Talking about the UNHRC process and its implications on Sri Lanka, former External Affairs Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris in an interview said the government had committed to implement the provisions of the resolution, and that it had placed the country in a serious situation. The interview:
How do you compare and contrast the processes undertaken at the UNHRC during your time and the current rule?
There is a huge disparity between the policy adopted under the Mahinda Rajapaksa government and the current policy line. The gist of the present government’s policy is that they ask for time. It means they concede. The UNHRC resolution adopted on October 1, 2015 is based on the Darusman report. The report, based on evidence from anonymous sources, concluded that there were reasonable grounds to believe that the armed forces were responsible for mass-scale killing of civilians, disappearances, rape, deliberate starvation of people in the North and so forth. The resolution on Sri Lanka was based on that. The current government’s stance is that there is evidence of war crimes. While accepting it, the government says it will take stringent initiatives to ensure that such practices do not continue. We regard this as a sellout of the armed forces. Our position was entirely different.
There was no ‘asking for time.’ Our position was explicit and categorical that the armed forces were not guilty of any war crimes at all. The context is important. During the final stages of the war, there were 350,000 civilians trapped in a narrow strip of land. They were held hostage by the LTTE. In those circumstances, the armed forces have not only the right but also the duty to intervene militarily to protect the lives of civilians. Therefore, in keeping with the principles of international law and international humanitarian law, it can be clearly shown that the armed forces were not guilty of war crimes. At that time, a great deal of work was done with the technical assistance of world renowned experts like Desmond de Silva. Our position was that we could establish that there was no liability at all. We are prepared to buttress that position by unassailable legal content. Thus, it is a very far cry from the present government.
Now, the government says there will be no participation of foreign judges in hearing accountability cases. What are your views?
The next point is about foreign judges where the government’s position is bizarre. In the resolution of October 1, 2015, the operative paragraph 6 states categorically that the government of Sri Lanka agrees to commonwealth and other foreign judges, prosecutors and investigators and even defence counsels. That is a categorical promise given by the international community, and is incorporated in the resolution. President Sirisena says he is not for foreign judges. Very recently, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was echoing that point. This raises an interesting question; who placed Sri Lanka in this perch? Whatever may be said locally, there is now a formal commitment at the international level from which we cannot extricate ourselves. That has paved the way to a lot of developments which are inimical to the armed forces, the police and the political leadership of the country. The report of Sri Lanka states that the progress is worryingly sluggish. The demand of the international community is that Sri Lanka must deliver on its own commitments. These are not promises extracted or conditions imposed by outsiders, but pledges voluntarily and deliberately given by the Sri Lankan Government.
Our position that there should not be international intervention was heavily supported by a large segment of the international community. Asian countries that are members of the UNHRC, a majority of African countries, the Arab world, Russia and China are among them. Today, they are silent. Today, Sri Lanka is in a very serious situation.
There are fundamental political changes in the United States. How will it impact Sri Lanka?
The government is not in a position to benefit from the fundamental changes in the U.S. because of this policy. Recently, there was an important event that took place in Washington - the launch of their global Human Rights Report. For the first time in ten years, the U.S. Secretary of States, appointed by President Donald Trump, was absent. The other significant development was the cancellation of a high-profile media conference scheduled to take place with the event. It had been held during previous times. All these factors reflect the clearly-articulated position of President Trump that there will not be intervention in the affairs of other countries. The U.S. does not propose to play the role of ‘policeman.’ It will handle its own problems. Had the Sri Lankan government not committed to these provisions of the resolution, we could have reaped the harvest of this situation. That is especially in a context where key figures of the Obama administration who were responsible for the policy against Sri Lanka have all lost their positions. Nisha Biswal, the then Assistant Secretary of State, visited our country almost every three months. Samantha Power, the then US Ambassador to the UN, was the principal architect of this policy. All these individuals have been removed by President Trump. It is a sea change. But, we are totally unable to benefit from it because of the present government’s policy.
What is your view on the Constitution-making process?
On the Constitutional reforms, one thing is very clear; There is no genuine initiative with regard to Constitutional reforms. There is political posturing largely with a view to placating those elements that played a critical role in bringing about a regime change. It is a political exercise and not a serious Constitutional exercise. This is clear in his address to the UNHRC. The Foreign Minister stated that Sri Lanka was deeply committed to the Constitutional exercise, and in his words, the parliamentary process as well as referendum are critical for the government. On the same day in Colombo, Minister Chandima Weerakkody made a statement that there would not be any referendum. Both he and Minister Mahinda Amaraweera categorically articulated this position. President Sirisena, in his manifesto, has said he would undertake only those reforms which were legally possible without a referendum. They said President Sirisena was not committed to an entirely new Constitution replacing the existing one.
"The report of Sri Lanka states that the progress is worryingly sluggish. The demand of the international community is that Sri Lanka must deliver on its own commitments. These are not promises extracted or conditions imposed by outsiders, but pledges voluntarily and deliberately given by the Sri Lankan Government"
There is inconsistency with regard to the position of the president as well. When he was nominated the common candidate, he made three pledges. One was the abolition of the executive presidency which he reiterated when participating in the budget debate and at the funeral of the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera. Then, the leader of the House Lakshman Kiriella said it would be a new Constitution and there would be a referendum. There is total incompatibility of statements, one with the other. And it certainly amounts to a mass of confusion. The resulting position is that even with regard to the essential elements of a new Constitutional structure, there is no consensus within the government whatsoever. Their statements are teeming with internal contradictions. It is clear that this is not a serious exercise.
The government says there is freedom for people to live without any fear. How do you respond?
There are formidable positions arising with regard to security. During the previous regime, we banned about 18 organisations. We had evidence that they were linked to the LTTE. We banned a large number of individuals. Of these, the ban has been removed on one half of these organisations by the present government. The ban has been removed on two-thirds of the individuals. This has brought about a certain environment in the Northern Province in particular. Maveer festivities are openly happening in full sight of the armed forces. Posters of Prabhakaran appear in every corner in the North. There is a whole culture favourable to the dissemination of LTTE propaganda. It is taking place with impunity. Parallel to this, another dangerous development is taking place. There are other extremist groups emerging. These groups are attracting people because they say the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is not delivering. There is a growing current of public opinion. Today, it is reaching a crescendo. Indication is the conspiracy to assassinate an MP. Evidence in the possession of the TID is alarming. There has been material support from the Diaspora in four countries. On the basis of evidence available to the TID, five persons have been arrested and produced before the Kilinochchi court. But, the normal law – the Criminal Procedure Act - has been used, not the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The PTA is not used against these suspects, but against intelligence officers of the Army. The police have taken these suspects to various locations in Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Trincomalee districts. Claymore mines and ammunition have been discovered. The lawyers appearing for these suspects have tried to stifle these investigations. The police have been hampered by the fact that powers that would have been available under the PTA are not at their disposal because it is not used. We feel the setting up of a conducive environment for terrorists to raise their heads again.
In our time, we realised that a movement like this cannot be destroyed because of a military defeat. We were vigilant to detect the slightest sign of resurgence and to deal with it.
How do you support your argument that there was evidence of the LTTE raising its head?
A good example was in the months of March and December in 2012. There was evidence of regrouping on the part of these people. At that time, the government acted swiftly. It collected evidences and sent to Tamil Nadu. The ‘Q’ Branch in Tamil Nadu Politics swooped down one house in the suburbs of Chennai. People were arrested, charged and convicted. What we have today is a very different situation. Today, the government cannot deal with the situation because of the commitment made to those who helped in the regime change.
"There is total incompatibility of statements, one with the other. And it certainly amounts to a mass of confusion. The resulting position is that even with regard to the essential elements of a new Constitutional structure, there is no consensus within the government whatsoever. Their statements are teeming with internal contradictions. It is clear that this is not a serious exercise."
The other matter relates to Parliament which is becoming more and more turbulent. There is gross distortion there. There are 53 MPs who represent the genuine opposition. To call opposition Leader R. Sampanthan is a fundamental misnomer. The opposition leader, by definition, is the leader of the government in waiting. In India, there is the principle that one party must enjoy at least ten per cent of seats to be the main opposition. There was much fanfare and pageantry with regard to the enactment of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
In a recent interview with the Daily mirror, former Indian Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon spoke about the planned Western influence during the final stages of the war. As the then External Affairs Minister, what is the reason for the West to become hostile to Sri Lanka?
There was a strong feeling on the part of those countries that we were not listening to them. If we allowed them to have it their way, what would have been the situation today?
What do you mean by ‘their way’?
For example, that is to take Prabhakaran away from Sri Lanka. That was indicated to us. Then, it was to have ceasefire. David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner, the British and French Foreign Secretaries came here. We decisively rejected those overtures. If there were a ceasefire, the LTTE would have used that opportunity to regroup as they did on numerous occasions in the past. Then, the war would have still been going on. Had Prabhakaran been taken out of the country and given asylum, the LTTE would never have been vanquished. There was an element of duplicity in that attitude. For instance, there was an allegation that adequate quantities of food and medicine were not sent. At that time, the whole operation was supervised by a committee comprising representatives of these countries. The Ambassadors of the European Union, Japan and the US were there. They knew that more than enough food and medicine were sent. Then, the evidence of Neil Buhne, the UN resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka at that time, is on record that what was done was more than enough.
One time, you were the Chief Negotiator of peace talks with the LTTE. What is your experience on the attitude of the LTTE?
At that time, every effort was made to resolve this problem politically - to arrive at a negotiated settlement. But, the LTTE, at every point, played for time. They did not commit to any distinct position. The fact that genuine attempts were made at that time stood us in good stead during the time of hostilities. It is well-known that the LTTE was defeated military using technical information placed at our disposal by foreign powers. For example, the destruction of several ships carrying arms – one was off the coast of Indonesia - is there. We used information made available to us. This would not have happened had the international community been dissatisfied with the genuine attempts made.
What are the examples to prove the intransigence of the LTTE?
They never submitted proper proposals to us, but proposals were submitted by us. They never said what their bottom line was. That was the recurring attitude of the LTTE during peace talks.
"The current government’s stance is that there is evidence of war crimes. While accepting it, the government says it will take stringent initiatives to ensure that such practices do not continue. We regard this as a sellout of the armed forces. Our position was entirely different. There was no ‘asking for time.’ Our position was explicit and categorical that the armed forces were not guilty of any war crimes at all."