UK-led Core Group to Bring Resolution Against Sri Lanka – Foreign Minister

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Feb 20 2021
Interviews UK-led Core Group to Bring Resolution Against Sri Lanka  – Foreign Minister

Minister of Foreign Relations Dinesh Gunawardena speaks to Ceylon Today on the United Nations Human Rights Council’s startling statement and the resolution the Core Group is preparing to bring against Sri Lanka when the Council meets virtually, with no room for debate, negotiation and compromise.  He said in entirety, it’s the same treatment other countries would face in the future if not addressed.

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan

Is Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan going to address Parliament? 

A: The Cabinet did not discuss this subject about speaking in Parliament. It’s on the invitation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa that Prime Minister Imran Khan is coming to Sri Lanka as scheduled. He will call on the Premier and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and discuss bilateral matters. Khan’s interests are also to meet the Business Chambers and we have expressed the possibility of doing business and expanding trade and investment and joint ventures. 

Did you meet members of the Core Group such as Canada, the UK and German Ambassadors here to convey your stand? Did they raise concerns with you?

A: I met them officially and they indicated that they were going to bring a resolution, but on what it was not clear. Sri Lanka has achieved much more than what they could accuse us of. Last week, Lord Naseby’s statement against the report of the UN Commissioner was timely. He is the Chairman of Sri Lanka Group and former member of the British House of Commons and House of Lords, who explained why Britain should not do this to Sri Lanka. This call is from a senior Parliamentarian who studied and reviewed all confidential documents that were transmitted from Sri Lanka by security officers to London. It’s in the public domain. The truth is clear and the error was made at the initial resolution based on wrong facts and figures which has misled these member countries of the HRC. 

Is it true that 30/1 resolution would be adopted this time at the UNHRC?

A: Yes. They will revisit 30/1 but we have moved out of the co-sponsorship of the resolution and commissioned an inquiry and will review the Prevention of Terrorism Act and working on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Sri Lanka is in progress. Sri Lanka is working positively without any issues with all UN agencies. Our forces are serving as UN peacekeeping forces. We are trying to overcome and have replied each issue that has been raised by the UNHRC. There are two major issues. One is on the last days of the battle in 2009 and recently they have added about the Government’s administration, an amendment to the Constitution, the appointment of public officials according to the Constitution. They say these are adverse steps taken by us. These are internal matters and any elected Government does this around the world. I don’t know why they have rushed to a conclusion and misled members of the UNHRC. 

We have not visited the LLRC which was our undertaking. Could that have saved us?

A: On the 2015 co-sponsorship of the resolution, the Government was divided. The implementation of what could be done within the Constitution has all been done. We told the UNHRC last year when we were withdrawing from the co-sponsorship and will act within our constitutional framework and set up the court of the commission of inquiry because our Constitution does not provide foreign judges with the judicial system of this country. The UNHRC says we have not implemented it while COVID-19 took on the entire world. Even Geneva cannot hold the normal conference and that explains how serious the problem is across the world. It’s a new government that has started work in September and the President has been pushing these pledges into action and I would say we have begun implementing them. The LLRC report, the Paranagama Commission and other Commissions or new evidence of complaints are welcomed by the new Commission.

What’s your take on Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith demand that the Government reveal the culprits behind Easter Sunday bombings, a failure which, will call for an international probe?

The Commission of Inquiry report has been submitted to the Government and due process must be followed after the Attorney General is consulted. The process is in progress.

You have spoken to top politicians of Nepal, the Czech Republic, Austria, Bangladesh and the Envoy of the Russian Federation. Did they assure to back Sri Lanka in Geneva? 

A: Certain bilateral follow-ups had to be made with countries which came to a standstill due to COVID-19. We are explaining to all our friendly countries to stand by us and explained our position and spoke of the resolution that is coming up. I have expressed this to the EU countries also and told them not to rush to final conclusions. 

Lord Naseby has stood by Sri Lanka and rejected the alleged human right violations stating some  6,000 only may have perished during the last phase of the war. But there were similar top UN  ex-officials such as Pablo de Greiff – a former UN Special Rapporteur, Stephen Rapp – formerly US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Criminal Justice, Charles Petrie, a former UN Assistant Secretary-General and many local Rights experts in a webinar spoke of the unattended events by the Government on human rights violations. Stephen Rapp came up with startling news that the incumbent President, as Defence Secretary had admitted he killed those who surrendered. Your reaction?

A: The President had immediately denied such a thing was said by him. So much can be planted. Even the former Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay has been addressing diaspora conferences of a ‘separate government’. How is that? UN agencies must act impartially. 

But they also say they have the facts?

A: Facts are established only after an inquiry. Did the UN agencies come to check facts? Why are they not sharing the names of those living in those countries? We have been asking for it. They are biased. They should give us a chance. Let them all come here and meet the Commission and give evidence. Besides, the LLRC and Paranagama report and other reports plus persons physically could come and give evidence of what they know about human rights violations. In the case of Lord Naseby he is armed with facts. 

Why do you believe only Lord Naseby, and not other internationally reputed UN officials and rapporteurs?

A: I believe the others also. Please come and make the complaint here. If so and so is dead, he cannot live somewhere else. Lord Naseby’s statement last week has many details. Let them do as he says. He has confidential documents. 

Some say if the referral to the International Criminal Court mentioned in the draft resolution could be serious for Sri Lanka. What do you think?

A: Countries are going to realise this and the Core Group is going to adopt a resolution in that manner, its duplicity of the UK government. The British Parliament has a Bill to offer full immunity to British soldiers who have served in other countries’ battles and found guilty. What is this duplicity? Our soldiers died on our soil and they have been accused, it’s unfair.

Pakistan Premier Khan heads the Organization of Islamic Cooperation(OIC) which is the second largest inter-governmental organisation in the world after the UN. Do you think the OIC would understand the Government’s stance and  favour Sri Lanka at the UNHRC, as many Muslim organisations have repeatedly spoken of Islamaphobic attacks on Muslims, burial rights and the release of Hejaaz Hisbullah who has been detained? 

A: The main thrust of the UN’s Rights Commissioner is because we won the war against the LTTE. This is what is coming right through. On and off, they raise this issue and the last government’s co-sponsored resolution violating Sri Lanka’s Constitution and sovereignty has added to this. The Government had then decided and I have conveyed last year that we are withdrawing from the co-sponsorship. We said we would work within the Constitution to set up a domestic commission of inquiry, which the President has already set up. 

This is the main issue the HR Commissioner and the Co-Group is pressing. We are trying to overcome with the help of friendly countries who have stood by us right through and they have conveyed what they think on the burial issue and we would continue to explain our position. On the country’s specific resolution that is going to be brought against Sri Lanka, we have expressed that if it’s Sri Lanka today, it would be on them tomorrow. We hope our friends with whom we stood as nonaligned and have stood with us in all major struggles to defeat the LTTE will be able to reach a consensus.

Prime Minister Rajapaksa said burial for Muslims who died from the virus will be allowed and immediately US Ambassador and Imran Khan himself tweeted commending the move and then the Government backtracked. Aren’t we antagonizing citizens of the country and becoming a laughing stock in the international arena? 

A: The procedure after the Prime Minister’s announcement was taken forward and the political leaders ‘support has been there. Right across the country’s support has been expressed too. The PM also met Buddhist delegations after that and there was an understanding to proceed.

Did the Prime Minister mean what he had said in Parliament?

A: He meant what he had said but it has to be brought through a Bill amending the relevant Gazette. It should be through the special committee that has been functioning from the beginning. That’s the delay at the moment. The Committee has been appointed and there was provision at that time to have a review every six months or one year on the COVID-19 status quo. 

Don’t you think the Muslim community would react if the Government reverses the medical experts’ stance from cremation to burial from the current practice of cremation that also reached the UNHRC unnecessarily? Can a ‘medically’ proven matter, be switched?

A: The original decision from the very beginning was in response to COVID-19 and was totally a new situation experienced throughout the world and by our country they were reconsidering and making decisions. I am sorry to say our former Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara had passed away due to COVID-19 infection. The whole country would have wanted to come and pay their respects. Even Dr Neville Fernando, a top businessman and former parliamentarian succumbed to COVID. It affects not only the Muslim community but also the Buddhists. Lokubandara’s last rites were under COVID-19 restrictions. So, would the Christians. Medical experts will have to sit and work on this and hopefully they will consider it soon.

Both Tamils and Muslims staged a massive protest march titled ‘Pottuvil to Polikandy’. Does it send a message? The Government dismissed that protest saying it was sponsored by the Tamil diaspora and people with vested interest staged it. Is this the way to look at social unrest? 

A: Of course in one way, amidst all obstacles and obstructions, they are calling and accusing the Government from the beginning. They have the democratic right to protest for three days. Such protests can be held and it’s possible. They are complaining that Sri Lanka is not a democratic country. Their representatives are in Parliament accusing the Government of baseless issues. We have handled the COVID-19 situation across the country without discrimination. I have been a politician and have seen enough protests and participated in many as well. As long as it was a nonviolent protest, it went fine. 

But they were under surveillance that was seen explicitly which does not happen in the South but only in the North. Why is that?

A: Why not, even in Colombo photographs are taken during protests. Advanced technology is used today by the security forces unlike those days this is for security reasons and not to deprive or harass anyone. 

Sri Lanka is at a geopolitical crossroad since China was offered the Hambantota port on a 99-year lease. That aside, we backtracked on the Japanese LRT project where Japan did feasibly studies spending USD 2m. The US lost the MCC agreement. The East Container Terminal was an international agreement that was revoked that upset the Indians. Now, the West Container Terminal has been assured to be given to India and apparently, Port trade unions have sent a petition against it to the President. Even China faced this situation on the Port City Project. Our Foreign Policy seems to be full of confusion. How are you going to balance Indo – China relations while backing China’s BRI and heeding to the Indo – Pacific openness where the US and China have locked horns?

A: Sri Lanka has always been facing challenges as we are situated at a strategic location. That’s why we ‘lost’ our sovereignty to three countries. Trade and investment would be advancing while for security reasons superpowers are trying to block the maritime lanes. We have overcome all that. 

Are you sure we have overcome these challenges?

A: Yes, we have overcome all that when we got Independence and adopted a nonalignment stance - being friendly with all nations and neutral in all battles. 

Are we nonaligned? Theoretically may be, but practically are we?

A: We have had friendly relations with China when Mrs. Bandaranaike established diplomatic ties with China when the Americans openly protested not to have anything to do with China as we signed the Rubber-Rice Pact with China. I have seen as a student, how US president Nixon visited China’s Mao Tse Tung. It was because economic progress changed the world. China and India have emerged as the fastest-growing economies. We need to develop better ties with the East as well as with the West now. 

Are India and Japan settled with the West Container Terminal after the ECT was revoked?

A: The decision to award the ECT was taken by the former government and even   financing, so all this counts. The process will take place step-by- step, miracles won’t happen overnight. Under the COVID-19 situation, we need to get the economy slowly back to working order. We have had so many financial transactions with India. Taking one question out and asking whether it has breached the main issue is not right. When a new government takes office, countries want certain things to be reviewed and adjusted and how it could move forward, that is what happened with the ECT. 

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Pic by Manjula Dayawansha

CEYLON TODAY | Published: 2:00 AM Feb 20 2021

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