Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 27 September 2015





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MR passes ITN campaign bill buck to party :

The ‘Commonwealth compromise’ in Geneva

A few months after evading the summons issued by the Bribery Commission by an engineered ‘sleep over’ protest tamasha in the country’s legislature, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had to deal with a similar situation again last week.

He was informed by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to investigate and inquire on Serious Acts of Fraud, Corruption and Abuse of Power, State Resources and Privileges (PRECIPAC) that it needed to record a statement from him.

The statement, according to the Commission, was over non-payment of bills for television advertisements aired on the state-owned ITN channel by Rajapaksa during the last Presidential election.

The Commission, which made headlines in the recent past over its investigations, managed to keep Rajapaksa’s interrogation ‘appointment’ a closely guarded secret until the last moment.

The interrogation was scheduled for Wednesday but the secret was leaked by a journalist working for a vernacular newspaper on Tuesday evening.

As a result, Lacille de Silva, Secretary of the Commission, had to avoid phone calls on Tuesday evening, fearing that inquisitive scribes would give him a hard time. However, the news was reported in two newspapers on Wednesday morning and the story became a hot topic among political circles on Wednesday.

Party blamed

For multiple reasons, the Commission decided to visit the former President’s residence and obtain a statement without summoning him before the commissioners. Some top echelons of the previous regime, including former Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, had appeared before the commission a few times to give statements over ongoing inquiries. However, the former President was exempted from ‘summons’ and several officers of the commission visited his private residence in Madiwela to record the statement.

The former President, clad in a casual shirt and a sarong, warmly greeted the officers of the commission while cracking a few jokes about ongoing investigations on the conduct of his regime. Responding to the questions posed by the commission the former President completely distanced himself from the controversy over non-payment of bills of TV advertisements saying he did not contest the Presidential election as a stand-alone candidate.

“I was”, the former President said, “the candidate of the United National Freedom Alliance and the party ran my campaign. If there is a non-payment of bills, the party should take the responsibility, not the candidate,” the former President said, attributing the problem to the party and its authorities.

The main party official who is primarily responsible for day-to-day affairs of a political party is its General Secretary. At the time of the last Presidential election, Colombo District MP Susil Premajayantha, who recently took oaths as a minister of the national unity government, was the General Secretary of the coalition.

Before and during the recently held Parliamentary election, Premajayantha was an ardent supporter of Rajapaksa and he even played a pivotal role in giving the former President nominations to contest on the party ticket.

After the election, however, Premajayantha, who was ousted from his party position by President Maithripala Sirisena a few days before the election, aligned himself with the President and actively supported the formation of a national government. Therefore, the former President, who is now supported by only a handful of UPFA MPs, had no qualms about attributing everything to his former General Secretary who switched loyalties in no time.

Premajayantha responds

When asked about the matter, Premajayantha, now a staunch backer of President Sirisena, said he had nothing to do with election campaign as various people sponsored them.

“The party did not sponsor all elections ads. There were various individuals who undertook the task. Therefore, no one can point fingers at the party,” Premajayantha told the Sunday Observer.

“I gave the same explanation when fingers were pointed at the party General Secretary over using SLTB buses for UPFA election meetings. Now, the same situation has arisen with election ads,” Premajayantha said, strongly rejecting claims that he should be held responsible for non-payment of bills.

“The bottom line is that there is no one to look after the interests of supporters who volunteered to sponsor elections ads during the campaign,” the former General Secretary added.

In an interesting turn of events, the Commission, on Thursday, announced that the investigations on ITN which involves former President Rajapaksa, would be fixed for public hearing next month. The commission’s Secretary Lacille de Silva said the case was at the last stage now, adding that the next step of it would be to hear public evidence.

The Presidential Commission only has a mandate to provide findings and recommendations. The findings of the commission will be handed over President Maithripala Sirisena and the Attorney General towards the end of October. Based on the findings and recommendations of the Commission, the law enforcement authorities will take action against those who were responsible for the offences.


While former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was busy with the anti-corruption inquiry, the new government had to deal with a surfeit of issues that arose in Geneva where the 30th session of the UN Human Rights Council was taking place.

Although the damning OHCHR war crimes report – which was released during the initial stage of the session – seemed like a setback for Sri Lanka at first glance, the country’s delegation in Geneva navigated through troubled waters quite effectively to arrive at a common ground with the international community over the war crimes investigation.

When United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussen urged the Sri Lankan government to set up a ‘hybrid’ inquiry mechanism to investigate alleged war crimes and international humanitarian law violations during the final phase of war, many thought the government would be pushed to the wall.

However, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera who addressed the opening session of the UNHRC council urged the international community to ‘trust’ the new government which came to power on January 9 with strong backing from ethnic and religious minorities.

The US-sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka whose early draft was released to member nations of the UNHRC did not have the term ‘hybrid mechanism’, but called for active participation of international parties, including foreign judges and prosecutors. Therefore, the level of international engagement was vague in the early draft of the resolution, leaving room for much speculation.

Key paragraphs

The Sri Lankan delegation in Geneva, led by Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha, had to do some hard bargaining to modulate the resolution, initiated by the US, which was presented to the UN Human Rights Council on Thursday. An early draft of the resolution was circulated during an informal sessions on the sidelines of the UNHRC last Friday and it was widely discussed among member nations of the UNHRC.

Sri Lanka, in its response, sought the deletion of 14 key paragraphs of the early draft which was in circulation among members of the UNHRC. One of the key amendments suggested by the Sri Lankan delegation was changing the Operational Paragraph 4 which referred to the inclusion of international judges, prosecutors and investigators in a proposed judicial mechanism to deal with alleged war crimes. Sri Lanka’s suggestion was to split the OP4 into two sections and to remove the part relating to the role of international judges and prosecutors.

In Sri Lanka, various opinion makers expressed views that the inclusion of international judges and prosecutors will automatically lead to a ‘hybrid system’.

At this point, there was a strong difference of opinion among key member nations of the UNHRC, between Canada, Switzerland, and Norway on one side, and Russia and China on the other.

Both Russia and China have strongly argued that the OP4 should be removed to make way for a credible domestic inquiry process by the Sri Lankan authorities while the other three countries pushed for the inclusion of OP4. The US reportedly adopted a compromise stating that necessary action on serious findings of the OHCHR report should be reflected in the resolution while acknowledging the progress made by the Sri Lankan government on the ‘accountability, reconciliation and human rights’ front.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan delegation held extensive negotiations with the sponsors of the resolution to arrive at an understanding before its tabling. The resolution was expected to be tabled before the UNHRC at 1.30 pm on Thursday and it was delayed by nearly four hours due to ongoing negotiations on amendments.

After lengthy negotiation, a compromise was reached on the involvement of international stakeholders. Sri Lanka, which also holds the Commonwealth Chair, agreed to work hand in hand with Commonwealth and other foreign nations to set up the local inquiry mechanism.

‘Commonwealth’ compromise

While this tense diplomatic battle raged in Geneva, sections of the Parliamentary opposition here raised questions over the ‘Western influence’ in the so-called ‘hybrid’ mechanism. Among them was former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who said that the OHCHR’s independence was questionable because it is funded for the most part not through the regular budget of the UN but through ‘voluntary contributions’ from the very Western states that sponsored the resolution against Sri Lanka.

The Government now hopes that its manoeuvre in Geneva to involve the Commonwealth will ward off criticism on the ‘western involvement’ as that body has a significant representation from African and Asian countries, including friends India and Pakistan.

The compromise resolution, tabled at the UNHRC, called for a “credible justice process” with “independent judicial and prosecutorial institutions led by individuals known for integrity and impartiality” and “Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers, and authorized prosecutors and investigators”.

It also called on the Office of the High Commissioner to “present an oral update” to the Council at the 32nd session in June 2016 and present a “comprehensive report followed by discussion on the implementation of the present resolution at its 34th session” in March 2017. It said the OHCHR would also continue to assess progress on implementation of the recommendations listed in its report.

On Thursday night, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe attended the 50th anniversary celebrations of CIMA Sri Lanka. The Prime Minister, who is well-known for his punctuality, was slightly late for the event which took place in Colombo. In his ten-minute speech, the Prime Minister explained reasons for his uncharacteristic delay, saying he had to exchange views with the Sri Lankan delegation in Geneva over the content of the resolution.

Prime Minister Wickremesinghe revealed that Sri Lanka would co-sponsor the resolution and the inquiry would be held under the current legal framework of Sri Lanka.

“We will no longer have to face the pressures we have been facing for the past five or six years, the world has accepted the fact that we are building a democratic society,” the Prime Minister told the anniversary celebrations.


With Sri Lanka co-sponsoring the resolution, the council will adopt it unanimously, without a vote. That will ease the pressure on Sri Lanka in terms of implementation. At the same time, it will compel the country to fulfill its promises to the member nations of the UNHRC where the content of the resolution is concerned.

In other words, the Sri Lankan government will not be in a position to distance itself from the recommendations of the resolution.

However, the draft resolution tabled before the council on Thursday is expected to undergo a few minor changes over the next 48 hours. The resolution will be adopted on September 30 and the Sri Lankan delegation still has time to further ‘soften’ the language when it comes to certain recommendations.

As Sri Lanka has already announced its willingness to co-sponsor the resolution, the sponsors of the resolution may leave some space for a few last minute alterations in favour of Sri Lanka.

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s statement on Friday was an important development in the whole process as it strongly indicated the sentiments of the US government on its policy towards Sri Lanka on the accountability front. Kerry said the resolution tabled at the UNHRC on Thursday marked an important step towards a credible transitional justice process, owned by Sri Lankans and with the support and involvement of the international community.

“The resolution will help families of the missing find answers about their loved ones. And it lays out a path to provide truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence that the Sri Lankan people deserve while safeguarding the reputation of those, including within the military, who conducted themselves with honour and professionalism,” Kerry said a day after the resolution was tabled before the UNHRC.

“Today the United States, Sri Lanka, and our partners tabled a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva that represents a landmark shared recognition of the critical importance of truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-recurrence in promoting reconciliation and ensuring an enduring peace and prosperity for all Sri Lankans,” the US Secretary of State said.

“The Sri Lankan government’s decision to join as a co-sponsor paves the way for all of us to work together to deliver the commitments reflected in the resolution,” he added.

A senior retired diplomat said the language used by the US Secretary of State indicated that the US was in favour of a domestic inquiry carried out by Sri Lanka with the support of international stakeholders.

“In Kerry’s statement, ‘the credible transitional justice process owned by Sri Lanka’ is the key term. It is a positive sign that the US has acknowledged Sri Lanka’s ownership over the inquiry process. However, it also indicates that the country will constantly be under international scrutiny when carrying out the inquiry. At the same time, the need for international engagement is stressed in the statement,” the diplomat explained.


The TNA, which was earlier pushing for a strong international engagement in the war crimes inquiry, has now expressed positive sentiments on the draft of the “compromise resolution”. When the party explained its position on Thursday night, it was quite clear that the main Tamil party in the North and the Sri Lankan government were more or less on the same page about the content of the resolution.

“In particular, we welcome the draft resolution’s call on Sri Lanka to involve foreign and Commonwealth judges, lawyers, investigators and defenders in a judicial mechanism to be set up in Sri Lanka that would be mandated to try international crimes.

This constitutes a significant victory for justice in Sri Lanka. The TNA is committed to help the government and international stakeholders evolve such a court, and will support its work.

We also wish to note our appreciation of the government’s assent to this text and its willingness to co-sponsor it in the Human Rights Council. A court established on these lines would represent a dramatic break from the past and could herald the beginning of an end to impunity,” the TNA said on Thursday.

“The draft resolution tabled today was the product of a difficult consensus. We are acutely aware that some of the language used in the interests of a consensus will not satisfy all victims of the conflict whom we represent and who have reposed their trust in the TNA.

However, the draft provides a constructive starting point for what will inevitably be a long road to reconciliation,” the party said, expressing gratitude to all co-sponsors of the resolution, including the Sri Lankan government.


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