Editorial/Opinion

Time lapses for consensual resolution

  • Friday’s meeting with UNHRC Core Group postponed till tomorrow 
  • Govt. turns to Russia and China for support to face resolution 
  • Cabinet heats up over ECT; pressure mounts on Wimal  
  • India pushes for full implementation of 13A and PC polls

The Government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is now at the centre of a diplomatic quagmire, firstly by antagonising two key Asian allies – India and China – over the controversial East Container Terminal (ECT) issue at the Colombo Port. Next is the controversial issue of enforced cremation of bodies of the Covid-19 dead that has soured Sri Lanka’s diplomatic relations with Muslim countries. 

All these issues cannot be discounted at a time when Sri Lanka’s alleged human rights issues are to be put under the spotlight at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions that are to commence in about two weeks. 

The meeting between the Government and the representatives of the Core Group on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC was scheduled for Friday (5) evening to discuss the impending Council sessions as well as the resolution that is to be presented. The meeting was to be chaired by Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena at the Foreign Ministry. 

However, the meeting was postponed till tomorrow (8) at the last minute by the Ministry. 

During the discussion, the Government and Core Group members were to discuss further whether there was a possibility of proceeding with a consensual resolution on Sri Lanka at the 46th Session of the UNHRC scheduled to commence on 22 February. The Government has not yet informed the Core Group members whether it was agreeable to proceed with a consensual resolution or if it was prepared to move forward with a counter resolution. 

Nevertheless, the time frame to proceed with a consensual resolution has now lapsed with only two weeks to go for the Council sessions. 

Also, the Government’s announcement last week that it has decided to reject the report compiled by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on the deterioration of human rights in Sri Lanka, has more or less shut down any possibility of proceeding with a consensual resolution. 

The Government’s decision was announced by Co-Cabinet Spokesperson Minister Udaya Gammanpila. 

The Minister had told the media that Sri Lanka’s response to the report, which has already been submitted in writing, will be made public when Foreign Relations Minister Dinesh Gunawardena addresses the UNHRC. 

The Government decided to reject the report, as it has been prepared in violation of the mandate given through Resolutions 30/1 and 40/1 of the UN Human Rights Council, Gammanpila had said. 

The Minister had further stated that out of the 17-page report, only two pages had been in accordance with the mandate conferred on the Human Rights Commissioner while the remaining content of the report was maliciously aimed at the Government, contrary to the Council’s scope. 

The report had also failed to present credible evidence pertaining to the allegations levelled at Sri Lanka, Gammanpila had added. 

Meanwhile, UN human rights experts on Friday (5) expressed their deep concern about the reversal of “important democratic gains achieved since 2015” and roll back on limited progress made on accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka since the Government withdrew its support from the Resolution 30/1 in February 2020. 

“In the spirit of co-operation, we, the mandate holders who visited Sri Lanka since 2015, find it timely and opportune to recall some key recommendations as the developments over the past year have had profound negative impact on human rights in Sri Lanka and have fundamentally altered the context in which these recommendations could be effectively implemented, issues also raised in the High Commissioner’s report on Sri Lanka,” the experts stated. 

Diplomatic faux pas? 

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan Envoy to the United Nations in New York Mohan Peiris had raised Sri Lanka’s human rights issues at the UN General Assembly on 28 January. 

Peiris had reportedly charged that defeated terrorists were using international rights mechanisms to unleash a different kind of terrorism. 

Sri Lankan Envoy to the United Nations in New York Mohan Peiris

In his maiden address to the General Assembly, Pieris had appeared to question whether a recent report on Sri Lanka by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was an “exercise in regime change”. 

“It appears today that vanquished terror groups and terrorism is making use of very civilised mechanisms to unleash a different kind of terrorism. To walk themselves into the very mechanism that protects a civilised world,” Pieris had said. 

“Should our mandates extend to interfering with local processes such as perhaps an exercise in a change of regime which is being critiqued in a recent report from the Human Rights Council?” Pieris had questioned. 

It was also reported that the Sri Lankan Envoy to the UN had delivered his remarks to United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres during an informal interactive session following the presentation of the UN Annual Report to the General Assembly.  

Interestingly, while the Secretary General’s Annual Report had not included any reference to Sri Lanka, Pieris’ intervention had managed to draw a response from Guterres. 

If the Government and its people took the need for reconciliation and accountability seriously, it would reduce the interest of other entities to directly involve themselves in those issues, Secretary General Guterres had reportedly noted. 

“A country has to heal its wounds. Truth is essential for this and without truth and reconciliation, it is impossible to move forward. Accountability is an important instrument in this regard,” Guterres had said, adding: “I hope all the interventions that are taking place at present will help the process of effective reconciliation and effective accountability.” 

Sri Lanka’s human rights issues have until now been kept out of the UN agenda in New York, but senior members of the foreign service have now expressed doubts as to whether the Sri Lankan Envoy’s comments would result in undue attention being received by Sri Lanka among the UN member state. 

However, Pieris had paid a courtesy call on Guterres on Thursday (4). 

Urging a resolution 

Human Rights Watch (HRW) meanwhile, releasing a report last Monday (1), stated that the Sri Lankan Government is “aggressively attacking” efforts to hold officials to account for past grave abuses and that the UNHRC should adopt a resolution upholding justice for “serious international crimes” in Sri Lanka and condemn “ongoing abuses”. 

The HRW, in its 93-page report, titled “Open Wounds and Mounting Dangers: Blocking Accountability for Grave Abuses in Sri Lanka”, has examined alleged efforts by the Sri Lankan Government to thwart justice in seven prominent human rights cases. 

The report has described the current context as “government repression” of activists, journalists, lawyers, and the families of victims as well as threats against vulnerable minorities, and called on the UNHRC, at its session beginning 22 February 2021, to adopt a resolution upholding justice for serious international crimes in Sri Lanka and condemning ongoing abuses. 

“The Sri Lankan Government’s assault on justice increases the risk of human rights abuses today and in the future,” Geneva Director John Fisher had said. “The UN Human Rights Council should adopt a resolution at its upcoming session that demonstrates to the Rajapaksa administration that the world won’t ignore its abuses and offers hope of justice to victims’ families.” 

According to HRW, efforts to provide accountability had significantly declined during 2020. 

US reminder 

Meanwhile, in his message to mark Sri Lanka’s 73rd Independence Day last Thursday (4), US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken reminded Sri Lanka about the need to uphold their shared principles. 

Blinken noted that the people of Sri Lanka and the US celebrate shared principles to protect and promote democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and equal justice for all. 

“The success of the democratic endeavour lies in how we uphold these principles for all citizens,” he observed.

The US Secretary of State noted that the US looks forward to working with Sri Lanka as a partner and friend to promote regional security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region. 

According to Blinken, the US will continue to co-operate to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic, support global economic recovery, and meet future challenges together. 

He also wished the Sri Lankan people a safe and joyous National Day celebration, and a promising year ahead. 

Russian love 

Amidst the intensifying heat on Sri Lanka over the impending UNHRC sessions as well as its diplomatic issues with several key Asian allies like India and Japan, Russia last week stepped in to warm up its relations with Sri Lanka. 

After announcing that Russia would permit the local manufacturing of the Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement reiterating support for Sri Lanka at the UN and other multilateral platforms. 

The Russian Foreign Ministry said that modern Sri Lanka enjoys well-deserved respect in the world as a sovereign, democratic, and socially oriented state. 

“Its citizens are rightfully proud not only of their ancient history, but also of their great achievements in the field of economic development,” the Russian Foreign Ministry stated. 

The Foreign Ministry had also noted that Russian-Sri Lankan bilateral ties have invariably remained constructive since they were established. 

“We maintain political contacts, including at the highest levels, and co-operate productively on the international arena, at the UN and other multilateral platforms,” the Foreign Ministry added. 

The statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry was issued to mark Sri Lanka’s Independence Day. 

Russia had further noted that the friendly people of Sri Lanka have come a long way in the fight, first against the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and the British colonisers, and the island nation had gained freedom in 1948 after more than a century of British colonial rule. 

The Russian Foreign Ministry noted that Russia has traditionally been an important trading partner of Sri Lanka and one of the largest importers of Ceylon Tea.  

It is now evident that Sri Lanka would turn towards Russia and China for support to face the impending resolution at the UNHRC sessions. 

In fact, if not for the Government’s decision to enforce the cremation of bodies of Muslims killed by Covid-19, in violation of basic human right tenets, Sri Lanka could have easily obtained the support of the Muslim countries when faced with pressure before the UN rights body. 

Rift with neighbour 

However, given the soured relations between Sri Lanka and India over the ECT controversy, it is yet unknown whether the Government could depend on India’s support to counter pressures in the UNHRC. 

It is in this backdrop that India has reminded Sri Lanka on the need to adhere to international commitments. 

Indian External Affairs Ministry Spokesperson Anurag Srivastava had said that the Indian High Commissioner in Colombo is in discussion with Sri Lanka on the matter and that the talks include the need for Sri Lanka to adhere to international commitments. 

Srivastava had noted that India believes the ECT deal with India and Japan will be mutually beneficial. 

Soon after the Government announced its unilateral decision to retain the ECT and offer the West Container Terminal (WCT) for the Indian and Japanese joint venture, Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Gopal Baglay had urgent talks with President Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, and Foreign Minister Gunawardena on Tuesday (2). 

According to The Hindu, the Indian side, it is learnt, had conveyed that the signals emanating from Sri Lanka should boost the confidence of potential investors and that President Rajapaksa had pledged to draw foreign direct investments to the country, rather than take loans. 

The manner in which the Government had handled the ECT issue has left India and Japan disgruntled since Sri Lanka had failed to officially convey the decision to the two countries as well as failed to offer an alternative proposal to them. 

“The two countries learnt of it only after the Cabinet decisions were released,” The Hindu had quoted a source as saying. 

They were also surprised by Prime Minister Rajapaksa’s statement to port unions last Monday that the “foreign company” did not agree with the proposals put forward by the negotiating committee from the Sri Lankan side, as discussions had commenced only last week. 

As for how Sri Lanka would mobilise funds to develop the ECT using funds at the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), Minister Gammanpila had said: “The SLPA is going to use its own funds, as well as borrow money from local commercial banks.” 

When questioned whether Sri Lanka had discussed the option of developing the WCT with India, he had told The Hindu: “This is a sensitive diplomatic issue. Sri Lanka is always keen to maintain cordial diplomatic ties with India. Sri Lanka has commenced discussions with the Government of India, but I don’t think this is the stage to disclose those details.” 

India’s geostrategic interest in the project is well known. On the other side of the ECT is the Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT) that the SLPA runs as a joint venture, in which China Merchants Port Holdings Company Ltd. holds an 85% stake. 

The CICT, a deep-water container terminal, is the busiest among the three main terminals at the Port, capable of handling large container vessels. 

Meanwhile, Ports and Shipping Minister Rohitha Abeygunawardena had said that a cabinet subcommittee has been appointed to discuss the new proposal with India. 

“I would like to reiterate the expectation of the Government of India for expeditious implementation of the trilateral memorandum of co-operation (MoC) signed in May 2019 among the Governments of India, Japan, and Sri Lanka for the development of the ECT with participation from these three countries,” a spokesperson at the Indian High Commission in Colombo said last Monday. 

Coinciding with the ECT drama, India had last week also asked Sri Lanka to settle the $ 400 million loan obtained under currency swap facility last year that was due for repayment on Tuesday (2). 

Sri Lanka received $ 400 million from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) in July last year and it was due on 2 February.

In a statement, the Indian High Commission Spokesperson said: “We have seen speculative reports  about the $ 400 million settlement of currency swap facility by Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL). In this respect, it is pointed out that Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and CBSL had concluded a $ 400 million currency swap agreement on 24 July 2020 under the SAARC Currency Swap Framework. This swap facility was drawn by CBSL on 31 July 2020 for an initial period of three months. A three-month rollover was provided at CBSL’s request till 1 February 2021. Further extension would require Sri Lanka having a successfully negotiated staff level agreement for an IMF programme, which Sri Lanka does not have at present. CBSL settled the swap facility with RBI as scheduled and this was clarified by CBSL on 5 February 2021. It is reiterated that India abides by all of its international and bilateral commitments in letter and spirit.”

However, on Friday (5), Finance Ministry Secretary S.R. Attygalle said the CBSL had settled the due amount, which was to mature on 2 February. 

The CBSL had clarified on the same day that it settled the swap facility with RBI as scheduled.

Japan steps in 

The Japanese Government, which is the other party in the ECT controversy, has also expressed regret over Sri Lanka’s decision to scrap the ECT deal with Japan and India. 

Ambassador of Japan to Sri Lanka Akira Sugiyama met with Foreign Minister Gunawardena on Wednesday (3) and had discussed a range of matters relevant to the bilateral partnership between Sri Lanka and Japan. 

However, it is reliably learnt that the Japanese Envoy had also informed the Government that funds assigned to Sri Lanka for development projects by Japan could not be used for debt repayment. 

The envoy had noted that such an action would be a violation of the agreement reached between the two countries on allocating the funds.  

ECT warms Cabinet 

The ECT controversy also resulted in the proceedings of the weekly Cabinet meeting held last Monday (1) taking quite a heated tone. 

It is learnt that the temperature of the meeting had taken a turn when the issue of the Colombo Port was taken up for discussion.

Ministers Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Gammanpila, and Wimal Weerawansa had been at the receiving end of criticism by several of their cabinet colleagues over public statements made by them over the ECT controversy. 

However, the Cabinet finally decided to retain 100% ownership of the ECT while assigning 85% of the WCT to an Indian and Japanese joint venture. 

The decision was reached by granting approval to cabinet paper MPS/2020/01/20(I) presented by Ports Minister Abeygunawardena. 

Presenting the paper, the Ports Minister had said that several cabinet ministers had to take the blame for the controversy that had erupted. 

Abeygunawardena had said that the people who had worked hard to bring the Government to power as well as the confidence people had placed in President Rajapaksa, had been affected due to the ECT controversy. 

“This issue was taken out publicly and made into a controversy even before the committee report was received,” the Ports Minister had said, referring to several of his colleagues in innuendo. 

Ministers Prasanna Ranatunga, Johnston Fernando, and Namal Rajapaksa have agreed with Abeygunawardena. 

A point that was drawn by these ministers was that some ministers in the Government were posing obstacles through their actions at a time when the country is trying to revive its economy following challenges posed by the global Covid-19 pandemic. 

Fernando had noted that the Government should be focused on being bound by collective responsibility. 

“The Government’s image is tarnished by making angry public statements over issues that should be resolved within the Government,” he had said. 

Weerawansa had immediately responded saying that the issue of the ECT had been first made public by a state minister. Weerawansa had reminded the Cabinet of the statement made by the relevant state minister who had reportedly said, “dogs might bark but we will develop the ECT with India”. 

Fernando had responded saying: “Lansa (Nimal) had made a similar statement, but he is junior in the Government. You are a senior member. Senior members should act with more responsibility.”  

“It was wrong to have made this matter public. We could have sat as a meeting like this and reached a solution through discussion,” Fernando had added. 

Weerawansa had once again responded, saying: “We have the right to discuss with the public about government policies and the pledges made to the people; not only within the Government. If not, we will not know until the Government collapses. Are you asking us to wait till that happens? That cannot be. This is a government that was formed with great efforts by us all; also, with public trust. This cannot be compromised for any reason. We have to safeguard these facts, if we are to safeguard the Government.” 

Namal had then intervened and asked: “If there were so many issues, why were they not discussed within the Cabinet?” 

“That’s why there’s a party leaders’ meeting. But there has not been a party leaders’ meeting for several months. Where can we then discuss these issues? Nothing can be done because some people fail to understand the gravity of the situation, but we discussed with the people after seeing the loss and destruction the country would face if the terminal is given to India,” Weerawansa had retorted. 

Nanayakkara had also supported Weerawansa when responding to statements aimed at the ministers who had publicly slammed the Government’s move to assign the ECT to a joint venture between India and Japan. 

Several ministers had also expressed displeasure at the conduct of some trade union leaders in the ECT controversy. 

“We could have saved the Hambantota Port if the trade unions behaved in this manner at the time. It is these trade union leaders who earlier complained that they were not being paid bonuses. I will not stand for these union leaders who have double standards,” Namal had said. 

Seeing that the Cabinet meeting was fast becoming a heated shouting match, the President had intervened. 

“We have to think of diplomatic politics as well. The previous Government had signed 17 agreements with India. They had signed an agreement on the ECT as well. We cancelled several such agreements. We did not give Mattala and Sampur. We called open tenders for gas. India is now expressing their great displeasure at what’s happening. We have to take these factors into account when carrying on as a government,” President Rajapaksa had said. 

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) General Secretary MP Sagara Kariyawasam had expressed the party’s disappointment over the remarks made by Minister Weerawansa over the contentious ECT issue. 

Kariyawasam, who is known to be a loyalist of SLPP Founder/National Organiser Basil Rajapaksa, had made these remarks at a press conference at the SLPP headquarters in Battaramulla last week. 

He had noted that Weerawansa should have respected the tradition of collective responsibility of the Cabinet. 

“It is not in the best interest of a government when individuals conduct press briefings on their own and try to become heroes before the public. However, the Government and the President will not be influenced by anyone. They will carry out the country’s development initiatives without capitulating to pressures exerted by individuals,” Kariyawasam had said. 

Meanwhile, more SLPP backbenchers had criticised Weerawansa. 

MP Premitha Bandara Tennakoon had said that some government MPs and ministers are attacking the Government in a subtle manner and had warned that SLPP backbenchers will be forced to take action against such individuals if this kind of behaviour persists.  

Tennakoon is also a Basil supporter. 

Focus back on 13A 

While the ECT controversy has now resulted in a diplomatic standoff between Sri Lanka and India, the latter continued to engage with local politicians with renewed vigour. The Deputy Indian High Commissioner last week met with several minority party leaders who are pro-Government as well as in the Opposition. 

Accordingly, meetings were held with MPs Rauff Hakeem, Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, and Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan. 

During these meetings, the Indian side, while discussing economic co-operation, had paid special attention to the concerns of the minority communities in Sri Lanka. 

The Indian diplomat had also reiterated India’s commitment towards the full implementation of the 13th Amendment (13A) to the Constitution and the holding of provincial council (PC) elections. 

“Deputy HC Vinod K. Jacob held separate meetings with delegations led by Hon’ble MP S. Chandrakanthan (Pillayan) & Mr. V. Muralitharan (Karuna Amman). Development coop in the East & full implementation of 13th amendment & Provincial Councils were discussed in these meetings (sic),” the Indian High Commission in Colombo tweeted. 

Deputy High Commissioner Jacob, after meeting Hakeem, had reiterated calls for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. 

Hakeem had evaluated India’s gesture of early supply of Covid vaccines to Sri Lanka and both sides had also discussed matters pertaining to economic, financial, and development co-operation opportunities. 

The High Commission had stated that Hakeem had shared his assessment about the challenges facing the Muslim community in recent times. 

Deputy High Commissioner Jacob had recalled the conversations between the Indian and Sri Lankan leadership since November 2019 during the Virtual Bilateral Summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister Rajapaksa in September 2020, where the latter had expressed the confidence that Sri Lanka will work towards realising the expectations of all ethnic groups. 

Jacob had also reiterated India’s long-standing and principled position on meaningful devolution through full implementation of the 13th Amendment and provincial councils. 

Opposition accusation 

The main Opposition, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), on Tuesday (2), accused the Government of hurting its foreign relations with India by enforcing a pro-China policy. 

Chief Opposition Whip MP Lakshman Kiriella told the media at a press conference that the China-centric policy of the former Mahinda Rajapaksa Government has extended into the incumbent Government as well. 

He added that the current Government’s move to include China in all development activities has caused concerns with India. 

He explained that the security of India and Sri Lanka are tied together and that both countries require co-operating in this regard. 

According to Kiriella, if Sri Lanka threatens the security of India, the latter cannot be prevented from intervening in the matter.