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Address issues posed by Geneva togetherax

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By Jehan Perera

 

So far, it appears that the implications of the resolution on Sri Lanka passed at the UN Human Rights Council last week against the Sri Lankan government’s objections, have been taken with a pinch of salt. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena’s reaction to the passage of the resolution by a 22-11 margin was to take note that 14 countries had abstained and, therefore, a majority of the countries had not given their support to the resolution. Two of the countries that abstained, India and Japan, are powerful and important ones to Sri Lanka, as indeed they are in the world, which makes them well suited to play a bridge-building role in the future within the UN Human Rights Council. The relative equanimity with which the passage of the resolution was received within the country as a whole would be on account of the upbeat assessment of the situation by the government. The majority of the population who voted the government into power continue to feel that it is looking after the national interest where this issue is concerned.

From the perspective of the general public, whose attention is presently gripped by other pressing matters, such as the cost of living, the passage of the UNHRC resolution posed no significant cause for alarm, especially as the government, they have voted for, has expressed confidence in having the support of a majority of countries. Further, the resolution itself carries no punitive sanctions. It provides recommendations about what the government should and should not do in terms of ensuring accountability for human rights abuses, preventing new ones from occurring, caring for war victims, increasing the space for civil society to work, and reducing the role of the military in governance. There are no punitive measures mentioned directly in the resolution. Therefore the people believe the government when it says it can deal with the evolving situation.

However, there is a difference between domestic politics and international realities. The fact that there is no immediate adverse fallout from the resolution needs to be considered carefully. There are three serious problems that can arise in the future. First, the resolution specifies that Sri Lanka will be on the agenda of the UNHRC for the next one and a half years. As this body meets three times a year, this means that Sri Lanka will be under regular scrutiny by the international community. It is liable to suffer reputational damage if critical observations against it are being constantly made which can impact negatively on the country’s attractiveness as a location for economic development projects. As the government is focused on economic development it would be in the national interest to make the Geneva process a constructive one that gives confidence to potential investors about the future of the country.

 

SERIOUS PROBLEMS

Second, the previous UNHRC resolutions on Sri Lanka were limited to getting the Sri Lankan government to act in accordance with the recommendations of the international community. Even when the last resolution, which was co-sponsored by the former government, had accepted a role for foreign judges, it was the Sri Lankan government that was to be in charge of the special courts. The onus was on Sri Lanka to be the party to act and to be in charge. However, the present resolution gives the power to act and to be in charge also to the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The significance of the resolution is enhanced by the fact that it empowers the High Commissioner’s office to look also at the present and ongoing situation in the country and not limit itself to the issue of war time violations and immediate post-war violations only.

This resolution gives the High Commissioner’s office the authority to set up a special unit to gather information and evidence on human rights violations taking place in Sri Lanka. That is to “strengthen the capacity of the Office of the High Commissioner to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in Member States, with competent jurisdiction” (operative Clause 6) and a budget of USD 2.8 million to implement it.

The possibility of punitive action is implicit in the fact that the recently passed resolution welcomes the report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, which was released in late January this year, set out facts from a perspective that indicates that Sri Lanka is heading in the direction of contracting space for political freedom, weakening of checks and balances in governance and increased conflict between ethnic and religious communities. The recommendations given in the UN High Commissioner’s report range from freezing of assets, travel bans and targeted sanctions against public officials suspected of human rights violations and referral of such cases to international tribunals including the International Criminal Court and an invitation to individual countries to take action under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

 

CONSTRUCTIVE EFFORTS

Third, if Sri Lanka is seen as not complying with the resolution, another sanction could be the loss of the European Union’s GSP Plus tariff concession currently given to Sri Lankan exporters. As the EU is Sri Lanka’s largest export market, the denial of the GSP Plus would have a negative impact on the country’s economy and on employment opportunities. When Sri Lanka lost its GSP Plus concession in 2010 due to allegations of human rights, it resulted in a loss of export revenues of an estimated Rs 150-250 billion till its reinstatement in 2017. Especially in a context in which there is an economic downturn in the aftermath of the first and second waves of the Covid pandemic, the loss of the GSP Plus needs to be strenuously resisted. One of the conditions of granting the GSP Plus concession is that human rights violations should cease and the Prevention of Terrorism Act should be replaced with a counter terrorism law that is in conformity with international standards.

None of these worst case scenarios need to come about if the government looks at the recommendations in the resolution and makes a good faith effort to implement them. In the run up to the vote on Sri Lanka in Geneva, a European ambassador said that regardless of the way the vote went, their relations with the Sri Lankan government would continue as before. This was followed by a discussion in which a balanced assessment was made of the problems of democratic politics worldwide where nationalist forces are getting increasingly powerful. In Europe, for instance, there are political parties that espouse nationalism against ethnic and religious minorities who are seen as interlopers. Those from the international community who are self-critical will have an appreciation about Sri Lanka’s own challenges of governance.

Sri Lanka’s encounter with nationalism has been central to its existence as a democratic polity. Sri Lanka has not been able to relegate nationalism to the margins as Western countries have done, and which many East European countries have still failed to do. This may explain the European ambassador’s affirmation of a continued constructive engagement with the Sri Lankan government regardless of the outcome of the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka. But the best answer will come if the government, together with the Opposition meets the Geneva challenge. It is encouraging that leader of the main Opposition party, Sajith Premadasa, has made this constructive offer. Similar offers by leaders of the ethnic and religious minority parties and an acceptance of the same by the government are called for. We need to reform our polity to ensure fairness in governance not so much for the sake of Geneva or future Geneva, but to be at peace with ourselves to develop our country and its people.

 

 



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Opinion

Rise of Cheena Saubhagya

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Before the Aluth Avurudda dawned, we were talking about the lost crown of Ranjan Ramanayake and the grabbing and fighting over the crown of Mrs. Sri Lanka.

The auspicious time for the dawning of the New Year would have brought joy to those who were able to get enough rice, coconut oil and honey to make kiri buth, kevun, kokis and other delights, and even enjoy some of the avurudu games, although without elevated pillow fights and tugs-o-war. 

But the reality facing us all, with songs of the cuckoo and other birds, is a push into an inauspicious era in the country, with democracy getting its biggest blow from a government that pledged to strengthen the democratic rights of the people. 

We now face the reality of the Bill for the Colombo Port City Economic Commission, which, if enacted, would take us far away from the goals  of democracy that our people, and most political leaders and parties were committed to, from many years before independence. The proposed Colombo Port City has all the promise and assurance of being a new colony in South Asia, with the colonisers, as seen today, being the Chinese.

Is this the reality of the Rajapaksa dream and goal in politics and governance?

We do remember that when the work on the Colombo Port City was ceremonially launched in September, 2014, by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Chinese President Xi Jinping, the entire project – the artificial island to be constructed by the Chinese – was written off to China. A permanent Chinese holding.

It was left to the Yahapalana government, which followed in 2015, to have serious negotiations with China, and change the full ownership to a 99-year lease given to China. 

What we now see is that the Saubhagye Dekma of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is, in fact, the rise of the Cheena Saubhagya in Sri Lanka.

A country that has had free elections since 1931, even before independence, and has had a functioning parliament, since 1948, is seeking to do away with the very concept of parliamentary democracy. The Colombo Port City Economic Commission is the display of nondemocratic governance, where the nominees of the President, will be answerable to him and not to the country and people on the functioning of the Port City, its income and expenditure, and all facilities in the new Dictatorial City, inside the Democratic Sri Lanka.

The Sri Lankan voters have much to do with the threat that democracy faces today with the Port City exercise. The 69 lakhs that voted Gotabaya Rajapaksa to office as President, the somewhat smaller vote that gave a parliamentary majority to the SLPP – Pohottuva – alliance in the general election, and the two-thirds majority the government gained in the passage of the 20 Amendment, are core values of the Rajapaksa-Port City strike at democracy.

Mahinda Rajapaksa may have been a strong supporter of democracy, in his early years in politics, and his first election as President but the dictatorial trend in Rajapaksa politics has been clearly seen in the post-war Sri Lanka. Today’s dictatorial policies coming with the Port City Commission, began with Mahinda Rajapaksa drawing MPs from the Opposition and passing the 18th Amendment, which curbed the democratic trends of the 17 A.

After that, the 19 A of the Yahapalana, restored democracy and expanded the provisions and facilities of democracy with Independent Commissions, and considerable independence in the appointment of members of the judiciary. 

The Rajapaksas came again, after the Easter Sunday carnage, with their full strength, and popular support to remove the values of democracy that were brought into the Constitution from the 19A, to full and shameful strides into dictatorial governance, with the 20A.      

The massive threat to democracy that comes from the Port City Commission is also backed by the draft legislation to remove the court cases on crime and corruption against members and supporters of this government. This dictatorial move is also supported by the removal of the many cases filed in the courts by the Bribery Commission, on technical errors – which can certainly be corrected — but not thought necessary by a corrupt regime.

The Port City Commission is the complete flowering of corruption and dictatorial trends in this country. This is the show of majority dominance, not to serve the people, but to serve a large and powerful family,  and the catchers that serve and benefit from it, with claims of ViyathMaga or any such crooked players.

We now have a member of Parliament of the government, but not holding any portfolio or even a state ministry, come out in a loud criticism of the Varaya Nagara Keliya. Such critics were once very supportive of all the corrupt moves by the Avant Garde players, exposed by Yahapalanaya; but things do change. The Varaya Nagara Keliya is the display of the realities of Rajapaksa Balaya. It is in keeping with the Basil Rajapaksa call to learn more of the Chinese system of governance. 

What we see with the Port City is the vast abandonment of democracy. Such political thinking will not be limited to the Port City, but will soon extend to the entire island. It is the realisation of Rajavasala Thinking, where memorials for deceased parents could/should be built at State/People’s expense.   

What the people are told to accept today is the Cheena Saubhagya. It is just one display of Apey Pavul Saubhagya, which is the reality of Port City crooked governance.

Let us see how much the judiciary can help the people of Sri Lanka safeguard its longer commitment to democracy, beyond the crooked and deadly impact of the 20A.

Cheena Saubhagya, Bunga veva!  

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Opinion

First reign of terror by the JVP

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By MANO RATWATTE

I have been reading your articles on the 1971 JVP insurrection, quite avidly. A lot has been narrated about the fateful night of April 5th and the events that followed.

It was fascinating to read the accounts by the retired DIG. Thank you for all the articles. It brought back some vivid memories from my childhood.

My personal story from
that fateful period

I was a young boy, just past my 11th birthday and attending Royal College at the time. I was oblivious to the fact that, my father was the Private Secretary to the Prime Minister, and my maternal grandfather was the Governor General (Ceylon had not become a republic yet – that would happen later), our family would be under attack. I remember the very tense period, and how my parent’s home had been marked for attack. The markings were faint, a crude “X” made with red brick. This was repeated at the homes of some other relatives of the Prime Minister, as well. We were oblivious, never noticing the ominous markings.

I have no doubt if the JVP had succeeded they would have executed Mrs. Bandaranaike and probably my father, who was her brother, as well. The PM’s Private Secretary is a position equivalent to a White House Chief of Staff. My grandfather, as the GG and nominally Head of State, would probably have been a victim, too. It is more than likely that the JVP would have massacred my entire family, emulating what their heroes, the Bolsheviks did to the Czar’s family in Yekaterinburg, after the Russian Revolution.

When the severity of the threat became apparent, we were whisked away on the night of April 4th to the GG’s residence, Queen’s House, because the Army Commander felt it wasn’t safe for us to remain in our home. My grandfather had been the Governor General, since 1962, so luckily, we had a safe haven that was familiar to us. As a kid I thought it was “cool” to be escorted by armed soldiers. But, looking back, I realise I may not be alive today, if the JVP revolt had succeeded.

The timing of the JVP’s 1971 rebellion was very poor. The United Front government, which had won a massive landslide electoral victory, in 1970, hadn’t been in power for even an year and had not been able to implement many changes. The economic hardships, food queues and rationing, which were to come in the aftermath of the global energy crisis of 1973, weren’t on the horizon yet. Ceylon was a pleasant place with a vibrant democracy; the exception being the notorious coup attempt of 1962. A violent overthrow of the recently elected government wasn’t something likely to gain much support with the populace.

However, it is likely that, not for the serendipitous incidents in March, reported in this newspaper previously, with the JVP’s bombs exploding prematurely, the security forces would have been far less prepared and the rebellion may well have succeeded.

The situation in the early days of the revolt was very tense. My father was very active in the discussions, and was part of the National Security Council at Temple Trees. It seemed ‘touch and go’ for a while, but my father said that the Prime Minister never panicked. I know my father definitely didn’t, remaining calm despite the initial flood of bad news.

My father never panicked, no matter what the threat was. He had previously faced down the Air Force guard that threatened to open fire on my aunt, in January 1966, along with the late Dr. Baduiddin Muhammed, at a political rally. Before that, in September 1959, he had helped prevent the domestic staff at Tintagel, the PM’s private residence, hack, murderer Somarama to death, after SWRD’s assassination on the front lawn of the property. If the assassin had been killed that day, the right wing conspiracy behind it would have never been uncovered.

Reminiscing o 1971, he told us much later, with a chuckle about the ashen-faced (his words) Army Commander who was at the NSC meetings held at the Temple Trees annexe. The General wanted the PM to ask Yugoslavian leader Marshal Tito for military help. I’m not sure if the request was ever made or whether Mrs. B refused as she had faith in country’s military.

Lanka’s innocence was lost forever that day. Suddenly security and protection of VIPs became a thing in Ceylon. Prior to April 1971, the Prime Minister would have just a token escort, with a pilot-car containing a couple of armed guards and one personal bodyguard, typically a Police officer. The Governor General hardly had any security. A sleepy police Sergeant would be posted at Queen’s House. No bulletproof cars or decoy convoys like today. All that began during the war against the LTTE terrorists and suicide bombers.

I didn’t realize the gravity of the situation, until I saw guard points manned by armed sailors from the Navy, between Temple Trees and Queen’s House, during the curfew.

I remember riding in the GG’s vehicle to Temple Trees, and seeing Navy sailors in their blue uniforms and helmets with rifles and lights pointed towards the car, shouting “Halt” at the vehicle. They were mostly armed with obsolete WW1 vintage Lee Enfield Rifles, or the small Sterling ‘Sten’ submachine guns. I still remember their smart blue uniforms and the white garters (boot covers) around their boots. I also remember seeing a fleet of Indian Navy ships in Colombo, anchored facing Galle Face Green.

I remember my father, and the late Anuruddha Ratwatte (his cousin, then a Colonel), flying on Indian Air Force helicopters from the Royal Ceylon Air Force ground, that the retired DIG referenced. I tagged along in the vehicle that was used to drop them off there. They were overseeing the airdropping of surrender leaflets; an idea my father is believed to have thought of and proposed to the NSC. It offered amnesty and rehabilitation to JVP cadres who surrendered. The leaflets were dropped over the thick jungles where the remnants of the JVP were hiding. It may have been later in April or much later in May. I hope the DIG throws some light. The idea was a success with many fugitive JVP-ers surrendering to the security forces as a result of the campaign.

I have a lot more memories of those scary and sad days. The JVP has never apologized for the disruption of Ceylon’s society. Their actions were far worse in their second incarnation, but by then we were inured to violence. In 1971 we were still a peaceful and innocent country.

What if the 1971 rebellion had succeeded?

What if the JVP had seized power that April, 50 years ago? What would a Ceylon look like? A beautiful socialist utopia with complete state control of the economy? Thousands of grey Mao-suited robots with a little red book goose-stepping to herald a strongman similar to North Korea, who were supporters of the JVP? Would Wijeweera have been a Dear Leader and great benefactor? Or an Oliver Cromwell, a Gandhi, or a Pol Pot?

Act 2: Policy mistakes

Harping back to the 1971 insurgency; it shocked the leftist coalition government, headed by my aunt. As a result, some of the radical policy reforms, such as the Land Reform Act, were rushed through to assuage the anger demonstrated by the insurgents.

Land Reform, as my father later used to say, was one of the “most iniquitous” acts of policy. Think about it. Landholdings were restricted to 50 acres per adult. So if a family had adult children they could have 50 acres each, but even if a family had four young children, they lost most of their lands and six people would all have 50 acres in total ! It defied common sense and economic logic.

Did they assume the kids wouldn’t grow up to become adults? Or perhaps it was deliberately written to favour some, with thousands of acres of land and adult children, over others with young families or no children. Either way it was an absurd policy, which destroyed many viable plantations, reducing them to economically unviable smallholder status.

Housing ownership policies also were also rushed as a result of the 1971 rebellion. The implementation of this, too was botched and much wealth was destroyed. If the JVP had been more patient, they could have had a much better chance of wreaking even greater mayhem, when people were angry and tired of the stagnant economy post-1974.

But, indeed, it was serendipitous that those two premature bomb explosions happened in March. The second one happened the day my family was spending time with our uncle to celebrate his birthday.

Act 3 – The next JVP
insurrection

Their reign of terror and counter terror by the Government, in 1987- 89 was far worse for the entire nation. I was by then out of the country and did not experience any of it. My father wrote to me and asked me to stay in the USA as long as possible. An uncle of mine (a first cousin of my father’s) was burnt alive in Matale, during the hell the JVP unleashed in the aftermath of the Indian “invasion by invitation” after J.R. Jayewardene erred in handling relationships with India. Another good friend’s relative was chased down and killed at his estate, because he had raised the national flag on Independence Day as the government had requested. A respected scholar was assassinated on the University of Colombo campus – Professor Stanley Wijesundere. His son and I were good friends and classmates.

And no one should forget nor forgive the brutal murder of a great humanist and charismatic leader Vijaya Kumaranatunge, the leader of the SLMP and most popular celebrity actor. Why did the cruel assassins shoot him in the face after he was already dead and fallen? Was it because of sheer envy and evil thoughts of their leader who could not stand a good-looking popular rival?

My issue with all these lame excuses and talk about a ‘people’s struggle’, is that the JVP never sincerely apologized for the violence they unleashed, and keep celebrating their leader as if he’s a local Lenin; when he and his then generation of combatants had more in common with the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot, than Marx.

Recap 1971

Harping back to the successful victory over the JVP, in 1971, it must be mentioned how quickly almost every major nation in the world came to help Sri Lanka. Because of the excellent relationship between Ceylon and India, they were the first to rush in help. I remember they even supplied the Army with SLR 7.62 automatic weapons, much more capable weapons than the ancient rifles and inaccurate Sten guns which was all they had. The Ceylon military, which up to that point was a well-disciplined force but mainly a ‘parade-ground army’, was called upon to quell a domestic armed insurrection while armed with vintage bolt action rifles.

The tiny Armoured Corps, equipped with a few Daimler armoured cars, (the largest of which had a 2-pounder gun) was used to secure Kegalle and Mawanella, which had been seized by the JVP. A few vintage Ferret Scout cars armed with WW2 era Bren guns, were deployed at Temple Trees. Later one of the Saladin six-wheeled armoured cars, with a bigger 76mm gun was also deployed facing Galle Road.

Ceylon’s tiny military, led by professional leaders, acquitted themselves really well. While there were sad incidents like the Premawathi Manamperi incident, they deserve gratitude and thanks of the entire nation. Especially a then 11-year old boy’s sincere thanks for protecting him and his family.

Hope

All is not hopeless. The new younger and more educated leaders of the JVP have embraced democratic politics and their performances in Parliament exposing corruption of governments (whichever government is in power), and their well informed and educated analysis and criticisms, are a fresh positive contrast to the adi-pudi abuse laden politics of everyone else. But they will remain a less than 5% party if they keep celebrating a man who twice took our nation down a path that was disliked or hated by most. Clearly, the UNP could also apologize for the counter terror they unleashed.

Geo political friends

India was the most important ally in 1971. Indian-Lanka relations deteriorated because of President J. R. Jayewardene’s hostile views and his foolish attempts to align himself with the US and ASEAN, totally oblivious to who the regional power was. This is something to be cognizant of today, in post cold-war realignment of alliances. The USA, which was once hostile to India, is now totally aligned in the QUAD coalition against China. India has justifiable fears and concerns about China. It stems from having been humiliated by China in the1962 border war which led to a loss of territory.

Sri Lanka really needs to nurture its friendship with India so that they will be like the 1971 ‘Dhosthi India’ and not the ‘Dushman/badamaash India’ following the gory Black July of 1983. Same country – two different postures.

The paradigm shift about security, in 1971, was significant and permanent.

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Opinion

Buddhism and all beings’ right to life

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A large majority of human beings deny the right to life of animals and other sentient beings, including insects. Why? (Sentient being is a living being endowed with mind and consciousness). The late Venerable Narada Thera in his book titled, Manual of Buddhism, states as follows- “The tolerance of the Buddha was not only to men and women but to dumb animals as well. For it was the Buddha who banned the sacrifice of poor beasts and admonished the followers to extend their loving kindness (maithree) to all living beings. No man has the right to destroy the life of another living being, even for the sake of one’s stomach, as life is precious to all” He quotes from the Metta Sutta: “Whatever living beings there be, feeble or strong, long, stout or medium, small, large, seen or unseen, those dwelling far and near, those who are born and those who are to be born, may all beings be happy-minded, without exception. Just as a mother would save her own child, at the risk of her own life, even so let him cultivate boundless love towards all beings.”

Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi in his book, titled “The Noble Eightfold Path-Way to End Suffering” says: “The positive counterpart to abstaining from taking life, as the Buddha indicates, is the development of kindness and compassion for other beings. The disciple not only avoids destroying life, he dwells with a heart full of sympathy desiring the welfare of all beings. The commitment of non injury and concern for the welfare of others represents the practical application of the second path factor “Right Intention” in the form of goodwill and harmlessness. Abstaining from taking life (Panathipatha Veramani) – Herein someone avoids the taking of life and abstains from it. The intention of harmlessness, is a thought guide by compassion (karuna) aroused in opposition to cruel, aggressive and violent thoughts. Compassion has the characteristic of wishing that others be free from suffering; a wish to be extended to all living beings. It springs up by considering that all living beings, like ourselves, wish to be free from suffering.”

The Lankavatara Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism states: Quote: “For the sake of love of purity the Bodhisatva should refrain from eating flesh, which is born of semen, blood,etc., for fear of causing fear to living beings; let the Bodhisatva who is disciplining himself to attain compassion, refrain from eating flesh. It is not true that meat is proper food and permissible when the animal was not killed by himself. Meat eating in any form, in any manner and any place, is unconditionally and once for all prohibited”

 

The Surangana Sutra states: “In seeking to escape from suffering ourselves, why should we inflict suffering upon others? How can a Bhikkhu who goes to become a deliverer of others, himself be living on the flesh of other sentient beings? The Buddha forbade Buddhists from engaging in occupations that involve killing of animals, such as Butcher, Fisher, or Animal farmer.”

When it comes to small animals, like rats, and insects, the attitude of the large majority of humans is as if they do not have right to life.

According to Buddhism, they, too, have the right to life as human beings. While some human beings try to prevent cruelty to animals such as elephants, tigers, dogs, etc., I have never heard of any one talking of cruelty to insects. My opinion is that the first precept in Buddhism ( Panathipatha Veramani) applies to all animals, and insects, as well. They too feel pain.

I would like to obtain the observations of other readers of your newspaper on my opinions expressed above.

 

NEIL PERERA

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