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