. We must engage with the member countries of the UNHRC, that engagement should be in terms of ‘substance’ not ‘rhetoric'. We have a lot that we can share with all those member countries in terms of very meritorious developments in Sri Lanka. Where Sri Lanka today and where Sri Lanka four years ago, can be measured, judged and gauge. Wouldn't every country concede to that when they say there were excesses. We need to get this excesses game sorted out. They talk about these excesses in terms of their own assessments.

It is apparent, come January, February all the allegations surface and subside after UNHRC sessions. In the Western capitals, the talk about excesses, abuses, gruesome killings take centre stage during this time around. Even the timing of Channel 4 documentaries needs attention. Why is this so? If such things happened we have to answer. But non of the so

called allegers share information sufficiently with us. This is the very reason why government had to react in this manner. I am against reaction, I am more for proactive engagement which brings positive results. We, too, must not respond during the HRC sessions to say what we want and then forget matters. We need to be consistent. President Rajapaksa doesn't wait for someone to tell where to build the next road, when to open it and where to set up the next township or housing project. He addresses the issues as required. That should be the way forward.

This is not the first time Sri Lanka is facing a similar situation. We had similar phases during the time of JVP insurrection in ‘88-'89, and also in 1971. The Commissions of Inquiry were held. We have the Presidential Commission of Inquiry within our statute, and Special Commissions of Inquiry in terms of the 1947 constitution. There are statutes to support these. Sri Lanka has the domestic means to address them.

We can decide the course we should embark on. This is where we can bring out a very positive development for member states to share with us. When we don't engage with them enough, the member countries are getting dictated by the US. They muscle their way into the UNHRC, and if we keep quite the members have no choice but to believe them. I met the afghan Foreign Minister when he accompanied President Karzai on his tour in Sri Lanka.

He said President was amazed to see the development in Sri Lanka since his last visit in 2008.

The Japanese ambassador to Sri Lanka who was with the President after the opening the Kottawa - Kaduwela outer circular road a few days ago said, in my presence, that Sri Lanka is registering a marked development - a trajectory for development where other countries can witness.

It has been possible because we freed ourselves from terrorism.

At the same time there have been allegations of human rights violations, that can be addressed and investigated through domestic mechanisms.

This is the trajectory that we must move on.

Then the member countries will speak on behalf of us.

The big countries are playing this game because we don't talk enough in terms of what we are doing in this country.

So there is a void that the West think that they can fill through their Agenda.

Q: UK and the US were one of the first countries to ban the LTTE?

A: The ban is still there. two days ago they re-imposed the ban on LTTE. It shows that they are also concerned, the LTTE can raise their head from some corner though they are completely eliminated out of Sri Lanka.

Given the slightest chance, terrorist movements have the tendency of raising their head, new leaders get created by their own doctrines and initiatives.

Another madman like Prabhakaran is enough for an organisation to build up.

Q: Do you share the view that this resolution is ‘highly intrusive’ and ‘violate the constitution’ of Sri Lanka?

A: In my opinion, the resolution is entering the Sri Lankan domain because from outside they are seeking a mandate for a implementable trajectory to be created within the sovereign state of Sri Lanka. A country's supremacy has to be recognised by the world body as much as member countries.

The UN body to enter Sri Lanka domain and move Sri Lanka to engage in a process of investigation under their oversight is definitely a ‘tampering’ with Sri Lanka's integrity and sovereignty.

You may have a debate if this violate the constitutions or not but I would like to term it as ‘tampering'.

Q: Sri Lanka has launched an offensive in Geneva, so you think that is not the way to address the issue?

A: What I said was how I look at matters. Fight is not the right path. But now, one may ask what can you do when you are being pushed against the wall. How do we react to that.

What I said was to engage and explain before you come to the stage where you have to fight. Some may say, no explanation will register any positive impact. But keep on engaging at the highest level, the US decision making process like the Congress, white House, advisers, make them a part of your agenda.

Fighting is a one-off situation in my opinion. We have to live in the post Geneva ...development also. We need to position Sri Lanka well vis a vie that of the international community, in an equal footing.

We must get Secretary John Kerry to visit Sri Lanka and be part of Sri Lanka's development agenda. We are trading partners.

The US will not give us multi-fibre concession rates and grant quotas for Sri Lankan Apparel in the US markets if there is no benefit for them. A lot of things we can measure on equal footing.

Q: How detrimental will it be for Sri Lanka, if we lose the third negative resolution?

A: Any resolution that puts us on an agenda within the UN system is detrimental. Nothing good can come out of such a situation.

If they are unreasonably putting a country on the UN agenda, you have means to get yourself out of that. You must use the same means which put you in that situation to come out - you have to be optimistic and engage with the member states.

We have a history beyond United States where we have sent emissaries to Rome to canvass Roman Empire some 1,500 ago.

I think still there is a silver lining that we can work on. Engagement is the key for greater good of the country, we can fight and we can use whatever term but in the post Geneva we must create opportunity for us to have widest possible engagement, I strongly believe in diplomacy as a means to overcome challenges.



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