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John Holmes, Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator, UN OCHA

Perhaps the least insidious of the agencies which worked in Sri Lanka to substitute itself for National Sovereignty was OCHA, the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance. This has been functioning in the country for just a few years now, having come in I believe after the tsunami, but it had soon converted itself into a central clearing house for much of the humanitarian assistance the country received.

 It did this through a mechanism termed the Common Humanitarian Action Plan, a phenomenon I first came across a couple of years ago, when I took over as Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. The CHAP was supposed to be coordinated by our Ministry, but it turned out that we were largely ignored in its formulation. The procedure that had been followed previously was that OCHA held what it termed consultations with local stakeholders, presented us with a draft, and asked for our approval within a ludicrously short time.

As Head of the Peace Secretariat I had received some information about projects under the plan, but I found that nothing was forthcoming when I asked for further details. Some international organizations for instance, which seemed to have given rather a lot of money to strange entities in the North, claimed that these were recognized agencies, but these claims could not be substantiated. Of course our own mechanisms were shaky, with no clear procedures laid down about how local organizations should be registered and monitored, but it was sad to find out that OCHA was equally if not more incompetent about keeping records.

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Gethin Chamberlain who claimed in the ‘Guardian’ (UK) that thirteen women had been found with their throats cut, on a tip-off from a UN source he later confessed was unreliable. No correction was published.

In a pamphlet on ‘The Parliamentary System of Government’ that was published during the Second World War, the British academic Sir Ernest Barker wrote that ‘One of the great principles which the genius of France has contributed to civilization is the principle of national sovereignty’. The last few years have taught us much about this principle, and the need to be perpetually vigilant about those who seek to erode it.

In this regard I had assumed during the last couple of years that I would someday write an account of the manner in which Sri Lanka managed to maintain both its sovereignty and its unity, against all odds as it now seems. I had thought there was plenty of time to do this but, given the recent pronouncements of the Secretary General of the United Nations, who seems to feel that, provided he is talking only about his own personal predilections, he does not need to abide strictly by the UN Charter, it may be useful now to run through the various threats we have recently overcome. We need to be aware that these threats may continue in the short term, and it would help to be aware of the various directions from which efforts to control us may arise.

There are in essence five sources of threats to our sovereignty, apart of course from the major threat from terrorism. Sadly the rump of the terrorist forces will do their best in the next few months to rouse those sources, so we need to bring into the public domain the ways in which they have operated. Read the rest of this entry »

Former Sri Lankan president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga

One of the more frequent critiques of the government with regard to what is characterized as Human Rights relates to the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. It is claimed that the failure to fully implement that Amendment makes clear the authoritarian inclinations of the current government.

Not entirely surprisingly, this criticism has figured large in the attacks on the government made by the current opposition. Thus it seems to feature as one of the principal concerns of the European Union, which had been sedulously advised by the opposition with regard to human rights problems in Sri Lanka.

What the opposition failed to mention was that, while in power themselves, it never occurred to them to criticize a system which bestowed unbridled power on the Presidency. When President Jayewardene appointed first his personal lawyer to be Chief Justice, and then passed over the most senior judge on the Supreme Court because he refused to hand over an open letter of resignation, that was seen as a necessary characteristic of strong leadership.

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Archbishop of Colombo

Last week the Social and Economic Development Centre of the Catholic Church arranged a discussion on ‘A Free and Fair General Election to strengthen faith in Parliamentary Democracy’. The A Team, who spoke first and then answered questions, consisted of Susil Premjayanth, Minister of Education, Karu Jayasuriya, Deputy Leader of the UNP, and Somawansa Amerasinghe, Leader of the JVP. We then had a moving intervention by the Archbishop of Colombo, after which the B Team, Wijedasa Rajapakse of the UNP, Mr Sumathiran representing the TNA, and myself, made our presentations, with more questions to follow.


The conceptual framework of the discussion was set by the Moderator, Fr Tirimanne, who pinpointed four aberrations with regard to fair elections. I thought he was unerring in his diagnosis, because he noted the instances in which the people at large have felt grossly cheated, and which constitute the principal arguments against any complacency with regard to the electoral process in Sri Lanka. 

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The fiasco over the UNP nominations list for Moneragala, hugely entertaining though it is, should also one hopes be the last nail in the coffin of the current electoral system. It is quite preposterous that a political party should claim that the nomination paper handed in on its behalf is a forgery, and at the same time not want, or be unable to do anything, to prevent an election that is based on this forgery taking place.

Underlying this absurdity is the fatal collectivism introduced by the Jayewardene constitution into the mechanism through which the people elect their representatives to the legislature. Because of the all or nothing approach engendered by the list system, individuals cannot generally be held to account for abuses (forgeries or electoral malpractices or whatever), because any disciplinary action would have to deal with the whole list. This would not only be unfair on individuals, it would also upset the whole democratic process, inasmuch as the people would then be left without any real choice. 

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I must confess to feeling some relief on Wednesday morning. Perhaps as a result of living in Colombo, and imbibing its pernicious predilections, I had worried about the result of the Presidential election. True, rational thought suggested one need not feel anxious. This was reinforced even by the details of a poll, commissioned I was told by international interventionists, on behalf of General Fonseka. This claimed he would win by a tiny margin but acknowledged that he would lose almost all districts in the south of the country, save for Colombo and its ilk. Given the unrealistic margins it predicted in those areas one should have felt confident.

But still, the manner in which the voters of this country have expressed themselves democratically (and also affirmed their determination that democracy should continue) is heartening, and a reason for pride. They have affirmed their faith in the future and in political principle. They have rejected ‘dysfunction and breakdown’, which dear old Dr Saravanamuttu declared had taken place in Sri Lanka even while everyone else acknowledged that the election was peaceful and orderly, and only a different result might have created chaos.

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Perhaps the saddest aspect of the campaign for General Fonseka was the complete absence of principle evinced by the vast majority of thinking persons who ended up supporting him. I was for instance astonished to find quondam intellectuals such as Dr Saravanamuttu and Jehan Perera pontificating in a manner that suggested they thought General Fonseka a potentially productive President. With regard to the former I was particularly disappointed because he had initially expressed some surprise at the idea of such a common candidate, and claimed that it was all Ranil Wickremesinghe’s fault for being so weak.

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 Amongst the more astonishing features of the election was the association between the UNP and the JVP to promote the candidacy of General Fonseka. Or, rather, this was in itself not astonishing, for clearly both parties would have felt a need to clutch at any straw, even a blockbuster of the caliber of the General, to do better than they had done in other recent elections. This is understandable, given the need to become competitive, if they were to hold onto any substantial support for the future.

 But one would have thought there were some limits. Given that any political party claims to have a core of fundamental values that ensure the commitment of both party activists and thinking voters, it was strange that they could have thought the abandonment of all principle would have helped them for the future.

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With regard to the UNP performance over the election, there were two schools of thought that seem at first sight distinct. The first is that it shows the enduring genius of Ranil Wickremesinghe, who managed to turn what would have been certain defeat for himself into a campaign to confirm his control of his party. He was thus claimed to have got rid of his only serious rival in the party, S B Dissanayake, and also a potential articulate irritant in the form of Johnston Fernando. Now that the General did so much worse than he himself did in 2005, the argument is that the forces of civilization will once more rally to the once and future King.

This perspective has been strengthened by photographs of him after the results were declared, in which he is grinning like a cat that has secured the cream for himself. Certainly his prompt endorsement of the election, and his distancing the UNP from the attempt to cry fraud, shows someone who is determined now to make a fresh start.

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In considering the strategies of Tamil parties with regard to the forthcoming election, one needs to look back too at what transpired during the Presidential election. The results of that have been used to argue that the strategy employed by the TNA worked brilliantly. They have been able to claim that the North and East voted against President Rajapakse, as did Nuwara Eliya, which suggests that Sri Lanka is polarized along ethnic lines. Thus they can once more declare that they have received a mandate for Tamil Eelam, and continue to conduct politics in line with the commands of the shadowy forces abroad who financed Mr Prabhakaran and encouraged his intransigence.

What this will mean in reality though is continuing attrition, with the Tamil people not being permitted to play their full part in the Sri Lankan body politic. The TNA contention, or rather the contention of its current extremist leadership, as exemplified by the pronouncements of its cheerleaders abroad, would be that this will help in the achievement of their ultimate goal, a separate state. The local claim that full autonomy, on the lines of the ISGA they nearly obtained in 2003, will suffice, and that nothing further will be agitated for, is of course at odds with all practical experience as to the way such autonomous entities fall prey to adventurism, internal as well as external, as we saw so graphically with Kosovo.

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Rajiva Wijesinha


March 2010
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