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MCC finally pulls plug on 480-mn-dollar grant

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By Harim Peiris

Generally, the post budget period of mid to late December is always a slack time in terms of politics and policymaking as December marks that rare convergence of Parliament, Court and school vacations. However, in a continuation of the extraordinary year, which 2020 has been, that norm too has changed as significant political events occurred during this time. Firstly, a few days ago, the US Embassy announced that the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) Board had decided to cancel its near half-a-billion-dollar grant to Sri Lanka, for what it termed “lack of partner country engagement”. Just prior to that the former President, current ruling party leader and Speaker of the Maldives Parliament, jumped into Sri Lanka’s ongoing debate on refusing to bury Covid-19 positive people of the Muslim faith, by offering them burial in the Maldives, in accordance with Muslim rites. Closely related to that, Attorney at Law Hejaaz Hizbullah, Sri Lanka’s best-known PTA detainee and prisoner of conscience, needed to have lawyers on his behalf, go to the Court of Appeal, to get access to their client in government detention. It should strike even a layman that something is very amiss with our draconian PTA law and its application, when Appellate Court jurisdiction has to be invoked by those detained without charges for months, to get access to legal counsel. On a singularly more positive note, signaling a significant foreign direct investment into our infrastructure, media reports indicated that the Government had approved Indian investment into Colombo’s East Container Terminal. These developments signaled some significant political events of the past week or two.

The MCC pulls the plug, while India commits to invest

Losing the MCC grant, was a loss for Sri Lanka, both from the standpoint of an investment of a half a billion-dollars, injected into our economy over the next three years but also from the standpoint of investor confidence especially for American and western investors. The Rajapaksa administrations, both the current and especially the previous one, demonstrated an attraction for expensive Chinese debt, while inexplicably grant funds, or money you don’t need to pay back was looked at with a jaundiced eye. The objection to the MCC grant was ostensibly over the legal reforms over land laws, but that reform process is not only long overdue, to move away from an archaic colonial era legal framework, but would have been strictly a domestic Sri Lankan administrative reform process, that we controlled. The paranoia was unjustified but has now resulted in its logical end. The cancellation of the grant. This from a country which has just seen its sovereign credit ratings cut to junk bond status from B to C by all rating agencies. When one examined where the initial hostility to the MCC grant came from and recognized its sources as from the JVP and its breakaway the National Freedom Front (NFF), respectively in the opposition and government quarters and recognized their long standing political affinity, fraternity and relationship with the Communist Party of China, it is not difficult to connect the dots and identify the inspiration and origin of that opposition.

On a positive note, there was media publicity to the effect that the Government had approved Indian foreign direct investment (FDI) into the Colombo Port’s, East Container Terminal. Good news because FDI is literally worth its weight in gold, but also because the lack of investment, stymies the volume growth opportunities for the Colombo port. Sri Lanka’s other experience of a port development, in Hambantota was with expensive Chinese debt, which finally required the previous government to negotiate a debt for equity swap with the Chinese. The current potential deal with the Indians, based on equity investment, rather than debt funded, is beneficial to our balance of payments and foreign reserves. Besides being a large investment into crucial infrastructure.

Burying Sri Lankans in the Maldives

The issue of burial rights for Covid-19 positive deceased, has become the latest political issue, with the Maldives joining in the debate through their offer to bury our dead, with the said offer being fairly speedily declined by the Muslim political leadership in Sri Lanka, both of the SLMC and the SJB. Interestingly, MPs from the Tamil political parties have been at the forefront of the legal and political battle for Muslim burial rights, even as the Muslim parties and MPs recover from their support for the Government’s 20th Amendment to the Constitution. TNA stalwart MA Sumanthiran was a key counsel for petitioners who went before the Supreme Court, seeking redress on the basis of fundamental rights, while that Party’s young and rising star from Batticaloa, Shannikiyan Rasamanikkam made an impassioned speech in Parliament for respect for Muslim religious burial rights, which consequently prompted the ACTC’s Gajen Ponnambalam to follow suit, in that August assembly, raising it as a matter of national importance.

The fact of the matter is that the World Health Organization and its technical medical guidelines for Covid-19 prevention and spread control, declares that either burial or cremation is safe and permissible. Accordingly, Sri Lanka’s position flies against science and the international norm and global standard. We have further compounded it by not giving any reasons for the refusal to bury, except for a supposed threat of contaminating the ground water, which theory should fall into the same category as our untested and unproven native treatments for Covid-19 prevention and cure. One hopes in the new year 2021, grater sanity would prevail.

 

(The writer served as Advisor, Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 2016/2017)

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Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation

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By Jehan Perera

Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.

Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.

Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”

Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.

 

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE

 

The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”

It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.

International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.

 

 

SEQUENTIAL IMPLEMENATION

 

In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”

As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.

The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.

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Album to celebrate 30 years

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Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.

However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.

All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.

Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.

Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.

Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.

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LET’S DO IT … in the new normal

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The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)

Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.

But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.

Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.

Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.

However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.

And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.

Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.

“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”

The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.

“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”

Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.

In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.

Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.

Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!

Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.

 

 

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