A friend in need is a friend indeed | Daily News

A friend in need is a friend indeed

A session of the UNHRC in progress
A session of the UNHRC in progress

With barely five days left for Sri Lanka to step into the ring at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Switzerland, the Government was reaching out to the Member countries of this UN organ through diplomatic channels to rope in their support to defend the country’s position.

Foreign Ministry officials were drawing up last-minute plans to counter undue international pressure at the UN Human Rights body in close consultation with Government higher-ups. Articulating the country’s position on the latest Report on Sri Lanka by United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena is expected to address the high-level segment of the virtual meeting next week.

The Core Group on Sri Lanka led by the United Kingdom (UK), Canada and Germany has confirmed that it would present a fresh Resolution on Sri Lanka based on the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Chief’s recent report, the contents of which have been widely published.

Coinciding with this Forum set to begin next Monday (22), Sri Lanka is to roll out the red carpet for Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, the first State Leader to visit Sri Lanka since the COVID-19 pandemic hit its shores, on February 23. This two-day visit will also be his first foreign trip this year.

Tried and trusted bond

During the brief visit, former cricket star-turned-politician Imran Khan is scheduled to address Parliament. The last such occasion was six years ago when Indian Premier Narendra Modi addressed Parliament on March 13, 2015. The Pakistani PM will call on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena for extensive bilateral talks. A number of bilateral trade, economic and defence cooperation pacts are also due to be signed.

The timing of this state visit is critical to Sri Lanka with the Sword of Damocles hanging over its head at the Geneva-based HR Council. Pakistan has been a long-time friend which has been with Sri Lanka through thick and thin. It provided much needed arms, ammunition and other military support in the fight against the LTTE. It has stood by Sri Lanka’s side at the UNHRC all the time.

Pakistan is an influential member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) consisting of 57 Member States. Sri Lanka looks towards Pakistan to lobby the Arab countries and other Muslim nations, which have a formidable clout at the 47-member UN Inter-Governmental body in Geneva, to act in favour of Sri Lanka. However, the Government’s mandatory cremation policy of bodies of those who succumb to COVID-19 has become an Achilles’ heel when it comes to lobbying the Muslim world.

Confusion reigned in Parliament and the public at large when Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa’s recent assurance that the mandatory cremation policy would be relaxed was seemingly clarified by the Government the next day. Primary Health Care, Epidemics and COVID Disease Control State Minister Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle told Parliament that a final decision on the matter would still be taken by the Expert Committee.

The Pakistani PM was one among the many who welcomed the initial announcement by PM Rajapaksa on lifting the ban on burials of the Muslims who die of COVID-19. The issue of mandatory cremation has also been raised in Geneva by Bachelet’s report on Sri Lanka. Clarity on the part of the Government will help ease external and domestic pressure on this matter.

Political pot stirred

Meanwhile, the recent report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into Political Victimization has stirred up a hornet’s nest in the Opposition. The Opposition groups were in talks over the past couple of weeks to close ranks in the face of the report’s recommendations which could overshadow their political prospects if pursued. Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) General Secretary MP Ranjith Madumma Bandara told the media last Friday that it had decided to work with all other Opposition parties to build a common front to collectively challenge the PCoI report legally as well as politically.

He was of the view that the PCoI on Political Victimization was an effort to manipulate the law to penalize those in the Opposition camp. He complained that it had undermined the judicial process. The three-member Commission headed by retired Supreme Court Judge Upali Abeyratne handed over its final report to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on December 8 concluding over 10 months of investigations into over 1,900 complaints of political victimization during the period between 2015 and 2019.

The report, consisting of three volumes and 2,043 pages, is not yet officially public, but some mainstream media and social media have already leaked its contents. As per the information widely published, the Commission has recommended redress for individuals on whom it decided had been politically victimized by the investigations launched by the previous Government.

It has also accused a number of prominent members of the former Government of breaking the law and violating the Constitution mainly through the setting up of new bodies that did not fit into the existing legal framework such as the ‘National Executive Council’, which included political and civil society groups supportive of the Government change in 2015, ‘Anti-Corruption Secretariat’ at Temple Trees and the ‘Financial Crimes Investigation Division’ (FCID) of Police.

According to media reports, among the accused are former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, and former Ministers Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Mangala Samaraweera, Ravi Karunanayake, Arjuna Ranatunga, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, Rauff Hakeem and Malik Samarawickrema. Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Leader MP R. Sampanthan, TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran, PC, and ‘Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna’ (JVP) Leader MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake have also been faulted by the Commission as they were members of the ‘National Executive Council’. The report also includes the names of several prominent lawyers and investigators.

Opposition anxious

The report has recommended the appointment of a Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry (SPCoI), which would have wider powers, to determine punitive action for those accused. Following the Cabinet green light to go ahead with the recommendations of the PCoI report, the President appointed a three-member SPCoI headed by Supreme Court Justice Dhammika Samarakoon late last month.

This move has created ripples in the Opposition camp as the first and the only SPCoI seen by the country until this latest appointment led to the stripping of civil rights of former Prime Minister the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1980 under the then J.R. Jayewardene administration.

The SPCoI law dates back to 1978 and it has the power to subject a person found guilty to civic disability for seven years. An action or recommendation made by a SPCoI cannot be questioned in any Court or tribunal.

The agitation of the Opposition members could be discerned in the tone of JVP Leader MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake, when he raged against the recommendations of the PCOI report earlier this month at a public seminar titled “Kekille Komisama” at the National Library auditorium.

He accused the PCoI report of being a “ruse to white-wash and exonerate” those supportive of the Government of the charges pending against them in Courts of Law. He went on to comment that the above report could be used to unseat a number of Opposition Members in an attempt to stifle their voices.

“What matters to us is championing our cause. We are a political movement that has lived through difficult periods. Losing civic rights for seven years will not stop us from engaging in politics,” the seemingly irked MP remarked.

It could be seen that the report on political victimization has acted as a catalyst for fragmented groups of the Opposition to band together as their political survival is at stake. However, how far they can resist the newly appointed Special Commission or other follow up actions based on the report is yet to be seen.