by Sujeewa Nivunhella in London
Labor MP Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) said the UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka disappointingly falls short as there is no recommendation to pursue criminal accountability by referral to the International Criminal Court.
“I could barely believe my eyes reading the Government’s reasoning, citing “insufficient…Security Council support”. Who are we to cast the veto for China or Russia before they have done so themselves? Our role on the international stage must be to send the loudest message that impunity will not be tolerated, not to preempt the inaction of other nations”, she said during the House of Commons debate on UK’s commitment to Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka, on March 18.
“Why have we not applied sanctions against those credibly accused of gross human rights violations? The US has designated General Silva and his immediate family over his role in extrajudicial killing of Tamils. It is an immediate step that we could take and the Minister cannot point to a veto as an excuse for our inaction. We must ensure a coherent approach to aid, trade and diplomatic and military engagement with Sri Lanka, consistent with the international obligations to human rights. That is long overdue”, he said.
She further said that human rights are under attack in Sri Lanka again, with President Rajapaksa waging a campaign of war. Many of those who face serious wartime abuse allegations have been appointed to senior Government positions. Members of the Rajapaksa family hold nine ministerial roles, including seven Cabinet posts, and manage almost a quarter of the budget. It is total control. President Rajapaksa even pardoned one of the few members of the security forces to be convicted of human rights violations, Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake. That was unsurprising, given his stated determination to protect so-called war heroes during the presidential campaign.
McDonagh said this House notes with concern the reports of a systematic attack in Sri Lanka on democratic governance, the rule of law and human rights including renewed discrimination against the Tamil and Muslim communities; is profoundly concerned that the Sri Lankan Government has refused to investigate accusations of war crimes including by key members of the current government and has withdrawn from the UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1; welcomes the significant leadership role played by successive UK Governments at the Human Rights Council and urges the Government to provide clear policy direction and leadership to ensure a new substantive resolution is passed at the upcoming Council session in March 2021 that will enable continued monitoring by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and mandate a mechanism to gather, preserve and analyse evidence of violations for future investigations and prosecutions; and calls upon the Government to develop a consistent and coherent policy to assist the Sri Lankan people through its trade, investment and aid programs, and in its diplomatic and military relations.
The current Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was President and his brother Gotabaya, the current President, was Defence Secretary. They are the present-day link to the atrocities of the past. The bombing of the Government-designated no-fire zone, where Tamil civilians took refuge, is as utterly horrifying today as it was 12 years ago, as are the findings of experts that Government forces even systematically shelled hospitals, she alleged.
The pursuit of justice must now move decisively forward with more sincerity from the international community. The Human Rights Council meeting happening now provides the perfect opportunity. Before turning to today’s resolution, it is important to consider the resolution that came before. Passed in 2015, with the consensus of Sri Lanka, it promised the establishment of a process of justice, accountability, reform and reconciliation, but six years on, Sri Lanka has made it clear that it has absolutely no intention of pursuing prosecutions or legal redress for war crimes. Its withdrawal from the process altogether could not have spelled this out more clearly, the MP noted.
The little progress made has been rolled right back. The ongoing Human Rights Council meeting is our chance to finally secure progress, making it clear that a country cannot fail to fulfill international commitments. To do so risks undermining the credibility of the council as a mechanism of accountability, she continued.
“This is not just about the human rights of Tamils: the Rajapaksa Government even insisted on the forced cremation of those who died from coronavirus, thereby disregarding the religious beliefs of the Christian and Muslim communities in the country. The ongoing attack on human rights is undeniable. As we are a penholder to the UN resolution, the world will watch closely the strength of our response”, he added.
Elliot Colburn (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con) [V] said the recent infringements on human rights have been on the rise. Those have included the forced cremations of covid-19 victims, regardless of their religious beliefs, causing grief and anguish to Sri Lankan Christians, Muslims and others. The police criminal investigation department has been repeatedly visiting members of advocacy groups on the island who are campaigning for justice following the disappearance of their family members during the war.
“We must act now, before the conclusion of the UNHRC session at the end of the month, to ensure that there is a true international accountability mechanism in place. Only then can we hope to bring about truth, justice, reconciliation and accountability for all in Sri Lanka, as well as for the Tamil diaspora—not just in Carshalton and Wallington, but across the world”, the MP said.
Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con) [V) urged the Sri Lankan Government to engage in a process that has the confidence of all on the island. But it would be remiss to state that the current Sri Lankan Government have failed to act. The Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations are to be retained and strengthened, so that communities may build trust. It will be good to see reform of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and progress on the release of political prisoners.
The Minister for Asia (Nigel Adams) said human rights in Sri Lanka are an important issue and a long-standing priority both for the UK Government and for many fellow Members. This debate is timely, coming during the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council, which began on 22 February. The human rights situation in Sri Lanka and the limited progress on reconciliation and accountability raised by many Members are deeply concerning, he said.
The Sri Lankan Government announced a domestic mechanism on accountability. As with previous domestic initiatives, however, meaningful progress has yet to be delivered. There have also been a number of setbacks on accountability, including the appointment into Government positions of military figures accused of war crimes.
As the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) pointed out, they also include the presidential pardon of former army sergeant, Sunil Ratnayake, one of the few perpetrators of war crime atrocities to have been convicted in Sri Lanka, the Minister noted.
Other worrying human rights developments include the continued harassment and surveillance of minorities and civil society groups, he added.
MPs Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con) [V], Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con),
Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab), Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con) [V],
Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell) (Con) Sam Tarry (Ilford South) (Lab),
Anthony Mangnall (Totnes) (Con) and Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab) also spoke during the hours-long debate.
Govt. MP Wijeyadasa strikes discordant note on Port City Bill
… alleges bid to turn Port City into Chinese territory
Over 12 petitioners move SC against proposed law
By Shamindra Ferdinando
SLPP lawmaker Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe PC, yesterday (15) alleged that the proposed Bill, titled ‘Colombo Port City Economic Commission,’ would transform the reclaimed land, adjacent to the Galle Face Green into a Chinese territory.
Addressing the media at the Abhayarama temple, under the auspices of Ven Muruththettuwe Ananda Thera, the former President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), Rajapakshe, warned of dire consequences if the government went ahead with what he termed the despicable project.
Sixteen parties had filed action against the Bill. Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda thera was among the petitioners.
The ruling party had placed the Bill on the Order Paper on April 8, just 15 calendar days after the publication of the Bill in the Gazette. In terms of the Constitution a citizen intending to challenge the constitutionality of a Bill had to do so within one week from the Bill being placed in the Order Paper of Parliament, Dr. Rajapakse said.
Among those who moved the SC were the General-Secretary of the UNP and the Chairman of the UNP. The Attorney-General has been named a respondent in the petition. The BASL, too, moved SC against the Attorney General. Three civil society activists, Oshala Herath, Dr. Ajantha Perera and Jeran Jegatheesan also filed action.
Lawmaker Rajapakse explained how the proposed Bill, if enacted, could allow independent status to USD 1.4 bn Colombo Port City. Former Justice Minister alleged that the Colombo Port City project was far worse than the selling of the strategic Hambantota port to the Chinese by the previous administration.
The Colombo District MP said the Parliament wouldn’t have financial control over the Colombo Port City Project whereas its independent status would legally empower those managing the project to finalise agreements with external parties
Referring to the previous administration, the former UNPer alleged that China had bribed members of Parliament. MP Rajapakse questioned the rationale behind China providing computers to all members of Parliament and officials as well as jaunts to China.
Rajapakse said that Sri Lanka shouldn’t give in to Chinese strategies aimed at bringing Sri Lanka under its control. The former minister explained the threat posed by the growing Chinese presence including the Colombo Port City, a terminal in the Colombo harbour and at the Hambantota port.
Sooka pushing UK for punitive action against Army Commander
An outfit, led by Yasmin Sooka, a member of the UNSG Panel of Experts’ (PoE), has urged the UK to take punitive measures against the Commander of the Army, General Shavendra Silva, who is also the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).
The Army headquarters told The Island that the matter had been brought to the notice of the relevant authorities. It said that it was all part of the ongoing well-funded campaign against the Sri Lankan military.
Issuing a statement from Johannesburg, the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) said it had compiled a 50-page dossier which it has submitted to the Sanctions Department of the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on General Shavendra Silva. The Submission argues why Silva, who is Sri Lanka’s current Army Commander, should be designated under the United Kingdom’s Global Human Rights (GHR) Sanctions Regime established on 6 July 2020.
“We have an extensive archive of evidence on the final phase of the civil war in Sri Lanka, meticulously collected by international prosecutors and lawyers. The testimony of victims and witnesses – many now in the UK – was vital in informing this Submission, and making the linkages to Shavendra Silva and those under his command,” said the organisation’s executive director, Yasmin Sooka.
The ITJP Submission details Shavendra Silva’s role in the perpetration of alleged gross human rights violations including of the right to life when he was 58 Division Commander during the final phase of the civil war in 2009 in the north of Sri Lanka. It draws on searing eyewitness testimony from Tamils who survived the government shelling and bombing of hospitals and food queues in the so called No Fire Zones, many of whom now reside in the UK as refugees. The Submission also looks at Silva’s alleged involvement in torture and sexual violence, including rape, which is a priority area of the UK Government’s foreign policy.
“The US State Department designated Shavendra Silva in 2020 for his alleged role in the violations at the end of the war but the remit of the UK sanctions regime works is broader and includes his role in the shelling of hospitals and other protected civilian sites during the military offensive. This is important in terms of recognising the full extent of the violations, as well as supporting the US action,” commented Ms. Sooka. “UK designation would be another significant step forward in terms of accountability and would be in line with the recent UN Human Rights Council Resolution passed in Geneva for which Britain was the penholder,” she added.
Political will in applying the UK’s new sanctions regime to Sri Lanka was apparent in a recent parliamentary debate which saw 11 British parliamentarians ask why the UK government had not applied sanctions against Sri Lankan military figures, including Shavendra Silva, who was named six times in this context.”
‘UNHRC missive exposes UK duplicity in grave accountability matters’
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Wartime Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama says that the leader of Sri Lanka Core Group at the Geneva–based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) the United Kingdom’s policy of double standards has been challenged by no less a person than UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
Bogollagama said that the Bachelet warning couldn’t have been issued at a better time as the UK stepped up pressure on Sri Lanka over accountability issues. The former FM was responding to Bachelet’s declaration on April 12 that the proposed new Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, in its current form, would undermine key human rights obligations that the UK has committed itself to respect.
The UK is a member of the UNHRC. Bogollagama pointed out that Bachelet had called for amendments to the proposed Bill to ensure that it didn’t protect British personnel deployed overseas for acts of torture and other serious international crimes.
The Bill is now reaching its final stages in the legislative process, and will shortly be debated again by the House of Lords, the UK’s upper chamber, where amendments may still be made.
In the run-up to the Geneva vote on a resolution spearheaded by the UK on March 23, SLPP Chairman and former External Affairs Minister Prof G.L. Peiris questioned the rationale in British actions. Prof Peiris asked how the UK sought protection for its armed forces deployed outside their territory whereas it sought punitive measures against Sri Lanka for fighting terrorism in its own land.
Bogollagama said that British double standards should be examined taking into consideration the UK’s current membership in the UNHRC as well its role as the leader of Sri Lanka Core Group. The Core Group members include Germany and Canada.
Bogollagama who served as the Foreign Minister during the fourth phase of the war (2007-2010) alleged that the UK adopted an extremely hostile position primarily because of domestic political reasons. Wikileaks disclosed the true extent of Tamil Diaspora influence on the British political establishment, Bogollagama said. So much so, the UK allowed the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) to announce its formation in the House of Commons in early 2010, the former Minister said. Would the UK accept Geneva advice as regards the proposed Bill, Bogollagama asked, those who voted for the resolution moved against Sri Lanka and abstained to realise that the UK’s stand in respect of Colombo was political.
The UK succeeded the US as Sri Lanka Core Chair in 2018 after the latter quit the Geneva body in a huff calling it a cesspool of political bias.
The purpose of the controversial British Bill is stated as being “to provide greater certainty for Service personnel and veterans in relation to claims and potential prosecution for historical events that occurred in the complex environment of armed conflict overseas.” British Forces played significant roles in the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bill seeks to achieve this, in particular, by introducing new preconditions for the prosecution of alleged offences covered by the Bill.
“As currently drafted, the Bill would make it substantially less likely that UK service members on overseas operations would be held accountable for serious human rights violations amounting to international crimes,” the UNHRC statement dated April 12 quoted Bachelet as having said.
It stated that in its present form, the proposed legislation raises substantial questions about the UK’s future compliance with its international obligations, particularly under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), as well as the 1949 Geneva Conventions. These include obligations to prevent, investigate and prosecute acts such as torture and unlawful killing, and make no distinction as to when the offences were committed.
Responding to another query, Bogollagama said that Bachelet’s statement exposed the British hypocrisy. While demanding accountability on the part of Sri Lankan military on the basis of unsubstantiated war crimes accusations, the British deprived Geneva of wartime dispatches (January-May 2009) from its High Commission in Colombo in a bid to facilitate the campaign against Sri Lanka, former minister Bogollagama said.
The British exposed their hostile intentions when London turned down Sri Lanka’s request to hand over those dispatches to Geneva, the ex-lawmaker said, urging the government to continuously highlight the need for examination of all available evidence by the proposed new Geneva inquiry unit appointed at a cost of USD 2.8 mn.
Bachelet’s request to the UK was interesting, Bogollagama said. The former minister was referring to Bachelet’s appeal: “I urge UK legislators in both Houses of Parliament, and the Government, to take these concerns fully into account when reviewing the Bill, and to ensure that the law of the United Kingdom remains entirely unambiguous with regard to accountability for international crimes perpetrated by individuals, no matter when, where or by whom they are committed.”
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