Intense focus on two key events | Daily News

Intense focus on two key events

UNHRC in session.
UNHRC in session.

The Government is focusing this week on two key events that are likely to be in the news for some time to come because of their potential political fallout - the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in 2019 and the Resolution passed on Sri Lanka at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions last week.

The Easter Sunday attacks have been the subject of much discussion of late because the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) appointed to probe the heinous attacks, appointed by former President Maithripala Sirisena, submitted its final report to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently.

The Commission ironically recommended that criminal proceedings be instituted against former President Sirisena and several other high officials. The recommendations have been forwarded to the Attorney General’s Department. President Rajapaksa has said they will be implemented.

These issues have been rekindled with the Easter holidays coming up this week. A few weeks later, the second anniversary of the Easter incidents will be commemorated, which also marks the second death anniversary of over 250 persons who died during the attacks on several churches and city hotels.

In anticipation of the upcoming Easter holidays, Police said that security has been strengthened. Inspector General of Police C. D. Wickramaratne has instructed all senior Police officers to provide special security at all churches countrywide and additional police personnel have been deployed.

Victims of Easter attacks

In the meantime, Colombo’s Archbishop, His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith has continued his advocacy for justice for victims of the Easter attacks. Cardinal Ranjith has been credited for his role in appealing for calm and preventing a backlash against the Muslim community in the aftermath of the attacks.

“Look out for those who are directly or indirectly connected to the Easter Sunday attacks, investigate those who have had connections with Zahran Hashim during the North-East conflict and proscribe all Islamic organisations that promote extremism,” the Cardinal said in a statement issued this week.

“As the Easter Sunday bombings were an attack on the entire Sri Lankan society, it is the responsibility of all citizens to pressurize those in power to mete out justice to the victims,” the Cardinal’s statement said, querying whether there are external factors hampering investigations.

The Cardinal cautioned the Opposition against attempting to generate a political issue through these attacks. “The Archdiocese urges the Opposition to refrain from taking any action that might hamper the independent and free implementation of the judicial process of the case,” the statement said.

Considering these developments, the Government is likely to follow the advice of the Attorney General’s Department regarding the recommendations of the PCoI. Whether criminal proceedings will be instituted against former President Maithripala Sirisena will be observed with great concern.

Relations between the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) of which Sirisena is the leader are tenuous but were sufficient to ensure that SLFP nominees contest alongside SLPP candidates on a single list at the General Election held in August last year. The SLFP did contest on its own in a few districts, but only one MP was elected directly from the SLFP, in the Jaffna District.

Sirisena was elected to Parliament on a SLPP-SLFP common list, topping the preference vote in the Polonnaruwa district. Initially there was speculation that he would be appointed as the Speaker of Parliament but that did not eventuate. He was also not sworn in as a Minister of the Cabinet.

However, Sirisena has 14 Members of Parliament who contribute to the ruling party’s tally of 145 votes, giving it a near two-thirds majority. In the event of criminal proceedings being instituted against the former President, the stance adopted by these MPs and the SLFP will be interesting to observe.

It must also be noted that the Government does not have to consider any electoral pressures right now. President Rajapaksa is in office until late 2024 and the term of the current Parliament will expire only in 2025. Provincial Council elections, previously planned for this year, are now unlikely to be held.

In such circumstances, the Government is free to act without fear or favour. In fact, letting the law take its course with the regard to the PCoI recommendations is likely to be a popular move especially among the Catholic community, although there may be some repercussions from the SLFP.

The other significant issue dominating the airwaves is the passage of a UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka at the Council’s 46th session in Geneva last week. The Resolution was adopted by a 22 votes to 11 votes margin, with 14 countries including India and Japan choosing to abstain from voting.

Since then, the Government has maintained that it stood on a matter of principle, maintaining the integrity of troops who fought in the Eelam War and also on protecting the country’s Constitution by not allowing external agencies to sit in judgement on what was an internal conflict.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has maintained that Sri Lanka took a principled stand at the UNHRC. “War Heroes were jailed on false allegations. Sovereignty of the country was put at risk by the previous Government co-sponsoring the Geneva resolution. We will not do so,” the President said.

UNHRC Resolution

“We will never succumb to pressures such as the UNHRC Resolution. We are a free nation. We will not be a victim of big power rivalry in the Indian Ocean. The resolution is the result of foreign and local forces which cannot bear to see the Government making progress,” the President said at Matara.

Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena has said the Resolution lacked authority as the nations that had voted in favour were outnumbered by those that voted against it or had abstained. “The resolution was brought by countries supported by Western powers that want to dominate the Global South,” he said.

The Resolution was an attempt by Western countries to bully countries such as Sri Lanka, Minister Gunawardena observed. He said the Government will not implement any of the draft proposals of the Resolution but would continue with a domestic inquiry into allegations of human rights violations.

The Opposition meanwhile has attempted to politicise the issue saying that the vote was not managed well by the Government. The previous Government co-sponsored a resolution on Sri Lanka agreeing to several mechanisms that were to inquire into human rights issues during the final Eelam War.

Human Rights

There have been concerns raised regarding the possible implications of the UNHRC Resolution in Sri Lanka. The resolution gives the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights authority to set up a special unit to gather information and evidence on alleged human rights violations in the country.

Clause 6 of the Resolution permits the High Commissioner to “collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law”.

This resolution is based almost solely on a report released by UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michele Bachelet prior to the sessions of the UNHRC. In her report, Bachelet recommends “freezing of assets, travel bans and targeted sanctions against public officials suspected of human rights violations”.

Easter Sunday terror attacks. 

Bachelet has also advocated the referral of cases of alleged human rights abuses to international tribunals including the International Criminal Court (ICC). However, the Government promptly dismissed the possibility of such consequences following the passage of the resolution in Geneva.

Sri Lankan war heroes cannot be hauled before the ICC because Sri Lanka was not a signatory to the Rome Statute that provided for the establishment of the ICC, Minister and Chairman of the SLPP, Professor G. L. Peiris explained and urged the Opposition not to exploit this issue.

In any event, the implementation of such a Resolution trying Sri Lankans before the ICC could be done only by the approval of the UN Security Council, Prof. Peiris said noting that China and Russia, staunch allies of Sri Lanka, had Veto Powers as Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, the others being UK, USA and France.

Prof. Peiris also said that it would be interesting to see whether those tasked with gathering evidence of war crimes committed during the conflict years would meet with Adele Balasingham, wife of the late Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) theoretician Anton Balasingham who is now living in Britain, which led moves to pass the Resolution as part of the Core Group of Countries.

A consequence that could in fact become a reality following the UNHRC Resolution is the withdrawal of the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (popularly known as GSP Plus) concession accorded to Sri Lankan exports by the European Union (EU) countries. Many EU countries supported the Resolution, toeing the UK line.

Sri Lanka’s GSP Plus status was first withdrawn in 2010. It was re-instated in 2017 after the previous Government provided several undertakings to the EU. The current Government however has clearly indicated that it would not barter issues of integrity and sovereignty for any trade concessions.

The issues arising from the UNHRC will be debated across the political divide and in the media in Sri Lanka in the weeks and months to come but it appears that the Government has taken a steadfast decision not to permit external interference or inquiries into alleged human rights abuses during the war years or afterwards.

At present, both the Easter Sunday attacks of April 2019 and the UNHRC Resolution have become talking points for political parties in and outside Parliament but with no elections on the horizon, it will be months, if not years, before their eventual outcomes will be put to the test in the court of public opinion.