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Reflections on Geneva and the way forward

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by Gnana Moonesinghe

Are Sri Lankan domestic initiatives for wartime accountability and reconciliation a  non-starter?

Reflecting on this issue of culpability raises the question ‘is accountability and reconciliation a non issue among Lankan leaders?’ Governments come and governments go but this issue remains on the back burner raising the perennial question of who are the sons and daughters of this nation state? Is there a legitimate approach to their inherent human rights irrespective of their identity?

This query becomes urgent  when the UNHRC begins its periodic investigation. 

What has been the stumbling block in clearing this problem? By and large it has been a question of defining the concerns of the UNHRC and the position of the Sri Lankan government on this matter. The major issue is that of investigating the culpability of the forces during the three decade war with the LTTE and vice versa. The SL  government  looks upon some of the accusations as inconsequential non- events, claiming either that casualties have been at a minimal or negligible level or there have been none at all. Hence its claim that there is no serious issue calling for investigation by the UNHRC.    

On the contrary, ever grateful for terminating the three decade war and the elimination of the dreaded leader of the LTTE, the Southern constituency spearheaded by their political  leaders have created an ‘aura’ around the forces.  On the basis of their success the forces have been categorized as a special breed who cannot be criticized or questioned on any war-related matter; they are referred to as the veerodhara or war heroes.   This is a fair tribute to the forces responsible for winning the war for the Nation. Yet it is questionable to presume that they could not have done any harm in the past nor can they do so in the future. 

However, there is no denying that in the course of waging a war and heat of battle when judgment of  right and wrong becomes cloudy and sometimes imperceptible; elimination of the enemy by whatever means takes precedence.  Some errant behaviour in such circumstances is to be expected and in a war context, acceptable.  However the entirety of the forces have been identified as an exclusive group who can do no wrong and consequently need not even be investigated let alone charged of any offence. In such a context, there is no possibility of an understanding between the government of Sri Lanka and the UNHCR. The Sri Lankan state has maintained this position even in the face of credible evidence of grave crimes and human rights violations by the forces as well as the LTTE. The external call for investigation will not resonate with the authorities within the Sri Lankan nation since the latter is in denial and will not accept even evidence presented to them.  

 Over the years UNHCR had made repeated requests for a review with recognized legal experts  to have this matter of culpability investigated in order to  arrive at an acceptable verdict. The Lankan authorities did not go along on the ground of external intrusion into the nation’s sovereignty. Had we accepted expert legal investigation this matter could have been concluded a long time ago and the nation could have stepped on to the path of reconciliation. There is undoubtedly an issue of sovereignty but on this matter it could have been waived in terms of practicality.

There are occasions when we have sought assistance from international organizations to overcome domestic exigencies like assistance from the World Bank.  On such occasions  we were compelled to submit to conditions even briefly. I believe at times like this there is a need to be pragmatic. What is sought is confined to  a safe area of advice proffered and not  action  demanded. It is up to the authorities to know when it is necessary to compromise on our stand on sovereignty for the sake of pragmatism and winning reasonable external goodwill, and when it is necessary to stand up for the nation’s sovereign rights.

It has also become vital to establish cohabitation for the sake of internal peace among the communities without relevance to international players. If this had been followed, then it would have been possible to keep peace between the different communities. There would  then have been no role for the UNHCR.

Insularity encourages growth of anti-democratic tendencies as we have seen in this country. In such circumstances the politicians and the citizen have no yardstick- in terms of world standards – by which their behaviour can be measured.  The 19th Amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution restraining authoritarianism was withdrawn and 20A put in place restoring many of the powers of the Executive. It also encouraged the installation of several military personnel to administrative positions. This fueled a fear psychosis  of an emerging military government among the people.

 

In this atmosphere reconciliation has receded in importance especially after the Easter attacks by Muslim extremists against Christians who were in church or going to church.  This increased the already strained relationship between the Muslims and the Sinhalese following the Southern turmoil that was created by Sinhala chauvinists against the Muslims and further bruised relationships.

This situation of ethnic tension is complicated by the lack of guidance from the leaders of the two minority communities. We had a recent incident of Muslim MPs voting with the government to enable it to have have the required two thirds majority for the passage of 20A. This resulted in many differences among the Muslims. Voting for 20A had no prior support from the people they represent and appeared to have been a spot decision by the Muslim MPs.  The Tamil leadership in the North on the other hand is concerned with agitating for increased administrative power rather than making policy decisions that will benefit the jobless men and women and the war widows living in extreme poverty .

Since the issue of reconciliation has been put on the back burner, frustration is creeping among  the Tamils.  To date the international community has not been in a position to compel the government to be accountable for the actions of the forces during the war, particularly its closing stages.  The authorities who could move in this matter have been non-starters; therefore  the initiative has to come from especially enlightened men and women at the helm of power as well as from civil society. 

It is time to think afresh independently rather than along oft repeated UNHRC concerns or those of our leaders. Even after the passage of the Sinhala Only Bill, the Muslims as a community were looked upon by the Sinhalese as a friendly ally. They presented themselves as a community willing to learn Sinhala and accept employment where available. They created wealth by setting up numerous small businesses. Until the anti-Muslim riots targeting Muslims in the south in 1918, the Muslim community had remained friendly and cooperative with the Sinhala majority. 

In fact during the war years some among the Muslims who had the capability acted as a fourth column and gave vital intelligence to the establishment. After the end of the war the situation changed when the Sinhala Buddhist extremists were keen  to make their position stronger. 

The upcoming UNHRC sessions on Sri Lanka highlights the major issue of Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from its commitments to that body in Geneva. UNHRC clims its observations have been made following investigation of both the government forces and the LTTE. There is therefore no bias against the government, it urges. The investigations seem to have focused on evidence of serious violations of the rights of the victims. The purpose of the UNHRC is to investigate and prove or disprove culpability or non-culpability of individuals charged with rights violations. This will hopefully conclude the investigations and bring closure to the vexed issue of whether there were human rights violations or not  and open the way to sustainable peace. 

 To enable closure of this matter, both the Lankan forces and the Tamil Tigers need to be investigated and prosecuted if found culpable. Regardless of repeated requests SL has not acceded to this and UNHCR has unilaterally requested other member countries  to investigate contentious matters and if guilt is established, access the International Criminal Courts and proceed  under Extraterritorial or Universal jurisdiction. Such a step would seem to be a high handed action, an intrusion into a nation’s independence even if it be  justified  under extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction.  It is perhaps acceptable in these circumstances to pursue soft targets such as asset freezes and travel bans against the members of the administration to activate the government that has remained sluggish on this issue.

To make reconciliation a workable proposition, it is necessary for the government to probe the issue of hitherto unaccounted persons or the disappeared, as they are commonly known. They may be  dead, in custody or have fled to foreign countries hoping for a better future for themselves and become a part of the diaspora. However that be, it is vital that their near and dear have information of their whereabouts. Without that there can be no closure. Security of citizens is a primary responsibility of a government. Regardless of UNHCR’s concern, this matter must be given priority if the country is to be at peace and return to normalcy. Ensuring this will effectively cramp LTTE and diaspora propaganda keeping the ethnic issue alive. 

It is also important to ensure inclusion of all communities in education, employment and in the peaceful pursuit of the small scale businesses. Development of the country requires among other variables the absence of tensions between communities, either spontaneous or pre-planned by extremists from either side. The government must strategize its own approach and programs as well as those of other active players in the development sphere if peace and harmony is to prevail.  If we look after our own population there will be no reason for the international community to concern themselves about the welfare of our people. That will give us space to develop our programs for the benefit of all Lankans irrespective of majority and minority divisions. Peace can then prevail and the country grow in strength.   



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Features

UNFORGIVING CONSEQUENCES OF DEFORESTATION

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By Eng. Thushara Dissanayake

A forest is much more than a group of trees. Clearing of forests for agriculture has been an age-old practice. We accepted chena cultivation as a traditional livelihood of the rural poor. Secondly, we had ample forestlands throughout the country. Another cause of deforestation is development activities, besides logging and gem mining in some cases. Because of these acts, either legal or illegal, our forest cover has fast dwindled posing many serious environmental issues.

According to the World Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), by 2015, the estimated forest area in the world equaled 31 per cent of the earth’s surface area, most of which was located in tropical areas such as Africa, South America, and Indonesia. Today, according to experts, we have only 17 per cent of the forest cover left in this country.

People are the ultimate managers of forests and the higher their level of knowledge and awareness, the better their ability to conserve forests. It is unfortunate that recent incidents prove that people are not serious about the environment.

We are living in an era where climate change has become a major challenge. Ever-increasing amounts of carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere, mainly by the burning of fossil fuels has caused global warming, which renders myriads of bitter consequences. In the meantime, deforestation has been identified as the second major driver of climate change. It is forests which can help us reduce the excessive amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere playing a leading role in the fight against global warming. Forests act as a carbon sink and probably the only entity that is capable of carbon regulation. On average, the amount of oxygen produced annually by an acre of trees is about 2,500 kg while the annual oxygen consumption of a person is 750 kg.

Trees relieve people from stress and make them more comfortable while enhancing their well-being. Without trees, the world would not be beautiful and appealing. The earth has millions of different varieties of trees. Many trees do not remain the same throughout the year. When we plant a tree, we are emotionally attached to it and keen to observe its growth day by day. Sometimes we plant a tree to mark a special event and it may be our birthday, the day of marriage, or the demise of a close relative. Bhutan introduced the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, which is used to measure happiness and well-being of its people. One of the four pillars of GNH is environmental conservation.

Even our tourism industry, which is one of the main sectors that bring us foreign exchange, vastly depends on the natural beauty of this country. If we fail to maintain its unique natural beauty, the country will cease to be a tourist attraction, jeopardising the industry.

The contribution of trees to the ecosystem is massive. Trees improve air quality by trapping solid particles, retard rainfall-runoff and thereby mitigate floods, increase groundwater recharge, and preserve soil by preventing erosion. The sustenance of our river system largely depends on the central forest area being the source of water. Not only forests but even green areas such as shrubs and turfs inside forests also contribute to the ecosystem immensely. Although they receive less attention, they can filter air by removing dust and absorb many pollutants like carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

Forests are home to wildlife. The same is true of humans and the survival of humans is also dependent on forest conservation.

 

The way forward

If the concept of vertical development is followed, not only in major cities but also in other areas, the acquisition of forest areas for human settlements can be significantly minimised as high rise buildings will obviate the need for many acres of land. Modern technology has to be used in agriculture together with methods that could contribute to high water use efficiencies to increase productivity rather than expanding agricultural land areas. Human settlements in less developed rural areas should be discouraged. There are large amounts of barren lands, including abandoned paddy lands, that could be used for afforestation if a proper mechanism is put in place to compensate landowners. These are several effective strategies which should be implemented sooner than later as policy interventions on all fronts are required to protect our existing forests. If the country’s forest cover shrinks further, we will all have to face bitter consequences sooner than expected.

 

(Eng. Thushara Dissanayake is a Chartered Engineer specialising in water resources engineering with over 20 years of experience)

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HYPOCRICY OF OUR COLONIAL MASTER!

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By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

Irrespective of what happens at the UNHRC, there is one thing we should never forget; the arrogance and hypocrisy of our colonial master! The behaviour of the British Government is despicable. The UK has taken from the ‘nouveau-evil empire’––the US––the task of pressuring member nations of the UNHRC to vote against Sri Lanka! All this for the crime of defeating terrorism! Is this what is expected of the so-called leader of the Commonwealth?

It is a shame that the British representatives have not read Mathias Keittle’s excellent, well-reasoned piece “A German Analyst’s View on the Eelam War in Sri Lanka” which appeared in The Island on 28 February.

Considering there are allegations that some friends of high-ranking politicians of the British government made a mint from Covid-19 epidemic, one begins to wonder whether the Tiger-rump has helped some of them line their pockets. After all, it cannot simply be for a few votes. It will be interesting to see if the British government can counter what Matias Keittle so emphatically stated:

“Sri Lanka eliminated a dreaded terrorist group, with intricate global links, but receives little credit for it. Unlike elsewhere in the world, Sri Lanka has succeeded in resettling 300,000 IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). There are no starving children for the NGOs to feed but this gets ignored. Sri Lanka has avoided mass misery, epidemics and starvation but the West takes no notice of this. Sri Lanka has attained enviable socio-economic standards for a developing country while eliminating terrorism but gets no acknowledgement. The government of Sri Lanka and its President continue to enjoy unprecedented popular approval through democratic elections but this is dismissed. The economy is functional, but remains not encouraged by the West.”

My concerns perhaps are confirmed by what Lord Naseby, a government peer sitting in the British House of Lords, has stated. The following from the statement by Lord Naseby published in The Island of 5 March under the title, ‘Lord Naseby asks why Adele not prosecuted in the UK for child recruitment’, surely, is an indictment on the British government:

“I am astounded how the UK or any other Member of the Core Group can possibly welcome the High Commissioner’s so called ‘detailed and most comprehensive report on Sri Lanka’ when it is riddled with totally unsubstantiated allegations and statements completely ignoring the huge effort to restore infrastructure and rehouse displaced Tamils and Muslims, who lost their homes due to the Tamil Tigers.

“Furthermore, I question how the UK government knowingly and apparently consciously withheld vital evidence from the despatches of the UK military attaché Col. Gash. Evidence I obtained from a Freedom of Information request, resisted by the Foreign Office at every stage for over two years. These dispatches from an experienced and dedicated senior British officer in the field makes it clear that the Sri Lankan armed forces at every level acted and behaved appropriately, trying hard not to harm any Tamil civilians who were held by the Tamil Tigers as hostages in a human shield.

“This conscious decision totally undermines the UK‘s standing as an objective Leader of the Core Group; made even worse by the impunity for not prosecuting the LTTE leader living in the UK, largely responsible for recruiting, training and deploying over 5,000 Child Soldiers – a real War Crime. It is time that the UK Government acknowledges and respects the recommendations of the Paranagama Commission, which involved several international expert advisers, including from the UK – Sir Desmond de Silva QC, Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, Rodney Dixon QC and Major General John Holmes.”

Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, has strived so hard to strengthen the Commonwealth of Nations so that the UK could successfully transform itself from a colonial master to a friend of the past colonies but Her Majesty’s Government seems to be behaving in a manner to undermine Her efforts. Her Majesty’s vision of friendship and cooperation seems to be countered by the bully-boy tactics of politicians.

The excellent editorial “Should SL follow UK?” in The Island on 24 February concluded with the following:

“Anything Westminster goes here. It is the considered opinion of the defenders of democracy that Sri Lanka should emulate the UK in protecting human rights. What if Sri Lanka takes a leaf out of the UK’s book in handling alleged war crimes? In November 2020, the British Parliament passed a bill to prevent ‘vexatious’ prosecutions of military personnel and veterans over war crimes allegations. This law seeks to grant the British military personnel, who have committed war crimes, an amnesty to all intents and purposes. The International Criminal Court (ICC) has ascertained evidence of a pattern of war crimes perpetrated by British soldiers against Iraqi detainees, some of whom were even raped and beaten to death. Curiously, the ICC said in December 2020, it would not take action against the perpetrators! Too big to be caught?”

the UK may argue that it has to protect military personnel against vexatious prosecutions. If so, they should understand the position of Sri Lanka. We know that the US administrations, be it under Obama, Trump or Biden, run more on brawn than brain but we expect better from the UK. Why or why do they have to behave like a poodle of the US.

Is this not hypocrisy of the highest order? Shame on you, the British government!

 

 

 

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ASIAN DEMONSTRATORS AND THE AMERICAN DREAM

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The US was always a selective supporter of democracy, and now it is a diminished one. 

By Ian Buruma

One month ago, in Myanmar, protesters against the military coup gathered around the United States Embassy in Yangon. They called on President Joe Biden to make the generals go back to their barracks and free Aung San Suu Kyi from detention. Her party, the National League for Democracy, won a big victory in the 2020 general election, which is why the generals, afraid of losing their privileges, seized power.

But is the US Embassy the best place to protest? Can the US President do anything substantial apart from expressing disapproval of the coup? The protesters’ hope for a US intervention shows that America’s image as the champion of global freedom is not yet dead, even after four years of Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ isolationism.

Demonstrators in Hong Kong last year, protesting against China’s harsh crackdown on the territory’s autonomy, even regarded Trump as an ally. He was erratically hostile to China, so the protesters waved the stars and stripes, hoping that America would help to keep them free from Chinese communist authoritarianism.

America’s self-appointed mission to spread freedom around the world has a long history. Many foolish wars were fought as a result. But US democratic idealism has been an inspiration to many as well. America long saw itself, in John F Kennedy’s words, as a country ‘engaged in a world-wide struggle in which we bear a heavy burden to preserve and promote the ideals that we share with all mankind.’

As Hungarians found out when they rose up against the Soviet Union in 1956, words often prove to be empty. The Hungarian Revolution, encouraged by the US, was crushed after 17 days; the US did nothing to help those it had egged on.

Sometimes, however, freedom has been gained with American help, and not just against Hitler’s tyranny in Western Europe. During the 1980s, people in the Philippines and South Korea rebelled against dictatorships in huge demonstrations, not unlike those in Hong Kong, Thailand, and Myanmar in the last two years. So, of course, did people in the People’s Republic of China, where a 10-meter tall ‘Goddess of Democracy,’ modelled on the Statue of Liberty, was erected on Tiananmen Square in 1989.

The Chinese demonstrations ended in a bloody disaster, but pro-democracy forces toppled Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship in the Philippines and South Korea’s military regime. Support from the US was an important factor. In Taiwan, too, authoritarianism was replaced by democracy, again with some US assistance.

But what worked in the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan is unlikely to work in Thailand, Hong Kong, or Myanmar. The main reason is that the former three countries were what leftists called ‘client states’ during the Cold War. Their dictators were ‘our dictators,’ protected by the US as anti-communist allies.

Propped up by American money and military largesse, they could continue to oppress their people, so long as the US saw communism as a global threat. Once China opened for business and Soviet power waned, they suddenly became vulnerable. Marcos was pressed on American TV to promise to hold a free and fair election. When he tried to steal the result, a US senator told him to ‘cut and cut cleanly.’ Marcos duly ran for his helicopter and ended up in exile in Hawaii.

Similarly, when South Korean students, supported by much of the middle-class, poured into the streets, angry not only with their military government, but with its US backer, America finally came down on the side of democracy. Dependent on American military protection, the generals had to listen when the US urged them to step aside.

The generals in Thailand and Myanmar have no reason to do likewise. Biden can threaten sanctions and voice his outrage. But with China willing to step in as Myanmar’s patron, the junta has no reason to worry very much (though the military has been wary of China up to now).

Thailand’s rulers, too, benefit from Chinese influence, and the country has a long history of playing one great power against another. And because Hong Kong is officially part of China, there is little any outside power can do to protect its freedoms, no matter how many American flags people wave in the streets.

Dependence on the US in Europe and Asia, and the clout that Americans held as a result, was sustained by the Cold War. Now, a new cold war is looming, this time with China. But US power has been greatly diminished since its zenith in the 20th century. Trust in American democracy has been eroded by the election of an ignorant narcissist who bullied traditional allies, and China is a more formidable power than the Soviet Union ever was. It is also vastly richer.

Countries in East and Southeast Asia still need US support for their security. As long as Japan is hindered from playing a leading military role, because of a tainted past and a pacifist constitution, the US will continue to be the main counterweight to China’s increasing dominance. But as Thailand’s deft balancing of powers demonstrates, US allies are unlikely to become ‘client states’ in the way some were before. Even the South Koreans are careful not to upset their relations with China. The US is far; China is near.

This pattern is to be expected. US dominance can’t last forever, and Asian countries, as well as Europeans, should wean themselves from total dependence on a not-always-dependable power to protect them. Being a ‘client state’ can be humiliating. Yet, the day may come when some people, somewhere, might miss Pax Americana, when the US was powerful enough to push out the unwanted rascals.

 

(Buruma is the author, most recently, of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, from Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit.)

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