Diplomatic Engagement -not street demos

This brings us to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). It is a pity that some organisations and individuals declined to give evidence before the LLRC. By doing so, they have made the same mistake that the Government made in not engaging with the UNSG’s panel. The composition of the LLRC includes some outstanding professionals. Nothing was to be gained by boycotting the LLRC.

 by Shanie 
"We Sri Lankans are very happy when anyone praises us. However, when someone criticises us, we usually abuse the critic. We do not look at ourselves to see whether there might be some truth in such criticism but rush to attribute unfriendly motives to the critic."

 (April 23, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) About two weeks ago, the Citizens’ Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG) released a publication containing nearly one hundred statements that CIMOGG had released over the last five years. These statements have been issued under the signature of its President Dr. A. C. Visvalingam, who was also the principal author of them. Since its founding in early 2002, CIMOGG’s primary objective has been to act as a catalyst in mobilising the people of Sri Lanka to actively work towards the building of a truly democratic society and to pressure all political actors and those holding public office to comply with the requirements of good governance. That there was only standing room available at the book launch in SLFI’s main auditorium was not only a tribute to the respect and public standing enjoyed by Visvalingam and CIMOGG but also, as The Sunday Island editorially commented, indicative of ‘the yearning at least among the thinking people for the crying need for this country to arrest the ever deteriorating standards with regard to the subjects covered in the thought provoking essays’ authored by Visvalingam.

Romesh de Silva PC, in introducing the book, stated a home truth: ‘Sri Lankan society is full of sycophants and opportunists. People even in the highest positions prostitute themselves and sell their souls not even for the proverbial thirty pieces of silver but for a mere half a piece of enamel......An alarming aspect in our society is its apathy. The body politic is totally laid back and accepts everything passively. Misdemeanours prevalent in Sri Lanka would not be tolerated in any reasonably functional democracy.’ de Silva goes on to quote the statement by Napoleon about the violence of the bad people and the silence of the good people. Martin Luther King, however, stated this more succinctly nearly one hundred and fifty years later: "We shall have to repent in this generation not so much for the evil deeds of the wicked people but for the appalling silence of the good people."

The quote at the head of this column is taken from an open letter that Visvalingam wrote to President Rajapaksa in 2006. The truth of that quote is evidenced by the seemingly orchestrated cacophony of abuse that is being hurled at the United Nations Secretary General (UNSG), his advisory panel and others following the leaked release of parts of the Panel’s report. What is equally alarming is the lack of any professionalism in the language used by the professionals among the critics.

The UNSG’s Panel

The Government probably missed an opportunity to engage the UNSG’s Panel by refusing them entry to Sri Lanka after their appointment last year to meet the Service Chiefs, the Brigade Commanders on the ground and the civilians who had been trapped in the war zone during the final stages of the war. The Government seemed unwilling to publicly acknowledge that it was a missed opportunity but instead discreetly arranged for the Attorney General and others to meet the Panel in New York more recently.

It also needs to be stressed, as the Russian Ambassador to Sri Lanka has said, that this was not a UN report but only that of an Advisory Panel to the UN Secretary General. The full report is now in Government hands and it will be in the national interest if the Government gave a measured and constructive response to it. Organising street demonstrations or collecting signatures to a petition will not advance the national cause. That will not wish away the recommendations and the contents of the report. The Panel seems to have reported that there was credible evidence of violations both by the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka of international covenants and protocols to which we have subscribed. Credible evidence is not hard evidence but only means that it merits fuller and further investigation. It is only by engaging with the UN and ensuring an independent (not necessarily international) probe that we could prove that there were no violations, or, if there were violations, that they were not deliberate. But nothing is gained by a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude that refuses an acknowledgement of intended or unintended violations and an independent probe and instead resorts only to abuse of the panelists and the Secretary-General.

Sovereignty or Impunity?

The Government takes up the position that any probe (such as the one done by the UNSG’s panel) by an international body is an infringement on the sovereignty of the country. Such international probes will become unnecessary if we are able to get our own act together. Just to take one example. The Government appointed a Commission headed by Justice (Rtd) Nissanka Udalagama to probe certain incidents, one of which was the killing of five students in Trincomalee. The Commission’s report has now quietly been shelved. There was no question of sovereignty being involved. It was simply a case of impunity for the killers. What have those who shout loud about sovereignty and our ability to probe incidents within the country to say about justice for the families of those five students?

This brings us to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). It is a pity that some organisations and individuals declined to give evidence before the LLRC. By doing so, they have made the same mistake that the Government made in not engaging with the UNSG’s panel. The composition of the LLRC includes some outstanding professionals. Nothing was to be gained by boycotting the LLRC. The credibility of any Commission depends on the independence shown by its members. The hand of the ‘independent’members would have been strengthened if the Commission received evidence from a variety of sources. Despite its limited mandate, however, the LLRC went out of its way to listen to the family members of those taken into custody by the security forces during the closing stages of the war. The LLRC report is due to be handed over to President Rajapaksa next month. One hopes that the report will be released in full (not leaked in part) for public discussion. The history in our country is for Commission reports involving embarrassing findings and uncomfortable recommendations to have a very long shelf life. Commissions are appointed to meet some political imperative and their reports dumped when that imperative no longer exists.

The LLRC widened its mandate to listen to cries of the families whose husbands/sons had gone missing. If their final report touches on remedial measures that are required to deal with this (the names of those still in the custody of the security forces is yet to be released) and, if implemented, it will go a long way to meet the criticism reportedly levelled in the report of the UNSG panel. We do not know what the outcome would be following the UNSG’s release of the report, with or without the response of the Sri Lankan Government. We need therefore to make a constructive response to the report and go ahead with the implementation of those of its recommendations which, in any case, are necessary to ensure good governance and the rule of law in our country.

This is why The Sunday Island in its editorial comment last week-end stated that there was a lot that Sri Lanka had to do to get its house in order. "It is appropriate", the editorial stated. "that we take a long hard look at our own weaknesses. We angrily assailed a tribunal of internationally eminent persons headed by a former Chief Justice of India, appointed by us, to look into a Commission (the Udalagama Commission) probing human rights violations here..... Skilled diplomacy rather than wrong speech is what is needed most now. God knows that we have been having too much of the latter and too little of the former."

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