The last couple of weeks have seen very positive measures by government with regard to accountability. While the decision to go ahead with Provincial Councils in the North was a clear mark of government’s adherents to commitments it had made, even more significant was the indictment of those who are suspected of responsibility for the killing of students in Trincomalee way back in 2006.
This was followed last week by indictments in connection with the killing of a British national in Tangalle in 2011. And soon afterwards the President ordered the establishment of a Commission to look into disappearances that had taken place during the conflict.
Unfortunately the general perception about these is that government had given in to pressures, and in particular that it feels obliged to cater to international sensibilities in the context of our hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Even more unfortunately, many actions taken by government give the impression that it does not really want to do what is right, but has to be forced into action.
I believe this is wrong, but I also believe that government needs to do more to make clear its commitment to basic principles of justice. My reason for faith in government, as embodied in the Executive Presidency, is that I was present when, five years ago, the President instructed that those under suspicion with regard to the Trincomalee killings be indicted. This was not done. I know that the President was under the impression that the instructions he had given, in December 2011, that an Action Plan be prepared with regard to the LLRC recommendations, were being fulfilled. This was not the case. And I am aware that, though the Task Force meant to expedite Action on those recommendations did little, the moment he had the opportunity, the President appointed a competent and committed person to take charge of it. The progress that has happened since then is testimony to government commitment – but at the same time obviously the lack of progress previously is seen as evidence to the contrary.
We need then to understand why it is that we give the impression that we are forced into doing things that we would rather avoid. I believe there are two reasons for this that we need to overcome, if we are to avoid the sort of criticism that can so easily lead into others thinking that they have to control our every action.
One reason is that we still have not understood the concept of an Executive Presidency. The elected leader of this country continues to be subject to the constraints of a Westminster system, whereby those supposed to carry out his policies are themselves constrained by day to day electoral considerations. The President is thus, except in the case of a very few officials whose track record is unquestionable, unable to deploy the most able people because he is constantly concerned about his Parliamentary majority. And he has to put up with delays with regard to policies he has laid down, because those who constitute that majority, and those who can claim to ensure its solidity, often have contrary ideas about what should be done.
The second problem is that we have not yet developed a coherent system of communication with regard to government policies and actions. This leaves us open to interference by others, which leads to them taking credit for what we were going to do anyway, while they highlight contrary indications to lay stress on their resistance to these. And this is compounded by the fact that, in a small country in which we tend to give importance to foreigners bearing gifts, representatives of foreign interests like to take on proconsular authority.
How pervasive this is came home to me when I went through my records with regard to the conflict period, for a paper I have been asked to do about ‘Managing Humanitarian Assistance during Counter-Terrorism Operations’. I was struck then about the way in which others tried to take control of, and credit for, the services government continued to provide to its people.
The most telling example of this occurred when, in August 2009, a group of Sri Lankan officials met in the Ministry of Resettlement, along with a couple of internationals who had been supportive of government, and decided that we were not moving swiftly enough with regard to Resettlement. We asked the Minister to write to Basil Rajapaksa, who was in charge of the operation, to suggest that this be expedited. However the Minister felt this was beyond him, and asked me to take on the task.
I did so, and was called up and roundly scolded by Mr Rajapaksa who told me that he had promised to do the job in six months, and fully intended to accomplish this, even if not exactly in six months. His point was that this did not mean that half had to be done in three months.
I was left in no doubt about his sincerity, but what surprised me was his assertion that I should tell my friends that he would fulfil his commitment. When I asked who these friends were, he cited the Americans, and informed me that the head of USAID had sent him a similar letter.
This was astonishing. Rebecca Cohn, the lady in question, had been at our meeting, and we had not hesitated to take her into our confidence because she belonged to the school of thought in the American Embassy that had been positive about our counter-terrorist efforts.
I called her up then to ask what she had done, and was told that she had indeed sent a letter, against her better judgment, but she had been asked to do this. In short, the Americans in charge had decided to try to take credit for what we did. Doubtless, when the returns happened, as they did soon enough, the reports would have stressed American pressures.