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Editorial

Traps and duplicity

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Friday 30th October, 2020

Smaller states located in strategic locations in the world are in the same predicament as poor damsels in rough neighbourhoods; they suffer abuse at the hands of big powers that masquerade as liberators. The US has come forward to liberate Sri Lanka from what it calls a Chinese debt trap!

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has come and gone. He uttered some diplomatic sweet little nothings, as it were, in public, but the State Department had delivered its message to Colombo even before he landed here. Couched in diplomatese, it gave Sri Lanka a choice between China and the Western bloc; it can be paraphrased as ‘either you are with us or you are with our enemy’.

Opinion is divided on the much-propagated claim that Sri Lanka finds itself in a Chinese debt trap. The pro-western groups think it is trapped well and truly, and others are convinced otherwise; they maintain that the US and its allies are vilifying China, which poses formidable challenges to the US on all fronts, and has come to Sri Lanka’s assistance.

A trap by any other name is as constricting, one may say with apologies to the Bard. The Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact, which the US is keen to sign with Sri Lanka, can also be considered a trap, given its subtext and what is explicit in the Acquisition and Cross Service Agreement (ACSA) and the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Anyone who believes that the US is driven by altruism to help Sri Lanka is being naïve.

Following talks with Pompeo, the government grandees are behaving like the proverbial mute who gulped down a bitter herbal concoction or kasaya. Discussions with Pompeo have apparently dumbed their tongues. Before the last general election, they had the public believe that they would not sign the MCC compact, which an expert committee appointed by them has said, should not be inked unless it is presented to Parliament and approved with amendments.

Sri Lanka was made to walk into a trap in the early noughties, when the Tokyo Co-Chairs tied an aid pledge (USD 4.5 billion) to progress to be made in peace talks between the then UNP-led government and the LTTE. Lured by the prospect of receiving a huge aid package, that administration compromised national security to keep the LTTE at the negotiating table, but in vain. Even after the LTTE had walked away from talks, the US and other Co-Chairs, to wit, the EU, Japan and Norway, made Sri Lanka stick to a fragile truce, which the LTTE violated with impunity. That peace process, which the LTTE made the most of it to prepare for Eelam War IV, ended in disaster.

Sri Lanka has been caught in a human-rights trap, which the US laid in the form of a country-specific resolution, in Geneva, and cannot extricate itself try as it might. This resolution has been used to besmirch the reputation of high-ranking military officers who were instrumental in defeating terrorism, making this country safe for all communities to live in, and helping rekindle democracy in the North and the East. The US has imposed a travel ban on incumbent Army Commander and Chief of Defence Staff Lt. Gen. Shavendra Silva and his family, citing unsubstantiated allegations of human rights violations during the final stages of war.

Pompeo gave an evasive answer, on Wednesday, when he was asked to comment on the current status of US action against Lt. Gen. Silva. He said: “It is a legal process in the US. We always continue to review it. We want to make sure we get it technically, factually and legally right.” He has left us baffled. It is before imposing a travel ban that the State Department has to ‘get it technically, factually and legally right’. The act of slapping a travel ban in a hurry and then reviewing it is nothing but unfair.

Washington has earned notoriety for its duplicity anent travel bans related to human rights violations. In 2005, the US denied the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi a visa owing to his alleged involvement in the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in his state. The US government insisted that the travel ban on Modi was based on the Immigration and Nationality Act, which ‘makes any government official who was responsible for or directly carried out at any time particularly severe violations of religious freedom ineligible for a visa’. But the White House rolled out the red carpet for Modi after he became the Indian Prime Minister! The US did so because it needed a formidable ally in Asia to support its campaign against China.

As for ‘getting it technically, factually and legally right’, didn’t the US care to consult its own defence expert, Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith, who was working at the US Embassy in Colombo as its defence attache during Eelam War IV, which ended in 2009? Having studied what had taken place during the war, Smith, attending an international defence seminar, in Colombo, in 2011, dismissed allegations of war crimes levelled against the Sri Lankan military. Forty countries were represented at that event. Is it that the State Department chose to ignore his evidence-based observations and embarked on a diplomatic witch-hunt? It is a shame that the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry functionaries did not allow journalists to question Pompeo freely on this issue; they allowed only one journalist to raise questions.

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Editorial

Mountain in labour?

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Friday 4th December, 2020

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry probing the Easter Sunday attacks is reportedly in the process of winding up, following two extensions of its term; everyone is eagerly awaiting its findings, conclusions and recommendations. There will not be enough time for some of the key witnesses whose statements have already been recorded by the police to appear before the commission, according to media reports. The commission must be having a valid reason for this, but it would have been better if all of them had been cross-examined thoroughly and more information elicited from them.

Besides the PCoI probe, several other investigations got underway into the Easter Sunday carnage. Little has been heard about them. What has become of them?

His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, addressing the media yesterday, urged the government to ensure that all probes into the Easter Sunday carnage would be conducted properly and nothing swept under the carpet. He said the authorities concerned should have the courage to find out who had been behind the attacks. Reminding the government of its pledge to have the terrorist bombings probed thoroughly, the Cardinal said that unless its promise was fulfilled, they would have to think of an alternative. He can rest assured that all Sri Lankans who abhor terrorism are on his side.

The Cardinal’s call for identifying those behind the bombings is of crucial import. He has made this call on previous occasions as well. He is not alone in believing that the terror strikes were part of an international conspiracy. Maithripala Sirisena, who was the President and Defence Minister at the time of the carnage, did not mince his words when he said before the PCoI, the other day, that there had been a foreign hand behind the bombings. Among those who insist that there was an external involvement in the Easter Sunday attacks are former SDIG CID Ravi Seneviratne and SLMC Leader and former Minister Rauff Hakeem, MP.

Strangely, the focus of none of the investigations into the bombings has been on the alleged foreign hand. Investigators seem to be wary of looking at the Easter Sunday attacks from this particular angle.

No probe into the Easter Sunday carnage can be considered complete unless the alleged foreign involvement therein is investigated fully. The focus of the probes into the Easter Sunday terror has been on identifying those who failed to stop the attacks. The blame for the country’s failure to prevent them should be apportioned to all yahapalana leaders, the police and intelligence agencies. They did not heed repeated foreign intelligence warnings of imminent terror attacks. They are now blaming one another, but it was their collective failure that enabled the NTJ to strike with ease. One may argue that all of them should be prosecuted. But that will not help neutralise threats to the country if the real mastermind of the attacks is not identified.

We have seen various probes under successive governments, but not much came of most of them. Worse, some Presidents ‘swallowed’ the probe reports submitted to them. The public who bore the cost of those investigations has been left in the dark. Some of those investigations which dragged on for months were like the proverbial mountain which went into labour and delivered a mouse. As for the ongoing probes into the Easter Sunday attacks, it is hoped that we will not be left with a tiny rodent again.

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Editorial

Recent judgments: Some queries

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Thursday 3rd December 2020

Any judicial decision is always acceptable to only one party to a legal dispute; the winner hails it, claiming justice has been served, and the loser frowns on it and grumbles. That is the way the cookie crumbles. The judiciary, however, is not infallible, in any country, and concerns that the public expresses about its decisions should be heeded. In fact, judgments can be discussed and even criticised by the public but without causing affronts to the dignity of the judiciary and/or its members.

It is only natural that judgments in high-profile cases come under public scrutiny, and various views are expressed thereon. SJB MP Hesha Withanage, in Parliament, on Wednesday, raised a question about the judicial decisions that have attracted a lot of public attention of late. Referring to the recent judgments, given in favour of certain government politicians and their associates, he asked Minister of Justice Ali Sabry why other cases could not be similarly disposed for the benefit of the public so that the remand prisons would not be overcrowded. If all cases had been heard expeditiously, the unfortunate situation in the trouble-torn Mahara Prison, where hundreds of remandees are being held, would not have arisen, MP Withanage said. He was obviously viewing the issue from a political angle, and trying to embarrass the government, but his query may have struck a responsive chord with many people. He also provided the public, albeit unwittingly, with an opportunity to know the other side of the story.

Fielding Withanage’s query, Justice Minister Sabry said the anthropause caused by the prevailing pandemic had created a situation where court cases could not be heard, and, therefore, the Justice Ministry had requested the Judicial Services Commission to expedite the process of delivering judgments in the cases in which hearing had already been concluded. More than 70 judgments had been delivered recently, and the ones the Opposition was referring to were only a few among them, the Minister said, insisting that the government did not interfere with the judicial process.

Minister Sabry then got on his hobbyhorse; he lashed out at the previous regime for having manipulated the legal process and set up of the Financial Crime Investigation Division, etc., for that purpose. The less said about the Police Department, the better in that it is a mere appendage of the government in power. The same is true of the Attorney General’s Department, but incumbent AG Dappula De Livera deserves praise for trying to make a difference and standing up to the powers that be in carrying out his duties and functions. Unfortunately, he has not received enough support from the legal fraternity, the media, civil society organisations and the Opposition.

It is doubtful whether the discerning public will buy into Minister Sabry’s claim that the present government does not interfere with the legal process. Under the current dispensation, the police have shown their selective efficiency by concluding probes against Opposition politicians double-quick. They have also reopened some old cases where the political enemies of the current adminstration are involved. But they invariably baulk at executing arrest warrants when the suspects happen to be government politicians and those in the good books of the ruling party.

The judiciary is the only branch of government which people repose their trust in, and, therefore, extreme care must be taken to prevent an erosion of public faith therein lest democracy should be further weakened. Hence the need for the Justice Minister to support his claim that more than 70 judgments have been delivered in court cases during the recent past; he ought to release a list of those judicial decisions. That is the least the Justice Ministry can do to clear doubts in the minds of some people about the court cases the Opposition has referred to and defeat attempts being made in some quarters to cast aspersions on the judiciary.

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Editorial

A crime of utmost savagery

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Wednesday 2nd December, 2020

The recent assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist, Prof. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, has shocked the civilised world and been rightly condemned as a dastardly act of terrorism. His killers left no clues as to their identities. Iran has blamed the US (which it calls ‘Global Arrogance’) and Israel. Its indignation is understandable.

Those who had Prof. Fakhrizadeh assassinated may have sought to demoralise Iran and scuttle its nuclear programme, but they seem to have only strengthened Tehran’s resolve to achieve its goal. The proliferation of nuclear weapons, no doubt, is an unnervingly frightening proposition, but the question is whether those who are all out to prevent Iran from achieving its nuclear ambitions have cared to set an example by suspending the production of their nukes.

Most of the nuclear capable countries are run by bloodthirsty hawks who have engineered many wars and caused hundreds of thousands of civilians to be killed elsewhere. The world cannot be any more dangerous even if other states acquire nuclear capability. Nukes in the hands of any nation are dangerous. Those who already have huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons, which are capable of blowing the planet several times over, will be without any moral right to try to prevent others from producing nukes so long as they do not decommission theirs and act responsibly without abusing their military might to dominate and exploit the world.

The non-proliferation of nuclear weapons is the goal the world must strive to achieve, but assassinating nuclear scientists is certainly not the way to set about it. Given the present global order, where might is right, for all practical purposes, it is only natural that the countries whose sovereignty and independence are threatened by meddlesome nuclear powers are trying to arm themselves with nukes. Iran is not alone in doing so. One may recall what Charles de Gaulle famously said: “No country without an atomic bomb could properly consider itself independent.”

Gone are the days when the US had the run of the world, so to speak. Now, it has formidable opponents. Try as it may, it cannot frighten China into submission either economically or militarily or otherwise, and Russia is also emerging powerful. The US and China are evenly matched in most respects so much so that the former has had to look for new allies or lackey states to retain its dominance of the international order. Worse, it has had to talk to the Taliban in a bid to wriggle out of the Afghan imbroglio. About a decade or so ago, who would have thought the US would ever negotiate with terrorists?

The world is changing fast, and so are geo-political dynamics and realities. The world history is replete with instances of mighty empires crumbling. The sun finally set on the British empire. Uncle Sam will show a clean pair of heels, given half a chance in Afghanistan, and has failed to humble the ‘Little Rocket Man’, who cocks a snook at Washington, at every turn, from his hermit kingdom. Those who are riding piggyback on the US or other powerful countries and resorting to aggression against their enemies had better be mindful of this reality, and act responsibly.

Iran should be dealt with diplomatically and must not be driven into a corner. Washington should not have withdrawn from the so-called Iran nuclear deal and opted for hostile action. President Donald Trump, who made that mistake, is on his way out, and how his successor, Joe Biden, widely considered a sensible leader, will handle the Iran issue is not clear.

One can only hope that Iran, which has not chosen its enemies wisely, will remain unprovoked in spite of its unbearable loss, desist from retaliation, which may be exactly what its enemies are waiting for, and deny the perpetrators of the dastardly crime of assassinating its much-revered scientist the pleasure of having a casus belli.

 

 

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