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Sunday, 16 January 2011

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Lanka's diplomatic moves pays dividends - Dr. Palitha Kohona

The Sunday Observer interviewed former Foreign Secretary and the current Head of Sri Lanka's UN mission in New York Dr. Palitha Kohona who was in Colombo recently on a range of issues from the UN Experts Panel to LTTE's human trafficking activities. Excerpts from the interview:

Q: Has the UN panel sought permission to visit Sri Lanka. The UN has been very silent on this issue. Any modalities worked out or conditions set for an impending visit?

A: The panel has met a couple of times in New York. In the meantime we are also aware of the fact that the LLRC has invited individuals and entities to make representations. Beyond that nothing else has happened. The situation remains as it was before.

Q: But have they shown any interest to visit Lanka?

A: I don't think we have reached that point yet. The LLRC has quite clearly said that it invites representations from individuals and entities. This is known to the panel. I think the panel has met in NY twice. It will probably meet later this week again.

Q: Will the LLRC make available the information that is with them to the UN panel?

A: LLRC has a fair amount of information. It has also got a website which can be accessed by anyone at will. So I am not sure as to whether it is necessary for a formalised exchange of information to take place, because the LLRC has put up a considerable amount of material on its website.

In my personal view Sri Lanka has absolutely nothing to hide. We fought a brutal terrorist group, in accordance with the rules of war. The Government was very clear from the beginning. In fact the President made it very clear that civilians will not be harmed by the advancing Security Forces.

The Security Forces unlike in other conflicts in the region adhere to this rule meticulously. Allegations have been made of course. But then allegations are always made by the losing side and its supporters.

You cannot go around investigating every allegation. That is not the way the world operates. You need to have concrete facts and you need to make a formal complaint. Then you can set the legal process in motion.

Q: What is the response of the UN in general and the Secretary General in particular towards the LLRC and its progress?

A: I think so far, as far as I am aware, the UN and the members of the UN, have received the work of the LLRC in a very positive manner. In fact many would prefer to see the work of the LLRC completed before making any comment or doing anything else.

Q: Are there any countries, in particular, who are keen or very supportive and encouraging towards Sri Lanka's domestic process?

A: I think we should not think that the UN is there only to look at Sri Lanka's affairs. The world is full of problems at the moment. There is the Ivory Coast issue, which is a huge problem for the UN.

There is a referendum in Sudan. Another huge challenge. We have the nuclear standoff in North Korea and Iran. These are the matters occupying the attention of the UN.

Sri Lanka's issue is important for us but certainly not at the UN.

Q: But it has been made a big issue in the eyes of the media?

A: Even the media, the international media not the odd blog operated by a lonely individual, has made hardly any attention to Sri Lanka in recent times. Of course being a very vibrant democracy, our newspapers vie with each other for sensational news on Sri Lanka and that is understandable. If you survey the international media, there is hardly any reference to Sri Lanka.

Q: Is it good or bad?

A: I think the lesser the reference it is better for us. At the moment our challenge is to develop the country, heal our wounds and get on with life. The more we keep on harping on the pain and the hurt of a 27-year-old conflict, less speed we will achieve in going towards development, reconciliation and making lives of all our citizens better.

Q: Will a good part of the Government's energy be exhausted on countering such allegations?

A: This is not the time to be defensive. We must be proactive in portraying what we are doing to bring the country together. The massive development work taking place. Unprecedented, in fact, in the recent history of Sri Lanka. The effort the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is making to bring people together, need to be highlighted.

You just need to walk around the city of Colombo. You don't notice pain, suffering and bitterness. You notice people who are positive and aspiring for a better life.

Q: What are the steps taken to portray the true Human Rights picture of Sri Lanka at the UN and to the rest of the world in the light of Wikileaks revelations?

A: Wikileaks doesn't spend too much effort on Sri Lanka. There are references but there are references to almost every other country. Communications between embassies and Governments must be respected. The confidentiality of communications must be observed.

The founder of Wikileaks has basically breached that confidentiality. In the future it will be very difficult for embassies to keep their head offices informed if there is a possibility of every communication being published on the web.

Having said that Sri Lanka has taken steps locally as well as internationally to keep the international community informed of the measures taken to address human rights concerns. We talk to the Ambassadors in Colombo. Our missions around the world doing the same thing. In New York we have a program where we talk to the critical ambassadors on a regular basis.

We talk to the key players in the Non Aligned Movement and to members of the Security Council and other influential players as well as the media.

Sri Lanka is not a huge priority for media in New York. Particularly if the news from Sri Lanka is not negative. The media goes after negative news. They attract more attention. The media today is full of news on Sudan, the crisis in Iran and Wikileaks.

There is hardly any reference to Sri Lanka and I am happy that news from Colombo is positive.

Q: The most recent Wikileaks revelations say an ex Norwegian SLMM head tipped off an LTTE re-supply ship. are we going to take this up at UN level?

A: I don't think it's a matter for the UN. It is a matter to be resolved bi-laterally. I think it's not new to us. We knew about this earlier so appropriate measures were taken.

Q: What is the support we could get from the UN to fight the LTTE's human trafficking network which undermines peace dividends?

A: This is something we have been working on in New York. Very proactively we have kept the UN, our interlocutors informed of this. It had been fed into the system. We have also talked to other countries affected by the LTTE's human trafficking like Australia and Canada.

You would notice that in Canada they have amended rules relating to the granting of asylum. I have a feeling people being trafficked from Sri Lanka by the LTTE to Canada had a major impact on the reform of the Canadian asylum system.

It did not happen accidentally. There was a fairly intense debate about the Sri Lankans just turning up on their shores. Both these ships were manned by the rump LTTE. This has given rise to a fair amount of reassessment of the Canadian Government's attitude and policies to granting refugee status.

Similarly Australia has taken a fairly tough stance with regard to people being trafficked from Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka's efforts to keep the international community informed of LTTE's activities have paid dividends.

Q: Despite all these collaborative efforts by Governments human trafficking under the auspices of LTTE still continues?

A: It is continuing. I mean there is very little like a resource stretched country like Sri Lanka can do to stop human smuggling completely. They fly off to Asian destinations and board ships controlled by the rump LTTE.

Q: These people tarnish the image of Sri Lanka by saying that they are fleeing persecution?

A: The Government of Australia has said in a policy

statement, Sri Lanka is not a place where people can legitimately claim that they are being discriminated on the basis of religion, race or political views.

I think the way we have worked with these Governments over the last two or three years has borne fruit. Australia did appoint a special representative to deal with human trafficking from Sri Lanka. Canada has done the same thing. It is important because these countries are friends. We do not want to see their positions being compromised because of the greed of the rump LTTE. These so called refugees pay large amounts of money to get on to these ships.

Q: Given the tough action by states will this trend die down?

A: It is difficult to predict anything for the simple reason we have a 900 mile long coastline. It's easy for anybody to leave the country either by getting on to a boat or a plane. Once they are at some other destination they can easily get on to a rusty ship and head in the direction of Canada or Australia or some other place.

It's very difficult for us to police this alone. On a policy basis Sri Lanka is opposed to human trafficking and will do whatever it can to put a stop to it.

Q: Certain human rights organisations, possibly acting under the influence of the LTTE are trying overtime to take Sri Lanka to the dock regarding alleged war crimes. How do you propose to counter this?

A: The LLRC invited these organisations, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, International Crisis Group to come and present any information they have. But they refuse to come. How seriously are we going to take them? They have been given the opportunity to present their evidence in public but they have refused to do so. My view is that the countries that are interested in this particular issue have also noted the fact that these three organisations which made such a noise about human rights violations in Sri Lanka, when given the opportunity, did not take it to present the evidence that is supposed to be with them. I think these organisations are probably influenced by the rump LTTE.

If they have evidence we are quite happy to look at them. Our position is that they are basing their allegations on unfounded facts, innuendos and essentially material that has been obtained from Tamil Net.

Some of the things they talk about cannot be sustained either logically or through facts.

Q: Their riposte for not coming before LLRC was that this commission was not free and that they did not have any faith in it?

A: That is an easy way to get out of a difficult situation. It's like saying I don't want to complain about a rape case because I don't trust the courts. If you are committed to upholding the rule of law, the rights of individuals, human rights standards, then obviously you must make use of every opportunity to uphold them.

They still have the opportunity. The work of the LLRC is observed by the international community. Members of Embassies are sitting on the sessions of the LLRC. I have not heard anyone of them say, we don't trust what the LLRC is doing or their standards are deficient in any way.

On the contrary their work has been commended by people who have monitored it.

Q: The LTTE is fairly strong in the US despite being listed as a terror organisation. US based lawyer Rudrakumaran one of the known LTTE leaders held open elections to select members for their Trans National Government which advocates separatism in Sri Lanka. Apparently this body is doing business as usual. How is this possible?

A: The LTTE is a proscribed organisation in the US. The Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation is also proscribed. The World Tamil Movement is proscribed elsewhere. But now they operate under different guises.

The US being a very legalistic country, it's very easy for someone who wants to hide behind some sort of guise to operate in that fashion. But it does not mean we are not observing what they are doing. We are keeping them under scrutiny. We constantly bring the actions of the LTTE to the notice of the local authorities who will also keep an eye on them.

Their history is now tarnished. These are the very same people, who now masquerade as peace loving representatives of an oppressed people, once collected funds either through voluntary contributions or intimidation and harassment to fund a terrorist group within Sri Lanka.

The LTTE recruited thousands of children and sent them to untimely deaths in the battle front. They massacred people on the way to and from work and worshippers in mosques.

The likes of Rudrakumaran and others collected funds for these purposes. The rump LTTE, whatever it calls itself today, is desperately trying to convey a different impression of itself. Its antecedents are appalling. We have to keep on reminding our friends and critics that these people are not as innocent as they claim to be.

Q: What is preventing the US law enforcement from arresting Rudrakumaran, who is said to be the leader of one of the main three factions of rump-LTTE?

A: I would not want to speculate. In the US you need to have a lot of evidence before you can take someone before courts. It must be remembered that earlier the US prosecuted 60 LTTE fund raisers and many of them were convicted. So the US has taken proactive measures to curb the activities of the LTTE. I am sure this will continue.

But again we have to remember the US has serious problems in its own hands, dealing with terror threats from other sources as well.

Q: Minister Dinesh Gunawardena recently briefed the House that the LTTE was still a strong organisation overseas and still owns eight ships. How did the UN react to this information?

A: We need to take major steps in dealing with terrorism. We have done that. We have kept the UN informed and worked with them. The UN Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate conducted a regional seminar on law enforcement and prosecution of terrorism related activities in Colombo a couple of months ago. The Head of CTED Mike Smith headed this seminar.

Q: With the decimation of the LTTE's military outfit in 2009, its propaganda mill has begun to work overtime. Our foreign missions are criticised for not making an effective contribution to counter their lethal campaign?

A: I personally think some of the criticism is unfair because the LTTE has almost endless resources to do what it is doing. It has built up a network of influential people who can impact on local decision makers. It has got access to media and NGOs. Therefore it is difficult for us.

Our missions are very small. Countering the LTTE is not the sole purpose of the foreign missions. We have to conduct bi-lateral relations, ensure aid flows continue, do consular work. In contrast the rump-LTTE has only one goal and much more resources than the External Affairs Ministry.

That does not mean that we cannot work harder. Thanks to the sacrifices of the Security Forces they have eliminated the LTTE physically within the country but its overseas tentacles are still there. They have not been brought under control.

We have to remember again that the LTTE's goal is to remain in its current form if it is to continue fund raising. The leadership of the rump LTTE needs to have a cause. If not they fail to raise funds.

That would mean a serious impact on lifestyles for some of the leaders. Hence they will do anything possible to keep the anger going and bitterness continuing because for them it is a way of making a living. As far as the New York mission is concerned we will continue to exert every pressure not only to counter rump LTTE but also to ensure that it will never be able to be a force in the future and highlight the ongoing development and reconciliation efforts of the government.

Q: Is Sri Lanka planning to discuss with the US to reclaim the US GSP facility which was discontinued recently?

A: You have to remember that Sri Lanka is no longer a developing country. We are now a middle income developing country. Strictly speaking we are not even eligible for GSP concessions. The moment you graduate from being a low income country to a middle income country, certain rules kick into place and you lose certain concessions. Now that we are over the US $ 2000 threshold we are no longer eligible to receive grants and concessionary loans. We have to compete in the open market. It is unfair as we have to compete with the likes of China and India who are much stronger economies.

Nevertheless Sri Lanka is doing reasonably well. Our growth rate is very good. Inward investment continues to flow and our unemployment rate is at an all time low. Inflation is very low. Tourism in-flows have reached record time high.

In the circumstances we may not necessarily have to go around pleading for concessions, we may be able to manage on our own.

Q: There are rumours that you will be appointed to the UK mission shortly?

A: Wherever the country needs my services I will be very happy to serve there. I am not interested in hanging on to a post. I've had a very good run when it comes to performing various functions. What is important to me is that I can serve the country.

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