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PF-IISS dialogue: Colombage stresses importance of foreign policy of neutrality

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Foreign Secretary Admiral (retd) Dr. Jayanath Colombage said that Sri Lanka followed what he called a foreign policy of neutrality whilst remaining non-aligned amidst strategic competition in the Indian Ocean, regardless of the global crisis caused by the raging the Covid-19 pandemic.

FS Colombage said so during a virtual dialogue arranged by the Pathfinder Foundation (PF) and the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) on the current status of Sri Lanka-United Kingdom relations.

The following is the text of a statement issued by PF: “The dialogue broadly looked at three focused areas. Session 1 on Maritime Security Cooperation was Chaired by Dr. Rahul Roy Choudhury with Nick Childs and Rohan Gunaratna presenting on behalf of the UK and Sri Lanka respectively. Session 2 on China-Sri Lanka Economic Cooperation included H.M.G.S. Palihakkara as the Chair and Ganeshan Wignaraja and Sir Hugo Swire as the speakers. Kshenuka Seneviratne Chaired Session 3 on The Way Ahead for UK – SL relations, whilst the speakers were Indrajit Coomaraswamy and Stephen Evans. The Keynote Session was chaired by Desmond Bowen, Associate Fellow, IISS and former Director General of International Policy at the Ministry of Defence in the UK. The Keynote remarks were made by Admiral (retd.) Prof. Jayanath Colombage, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Secretary. 

“At the start of his keynote address, the Foreign Secretary said that his views were his personal, highlighted his close relations with the British High Commission in Colombo and that the two countries were engaged in close bilateral relations on many spheres. He observed that the economic relations between the two countries were of paramount importance to Sri Lanka at a time when the present pandemic had an adverse impact on the island’s economy.

“Leading on to the post Brexit phase, the Foreign Secretary mentioned that Sri Lanka was looking forward to enhancing its trade with the UK as one of its large export markets. In addition, tourism from the UK repesented a large segment, which brought in much needed foreign exchange, which has come to a standstill due to the adverse pandemic situation. However, he was positive of the success of the country’s inoculation programme against Covid-19, which he believed would result in a more conducive environment for trade and tourism. 

“With regard to the importance of a strategic dialogue, the Foreign Secretary highlighted the ongoing strategic competition in the Indian Ocean, which despite Covid constraints, continued unabated.  Speaking of the ongoing global power struggle, he said Sri Lanka’s response was to follow a foreign policy of neutrality whilst remaining non-aligned.

“He finally spoke on the human rights issue, where the UK had played a key role heading the Contact Group on Sri Lanka in the United Nations Human Rights Council. He stressed that it was time; the UK recognized the steady, tangible progress being made by Sri Lanka in this respect. As a founding member of the Commonwealth, Sri Lanka considered the UK to be an important partner and requested the UK to lend its support to Sri Lanka.

“Adopting a similar position in his concluding remarks, the State Minister for Regional Cooperation Tharaka Balasuriya observed that perception matters in geopolitics, where ill-informed narratives take precedence and it was important to change such perceptions. Focusing on relations between the two countries, he stressed that economic cooperation was most important, whilst there were certain existentialist issues, such as climate change that need addressing.

“He also spoke of the contentious issue of human rights, stressing that Sri Lanka always strived for good governance, not just due to the pressure of the international community but as it was a priority in any civilized society. With regard to economic cooperation, the Minister pointed out another false narrative that Sri Lanka favoured China. He clarified that most of the Chinese companies being state owned, tend to be more competitive, when compared to others. Post-Covid cooperation, the Minster stated, had tremendous potential in areas such as ICT and the health sectors, highlighting that the Government of Sri Lanka has been in touch with its British counterparts in this regard. He also mentioned that a Preferential Trade Agreement will be beneficial to both countries.

“Finally, the Minister observed that both the UK and Sri Lanka should reciprocate each other’s support in order to gain the most from the long-standing relationship and respect different values of sovereign states. The UK has been a great friend to Sri Lanka, which, over the years, has considered the former as an example for democracy and best practices. Thus, having a strategic partnership in the future will be beneficial to both SL and the UK, he concluded.

“Taking into consideration historical relations and the lead role played by the UK with regard to the recent resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council on Sri Lanka, the two institutions thought that it would be a good idea to have an interaction covering all aspects of bilateral relations between the two countries, so that the two sides will have a better appreciation and understanding of each other’s priorities and concerns.

Approximately 20 participants each from Sri Lanka and the UK, including representatives of the House of Lords, House of Commons, members of Parliament, government officials, experts, academics, senior media personnell, etc., participated in the virtual dialogue.  Among the parliamentarians from Sri Lanka, in addition to the Minister of State for Regional Cooperation Tharaka Balasuriya; MP Eran Wickramaratne and former minister Faiszer Musthapha attended the dialogue, while the participants of the UK comprised of Lord Birt, Crossbench Peer; Lord Sheikh, Lord Marland and Mark Logan MP, Vice Chair, All Party Parliamentary Group on Sri Lanka.”



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President instructs officials to vaccinate kids with Pfizer

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Health Ministry still deliberating pros and cons

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had instructed health officers to inoculate children between the age 15 to 19 with Pfizer vaccine, Army Commander General Shavendra Silva said yesterday.

General Silva added that the President had also instructed officials to inoculate children with special needs above the age of 12, with the Pfizer vaccines. He there are around 50,000 children with special needs.

General Silva said Sri Lanka would receive adequate Pfizer vaccine doses in the coming weeks. During the Presidential Task Force meeting, on Covid-19, it was decided to allow the Department of Motor Traffic, and the Land Registry to operate during the lockdown, which was extended until 01 October. However, a few hours before this statement was made, Deputy Director General of Health Services, Dr. Hemantha Herath told the media that no decision had been taken on vaccinating children.

He, however, said that discussions were ongoing about vaccinating children.

“There are a number of discussions on this because this is a serious matter. We have also decided that when we vaccinate the priority will be given to children with comorbidities. Then the rest will be vaccinated based on age groups. But we have not decided on anything else,” he said.

The dates, the brand and other details would be announced once the Health Ministry was done with consultations with experts. Once the decisions were taken the Ministry would prepare guidelines which would then be made available to the public, he said.

“So, I urge the parents not to worry or panic. They can vaccinate their children once we issue guidelines. We will ensure that this will be done safely and with virtually no side-effects or shortages,” Dr. Herath said.

The Deputy Director General of Health Services also urged people not to be misled by claims that those who had been double jabbed and being treated at home were dying in increasing numbers. Some people with serious underlying issues could die even if they were double jabbed, he said.

“However, as we vaccinate an increasing number of Sri Lankans, the deaths and those who need ICU treatment will decline rapidly. Don’t be fooled by various unscientific claims. We are a nation that has universal vaccine rates and we should maintain that tradition with COVID,” he said.

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Sumanthiran demands immediate due process against Lohan

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Immediate legal action including arrest and prosecution must be taken against Lohan Ratwatte and others who were involved in the incidents at Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons, TNA Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran said on Thursday. He said Ratwatte’s mere resignation from one portfolio would not do.

“The Presidential Secretariat has issued a statement that Lohan Ratwatte has taken responsibility for the incidents that transpired at Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons. Although Ratwatte is said to have resigned from his post as Minister for Prison Management and Prisoners’ Rehabilitation, he continues to be a minister in charge of other subjects. This is not something we can accept,” he said.

The TNA MP said that the State Minister should be removed from all his positions immediately and the pistol he carried with him should be taken away from him.

“Otherwise, it’s a grave threat to the public at large,” Sumanthiran said. There had been other incidents where Ratwatte brandished his weapon in public spaces, he added.

The TNA MP said that an independent investigation should be held with regard to those incidents and Ratwatte and others involved in entering the Welikada and Anuradhapura Prisons should be arrested and charged.

“The police have still not taken any action in this regard. The question that must be posed is how he was able to carry his personal firearm inside the prison premises. Prison officials must answer these questions,” he said.

MP Sumanthiran said that given that the prisoners were wards of the state, their security was in the hands of the state.

“Therefore, this is a very serious incident. Action must be taken accordingly,” he said.

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Taking contradictory stand on 2015 Geneva Resolution

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‘Govt. seeking credit for accountability mechanisms set up by previous administration

UNHRC 48th sessions:

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Attorney-at-law Sudarshana Gunawardena has alleged that the government’s stand on accountability issues at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council is contradictory to its much publicised opposition to the Geneva Resolution 30/1 co-sponsored by the previous administration.

Sri Lanka co-sponsored 30/1, on Oct 1, 2015. The then Foreign Minister the late Mangala Samaraweera is on record as having said that the UNP-led government had President Maithripala Sirisena’s consent to go ahead with the co-sponsorship.

Former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s media spokesperson Gunawardena yesterday (17) pointed out that the government, at the ongoing 48th sessions of the UNHRC, has reiterated its commitment to key accountability mechanisms set up in terms of the Geneva Resolution.

Civil society activist Gunawardena, who also functioned as the Director General, Information Department during the previous administration said that the assurance given by Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris last Tuesday (14) should be examined against the backdrop of Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from 30/1 resolution.

Prof. Peiris’ predecessor, Dinesh Gunawardena announced Sri Lanka’s withdrawal at the Feb-March 2020 sessions.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) owed an explanation, Gunawardena stressed, urging the government to take the public into confidence. “Stop playing politics at the expense of our international relations,” Gunawardena said, underscoring the need for what he called a national consensus on the post-war reconciliation process.

Responding to another query, Gunawardena said that FM Prof. Peiris in his address to the Geneva sessions discussed the progress in what he described as a domestic process in respect of accountability issues. Reference was made to the Office on Missing Persons (OMP), the Office for Reparations (OR) and the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR). However, the FM conveniently failed to acknowledge that the OMP, OR and ONUR had been established in keeping with the 2015 Geneva Resolution that covered broader understanding of transitional justice.

The SLPP, while taking credit for the ongoing transitional justice process, continued to publicly reject 30/1, the very basis of the solution, Gunawardena said. “In other words, the SLPP’s actions are very different from their pledges before the electorate in the run-up to presidential and parliamentary polls in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Referring to the assurance given by Prof. Peiris at the UNHRC that Sri Lanka Human Rights Council was carrying on its mandate, Gunawardena challenged the government to prove its sincerity by allowing no holds barred investigation into SLPP lawmaker Lohan Ratwatte’s raids on Welikada and Anuradhapura prisons on Sept 6 and 12, respectively.

The announcement made by the HRCSL regarding its decision to initiate an inquiry of its own in the absence of police investigation received public attention and appreciation, Gunawardena said.

Commenting on the declaration that Sri Lanka was engaged in an integrated process to bring the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in line with international norms and best practices, lawyer Gunawardena urged the government to study the work done by the previous government in that regard. Referring to statements made by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe in that regard, Gunawardena said that the then Joint

Opposition quite maliciously rejected the move. “They should be ashamed of theirconduct,” relevant ministers and the Attorney General Department couldn’t be unaware of the agreement on new anti-terrorism law.

Gunawardena said that the SLPP administration shouldn’t hesitate to appreciate the previous government’s achievements. “We are quite pleased that mechanisms accepted by the previous government continue to be in operation even though the progress seems slow. However, the SLPP cannot deprive the UNP-led administration of the credit it deserved,” lawyer Gunawardena said.

Gunawardena urged the government to examine the report of the Committee appointed by then Premier Wickremesinghe to develop what he called the policy and legal framework of the proposed Counter Terrorism Act of Sri Lanka. He said that a politically motivated campaign derailed that effort whereas the Opposition propagated the lie the yahapalana government intended to deprive Sri Lanka of anti-terrorism law.

Asked to comment on the revelation of the SLPP government having talks with a group of civil society activists to explore ways and means to strengthening the reconciliation process, Gunawardena said that a 13-page Foreign Ministry note dated Aug. 31, 2021 addressed to Colombo-based diplomatic missions acknowledged the pivotal role played by the civil society. Having always accused the civil society of being part of a Western strategy, the same lot exposed their duplicity by meeting a group of civil society activists.

Gunawardena was referring to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Ministers, Basil Rakapaksa, Prof. Peiris, Dinesh Gunawardena, Ali Sabry, PC, and Namal Rajapaksa having separate meetings with SLCC (Sri Lanka Collective for Consensus) in the run-up to the Geneva confab. SLCC comprises 16 individuals.

Gunawardena noted the Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, too, in her hard-hitting Sept 13 statement on Sri Lanka referred to President Rajapaksa’s meeting with the SLCC.

Gunawardena said that in addition to the SLCC, another group styled itself as the Civil Society Platform (CSP) in a statement issued on Sept. 13 made its position clear on a range of accountability issues as well as stepped up pressure on the civil society. CSP consists of 30 organizations and 36 individuals.

Responding to declarations by FM Prof Peiris and Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanath Colombage that external investigations wouldn’t be acceptable, lawyer Gunawardena said that instead of rejecting the investigation the government should furbish whatever information in its hands or had access to the new investigative mechanism. The government couldn’t ignore the fact that the UNHRC authorized the fresh investigative mechanism at the 46th session with an overwhelming majority with 22 countries voting for the resolution, 11 against and 14 missing the vote.

Gunawardena urged the government to take a realistic view as Sri Lanka didn’t have time and space to engage in silly maneuvers. The bottom line was that the March 2020 announcement that Sri Lanka withdrew from 30/1 was nothing but a farce, Gunawardena said.

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