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
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.
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
“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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.