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Sri Lanka in Geneva

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Below is the text of the talk by journalist Marwaan Macan-Markar during a recent webinar on the “Rule of Law, Justice and Democratic Rights in Sri Lanka”, organized by the Sydney-based LAWASIA.

It should be clear to anyone who followed the headlines from Sri Lanka in March that the country has continued its downward spiral on the stage of global affairs. The yardstick that reveals this trend is the number of votes the government was able to muster over a resolution during the human rights sessions in Geneva. Only 11 of the 47 members of the United Nations Human Rights Council were convinced by Sri Lanka’s case and voted for it this year.

This is quite a diplomatic fall from grace, and it raises questions if the country can sink even lower at the HRC. To understand Sri Lanka’s predicament, one has to look back over a decade, to 2009, the year the nearly 30-year ethnic conflict came to a bloody end. That year, against heavy diplomatic odds, Sri Lanka convinced 29 countries to back its case.

But that high watermark, as we now know, was to be short-lived, as resolutions in the subsequent years revealed. In 2012, the international support fell by half, to 15 votes. By 2013 only 13 countries stood by Sri Lanka — suggesting that there was a drift away from other nations backing the Sri Lankan cause. By 2014, as the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was rounding off his second term, international support at the HRC dropped to 12.

This scorecard of Sri Lanka in Geneva is open to many interpretations. For me, as a journalist, it has been helpful to gauge the trajectory of Sri Lanka’s post-war history and how that is perceived internationally. It has also served as an entry point to understand what the national mood is on the human rights front, and where the political class sits on issues such as justice and reconciliation. This has been reflected with ample fervor in the debates across the Lankan media in the periods surrounding human rights session. At this moment, given ideology of the government of the day, the ultra-nationalist sentiments prevail.

But if you were to step back from the noise, you will be able to detect elements of a political ritual taking shape. One can even break it down to the pre-Geneva season and the post-Geneva season. Colorful expressions have surfaced over time to give the Geneva discussions a unique vocabulary. Some of them have been drawn from local situations and some from the world of literature. One well-known Sri Lankan media personality kept referring to the recent Geneva sessions in months leading to it as “the Ides of March.” There was an obvious sense of foreboding with each of his deliveries.

The sentiments among the ordinary people are, at times, equal to the task. They have enriched the discussion with their colorful takes. That is how I picked up this particular expression about the HRC: “It is like the Sword of Damocles hanging over the Sri Lankan state.”

Some of these thoughts were shared during conversations I had had in Colombo ahead of a story I wrote late last year about Geneva 2021. And the impression I came away with after one such meeting was that the annual human rights sessions have evolved to become a new constant in Sri Lanka’s contemporary political life, and it may easily qualify in second place, after the national elections, as a useful barometer to measure the Lankan political winds.

But let me expand on that point, because the Geneva sessions have another dimension that is as relevant for those of us who follow Sri Lanka’s political twists. They provide guidance to track where the country stands in its commitments to deliver on the rule of law, justice and democratic rights, which is the theme of today’s webinar.

For observers of Lankan affairs, the text that emerged out of Geneva has opened up new story lines to consider. One that should keep journalists busy is the language for an accountability process to achieving post-war justice. The relevant section says that this new international effort will be mobilized to “collect, analyze, and preserve evidence” of gross human rights violations and international crimes committed in Sri Lanka to be used for future prosecutions.

That should make uncomfortable reading for those who were involved in war crimes or human rights atrocities. Some of the names implicated in such abuses are already in the public domain. It is very likely that now, with an evidence-gathering mechanism taking shape, more names will be added. So bit by bit, what had appeared not possible in Sri Lanka, because governments have been unwilling to, or the country’s justice process has been unable to, as human rights experts say, is taking shape in foreign climes.

But the more headline-grabbing accounts are likely to emerge from other passages of the Geneva text. It is the section that encourages countries to consider hearing cases against Sri Lanka’s alleged war criminals in their respective courts. These provisions have pushed Sri Lanka to join the ranks of nations with brutal legacies of political oppression and ethnic conflicts in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

And it may be worth recalling that some of the governments from those countries have had to muster their diplomatic capital to deal with their own citizens, who were accused of war crimes, being targeted by human rights activists and lawyers. The latter wanted the former to be tried in foreign courts under the principle of universal jurisdiction. In light of Sri Lanka’s dismal voting record in March, this is surely going to be another test of the country’s diplomatic reach.

Such a turn in Sri Lanka’s human rights narrative comes down to this for those who committed war crimes: henceforth, they may have to give serious thought to which foreign country they plan to travel to next time. It will not be business as usual anymore. There is a growing list of examples that help to illustrate cases of serial human rights violators who were in foreign countries as a free man — yes, the perpetrators are all men – being arrested for war crimes or grave human rights violations.

The ruthless and manipulative Indonesian dictator Suharto’s name comes to mind among the early examples in this context. He was on such a wanted list for his oppressive record during his autocratic rule of 32 years. The terror he unleashed resulted in massacres of up to 500,000 citizens, yes, half-a-million people, according to conservative estimates. But after he lost power in 1998, and his health weakened, the former strongman of Southeast Asia feared travelling to European countries for medical care. The reason, according to human rights groups, was that he dreaded being arrested in a foreign city. So, yes, he stayed home and avoided becoming an international story.

But the one who did create a media storm, and someone who is worth recalling in light of the theme I have chosen to focus on today, is the imperious and arrogant Augusto Pinochet. For those unfamiliar with the name, he was the former dictator of Chile. He was arrested in London after a British court accepted a case against him by a Spanish jurist. The moment was celebrated by human rights campaigners for the precedent that the British courts had set: ending the concept of sovereign immunity that had given war criminals and tyrants the freedom to travel without fear of arrest. It marked the arrival of universal jurisdiction as another means by which to go after the world’s worst rights violators. And the world got the “Pinochet Precedent” as a result.

In fact, it was only a few years later that I first came across the name of Ricardo Miguel Cavallo. I was working in Mexico at the time and had been assigned to cover human rights. The beat included stories of the men who had been involved in the former oppressive regimes of Latin America. Some of them had fled to Mexico, like Cavallo, and others had got to other “safe” countries.

Cavallo had been a military officer in Argentina before that, when it was ruled by a junta, during the years of its “Dirty War.” He had arrived in Mexico later and had remained under the radar for years as a free man, working in Mexico’s national registry of motor vehicles. But then his cover-up ended. He was arrested in the Caribbean coastal resort of Cancun. The “Pinochet Precedent” had finally caught up to him. Yes, he was indicted under that principle, affirming that the idea of universal jurisdiction was spreading across countries.

The previous speaker just reminded us where the quest for universal justice has progressed since then. The Magnitsky Act that is evolving into a Magnitstky movement now has 31 countries that have signed on and changed their laws, he said. This enables those countries to target the bank accounts and financial dealings – even credit cards – of human rights offenders.

Stories about such offenders make for compelling reading. They will continue to be told because they help to advance the cause of justice and accountability. The likelihood of Sri Lankan names joining that list has increased after the government’s diplomatic debacle in Geneva. And if that was to happen, those of us who are observers and reporters of the country’s political life will have new areas of inquiry to pursue.

 

Marwaan Macan-Markar is an Asia regional correspondent for Nikkei Asia, a Tokyo-based publication. He covers mainland Southeast Asia and lower South Asia and divides his time between Thailand and Sri Lanka. He was the former features editor of The Sunday Leader, a Sri Lankan weekly that has ceased publication.

 

 



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Features

Danger of disregarding Geopolitical Realities

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Negotiating Agreements for Foreign Investments:

By Dr. S.W. Premaratne
Attorney-at-Law

Foreign Policy decision-maker, of a state, have to take into consideration the prevailing geopolitical environment of the international system, and of the region concerned, at a given time, when there is a foreign policy aspect involved in the decision that has to be taken regarding any issue Omission, or failure to give consideration to this aspect of the issue, can lead to disastrous consequences. Several examples from the recent political history of Sri Lanka can be given to illustrate this point.

Sri Lanka’s conduct of foreign policy, in the 1980s, is a clear example of the serious consequences of ignoring India’s concerns regarding Sri Lanka’s pro-West tilt in its foreign policy. Sri Lanka’s declared policy was non-alignment in maintaining relations with other states, specially the Big Powers in the West and the East. However, the J.R. Jayewardene government, that came to power, in 1977, sought to develop a closer relationship with the Western countries, led by the USA. The nature of the interactions between the diplomats of the USA and Sri Lanka, at the time, had given the impression to India that Sri Lanka was seeking the assistance of the USA for suppressing the Tamil militant movement in Sri Lank, fighting for the rights of the Tamil community. There were also reasons for India to suspect that there was an understanding between the Sri Lankan Government and the USA to allow the Trincomalee harbour to be used by the USA. It was this perception of India that Sri Lanka was following an anti-India foreign policy, endangering the security of India that motivated India to intervene militarily in the year 1987 to thwart the progress of the Vadamarachchi operation, aimed at militarily defeating the Tamil militant movement.

After aborting the progress of the Vadamarachchi operatio, the Indian government proceeded to compel the Sri Lankan Government to sign an Agreement – the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord of July 1987 – to ensure that Sri Lanka respected India’s security concerns and other interests when seeking assistance from outside Powers for Sri Lanka’s economic development or national security.

 

India’s concerns regarding China’s excessive involvement in Sri Lanka’s development projects

Sri Lanka’s political leaders and diplomats, whenever they get an opportunity, express their affection for their Big Brother, India, and express the need for further strengthening the friendship for the mutual benefit of both countries. India’s perception, however, is that, especially after the change of government in 2005, there is an evolving special relationship between Sri Lanka and China posing a serious threat to the national security of India.

Sri Lanka felt intensely isolated from the international community after adopting the Resolution A/HRC/46/L. Rev. 1 against Sri Lanka, at the UNHRC, in Geneva, in March, 2021, especially because India also decided to support the core-group indirectly by abstaining from voting.

The only consolation for Sri Lanka now is China’s expression of willingness to further strengthen its strategic relationship with Sri Lanka by extending further development assistance to Sri Lanka, within the framework of the Belt end Road Initiative. Subsequent to a telephone conversation between the two leaders, the President of China and the President of Sri Lanka, in a statement issued by the Chinese Embassy in Colombo, on March 30, 2021, it was stated that “China attaches great importance to the development of bilateral ties and stands ready to work with Sri Lanka to determine the strategic direction and achieve steady growth of the relationship. China stands ready to steadily push forward major projects, like the Colombo Port City and the Hambantota Port, and promote high quality Belt and Road Co-operation, providing robust impetus for Sri Lanka’s post pandemic economic recovery and sustainable development”. China projecting Sri Lanka as an intimate partner of the Belt and Road strategy indicates that Sri Lanka is distancing itself from the path of non-alignment and adopting an anti-Western and anti-India approach.

In the matter of obtaining foreign investments for development projects, Sri Lanka has failed to foresee the foreign policy implications of overreliance on China. The two massive development projects, initiated during the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, which came to power in 2005, were the Hambantota sea port and the Port City Project in Colombo. The amount of money invested for these two projects, by China, was so massive that Sri Lanka happened to sign an agreement for permitting the management and control of the Hambantota Port by the state-controlled company of China, under a 99-year lease agreement. The Management and control of the Colombo Port City area also has been granted to the Chinese construction company, under a 99-year lease agreement. Not only India, but also the USA and other Western countries have expressed serious concern regarding the involvement of China in strategically significant massive development projects in Sri Lanka. India’s perception now is that Sri Lanka is an aircraft carrier of China, stationed in the Indian Ocean, close to India. Hambantota Port is viewed as another pearl in the string of pearls maintained for containing India by China.

India is also concerned over the lack of interest on the part of the Sri Lankan Government to go ahead with the development projects regarding which agreement had been reached with India, during the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe coalition government. In May, 2019, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), Japan and India proposing the development of the East Container Terminal jointly, Sri Lanka and Ports Authority retaining 51 percent shares. However, the present Government deviated from that understanding and decided to nominate one Indian investor, Adani Group, disregarding Japan. But, the attempt of the Sri Lankan Government to involve the Indian Company in this project by offering 49 percent of the shares of the ECT was thwarted by the trade union action of the port workers, supported by an influential section of the Buddhist priests and also a section of the ruling alliance. The Sri Lankan government had no alternative but to respond to the demand of the trade unions by getting the Cabinet approval for developing the ECT only by the Colombo Port Authority, without involving India or Japan.

India has also expressed concern over the attitude of the Sri Lankan Government concerning the development and management of the Trincomalee oil tank farm. The lower farm has been managed jointly by the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) via Lanka IOC Private Limited. The 2003 tripartite agreement signed by the Sri Lankan Government, LIOC and the CPC covers the entire tank farm. India is now concerned about the excessive delay in granting the Sri Lankan Government’s approval for commencing the development of the Upper Tank Farm, comprising 84 tanks.

Another joint venture, regarding which Sri Lanka sought the involvement of India’s Petronet LNG Ltd. Company, and also a Japanese investor, was the proposed liquefied natural gas LNG terminal that was to be set up near Colombo. Although Indian and Japanese Investors had indicated their willingness to join this project, as partners, the Sri Lankan Government has not yet given its final approval for commencing the construction work.

India is also very much concerned over the lack of progress in the reconciliation process initiated after the end of the war. India’s concern in this regard was expressed very effectively and in very clear language in a statement made by the Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar in the course of a media conference during his two-day visit to Sri Lanka in January, this year. In his statement the Indian Foreign Minister said: “As we promote peace and wellbeing in the region, India has been strongly committed to the unity stability and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. Our support for the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka is long standing as indeed for an inclusive political outlook that encourages ethnic harmony. It is in Sri Lanka’s own interest that the expectations of the Tamil people for equality, justice, peace and dignity, within a united Sri Lanka, are fulfilled. That applies equally to the commitments made by the Sri Lankan Government on meaningful devolution, including the 13th Amendment to the Constitution”.

Sri Lanka should not consider that India’s interest and involvement in the post-war reconciliation process as a case of a foreign country intervening in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka illegally. India is guided by a mindset that there is a moral responsibility on her part to intervene and bring about a final settlement to the conflict in Sri Lanka.

 

Colombo Port City Economic Commission

Colombo Port City Economic Commission Bill which was challenged in the Supreme Court, purported to establish an Economic Commission for the administration of the Port City, built by a construction company of the Chinese Government, adjacent to the Colombo Port. This Bill seeks to grant extensive powers to an institution called the Colombo Port Economic Commission, whose members will be appointed by the President of Sri Lanka. According to the provisions in the Bill, the supervisory power of the Parliament of Sri Lanka has been excluded, both regarding the manner of exercising the powers granted by the proposed legislation to the Commission, and also regarding the selection of persons to be appointed as members of the Commission.

Moreover, regarding the activities that take place within the Colombo Port City area, some institutions of the Government of Sri Lanka are excluded from exercising their authority. Dr. Wijedasa Rajapaksa, in his written submissions submitted to the Supreme Court, in connection with the petition filed challenging the Bill, makes specific reference to the Customs Ordinance. He gives the warning that there may be importation of prohibited substances such as drugs, weapons, etc. He points out that in the event of any violation of International Treaties and Conventions, within the Port City area, it is not the Commission but the Sri Lankan Government that is responsible.

 

Conclusion

In view of the intense power struggle between China on the one hand and India and other partners of the Quad, led by the USA on the other hand, for dominance in the Indian Ocean area, the Parliament of Sri Lanka passing legislation for permitting such a high degree of autonomy to an administrative authority that can be controlled by the Chinese government will be considered by India as a serious threat to its security. This pro-China foreign policy orientation will also be an obstacle for Sri Lanka to promote friendly relations with democratic countries in the West determined to thwart Chinese domination in the Indian Ocean region.

 

 

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Features

The Philippines and SL combine

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Singer Suzi Croner (Fluckiger), who was a big hit in this part of the world, singing with the group Friends, continues to make her presence felt on TNGlive – the platform, on social media, that promotes talent from all corners of the globe.

She made her third appearance, last Saturday, May 1st, but this time she had for company Sean, from the Philippines, who, incidentally, was in the finals of The Voice of Switzerland 2020.

Their repertoire, for TNGlive, on the evening of May 1st, including hit songs, like ‘Something Stupid,’ ‘Let Your Love Flow,’ (Sean), ‘If You Can’t Give Me Love,’ ‘Your Man,’ (Sean), ‘Crazy,’ ‘Great Pretender,’ (Sean), ‘Amazing,’ and ‘Stand By Me.’

It was a very entertaining programme, and Sean certainly did prove why he needed to be a finalist at the prestigious The Voice of Switzerland 2020.

You can take in the TNGlive scene, on a regular basis, by joining the Public Group TNGlive, on social media (Facebook).

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Features

Entertainment…also responsible for this messy scene

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On many occasions, I’ve referred to the Covid-19 pandemic and the precautions those who are very much a part of the entertainment scene should take in order to keep this deadly virus under control.

I remember saying that we are seated on a ticking time bomb…ready to explode any moment!

Sadly, the people concerned, and the venues catering to those who check out such setups, did absolutely nothing. And, now we are feeling the heat of that time bomb.

Most of the nightspots were crowded with people who didn’t care less…about what the world, and Sri Lanka, was experiencing, with this killer virus, claiming the lives of millions, crippling the economy, people losing their jobs, etc.

Probably, they were following in the footsteps of Niro where it’s said that ‘Niro played the fiddle while Rome burnt.’

Such irresponsible folk didn’t take any of the Covid-19 health guidelines seriously; they were simply overjoyed, gyrating on a packed dance floor – with no masks, and no social distancing.

And, this scene came to a climax during the festive holidays where everyone was out celebrating, in style – again no masks, no social distancing, etc.

Well, sadly the end result is that musicians/ entertainers are now without work.

Where entertainment venues are concerned, it’s the management that has got to take the rap.

They seem to have turned a blind eye to the instructions issued by the health authorities with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Some of these managers gave the impression that they were not bothered by what Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, had to say, on radio, and on TV, on a daily basis, about the importance of wearing masks, social distancing, and sanitizers.

Even if the situation continues to deteriorate, lots of people can still work from home but that is not possible where musicians are concerned.

Blame it on these entertainment venues…and those venues that kept their doors open for tamashas – parties, weddings, and all sorts of celebrations – without adhering to Covid-19 safety rules, laid down by the health authorities.

Yes, it’s certainly going to be a very tough scene for most entertainers, over the next few weeks.

There were certainly signs of improvement, in the showbiz industry, early last month, but then came the aurudu celebrations, both in Colombo, and the outstation, and we are all now experiencing the messy scene that has come out of it.

The band Aquarius had three weekly performances, but the guys are left with nothing at the moment.

Rajiv and The Clan were booked for quite a few weddings, for the month of May, and all of them have been postponed.

“I’m worried that some of the new dates may clash with the bookings I’ve already accepted for the months ahead, said Rajiv, adding that they have absolutely no work now

Kevin and his band Genesis have also had quite a few of their booking, for the month of May, cancelled.

Let’s hope when the scene improves, people will act with responsibility, especially those in charge of entertainment venues, and make certain that Covid-19 health guidelines are strictly adhered to.

And, the authorities concerned should go all out to nab those who deviate from the guidelines, and do their own thing.

 

 

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