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Medical services for evacuated civilians - 2009

Our Armed Forces have done a fantastic job in recent years. Not only did they deal conclusively with one of the most accomplished terrorist groups in the world, they also assisted the civilian victims of terrorist with strict discipline and respect of rules of engagement, and at the same time ‘a very respectful and kind attitude to help those in need’, to cite a letter sent by the head of the ICRC. However they now find themselves on the defensive, having to face excessive charges that even normally sensible diplomats seem to be encouraging.

I believe there are two reasons for this, one entirely our own fault, the other much more sinister and requiring to be dealt with firmly, though sadly our continuing incoherence of policy in this regard means we will continue to suffer. The first reason is the presence, despite the decency of the generality, and the excellent training that we have provided and improved on over the years, of a few elements that behave badly. Unfortunately we have not dealt with them at all sensibly.

In the old days I used to recommend taking a leaf out of the Anglo-Saxon model, which

Lynndie England drags a detainee known as Gus by a leash around the neck. Megan Ambuhl looks on - Abu Ghraib, Iraq 2004

would charge some individuals when there was basic evidence of wrongdoing, acquit all of them but one, and then claim that they had fulfilled the claims of accountability – as happened for instance with the torture allegations at Abu Ghraib. This was not, I said, the classic Anglo-Saxon vice of hypocrisy, rather it made sense by pointing out to the rest of the forces that what had happened was wrong, while at the same time not being too harsh on personnel who it had to be assumed generally did their best in difficult circumstances.

But if that seemed too tough for us, the Americans have now gone one better, and acquitted all of those who killed Afghan civilians and cut off their fingers. They will, I suppose, claim that the inquiry they held proved their bona fides, while at the same time allowing Barack Obama in an election year to escape charges that he is letting down our brave boys on the front by punishing them from doing what God evidently wanted them to do.

That provides the best answer to what the then Attorney General would tell me when I would urge him to prosecute those considered responsible for the murder of five boys in Trincomalee. He did not have enough evidence, he claimed, and they would be acquitted. It was useless my telling him that that was not the point, he should not fear shame over a lack of success in the classic Sri Lankan way, he should be happy that the State had made the point that what happened was wrong. I should add that, as I have also been constantly suggesting, we need to investigate the White Flag case more thoroughly, and our failure to pay due attention to what the Americans initially brought to our attention, citing a speech in which Sarath Fonseka seemed to claim credit for what had occurred, was a blunder which has contributed to the complete volte face the Americans have since undergone in that regard.

Fortunately we seem after the LLRC report to be moving towards proper inquiry, though there again we see what I can only describe as the sheer carelessness of our decision makers, who waited until after American diplomats had come to Sri Lanka to wag their fingers at us to announce this fact. The inquiries had begun in fact soon after the LLRC report came out, as I found out when I asked the army commander a month ago what was happening. I advised him to publicize the fact, but of course no one ever takes my advice seriously, so we have to suffer the ignominy of international and even national reporting that claims we instituted an inquiry in response to American pressure.

I am immeasurably sad about this, because I see us now as going through some of the absurdities the Jayewardene government went through in the mid-eighties, when it always yielded too little, too late, in the face of pressure. The irony is that this government is actually in many respects doing the right thing – which Jayewardene rarely did – but its incapacity to communicate means that we seem to be granting under pressure what we had decided to do anyway. Read the rest of this entry »

1. Why do you believe a number of Western nations are so determined to pursue a resolution against Sri Lanka at the HRC meeting?

I don’t believe a number of Western nations are determined, it seems this time round to be largely the United States (whereas in 2009 it was mainly Britain, with France tagging around – though Kouchner later I was told granted to his much more sensible Ambassador here that the latter had been right). Though the British will end up supporting any American initiative as they generally do, and other Europeans will probably follow, I believe that most of them are not too enthusiastic, and in at least some cases such a decision would I believe be contrary to advice given by ambassadors on the ground here. You can see the difference in the initial reactions to the LLRC report, where the Americans were really quite preposterous, given their own record, while others, including the British, were much more nuanced.

As to why the Americans are in an extreme position on this one, I believe there are several reasons involved, beginning with what a Republican friend told me, that the Bleeding Hearts in the Obama Administration had to do a volte face on Afghanistan and Iraq etc and so they salve their consciences with Sri Lanka. Then there is the essentially Manichaean American view of the world, which is why for instance during Cold War days, when they found a willing warrior here in the form of President Jayewardene, they encouraged his anti-Indian postures. Now, given their fear of China, they are trying to suggest that they are supporting India by pressurizing Sri Lanka, whereas the Indians know perfectly well that, if they got a better offer, they would sell India down the river, as happened with Pakistan earlier on.

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Press Conference by Under Secretary Maria Otero and Assistant Secretary Robert O. Blake, Jr. in Colombo - 13 Feb 2012

1) Would you be willing to send a brief response to the US govt’s publicly announced stance that they will support a resolution against SL at the UNHRC in March?

They have argued that the LLRC report has not covered accountability issues in sufficient detail – and therefore they will support a “straightforward resolution” which will call for a credible, transparent mechanism to probe the war crimes allegations. 

2) Ambassador Blake also made it clear that if there are shortcomings in such a domestic mechanism, SL would have to face international pressure for an external probe.

3) Ambassador Blake further backed the TNA’s position that a solution must first be reached in the bilateral discussions between the govt and the TNA, and that such a solution could be the basis of discussion at a PSC. How do you view this development?

Thanks for the questions, though I am not sure of the basis on which you have constructed them. I have not been in Colombo for some days, so missed the reports of what transpired during the American visit, but the transcript of the press conference that the Embassy issued gave a different impression. Under Secretary Otero suggested a more nuanced approach, whereas Assistant Secretary Blake seemed to be more threatening.

What he said could be interpreted on the lines you have suggested, and perhaps that was intentional, but I would prefer to go along with the Otero approach on the grounds that there are still some civilized people in the American administration. After all, when she says that a resolution is intended to provide ‘an opportunity for the government of Sri Lanka to describe what it intends to do to implement the LLRC’s recommendations and advance reconciliation as well as address accountability, human rights, and democracy concerns’, she is only repeating what I have been saying, as Adviser on Accountability, for a very long time.

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පාර්ලිමේන්තු මන්ත්‍රි මහාචාර්ය රජිව විජේසිංහ-බලය බෙදිම ගැන අනෙකුත් පක්ෂ වල ඇති බිය සැක අප දුරු කල යුතුයි1. Indian External affairs Minister SM Krishna has said that President Rajapaksa agreed to go beyond the 13th amendment. However the government has not yet confirmed nor denied it. What is the stance of the government regarding the 13th amendment and the possibility of going beyond it?

I assume Mr Krishna would not have made this statement up,and it fits with the President’s consistent declaration that he would move to 13 plus. This does not mean that we need to stick to everything in 13, since obviously there are some things like the merger of the North and East which most people have realized was absurd. But we need to strengthen the principle of empowerment of all our people so that, if some things are modified, more should be added.

That is the position of most members of the government.  Almost all those in the SLFP whom I have spoken to have this view.  There may be members of other parties who are worried about the implications of any changes, from both sides as it were, and their fears must be assuaged. It is desirable to convince those who fear separatism that any settlement will not promote that, and equally it is desirable to convince those who think any change will strengthen majoritarian tendencies that that will not happen.

2. Doesn’t this stand in contrast with what the government has been saying about devolution? Until very recently they have been completely against giving land and police powers to the Provincial Councils?

There is no contradiction in that government has not opposed Provincial Councils having land and police powers, the point is to ensure mechanisms that will prevent abuse of powers at any level. With regard to land we need to clarify what is meant by the present position that land is vested in the State, but its usage is largely left to the Province. The important thing, I believe, is to assure the Province that land will not be alienated by the Centre for settlement, and equally to assure the Centre that alienation by the Province will be according to established guidelines.

The problem has arisen because for decades we have not formulated a clear policy on land. The impression I get unfortunately is that, apart from the Liberals, no one is interested in policy formulation – for instance this government abolished the Ministry of Policy Planning and Implementation of which I think we now feel the urgent need.

With regard to police, again we need to make sure that security is not threatened,  and given the manner in which the LTTE was built up with international financing, we need to strengthen safeguards. However at the same time we realize that police must have the confidence of the communities in which they function, and that is why most functions of the police have to be administered locally. Developing clear guidelines to fulfil all these objectives will not be difficult, if only, as the very perceptive Indian commentator Mr Sathiyamoorthy put it, both sides stop posturing. Read the rest of this entry »

High schools students of Bukidnon who performed a welcome dance and sang a traditional song of blessing.

The text of welcome address by Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, MP, Chair, Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats at the Second Workshop on Climate Change Cagayan de Oro,  February 11-14, 2012

Following what seemed a very stimulating workshop on Climate Change in Bangkok last November, I am pleased to welcome all of you here to the second in the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats series of discussions on the subject. I am particularly thankful to our Secretary General, Neric Acosta, Presidential Adviser for Environmental Protection to the Philippine President, for facilitating our meeting here, where there is so much evidence of the potentially catastrophic consequences of Climate Change. I recall when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights in Sri Lanka meeting with counterparts here and being astonished at the impact of floods here which made our own problems seem relatively trivial.

But we should also bear in mind that such problems are never trivial to those who suffer, and in each country, regardless of numbers affected, we need to do our best to avoid disaster, as well as to mitigate its impact when it occurs. Awareness of how climate is changing, and what areas this will affect adversely in each of our countries is of the essence.

At the same time we should also be aware of factors that maximize the impact of change, and also the need to explore remedies that address other issues as well. In that regard I am particularly happy that we have added a few more topics to the issues we identified at the last workshop. Demographic Changes and Settlements are of increasing concern in many of our countries with exponentially exploding urbanization presenting increasingly complex environmental problems. In dealing with these we need also to be aware of the positive impact that judicious investment and highlighting of socially productive economic opportunities can have.

I have been made particularly aware of all this recently in my role of Adviser on Reconciliation to the President, and in looking at some problems with regard to resuscitating the Northern Province that suffered so intensely during the period of conflict in Sri Lanka. To add to the deprivation caused by decades of terrorist domination, that paid no attention to either infrastructural development or the nurturing of human resources, we found too a collapse in the agricultural activity that has such potential in the area. Read the rest of this entry »

Frances Harrison

The following was sent to the Dawn Newspaper in Pakistan in response to a mendacious article by Frances Harrison, former BBC correspondent, but they have not been able to print it.

Frances Harrison has written a book. In her determination to sell it, she will leave no stone unturned. Her latest effusion has appeared in the Dawn in Pakistan, apparently to denigrate the Sri Lankan President as he visits that country.

She sells herself as a former BBC correspondent based in Sri Lanka and Iran. Unfortunately she seems to have no regard for truth whatsoever, and cares little for consistency either. One of her more melodramatic statements is that ‘Unable to dig bunkers because the dry sand just collapsed, women chopped up their best silk wedding saris to stitch sandbags’, despite which she later talks of .grenades being thrown into bunkers ‘where injured rebels lay, unable to flee.’ She talks of a priest whose leg was amputated, without noting that most witnesses (as cited in the US State Department Report) thought that attack was by the Tigers, angry that the priest was trying to limit their conscription.

Frances is perhaps the most hysterical of those currently on the warpath against Sri Lanka, as I noted when she twittered madly to object to my being interviewed by the BBC on Hard Talk. But the general level of honesty of those attacking Sri Lanka is indeed shocking.

Most recently I was reading through a report produced, at the request of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in May 2009, by the American Associagtion for the Advancement of Science on  satellite imagery in the Civilian Safety Zone (CSZ) in northeastern Sri Lanka.’ This was announced with much hype by those two agencies, which are part of the witch hunt, but then suddenly it was forgotten.

.. the millions of Palestinian refugees, driven from their homes to satisfy European guilt ..

The reason is that it makes clear that much of what is alleged is nonsense. For instance, the figure now cited as to possible civilian deaths, shamefully also by individuals asked by the Secretary General to advise him on accountability issues, is 40,000, used also by Ms Harrison. This sort of inflation began with the Times of London which spoke only of 20,000, and gave three different sets of reasons for this, the first two of which I was able conclusively to demolish. The final reason given was that the claim was based on satellite imagery of war graves.

The AAAS however notes that ‘In all three gravesites reviewed, a total of 1,346 likely graves are estimated to be in the imagery by May 24, 2009. The majority of the graves were present by May 6, with little change after that except in the southernmost graveyard. The southernmost site grew an estimated 28% between May 6 and May 10, and grew another 20% between May 10 and May 24’. Incidentally the report also notes that it was what were reported as LTTE gravesites that showed increase, whereas in the ‘burial ground for civilians’, ‘In total, 44 burials were identified at this site on May 6, with no changes observed between May 6, May 10, and May 24’.

There are several such details, which Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have ignored. For instance, whereas Ms Harrison declares that ‘the Sri Lankan military indiscriminately shelled and bombed hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped in a small rebel enclave in the north of the island’, AAAS notes with regard to one source of this canard that ‘These roofless buildings were initially interpreted as possible evidence of shelling or burning. However, on-the-ground photos taken immediately after the conflict instead indicate widespread removal of rooftops, which were composed of sheet metal, for use in constructing shelters throughout the area.’

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Text of speech by Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, MP, at the Independence Day celebration held at the Sri Lankan embassy in Lebanon

It was good to hear the message of the President read out in all three languages, and the stress there, as well as in other messages read out, on reconciliation is most welcome. We have now emerged from several decades of great danger to the country, when we had to deal with terrorism of an extremely effective sort. That had to be destroyed, for the sake of all our people, in particular the Tamils of the North who had suffered so much repression, and I am happy that life is now back to normal in those areas and agriculture and commerce are flourishing.

But we need to do more to bring our people together, and in particular we must ensure better communication and understanding between our people. In this regard, the trilingual initiative of the President is an urgency, and I hope very much that the coming years will see all our people at least bilingual, if not trilingual. I used to think I was too old to learn another language, but the President puts us all to shame in the manner in which he communicates enthusiastically and effectively in Tamil as well as in Sinhala and English. Read the rest of this entry »

I first properly came across Patricia Butenis at a Boxing Day dinner given by Paul Carter.

One reason I will not make a successful politician is that I have far too much interest in human nature. I find people fascinating and, when they are slightly unusual, I enjoy trying to understand what makes them tick, and how they perform in different situations, in comparison with others. Comparing their vision of their goals with what seem the actual goals, as well as the impression they try to create of those goals, is most illuminating.

I first properly came across Patricia Butenis at a Boxing Day dinner given by Paul Carter. If I recollect aright, I was the only one there from government, being Secretary at the time to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, and having appreciated the introduction Carter had given me to the State Department Report on possible war crimes.

I spent much time talking to someone from Carter’s office who enlightened me on what seemed a strange association with the JVP. This came to mind later when I read the attack in 2011 on S B Dissanayake in the US Human Rights Report, which Carter had doubtless prepared. I was then about to leave early, when I noticed Mr

Mr Sambandhan was out in the garden, closeted with Ms Butenis and with the EU Ambassador Bernard Savage, and as I approached them, I realized I was not wanted.

Sambandhan come in, and I thought I should wish him, since I have known him for longer almost than anyone else in active politics, since meeting him in my father’s rooms in Parliament in the late seventies.

He was out in the garden, closeted with Ms Butenis and with the EU Ambassador Bernard Savage, and as I approached them, I realized I was not wanted. Ms Butenis was barely polite, and Sambandhan perfunctory, but Savage I should note was very gracious, and did his best to make me feel not unwanted, though I realized I should leave as soon as it was possible to do so without being awkward.

I know I have a suspicious mind, but I was not surprised then when the TNA endorsed Sarath Fonseka, nor when Bernard Savage made an idiotic rejoinder to a query about Western support for Fonseka in

I was not surprised then when the TNA endorsed Sarath Fonseka

which he made his predilections clear, in suggesting that Fonseka’s candidature was on a par with that of General Eisenhower. I should add that, when later I remonstrated with Westerners about their support of General Fonseka, the Europeans in general made it clear that they had found him unpalatable, whereas the British, while asserting neutrality, indicated that they would not attempt to defend the Savage approach.

Still, I believe Ms Butenis realized that Sri Lanka was not quite as she had imagined it when she was sent here, and over the next year we worked together very well, since she like some other missions supported my efforts to bring together politicians of different parties to discuss issues in a social setting. I was surprised to realize that such gatherings were not common, and I believe my colleagues all found them interesting and productive, and the heads of mission concerned also seemed pleased that we could discuss things in a friendly manner. Read the rest of this entry »

.. the first time we met properly, she sent me chocolate chip ice cream ..

The short answer, I suppose, is that I do not know. I would hate to think she was, for about the first time we met properly, she sent me chocolate chip ice cream, and someone of such sensitivity cannot be all bad. It was brought to me by one of the nicest people in her embassy, one who finally told me that the embassy did have some very peculiar people in it. Being a loyal and professional diplomat, that was the furthest he would go, but it brought home to me the systematic schizophrenia, not only of the American Embassy in Colombo, but of their foreign policy in general.

A few months later, the much publicized comment of the Defence Attache in Colombo, which led to him being in effect reprimanded by the State Department in Washington, provided the frosting as it were on that particular cake – and his assertion that he knew he would get into trouble when he spoke made clear that there are at least a few straight people left in those hallowed halls.

Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith .. reprimanded by the State Department in Washington

What then is the problem with Ms Butenis? I raise this question now publicly because the Secretary of Defence has finally brought into the open what I can only call disgusting behaviour by at least one American diplomat. I mentioned this some months back, which brought what purported to be the lady’s deep indignation on my head, duly reported in the newspaper group which also leaked another State Department barrage recently. The report about me then claimed that I was to be boycotted by two embassies, but this turned out to be false, though one possible suspect did tell me that the Americans may have made the claim on their behalf without actually keeping them informed.

And Ms Butenis indeed was gracious enough to say I could continue to speak to her staff, many of whom I believe belong to that idealistic school which lulls one into affection before the Ugly Americans so splendidly described by Graham Greene and John le Carre take over. But I don’t think she was pleased when, the last time we spoke – in fact in the office of the Defence Secretary, whom her colleagues seem determined to demonize – I told her that I thought her chief agent of wickedness was Pavlovian in his approach to Sri Lanka.

Paul Carter ... chief agent of wickedness

I was referring to Paul Carter, whom I would not describe as evil because I do not think he is actually capable of moral responsibility. Someone who tries to suborn the generals of a supposedly friendly country really is totally beyond the pale, though I suspect that is not the only reason he reminds me of the Anthony Perkins character in ‘Psycho’. On the occasion I was referring to, a party for those who had been on Visitor programmes to the United States, he had burst out into indignation about the treatment of his hero Sarath Fonseka, with concomitant insults about our judiciary, to a lady whose interests were in language training. The American Deputy Head of Mission had tactfully taken him away quickly, but I have no doubt something else would soon have triggered the same sort of reaction, in someone whose moral sense has deserted him, to be replaced simply by not entirely metaphorical foaming at the mouth.

His inordinate concern about Sarath Fonseka is what has convinced me that, towards the end of 2009, something very pernicious took place in Foggy Bottom, or wherever it is that the more devious American diplomats make policy. A short while previously, Carter himself had told me in very measured tones about a State Department report that I found fingered Fonseka as the most suspicious element in what were presented as potential war crimes, but put together in a very civilized manner that seemed to invite a civilized reply. Not for the first time, I must say that I believe we blundered in not responding immediately to that report, and I continue bemused at the continuing lethargy of those to whom the President entrusts crucial tasks.

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Presentation at a meeting on the COPE Report arranged by Women for Good Governance, Sri Lanka, January 30th 2012

This is the second panel discussion on the COPE Report that I have been invited to in less than a week, so I thought I should not repeat myself, in case any of you had been at the other event. However, I have brought a few copies of my presentation then, and it is available on my blog

I thought today that, given the wider interests of the organizers, I should talk in general about principles of good governance. I had a series of articles in the ‘Island’ some months back on the role of Parliament in promoting good governance, and that too is available on the blog, in a separate section. I had written these following a request from the Parliamentary administration to contribute to a journal they had started. Sadly I was the only Parliamentarian to contribute to that journal, which I thought a sad reflection on my colleagues, Including those I have come to think of as the second and third most intelligent and objective individuals in Parliament who are speaking with me here today.

Sadly however I now think that the reflection is on me, for thinking that detailed analysis of public policy serves any purpose. My articles drew no response whatsoever in the press, except for one thoughtful article by a man called Wijeweera whom I did not otherwise know. Sadly we have lost the custom of building on the good ideas of others. The papers are full of individuals referring to the writings of others in order to attack them. Rarely however do people who think on the same lines refer to similar ideas when they advance their own, so the result is that each of us seems to be working in a vacuum. My colleagues therefore who concentrate on more parochial considerations are perhaps wiser than I am, in giving priority to their own political concerns, in speeches and pronouncements, rather than trying to develop discussions on principles that might contribute to reform.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

February 2012
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