Can Sri Lanka Counter International Pressure?  jan 2014 by Austin Fernando 

Can Sri Lanka Counter International Pressure?

There are two senior US officials who visit Sri Lanka at present. They are Stephen J. Rapp, Ambassador-at-Large of the Office of Global Criminal Justice, and the Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, Nisha Desai Biswal, successor to Bob Blake. Since, due to its military, financial and international might and influence on multilateral organizations, the US could influence international thinking and responses, these visits cannot be considered simple or non-binding; they are here for serious business (notwithstanding street protests ) and their visit is evidence of international interest at intervention in our crisis. Their stage will be at UNHRC Sessions in March, with other co-actors, like the British. The drama will probably be named “Pinch Sri Lanka Hard, To Be Felt”, followed by the performance “Maul Sri Lanka To Kill,” in October and afterwards!

It is the practice of international entities such as these to deal with the immediate past of a conflict first, and to punish the guilty. Reconciliation is not essentially a parallel process for them. Therefore only war-crime investigations and accountability mechanism are demanded for, as a pre-condition for post-conflict healing. The danger in this kind of attitude is that it pushes ‘war managers’ and/ or the ‘political leadership’ against the wall, causing them in turn to utilize nationalistic sentiment, in order to stave off potential atrocious punishment. This is why patience is virtue, in post-conflict reconciliation.

Countering punitive consequences

The Government has already commenced efforts at mitigation and damage-control, as observed at the President and senior bureaucrats meeting with the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) Chief Minister (CM); Governor G.A. Chandrasiri was a notable, and probably ‘deliberate’ absentee. Subsequently the President’s Secretary and the External Affairs Minster are to meet international groups to elucidate them on follow up action by the Government on reconciliation, development, resettlement and good governance. Their points of view are important, but one must not forget that there are sources that submit counter information to Rapp and Biswal, or other unfriendly “information seekers,” like Canadian parliamentarian Rathika Sitsabaiesan, and the information passed on by these sources will not be ignored totally by other international players.

Finding durable solutions

Therefore, the conceptual backgrounds these groups honor have to be identified. Their basic interest is to find palatable “durable solutions” for our crisis – but their palate may differ from ours! The criteria for durable solutions are (a) Long-term safety and security; (b) Enjoyment of an adequate standard of living, without discrimination; (c) Access to livelihood and employment; (d) Effective and accessible mechanisms to restore housing, land and property; (d) Access to personal and other documentation without discrimination; (e) Family reunification; (e) Participation in public affairs without discrimination; (f) Access to effective remedies and justice. Tamil National Alliance’s (TNA’s) representations orchestrate these criteria as ignored by the government. These issues of were addressed by Dr. Chaloka Beyani, Special Reporter on the Human Rights of Internally Displaced Persons; who will report to UNHRC; who found living below acceptable standards in certain areas, although he did appreciate positive development and resettlement efforts by the Government, and they will be addressed by Rapp and Biswal soon, too. The experiences of Rapp and Biswal will be important, in the light of statements heard from the British and Canadians, and insinuations made by Japanese Ambassador Yasushi Akashi.

Roping Northern Provincial Council

President Rajapaksa and his super bureaucrats met CM Wigneswaran and Parliamentarian Sumanthiran last week, on the heels of TNA’s Vavuniya decision to submit a status report to the Geneva Sessions. The meeting was to discuss Northern PC related issues. It was reported that administrative and financial issues were the highlights of the dialogue. There had been issues of questionable administrative decisions recently, as discussed by myself in the Sunday Leader (8-12-2013), where I drew parallels to administrative conflicts caused elsewhere by the same Governor’s “offensive behavior”. My emphasis was on the need for legality and consultation between the Governor and CM. In such background if one concludes that the Governor is acting on government pressure and the NPC CM on TNA pressure, irrespective of State or NPC priorities respectively, such thinker cannot be faulted. Both the Government and TNA are to be blamed for such deadlock. Nevertheless, the powers of the Executive President have to be admitted by the NPC and hence his cooperation has to be harnessed. The matching reciprocation from the government will enable serious reconciliation.

Reportedly they have discussed the issue of the NPC receiving foreign grants. There has been a practice of Sri Lankan PCs receiving foreign loans through the Treasury, and Indian States receiving foreign multilateral organization financing, for development purposes. However, the President as the Minister of Finance, being concerned of such foreign financing cannot be protested as he has to be considerate of inflation, balanced regional growth, foreign exchange risks, the need to assure repayment etc. However, if it is private sector investments, they cannot be objected to, as they had engaged in such transactions and gone to the extent of private banks raising foreign exchange bonds in the recent past. These banks were involved with the initiations of the government due to other reasons of debt burden befalling on the Treasury. Additionally the government had been pleading for Foreign Direct Investments for which unparalleled tax and duty waivers also had been granted in the recent past. In the same manner there could be investments made through the stock market which has to be monitored due to the economic chaos that could be created by manipulated Stock Exchange collapse, which will embarrass the government and hinder further development. Hence, the President directing meeting with the Treasury officials and discussing the process of receiving grants also cannot be protested.

Displaced peoples’ interests

Much has been written on the needs of the displaced people including widows, orphans and the detainees. The NPC had raised these issues, according to the media. This is not novel. However, defense authorities sitting on judgment, is the main irritant for politicians and many affected due to certain fallouts of such actions? After a 25 + year war for the military to succumb to public pressures is difficult, as much as, the war affected for long not to desist military dictation. The need therefore is to find a via media where the interests of both parties are not jeopardized. In it, High Security Zones (HSZs) are an itchy issue. There could be many options that could be utilized in this regard, for which good understanding of the HSZs and settlements have to be created. HSZs were a response to the enhanced fire power of the LTTE. HSZs have displaced people. These people now seek restitution of their lands, houses and properties, demanding return to their original locations. The affected are people: (1) who lived at the boundaries of the core HSZ areas, e.g. Palaly Air Port /Kankesanthurai Port; (2) whose houses were acquired after paying compensation under the Land Acquisition Ordinance (e.g. around Batticaloa Air Field); (3) whose individual deserted houses “forcibly acquired’ during the conflict (e.g. near Chavakachcheri) and rent paid (4) where houses were occupied otherwise by the military.

The first and second categories may not be quickly returned or sometimes not returned at all, sinceLTTE regrouping is suspected by defense authorities. With the Diaspora thinking of separation even through other means, predicates some justification of this stance. However, the LTTE fire power which needed countering then is now non-existent, demanding reassessment of threat perceptions by the military to decide on contracting HSZ boundaries, which had been already done in certain areas. In such a process it is important that examination is not monopolized by military decision-makers, but shared by a tribunal (inclusive of civilian managers) that could assess the ground situation and make realistic compensation to the owners without undue delay, if the lands are not returned. The complaint by TNA and pro-Tamil commentators is that such does not take place. As I have written earlier, having a Governor with military understanding and skills could sometimes assist in this activity, if he is ‘reasonable’! It is remembered that during the United National Front (UNF) regime, on peace negotiators’ request, the Army planned for rationalized reduction of Camps in the Jaffna Peninsula. With terror eradicated the northern public queries the need to have strong field security arrangements. The fourth category has to be evaluated on a case by case basis, based on threat perceptions. The NPC should as a part of an institutional structure of the State, consider ‘security’ as an integrated arrangement, and the Military should also avoid over-emphasizing security consciousness to detract resettlement, movement etc. In addition to HSZs there are issues in documentation (i.e. deeds, leases) which should be cleared. Due to Army / LTTE military activities, the ground boundaries and landmarks would have been erased physically. The lands will need resurveying. All these will require solutions before administering restitution. These may require changes to laws, procedures, institutional rearrangements etc as these are needed to administer loans and building plans.

Restitution / compensation isues

The internationally recognized interpretation of the word restitution is: “Restitution should, whenever possible, restore the victim to the original situation before the gross violations of human rights law or serious violations of international humanitarian law occurred. Unfortunately, the Government is criticized for not keeping to this interpretation of the word. Restitution is not limited to land, house and property. It encompasses: “restoration of liberty, enjoyment of human rights, identity, family life and citizenship; return to one’s place of residence, restoration of employment and return of property.” This UN accepted interpretation may be a guide. These facilitations could be the foundation for successful and sustainable reconciliation and sustainable peace. The GOSL focuses on development to achieve these ends, and the NPC election results showed the wrong ideology even at highest political levels in using development as an alternative to winning hearts and minds. Restitution will be complete when refugees and displaced persons have the right to full and effective compensation as an integral component of restitution. One accepted principle of compensation is: “States shall, in order to comply with the principle of restorative justice, ensure that the remedy of compensation is only used when the remedy of restitution is not factually possible, or when the affected party knowingly and voluntarily accepts compensation in lieu of restitution, or when the terms of a negotiated peace settlement provide for a combination of restitution and compensation.” This is another issue that has to be addressed on the grounds of complaints made by TNA, and even the affected on restitution cum compensation. Ignoring these will attract serious allegations against Sri Lanka. There could be mechanisms and institutions that could be developed for restitution; we have the Rehabilitation of Persons, Properties and Industries Authority (REPPIA). The UN Mission in Kosovo established, administered and managed the Kosovo Housing and Property Directorate and Housing and Property Claims Commission, and the UN Transitional Authority in East Timor institutionalized adjustment for restitution questions. But the UN Transitional Administration in Cambodia and UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan chose not to address restitution issues. Hence, if the government wishes to knock down demands on restitution by quoting the latter, proving non-mandatory nature of UN principles, they are at liberty to do so, but they will be squeezed internationally. Nevertheless, the current census by the Ministry of Public Administration and the Department of Census could provide important statistical data to create more effective institutions adhering to UN past experiences and lessons for effective reconciliation and restitution. One important restitution demand is for the identification of those killed and disappeared. This is both a local and international demand. The NPC and GoSL have two different attitudes to this issue. Life is one ‘item’ when lost that cannot be restituted or returned. But, the GOSL can find ways to compensate lost life as done in other times like in the aftermath of tsunamis, the loss of military and police personnel, and other natural and man-made disasters. If peace and reconciliation is aimed at, looking at every lost life as one that belonged to a Sri Lankan citizen could be considered. The political will to interpret it that way requires an extremely large heart, which I presume the President possesses. Anyway, there are several issues like death certificates, inquiry proceedings; confirmation of the disappeared as dead etc. that could hinder the payment of compensation. Required legal measures and propositions should be created in such an event, especially after the ongoing census is completed. One area where extremely focused attention is demanded is the livelihood improvement programmes and employment opportunities for the returning of displaced persons. The need to train the displaced, connecting production inputs as well marketing inputs, financing modes etc are important. There could be women headed families, single parent families and families where the elders who have passed the employment age demanding sustained incomes etc. Beyani highlighted the women headed families and focusing on these groups may be an attractive proposition that could be undertaken. Even in other development projects, accommodating the local population in suitable jobs may be another alternative – and this is something the Tamil leaders complain of not happening. Engaging seasoned expertise to manage these, for which NGOs and civil society organizations could contribute in a large scale are possibilities.

Swift movement of NPC against Governor Chandrasiri

My contention is that the NPC moved too swiftly against Governor Chandrasiri, since he was considered partial towards the GoSL , criticizing him during the campaign forced the NPC administration to follow-up political and legal medium to oust him. The impeachment was the result. However, it created a sordid status, pushing the President against the wall, and letting down a favorable Governor on the demand of the NPC. The CM should have considered the stance taken by the President on the Governor of the East, Mohan Wijewickrama. Wijewickrama was not in the good books of even the pro-government PC members. They were complaining about him, and are still complaining! Yet the President “shaped up matters” and keeps him in office. For Wigneswaran to hope a change of Governor when an opposing political group demands it, was too optimistic. As much as Chandrasiri allegedly lacks political experience, even with NPC members like D. Sidhdharthan being present in the NPC, Wigneswaran jumped the gun with the wrong political approach, it appeared. However, if reconciliation is to be achieved there must be this change taking place for sure. It was reported that “the TNA has refused to participate in the Government’s reconciliation programme, either through the Parliamentary Select Committee or through talks, until the Government makes its proposals public. This had been a constant un-responded demand. Since international pressure is mounting on the GOSL such stance from the TNA is unsurprising. It appears that TNA has forgotten what happened to the All Party Representatives Committee Report handed over to the President a couple of years ago by Senior Minister Tissa Vitharana. However, in this regard the role of the Government too has to be somewhat compromising. Rigidity will not bring solutions. The point at which to be relaxed in attitude and the point at which to be firm, will be the prerogative of the GOSL and TNA/NPC.

Futuristic hopes

As seen above there is still hope if the government and TNA/NPC can adjust their stances and look at the issues as a nationally important challenge. Whether they are ready to do so, is only known to them. A few weeks ago, I wrote quoting Sanyuktha Nikaya, on dealing with “internal” and “external” problems and the Lord Buddha’s responses to a query made from him on internal and external problems. Lord Buddha has said that it is by being “disciplined, wise and rational with a developed mind” that problems could be untwined. Once again I repeat what I wrote: “It is time to prove our commitment to disciplined, wise and rational behavior. The nation’s request to the President, the TNA and international world at large is to cooperate in this exercise”, to which I add, that even the Opposition and civil society herald such initiatives, before we are ridiculed internationally.