Editorial/Opinion

Tensions rise for Sri Lanka with traditional allies

  • Govt. to ‘go it alone’ at UNHRC  
  • India-SL relations on tripwire  
  • US, former UN officials take aim  
  • Divisions emerge in ruling SLPP 

Sri Lanka will face a decisive week ahead with the 46th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) scheduled to commence tomorrow (22). Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena is scheduled to address the high-level session on Tuesday (23) where he would officially announce the Government’s decision to reject the report presented by UNHRC High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet.  

The 46th Session is to see two resolutions on Sri Lanka presented before the Council – one by the Core Group on Sri Lanka and the other by the Government of Sri Lanka.  

It is now official that Sri Lanka would not be party to a consensual resolution to be presented to the Council with the Core Group.  

“We recognise and welcome the progress made by the Government of Sri Lanka in rebuilding infrastructure, demining, land return, and resettling internally displaced persons. However, it is clear that more needs to be done to address the harmful legacies of war and build sustainable peace in the country,” the Core Group on Sri Lanka said last Friday.  

“It has been important for the Core Group to work collaboratively and constructively with the Government of Sri Lanka over the last five years. Consequently, we have engaged with the Government of Sri Lanka in preparation for the Council,” the Core Group added.  

The Core Group restates the ongoing importance of addressing Sri Lanka in the Human Rights Council.  

The Black Box learnt that the Core Group resolution on Sri Lanka to be presented to the UNHRC is expected to outline timeframes, giving the Sri Lankan Government time to address the highlighted points in the resolution.  

The dialogue between the Government and the Core Group on presenting a consensual resolution dragged on until last week, when the Government finally withdrew it from consideration.  

The Government, it is learnt, has now formulated a “homegrown” resolution, which is likely to be announced by Gunawardena on Tuesday before tabling it at the Council.  

Earlier last week, Co-Cabinet Spokesperson Minister Dr. Ramesh Pathirana told the media that indications are that a homegrown resolution from the Government would be submitted at the UNHRC sessions.  

“It is very unlikely that we would agree to a consensual resolution,” Dr. Pathirana had said.   

However, it is learnt that the Government has prepared a resolution responding to the allegations raised by the High Commissioner in her report.  

The 12 to 15-point resolution is said to include several attachments including one on a report by the Technical Committee explaining the decision by the Government to forcibly cremate those suspected to have succumbed to Covid-19. However, The Black Box was yet to receive official confirmation on these facts at the time of going to print.  

The Government is also expected to submit evidence to the UNHRC that all those accused of wrongdoing in the UNHRC High Commissioner’s report were innocent and falsely accused.  

Meanwhile, the Government is preparing to welcome Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to Sri Lanka tomorrow (22).  

Khan is to engage on a two-day visit in Sri Lanka during which he is expected to meet with members of the Government and Opposition.  

However, Khan is facing severe pressure from Muslim political parties in the Opposition that have been exerting pressure on the Pakistani Government to push for burial rites of the Covid-19 dead during the Pakistani Prime Minister’s discussions with the Government. Khan on the insistence of China, is currently playing a crucial role in getting the support of Muslim countries for Sri Lanka at the Council.  

In a sudden turn of events, it was last week revealed that Khan’s address to Parliament that was scheduled to take place during his visit to Sri Lanka has been cancelled. The speech was to take place on Wednesday (24).  

However, Sergeant-at-Arms of Parliament Narendra Fernando was last week quoted in the media as saying that the Foreign Ministry had informed Parliament that the Pakistan Prime Minister’s visit to Sri Lanka will go ahead as scheduled, but that a proposed visit to the Parliament complex will not take place.  

Growing concerns 

Meanwhile, civil society and human rights activists as well as former diplomats and UN officials have expressed concerns over alleged human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.  

Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) Executive Director Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu last week told The Sunday Morning: “We have raised (the issue of) the ground-level situation which we have experienced over the last few years; indeed, the last few months. We have talked about militarisation; about the land grabbing, particularly with regards to grazing lands; and about the task forces. Basically, we have been sending information all around with regard to the situation on the ground. What we will be doing now is putting all of this information into one letter and sending it to the UNHRC. What we want from the UNHRC is another resolution which will require the Government of Sri Lanka to report on the situation. We also expect a fairly stern resolution pointing out the issues that were raised in United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s report. A stern but not strident resolution, which points out the situation on the ground.”  

As for the resolution on Sri Lanka that is to be presented to the UNHRC, he said: “If the Government is not going to agree to a consensual resolution, it should come to terms with the resolution that will be passed. Hopefully, there will be a resolution and those commitments (will be) fulfilled. I don’t know what the Government is going to do with a homegrown resolution or what they are going to include in one, because, as far as I am concerned, the Government has been lax and has failed in terms of fulfilling its commitments. In light of the support Sri Lanka is seeking from the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation countries and possibly China, there are 47 countries who are voting in the Human Rights Council, and I think there will be a majority for a resolution on Sri Lanka. India could abstain from voting given the tensions between the GoSL and India.”  

Also, top UN officials and those involved in human rights-related work have cited alleged continued reluctance on the part of the Sri Lankan Government to meaningfully uphold the human rights of all.  

They have called on the international community to take decisive and immediate steps and action at the international level towards ensuring justice and accountability to end Sri Lanka’s periodic cycles of violence, and mass human rights violations and atrocities, and for sustained reconciliation and the prevention of the recurrence of rights abuses and conflict.  

Sri Lanka, they have noted, is taking a road that, in reaffirming exclusion and marginalisation, weakening the rule of law and hollowing out independent institutions, as well as harassing and persecuting those who seek justice, is sowing the seeds of conflict.  

Whether Sri Lanka continues on its trajectory towards renewed violence or finally breaks with its tragic history and firmly embarks on the path of sustainable development hinges now on international action, they have claimed.  

Issuing a statement, they have noted the country’s lack of progress on justice and accountability.  

They have raised concerns over the militarisation of civilian government functions (including the appointment and promotion of senior military officials identified in earlier UN reports as perpetrators of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final years of the conflict); the reversal of constitutional safeguards (which undermine, among other things the independence of the Judiciary and key oversight commissions on the Police and human rights); new sources of political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations (including by new commissions of inquiry [CoIs] that have intervened in ongoing cases); an increase in majoritarian rhetoric and exclusionary policies targeting the Tamil and Muslim communities; and unceasing surveillance and intimidation of civil society and shrinking democratic space (including the continued use of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act [PTA]).  All of these give rise to new and exacerbated human rights concerns that are already reflected in reports of ongoing harassment, intimidation, torture, abductions, and sexual violence, they further note.  

“Agreement has been reached that the brunt of prevention work is borne by national institutions. But it has been stressed that this presupposes sincere and effective commitment to addressing the root causes of violations and conflict, including through the implementation of transitional justice measures of the sort that the Government had committed itself to establishing in 2015 under the Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1. The previous United National Front (UNF)-led Government lacked the ability or the will to achieve sustainable progress in the implementation of these commitments. Despite limited progress in some areas, especially the establishment of the Office of Missing Persons, and the Office of Reparations, the promised Truth Commission and Special Court for International Crimes were never established. The current Government has explicitly rejected these commitments,” the statement has further noted.  

They have further stated that instead of completing ongoing investigations into human rights violations, the President appointed yet another ad hoc commission, this time tasked with examining the findings and recommendations on human rights violations of the plethora of previous commissions.  

“This is an exercise of meta investigation that drives Sri Lankan reliance on ad hoc commissions to a point that would be laughable were it not for the seriousness of what is at stake – the long-delayed respect for the rights of victims. Meanwhile, the Presidential CoI (PCoI) into Political Victimisation, after actively obstructing investigations into serious cases of abduction, disappearance, and assassination, has recommended not just that the charges against every accused in the emblematic cases should be dismissed and that those that were accused be given compensation, but that charges should be filed against complainants, investigators, and prosecutors. The Commission also recommended the establishment of a further, and rarely used, special PCoI, with the power to punish ministers in the previous UNF-led Government, and allied parliamentarians. Those targeted, who now form the core of the political Opposition, face the prospect of being banned from holding public office for up to seven years.”  

Sri Lanka has made its justice institutions unavailable to its own victims, they have added.  

“We therefore recommend member states to work with victims and their representatives to pursue justice through universal or extraterritorial jurisdiction. Existing international avenues for accountability such as the International Criminal Court should be considered, in the face of Sri Lanka’s opposition to ending impunity. We also support imposing targeted sanctions against credibly alleged perpetrators of international crimes and strengthened monitoring and reporting by a dedicated special rapporteur. We call to establish a dedicated mechanism to collect and preserve evidence and to initiate an independent study of international accountability options. We reiterate the calls made to the Government to pull back from its current aggressive policies towards Muslims and Tamils, to desist from using the PTA as if it were a basic public order law, to refrain from instrumentalising the justice sector, and to cease the threats and harassment of Opposition politicians and human rights and civil society groups, as these are the triggers or vehicles for future violent conflict and rights abuses. Sri Lanka has known not only inter, but intra-communal violence for decades, with victims in every community. This violence has been the main obstacle to the country achieving levels of development that reflect the island’s impressive human and natural resources. In 2009, the international community failed Sri Lanka. We must not fail again,” the statement had concluded.  

The signatories include Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Juan Manuel Santos; former UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson; former Special Adviser to the Secretary General on the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng; former UN Assistant Secretary General and former Head of the Secretary General’s Internal Review Panel on the UN’s Actions in Sri Lanka Charles Petrie; former UN HCHRs Mary Robinson, Louise Arbour, Navanethem Pillay, and Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein; former Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions Philip Alston; former Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation, and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence Pablo de Greiff; former Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism Ben Emmerson; former Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions Christof Heyns; former Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression David Kaye; former Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association Maina Kiai; former Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues Gay MacDougall; former Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment Juan E. Mendez; former Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment or Punishment Manfred Nowak; and Secretary General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka Marzuki Darusman, Yasmin Sooka, and Steven Ratner.  

No faith in domestic mechanism

It is in this backdrop that a draft UN resolution, made public last week, noted “the persistent lack of accountability through domestic mechanisms and regrets that the domestic Commission of Inquiry announced on 22 January 2021 lacks independence and does not include a mandate to pursue accountability for past gross violations of human rights, or for serious violations of international humanitarian law.” 

The draft resolution also expressed its deep concerns over what it called emerging trends over the past year, which represent clear early warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka. It further highlighted “the accelerating militarisation of civilian government functions, erosion of the independence of the judiciary and key institutions responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights, ongoing impunity and political obstruction of  accountability for crimes and human rights violations in “emblematic cases”, policies that adversely affect the right to freedom of religion or belief, surveillance and intimidation of civil society and shrinking democratic space, arbitrary detentions, allegations of torture and other cruel, inhuman degrading treatment or punishment and sexual and gender based violence” while also highlighting the need to review the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). 

It expressed further concerns about the mandatory cremation policy for those who die of Covid-19, stating that it disproportionately impacted religious minorities and exacerbated tensions. 

The draft resolution called upon the Government to ensure the prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation and, if warranted, prosecution of all allegations of gross human rights violations and serious violations of international humanitarian law including for longstanding emblematic cases while ensuring the effective and independent functioning of the National Human Rights Commission, the Office on Missing Persons, and the Office for Reparations. 

It further requests the Office of the High Commissioner to “enhance its monitoring and reporting on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, including progress on reconciliation and accountability, and to present a written update to the Human Rights Council at its 49th Session, and a comprehensive report including further options for advancing accountability at its 51st Session, both to be discussed in interactive dialogues.” 

However, the draft resolution, it is learnt, was subject to several changes during the weekend. 

Soured relations  

The ongoing diplomatic standoff with neighbouring India that has been dealt with blow after blow following the controversial East Container Terminal (ECT) saga at the Colombo Port and with the issue of Indian fishermen as well as a renewable energy generation project in the Northern Province that has been assigned to a Chinese company, took a new turn last week.  

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech in Tamil Nadu last weekend should definitely serve as a warning to the Government that New Delhi will play hardball and that the Indian Premier is eyeing a victory for his party at the elections in Tamil Nadu.   

However, the attitude of the Sri Lankan Government towards India in recent weeks suggests being in the dark about the stakes at play.  

Modi last weekend said that the issue of Tamil rights has been taken up consistently with Sri Lanka and that India was committed to ensuring that they live with equality, justice, peace, and dignity, Times of India reported.  

Speaking after the inauguration and foundation stone laying ceremony of several key projects in Chennai, Prime Minister Modi had said: “Our Government has always taken care of the welfare and aspirations of our Tamil brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka. It is my honour to be the only Indian Prime Minister to have visited Jaffna. Through development works, we are ensuring the welfare of the Sri Lankan Tamil community as well.”  

Speaking about the development work for the community, he had said: “The resources given by our Government have been much more than in the past. The projects include 50,000 houses for displaced Tamils in north-eastern Sri Lanka with 4,000 houses in the plantation areas.”  

Speaking on the issue of fishermen’s rights, the Prime Minister had noted that the Indian Government will ensure the protection of their rightful interests.  

“My Government will always protect the rightful interests of our fishermen. We’ve ensured early release whenever fishermen are apprehended in Sri Lanka,” the Indian Premier had said.  

“Over 1,600 fishermen have been released during our tenure. Currently, there are no Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan custody. Similarly, 313 boats have also been released and we’re working for the return of all other boats,” he had added.  

“The problems of our fishermen are long standing. Without going into the history of this problem, I want to assure our fishermen community that my Government is committed to protecting their rightful interests in Sri Lanka,” the Premier had noted.  

However, it was Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Kumar Deb who sparked a fresh controversy last Saturday (13) when he had revealed BJP’s alleged ambition to form governments in Nepal and Sri Lanka, Times of India reported on Monday (15).  

“Amit Shah, who was then BJP National President, had told us that the party was planning to expand its footprint and establish its rule in Nepal and Sri Lanka during a close interaction with several members at the state guesthouse here,” he had claimed.  

Lauding the union budget of the next financial year, he had said: “It is a step towards the making of an ‘Atmanirbhar South Asia’. The policies and actions of India have been able to make Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal self-reliant.”  

Opposition Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM) and Congress demanded immediate action against Biplab for his “most undemocratic speech” against sovereign countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka and called for a probe into his claim about Shah planning to capture power in the countries.  

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan Government is considering a proposal received from India through its High Commission in Colombo to grant $ 12 million to develop a hybrid renewable energy system on three islands off the coast of the Jaffna peninsula, for which it was previously decided that the tenders would be awarded to a Chinese company with funds from the Asian Development Bank (ADB).  

However, the Government is yet to reach a final decision on the Indian proposal with Cabinet yet to approve the awarding of the tender to the Chinese company.  

The energy deal won by the Chinese company to set up three hybrid renewable energy systems mixed with solar, wind, and other renewables on three islands in the Jaffna peninsula came to light amidst the souring of relations between India and Sri Lanka over the cancellation of the ECT deal.  

As for the controversial ECT issue, India has reiterated that it is yet to reach an agreement with Sri Lanka on the new proposal of the West Container Terminal (WCT) touted by the Government since the Indian mission in Colombo is yet awaiting any official communication on the matter from the Government of Sri Lanka.  

Foreign Minister Gunawardena meanwhile last Sunday (14) told India’s News 18 channel that a proposal was made to give the WCT to India.  

However, Indian External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said that discussions on the matter are still ongoing.  

“India’s interest for participation in the Colombo Port is a longstanding one, since most goods handled there are from and to India. We had, in principle, an agreement from the Sri Lankan Government in this regard. The current Government has, however, expressed a preference in engaging investors directly. I understand discussions are still underway,” Srivastava had said.  

The Sri Lankan Government had recently announced that Sri Lanka will not go ahead with the agreement to jointly manage the ECT at the Colombo Port with India and Japan.  

The Memorandum of Co-operation among the three Governments of Sri Lanka, Japan, and India on the development of the ECT was signed in Colombo on 28 May 2019.  

The Ministry of Ports and Shipping commenced discussions on the development of the WCT on Monday, with a new committee already formed to look into the matter.  

Ministry of Ports and Shipping Secretary U.D.C. Jayalal had told The Morning earlier last week that a new committee will begin discussions on the WCT today, where the proposed shareholding split of 85% and 15% in favour of India would be discussed.  

The shareholding is to be split this way to allow India to match the shareholding that China has in Colombo International Container Terminals (CICT), where China’s state-owned China Merchants Port Holdings (CMPH) enjoys an 85% stake.  

Jayalal had said the Government would reach out to the Governments of India and Japan after these discussions are concluded.  

Back to oil tank farm  

Another development dialogue between Sri Lanka and India that was last week in the spotlight was that of the Upper Oil Tank Farms in Trincomalee.  

Responding to the move to jointly develop the Upper Oil Tank Farms in Trincomalee, the Indian High Commission in Colombo last week stated that they are looking forward to continuing the productive engagement with Sri Lanka in this regard.  

A spokesperson from the High Commission said that India and Sri Lanka have identified energy partnership as one of the priority dimensions of their co-operation.  

“India is committed to working together with Sri Lanka for the island’s energy security. In this context, consultations and discussions have been undertaken to promote mutually beneficial co-operation for the development and operation of the Upper Oil Tank Farms in Trincomalee. We look forward to continuing our productive engagement with Sri Lanka in this regard,” the spokesperson said.  

On Wednesday (17), Energy Minister Udaya Gammanpila announced that the Sri Lankan Government will re-acquire the 99 oil storage tanks leased to Lanka Indian Oil Corporation (LIOC) in Trincomalee after talks with Indian High Commissioner Gopal Baglay on this issue concluded on Sunday.  

“I am happy to state that the Indian High Commissioner was very flexible at the talks. He ignored the conditions mentioned in the agreement signed in 2017 in order to be helpful to us,” Gammanpila said. “He was flexible to agree to all our conditions.”  

However, he added that as a majority of ships which sail around Trincomalee are from India, Indian assistance would still be required.  

“So, we need India’s co-operation to win their market.”  

However, last Thursday (18), India issued a statement saying there has not been any agreement reached with Sri Lanka doing away with the agreement reached on developing the Trincomalee oil tank farms.  

The Indian High Commission in Colombo stated that there is no truth in the reports that the understanding between India and Sri Lanka on jointly developing and operating the Upper Tank Farms in Trincomalee has been “scrapped”.  

In a statement, the High Commission said these reports did not correctly portray remarks made by the Minister of Energy at an event on Wednesday.  

“The Minister has himself clarified the matter in detail today through a press briefing. As indicated in the Minister’s briefing also, the two governments have consulted each other to explore mutually acceptable modalities for jointly developing and operating the facility in accordance with existing bilateral understandings, including the MoU of 2017,” the Indian High Commission stated.  

“India looks forward to formal discussions on the matter, and expeditious implementation of their outcome to mutual benefit,” it added.  

Burial issue  

US Ambassador in Sri Lanka Alaina B. Teplitz last week said that it was disappointing to see that the Government and Prime Minister are backing away from ending the discriminatory cremation policy.  

“Disappointed to see that the Government and Prime Minister are backing away from ending discriminatory cremation policy. People, including loved ones recently passed, deserve more respect for their rights from a democratic government,” she said.  

Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) accused the Government of showing scant respect to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.  

SLMC Leader MP Rauff Hakeem told reporters that the Government has put the Prime Minister to shame by not acknowledging his recent statement on permitting the burial of Muslim Covid victims.  

He further said a small group of people within the Government are working towards disrespecting the Prime Minister and disregarding his statement.  

They have clearly disrespected Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa through their actions, MP Hakeem said.  

Split in SLPP  

While the Government is trying to handle a plateful of diplomatic issues, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to last week intervene to resolve the clash between the governing Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and its alliance partners.  

The growing dissension between the SLPP and its allies has now reached a boiling point with 12 parties in the SLPP deciding to form an alliance to take on the SLPP as well as the issues faced by the Government.  

It is in this backdrop that State Minister Nimal Lansa, who is a loyalist of SLPP Founder/National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa, claimed that those who want to carry out the role of the Opposition while being in the Government could walk away from the Government.  

He charged that making critical statements to the public after reaching a collective decision as a Government was purely aimed at pleasing the gallery.   

Meanwhile, the newly formed alliance has stated that Cabinet Ministers Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila, and Vasudeva Nanayakkara will continue to remain in the Government whilst fighting to ensure it stays true to the mandate provided to it by the people.  

“We promised that to the public. We have not forgotten our responsibilities and leaving the Government would be irresponsible. We do not foresee the creation of a new coalition by us,” Pivithuru Hela Urumaya Leader Minister of Energy Udaya Gammanpila had said.   

When asked about the closed-door meeting held at Wimal Weerawansa’s residence, he had told The Morning that it was nothing special, but that any talks among the political parties in the alliance are important and the next meeting will be held on 25 February.   

Weerawansa made a statement to the print media recently suggesting that the SLPP leadership be given to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa when the SLPP leadership is currently held by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa.   

SLPP Secretary General MP Sagara Kariyawasam shot back saying that Weerawansa must immediately retract and apologise for his statement.  

Commenting on dual citizens holding office, Gammanpila said that his party had clearly explained the reasons to oppose dual citizenship in its proposals for a new constitution.  

“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa promised to introduce a clause which would not allow dual citizens to contest in presidential or parliamentary elections before November 2021. Clearly, this is not about Mr. Basil Rajapaksa,” he added.  

Gammanpila further noted that if Basil Rajapaksa wanted to come into politics, he could do so after renouncing his dual citizenship just as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa did. “But Mr. Basil Rajapaksa himself said that he has no intention to come into politics,” said Gammanpila.   

Commenting further on why dual citizens should not be allowed in key positions in Sri Lanka, Gammanpila noted two reasons: “If a dual citizen holds a key position in Sri Lanka and commits any crime, they can easily escape to another country of residence. The second reason is the lack of trust the public has in a dual citizenship holder when it comes to agreements or diplomatic missions. For example, let’s say the minister of ports is a dual citizen and an Indian. If that person engages with an agreement like East Container Terminal (ECT), people would obviously say that the minister is partial, as he is an Indian and that he would be loyal to his other country instead of Sri Lanka,” said Gammanpila.