UN System & the System in Sri Lanka


by Ranil Wickremesinghe

(May 03, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The UNP wishes to place its views on the Advisory Report of the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, before the House at this preliminary stage, when some critical decisions have to be made by the Government. Let me briefly recap the background to the current problem.

During the last phase of the North - East war a large number of civilians were displaced in Vanni. Despite the appeals by the Government of Sri Lanka and the UN, the LTTE did not allow the civilians to move out of the conflict zone but used them as human shields. The civilians were then caught up in the cross-fire between the Army and the LTTE. After the war ended the UN Secretary General emphasized the importance of an accountability process to address the violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. The Government of Sri Lanka agreed to take measures to address these grievances. The Secretary General subsequently appointed a Panel of Experts to advise him on the implementation of this commitment given by the Government.

The Advisory Report of the Panel has stated that there are credible allegations which, if proven, indicate that both Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE have violated international humanitarian law and international human rights law. The Panel was unable to accept the version of the events held by the Government of Sri Lanka i.e. humanitarian operation with zero civilian casualties.

The Panel has recommended a series of measures to serve as a framework for an ongoing and constructive engagement between the Secretary General and the Government of Sri Lanka. Subsequent to the Advisory Report, on 26th April 2011 the Secretary General through his spokesman announced that he would respond positively to the Panel recommendation to review the UN’s response to the plight of the civilians in Vanni during this period.

The Government of Sri Lanka has challenged the findings of the Report terming it as fundamentally flawed.

The United National Party issued a statement on 20 April 2011 before the Panel Report was published. We made it clear that we will whole-heartedly extend our cooperation to the government in respect of all genuine efforts to uphold our sovereignty and democracy.

The present situation is perhaps the single most difficult position we have faced externally since the airdrops of 1987. In whatever we do, we, as a responsible party in the Opposition are committed to putting the country first. I do not intend to make political debating points on a partisan basis. The stakes are too high for this. We need to be unified and dignified in our response to what is a major challenge to our nation. That is why I appointed a Study group of balanced and competent professionals to evaluate the findings of the Panel and give me their considered views on the Advisory Report.

Human Rights have been institutionalized and become a part of the international order. A large number of countries in the developed and developing world adhere to the international agreements governing human rights. A growing body of international organizations and non-governmental organizations are today involved in upholding both human rights and the humanitarian law.

Sri Lanka over the years has signed and ratified the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and other similar agreements. We also have an obligation to uphold and implement these agreements.

The Panel Report is now in the public domain. Not only has the Advisory Report been released but the Secretary General is implementing the recommendations in respect of the UN system. Therefore whether we like it or not the Report has now a life of its own. In this background many Human Rights Organizations have called for further inquiries to be undertaken internationally. Many countries have stated that they are studying the report.

Today international relations are not confined to discussions between Foreign Ministries. Many governments are influenced by public opinion in respect of Human Rights and humanitarian issues. Public opinion in turn is shaped by the global electronic and print media. The social media driven by web and mobile based technologies is equally important. The recent events in the Middle East were driven by the social media. The Advisory Report has already become the subject of discussion in these media. Therefore we face a fluid situation in which the outcome is uncertain. The measures that can be taken by individual countries and international organizations can have an adverse impact on Sri Lanka. Then the first step is to prevent the situation from deteriorating any further.

Sri Lanka must maintain a dialogue with the UN. Sri Lanka is a member of the United Nations and a significant stake - holder. In the Joint Statement issued on the 23rd May 2009 Sri Lanka committed itself ‘to the promotion and protection of human rights in keeping with international human rights standards and Sri Lanka’s international obligations.’ Implementing this commitment require an ongoing discussion with the Secretary General.

It is also necessary for Sri Lanka to respond, where appropriate with strong rebuttal to the Panel Report. Remaining silent is no longer an option The Secretary General’s statement has left room for that. The UN Secretary General and the Sri Lanka Government have divergent views on the Panel Report. Therefore the Secretary General must ensure that appropriate weightage is given to Sri Lanka Government’s response during this dialogue.

The Government of India has issued a statement that they will engage with the Government of Sri Lanka on the issues contained in this Report. This is welcome. We must maintain good relations with our neighbours. I also appreciate the statement made by the Government of China, a good friend. It is also necessary to maintain similar engagements with other friendly countries. These countries helped us to defeat the LTTE, to freeze its financial resources and destroy its network in the western world.

We should not ignore the international Human Rights organizations. To do so will be to our detriment. We have focused rightly on the sovereignty of the country. Sovereignty has two aspects. Firstly the non - interference in the internal affairs of the country. Secondly, it is the duty of the state to uphold the rights and freedoms of the people. This includes carrying out the international obligations which we have voluntarily taken on ourselves. Any government must address the human rights issue that arises within its territory. It is when a government is unwilling to do so that provisions of some of the international agreements come into play. Sloganeering is no answer.

I also wish to go on record here that Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the Rome Convention of the International Criminal Court. During my tenure as Prime Minister I declined to sign this Convention. Therefore, citizens of this country cannot be prosecuted for war crimes in the International Criminal Court.

The people of Vanni and the victims in other parts of the country must receive appropriate relief and their rights and dignity ensured. We must also ensure that the death certificates to the families of those civilians who lost their lives in the war are issued. The Government must bring to a close the suffering of a large number of the people.

A military victory ending a conflict does not by itself bring long lasting peace. It merely provides an opportunity to transform the socio-economic conditions and the institutional structures that led to violence. Therefore what we in Sri Lanka require is a healing justice which addresses the root causes. We should not in any way increase the bitterness and hostility between the ethnic groups. This is why I advocate the reliance on transformative justice which takes into account the needs of the victims while making our society more open, more inclusive and less unequal. We need a balance between principles and pragmatism which is both mutually enforcing and enriching.

Then national reconciliation is the key to regain our prestige in the international community. All parties and all people must come together, understand the tragic and traumatic period we have gone through and commit ourselves to reconciliation and peace. The government must take the first step to create an environment to build a national consensus based on unity, strengthening democracy, power sharing, equality and respect for the rights of all communities. All of us have a duty to respond and a role to play. This will also enable the government to implement in the fullest our obligations under the international agreements on Human Rights to which we have subscribed. The success of such an approach depends on the ability to transform our attitudes and thinking.

In conclusion at this crucial moment, I would like to remind ourselves of the apt quotation read by J R Jayawardene, who was then Prime Minister, when he made his last speech as a Member of Parliament.

Turn the search lights inwards
Be a lamp unto yourself
Hold fast to the truth; no harm can come to you in this life and the next.

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