Govt. ready to take on Geneva challenge | Daily News

Govt. ready to take on Geneva challenge

The Government was last week preparing to counter a resolution against Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) while the country celebrated its seventy third anniversary of independence on a sombre note with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pledging to take action against those responsible for the Easter Sunday terror attacks in 2019 and the Central Bank bond scam.

The Government has been kept busy on the diplomatic front recently with differences of opinion with neighbouring India over the leasing of the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port. Colombo has however been firm in its decision although New Delhi has voiced its displeasure.

Leaders in Colombo were optimistic that relations with New Delhi can be restored despite the recent dispute. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said that such issues are dealt through discussion. “India is our closest friend. We can resolve any dispute with them after talking with each other,” he said.

Human rights issues

The greater diplomatic challenge now facing the government was countering the resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. The government planned to brief envoys of the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada based in Colombo ahead of the UNHRC sessions in Geneva.

Sri Lanka has taken up the position that the allegations noted by the UNHRC are unsubstantiated. It has also noted that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently appointed a commission to review reports of preceding commissions investigating human rights issues and make appropriate recommendations.

The Commission is headed by Supreme Court Judge A.H.M.D. Nawaz. Its other members are Chandra Fernando, a retired Inspector-General of Police and Nimal Abeysiri, a retired District Secretary. They have been asked to submit their final report to President Rajapaksa within six months.

The main mandate of this Commission is to determine whether past Commissions of Inquiry have revealed any human rights violations, to review recommendations of past commissions of inquiry and ascertain the manner in which those recommendations have been implemented so far.

The appointment of this Commission in Colombo was followed by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) at the United Nations releasing an ‘Experts Report’ expressing concern at what it claimed were developments in Sri Lanka that hindered human rights.

“The UNHRC and member states should strengthen independent monitoring, analysis and reporting of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka and establish an impartial and independent international accountability mechanism by investigating, compiling, and analysing information,” the report said.

Easter Sunday attacks

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa meanwhile, in his Address to the Nation on Independence Day, made it clear that his Government would proceed with action against those found responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks and the Central Bank bond scam, both of which are still being investigated.

The President’s remarks came days after the Presidential Commission of Inquiry appointed by former President Maithripala Sirisena in September 2019 handed over their report to President Rajapaksa. The Commission had previously handed over two interim reports to President Rajapaksa last year.

“I have received the final report of the Presidential Commission appointed to inquire into the Easter Sunday attacks. I have already given instructions to implement its recommendations. We will not allow those responsible for designing and enabling this tragedy to escape justice,” the President said.

President Rajapaksa also said that he had advised the Attorney General’s Department to swiftly act upon matters relating to the Central Bank bond scam. “The public expects fair, unbiased and efficient service from the officials who enforce the law,” President Rajapaksa said in his address to the nation.

Following these remarks, the Archbishop of Colombo, His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith called for the report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Easter attacks to be made public. “We request the President to reveal the conclusions and recommendations of this report to the nation,” Cardinal Ranjith said.

Criminal charges

Cardinal Ranjith, who has been in the forefront of the campaign to bring the perpetrators of the Easter attacks to justice, called on the government to take prompt action. “None of us will be able to live in this nation if the report is swept under the carpet,” Cardinal Ranjith said on Independence Day.

As yet unconfirmed reports say the Commission has recommended criminal charges against former President Maithripala Sirisena, then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, then Defence Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, then Police Chief Pujith Jayasundara and then Head of National Intelligence Sisira Mendis.

These reports say that the Commission has recommended that criminal charges be filed against those who failed to prevent the attacks, despite early warnings. The commission also reportedly recommends action against those who failed to carry out proper investigations in advance.

There were other developments on the political front last week within the ranks of both the government and the opposition. Making headlines within the ruling coalition was Minister Wimal Weerawansa, who is also the leader of the Jathika Nidahas Peramuna (JNP), a coalition partner.

Minister Weerawansa was quoted in a newspaper interview as saying that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa should head the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). This drew a sharp response from the general secretary of the SLPP, Sagara Kariyawasam who is a SLPP National List Parliamentarian.

Kariyawasam told a news briefing on Monday that Minister Weerawansa had no right to make such statements regarding SLPP and that he should immediately withdraw his remarks and apologise. Minister Weerawansa however declined to do so, instead elaborating on his remarks.

“I didn’t intend to say that Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa should be removed from the SLPP leadership and be replaced by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa,” Weerawansa said. “What I meant was that a position should be created for President Rajapaksa, while Premier Rajapaksa is the leader,” he said.

Although Minister Weerawansa is reputed for his controversial statements, this storm in a tea cup is likely to fizzle out as it is well known that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa work very well together on a common agenda, with hardly any differences of opinion.

In the opposition ranks, there have been moves to form a ‘broad alliance’ between the United National Party (UNP) and its breakaway group, the Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). It was reported that these discussions were being held with the blessings of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

It was reported that Wickremesinghe had delegated UNP deputy leader Ruwan Wijewardene for the task of having a dialogue with the SJB. What is however being mooted by the UNP leader is not a merger of the two parties but working together on a common agenda, possibly on a common platform.

Amidst such issues of political significance, the government last week also intensified its efforts to contain the Coronavirus pandemic which has now seen over 70,000 infections in the country and 365 deaths. Vaccination of health care workers is complete and over 160,000 vaccines have been given.

Health officials also denied speculation that the President and the Prime Minister have been given priority in vaccination. They have been allocated to the over-60 age group and will be vaccinated when that age group is immunised, officials said, denying there was a request for priority.

Sri Lanka plans to vaccinate its entire population within three months, Secretary to State Ministry of Primary Health Care, Epidemics and Covid-19 Disease Control Dr. Amal Harsha de Silva said. Vaccines are being provided mostly by India, China and Russia for this purpose, Dr. de Silva said.

Dr. Neville Fernando

An unfortunate victim of the Coronavirus pandemic was Dr. Neville Fernando, ex-parliamentarian for Panadura who later achieved great success as a businessman and founded the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) and the Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital in Malabe.

Dr. Fernando, who was a popular general practitioner in Panadura was elected to Parliament in the electoral landslide of the J. R. Jayewardene-led UNP in 1977, defeating the Lanka Samasamaja Party stalwart and ex-Minister of Transport Leslie Gunewardena by a comfortable margin of 11,000 votes.

Dr. Fernando was a much-loved MP who thrived on being the peoples’ representative. Being in Parliament for only twelve years and not holding any ministerial office, he pioneered many schools, hospitals and industrial estates in Panadura which render yeomen service to the electorate to this day.

As a parliamentarian, Dr. Fernando also carved a niche for himself, being fearlessly critical of President Jayewardene, most notably opposing his plans to deprive Sirimavo Bandaranaike of her civic rights. Apart from ministers Gamini Dissanayake and S. Thondaman, he was the only MP to do so.

Dr. Fernando resigned as a Parliamentarian before President Jayewardene could take disciplinary action against him. He went on to achieve great success as a businessman developing several hospitals, a printing press and a porcelain exporting enterprise before setting up his medical school.

The SAITM project was not concluded to his satisfaction but Dr. Fernando had the gratification of seeing all its students graduate as doctors, either from SAITM itself or being absorbed to the Kotelawela Defence University. The teaching hospital bearing his name is his legacy to the nation.

These varied events dotted the political landscape last week.

The coming weeks will be crucial for the government as it navigates the diplomatic channels in dealing with the UNHRC and counters the substantial threat of the Coronavirus epidemic through an accelerated programme of immunisation.