It is a day of reckoning for the government and the main Opposition, the United National Party (UNP). Since the conclusion of the war, the government lived in denial of military excesses during the final phase of the war and the civilian cost.
Though not the best of reconciliation processes, the report by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission(LLRC) does indicate serious human rights anomalies that require urgent rectification. The coming year is going to be one of extensive deliberations at the human rights front, and the government will do well to be ready, complete with a thick hide.
As for the UNP, after months of intense bickering and pussyfooting, the appointments to the party’s decision making apex body, the Working Committee will be a process completed today(18). The delays in making these appointments further polarized the Ranil and Sajith camps and brought in its midst, a third party in the name of Karu Jayasuriya who will now contents for the party leadership.
But the week’s top story was the releasing of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) Report. With its presentation to the House on Friday, Pandora’s Box has indeed been opened. From the very beginning, the report was expected to be a cautious presentation of information which is already public knowledge with liberal edits on the ‘truth’ aspect of it.
The LLRC report is essentially that- a liberally whetted document that offers no startling revelations. The report finds itself in direct conflict with both the international and local human rights’ community’s shared belief that gross human rights violations were committed during the final phase of the war that concluded in May 2009.
It does record certain aspects of the war the administration has repeatedly denied- the civilian suffering directly as a result of both government and LTTE shelling including schools and hospitals- yet, vehemently rejects the possibility of civilians being targeted by the Sri Lankan armed forces and appears to downplay the civilian populations affected by the final military onslaught.
While recording many aspects of the political question that finally resulted in violence that consumed the northeast for nearly three decades, it significantly fell short of even remotely resembling a credible truth and reconciliation process, as in South Africa or in Peru, which vastly contributed to the healing of their nations.
To reach that end result, (the LLRC report being the visible output) it needed to be a process designed to uncover the truth complete with honesty of purpose. The South African government in 1995 used the process to unite the people by uncovering the truthful situation relating to the human rights violations committed during the period of Apartheid. It gathered evidence to analyze and present truthful findings of both victims and perpetrators in a process designed to reconcile a deeply divided people on the basis of colour.
The LLRC Report in contrast, has exonerated the military of targeting civilians during the final phase of the war, and while acknowledging serious human rights problems in Sri Lanka, fails to fully address the issue by delving into allegations of war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. Instead of offering crucial insights, it has effectively brought closure to the vital debate on the possibilities of war crimes.
LLRC has clearly acknowledged that some isolated allegations of civilian abuses by security forces needed to be investigated further but has attributed such to their non-adherence to given orders. It has also reiterated the duty of the State to investigate and disclose any incidents of wrongful misconduct and to prosecute the wrongdoers.
No deliberate killings
While admitting to a number of limitations in ascertaining the truth, the Commission concluded that it found no evidence of deliberate killings of civilians in the "no-fire zones" but admitted that despite the absence of targeted killings, civilian casualties had in fact occurred in the course of crossfire.
The UN so far has adopted a policy of cautious engagement with the UN Secretary General Ban-Ki-Moon declaring that the UN was studying the LLRC report. He has set the tone for the coming months with a hint of warning with his call to all the member states to treat the report by the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka seriously. In contrast to the LLRC findings, Darusman’s report made references to grave human rights violations including aerial bombing of civilian populations during the final phase.
Responding to a request for a UN response to the LLRC report posed by the Inner City Press on Friday(16), Moon's associate spokesman Farhan Haq said: "We'll need to study" the LLRC report. He said, "We are continuing with our efforts at accountability... We hope and trust that member states will look to the contents of the[e] report led by Marsuki Darusman."
In contrast to the UN diplomacy, the international human rights defender, Amnesty International (AI) faulted the report for “ignoring the serious evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other violations of the laws of war by government forces, even though the report highlights the serious and systematic violations committed by the LTTE”.
Issuing a strong indictment on the process itself, Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Director in a statement on Friday critiqued: “There is a clear sign of the bias we had feared and already detected in the LLRC’s composition and conduct. It does however offer some interesting recommendations about how to improve the overall human rights situation in Sri Lanka that the government needs to take seriously”.
Setting the backdrop for the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session scheduled for March 2012, AI said: “The Sri Lankan government must now address the findings included in this report. It should report to the UN Human Rights Council at its next session in March 2012 on its measures to implement the report’s recommendations, including the need for further investigation of alleged violations of the laws of war, taking account of the findings and recommendations of the report of the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka.”
It added: “Although the Sri Lankan authorities should take seriously the LLRC’s recommendations, Amnesty International believes that given Sri Lanka's long history of impunity, lack of apparent political will to address ongoing violations and enormous backlog of unresolved cases of violations, effective investigation and prosecution of all wrongdoers (including commanding officers) is very unlikely without the active support of the international community.”
In this backdrop, the international community is likely to reiterate its call for an international war crimes probe arguing that a self reflective process could not be expected from the government on its own behaviour in ending the war.
Having postponed her visit in December due to the LLRC Report not being finalized, the UN Special Reporter on Human Rights, Navy Pillai is now expected to visit Sri Lanka in February.
Besides, the local human rights activists and organizations are expected to drum up support for any call for an independent inquiry into human rights violations during the final phase of the war. The LLRC findings, does provide them with a significant base to clamour for a process that is result-driven and eventually delivers justice.
Meanwhile, a lobbying campaign has been launched by multiple groups to mobilize people to demand for the release of former Army Commander and common opposition presidential candidate, Gen. Sarath Fonseka.
Fonseka, used by the United National Party(UNP) to as a cover during the presidential elections, is now serving a three year sentence. His appeal against the military court’s verdict was rejected but a defiant Fonseka continued to announce that his political life is far from over.
His family as well as a faction of the UNP are taking some action to keep the momentum. His daughter Apsara who resides in the US has introduced an electronic petition to be submitted to US President Barack Obama to pressurize the Sri Lankan State to release Fonseka unconditionally.
While she is drawing nearer her mark w of 25,000 electronic signatures (already over 17,000 signatures have been gathered), it is unrealistic that exertion of international pressure would lead to such a decision. The US has played a cautious role, unlike in other instances of human rights, with regard to Fonseka as well as on the war crimes issue.
Besides, the former Commander’s wife Anoma has clearly rejected the possibility for appealing for a presidential pardon to secure her husband’s release. In the present legal context, if Fonseka is to secure his freedom, the available option is the use of presidential powers to grant a pardon. It is a course of action the Fonseka family is strongly averse to.
However, Apsara Fonseka’s campaign for her father’s freedom is being ridiculed by the government. Several key ministers have already made comments about Ms. Fonseka’s electronic campaign, pointing out that President Obama was not in a position to deliver freedom to the retired General, suggesting a discussion with the President himself.
Amidst government criticism for launching an international and local campaign, Anoma Fonseka recently explained to a few faihftuls the reason for the online petition available on www.wh.gov/jmb. “the objective is to gather 25,000 signatures to be presented to Obama. Our efforts are being ridiculed by the government. But this is only a simple attempt to draw global attention to the injustice caused to my husband,’ she said.
As the online petition has a deadline of December 23, the officer’s wife also joined in the campaign by launching a signature campaign in Colombo and outstations. Anoma started her own to ensure the 25, 000 are achieved many outstations with the hope of supplementing the number of online signatures.
Meanwhile, the UNP also launched a campaign to demand for human rights protection in Sri Lanka on December 10, the international human rights day with a signature campaign to demand Fonseka’s release.
The UNP commended gathering signatures for a petition to be submitted to the UNHRC during the Council sessions in Geneva scheduled for March, 2012. The target is to secure 100,000 signatures to be gathered in 90 days. A copy of the petition is available at the Opposition Leader’s Official Residence at Marcus Fernando Mawatha and The Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya Headquarters housed at Sirikotha. The UNP is to circulate the petition for signature-gathering through the party’s many international branches.
In a display of quiet defiance, Anoma Fonseka also opened to the public a photographic exhibition on the life and times of Sarath Fonseka titled “The Moment of Truth” at the Public Library Auditorium. The exhibition will conclude tomorrow(19).
While the Fonsekas design advocacy campaigns to lobby for Fonseka’s release, the vegetable traders and vendors collectively demonstrates people’s power last week by protesting against a rule with regard to transportation of vegetables in plastic baskets.
The traders and small time farmers gathered in various cities and smashed their vegetables on the asphalt roads, protesting against a decision announced by trade Minister Johnston Fernando. The Minister instructed a new regulation making it compulsory for all types of vegetables being transported should be packed in plastic baskets only.
To this, vendors from Colombo’s congested Manning Market to the Dambulla economic center displayed the same defiance- with roads being closed to traffic, vegetables being thrown on to public roads.
As the vegetable protests gathered momentum, among those who suffered with impoverished meals were the parliamentarians. The legislators did not take kindly to their regular sumptuous spread being reduced to a couple of vegetables at the Members’ Dining. They were serviced with two vegetables, beetroot and sweet pumpkin one day. The vegetable shortage led UNP frontliner Ranjith Maddumabandara protesting during the budget debate that parliamentarians were served a village delicacy, ‘jack seeds’.
The shortage created by the continued protests led to hospitals and Parliamentarian being short-supplied. In places where supplies were limited, prices immediately skyrocketed. Learning of the gravity of the situation, President Mahinda Rajapakse immediately dispatched senor politician Sarath Ekanayake to bring the dispute to some closure. Ekanayake travelled to Dambulla on Monday night to speak to the vegetable traders, associations and the police to bring about some settlement.
He saw roads strewn with vegetables, rotting vegetables and roads made impassable by the parked lorries laden with vegetables. Dambulla resembled a mini battlefield.
While holding discussions with the parties, Ekanayake quickly summoned the Dambulla Mayor to order a quick clean up of the city of rotting vegetables.
Beetroot and sweet pumpkin Ranjith Bandumabandara even protested about jack seeds being serviced in parliament for lunch.
In the meantime, an angry President summoned Trade Minister Johnston Fernando along with Ministers Basil Rajapakse, Duminda Dissanayake and officials, Dr. P B Jayasundera and Lalith Weeratunge immediately to Temple Trees on Wednesday to end the vegetable war. He also invited the vegetable traders and their organizational representatives to attend the meeting.
The President was in no mood for arguments. He demanded from the vegetable vendors and trade representatives whether they were going to protest for another year or for six months, demanding that the rule be withdrawn. “If you continue in this manner, creating shortages and causing artificial price hikes, I will create a corporative to buy vegetable directly from the farmers. Don’t take the law into your hands or try to take political advantage out of this situation. I know how these things happen. Don’t forget am also a villager,” he said, expressing deep dissatisfaction.
But the President was able to strike a deal with the vendors. He asked them how long they required to implement the rule and there was agreement that one month was adequate. The traders also requested green chilies, frill beans and brinjals be exempted from this rule and that too was agreed to. It has now been estimated that a stock of 1.4 million kgs of vegetables were wasted due to the venders’ protests.
While the vegetable drama delayed the scheduled meeting on Wednesday, it also reached the polit bureau of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna(JVP) last Wednesday. The JVPers also discussed matters connected to the vegetable traders’ protest. One polit bureau member pointed out that the President was taking advantage of the situation to reinforce his popularity with the people and a just image that he did not enjoy. “In fact, this was a Cabinet decision. Johnston is only being used as a scapegoat amidst rising public protests”, one said.
D Day for UNP
December 18th is an important day for the United National Party (UNP). Divided into many factions over a leadership battle and factionalized politics, the working committee appointments will be completed today, hopefully putting an end to deeply disturbing state of affairs with the main opposition party.
On December 9, UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe summoned a meeting with a group of seniors to discuss the pary’s agenda for December 18. The attendees included Ravi Karunanayake, Managala Samaraweera, General Secretary Tissa Atanayake and John Amaratunge. Wickremesinghe reminded the need to mobilize the grassroots in 2012 and professed that people would suffer economic hardships.
In the above light, Samaraweera was entrusted with the task of designing a training program for key party politicians through which strategies of public engagement and mobilizations could be addressed.
With eight vacancies already filled unanimously, there is some hop that the 18th will cause any political bloodshed within the UNP. As Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya paid courtesy calls at the Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters followed by the Catholic Church in Kandy and the Mosque, Wickremesinghe was heard quipping that he would to politicize places of worship though he would respectfully seek their advice and blessings. “I will not do politics at the Maha Viharas or the Bishop’s House,” Wickremesinghe told a few loyalists.
Wickremesinghe has also announced his candidature for the party’s top slot. If there is no consensus, a secret ballot is to be the method of selection. However, with Jayasuirya pitted against Wickremesinghe, it now appears that dislodging the incumbent will not be an easy task, despite the divided lines. It is now the thinking among some of the key UNPers including those at the Working Committee level, Sajith Premadasa has converted Jayasuriya into a sacrificial lamb. While Wickremesinghe is no winning candidate, pitted against Jayasuriya, it is now believed that Wickremesinghe will indeed emerge victorious in the crucial leadership battle. (Ceylon Today Online)