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It was finally announced recently that Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe had been asked definitely to lead the team that would represent Sri Lanka at the Universal Periodic Review scheduled for November. This followed a number of news items indicating that the Ministry of External Affairs had claimed the team would consist only of officials, which I suppose was only to be expected, given the particular genius of at least some individuals in that institution – which is the incapacity to do anything, combined with an unwillingness to let anyone else try.

I was pleased that Minister Samarasinghe had been asked, but I told him, when he kindly asked me to be on the delegation, that I could not accede to his request. Two years ago, when he was finally asked to take on responsibility for Human Rights, or at least some aspects of it, he held a meeting at which he tried to recreate the old team that had dealt so successfully with attacks on us in Geneva between 2007 and 2009, while also taking the cause of Human Rights further. We had engaged actively with the Office of the High Commissioner, and hosted two productive visits by holders of special mandates; we had responded immediately to any communication from the High Commissioner’s Office, so much so that the Working Group on Disappearances had mentioned this positively, and our efforts to deal with the backlog of cases they had been maintaining for a couple of decades.

None of that had happened in the intervening period. Though the Ministry had taken over some of our staff, they had not given them any real responsibility, and indeed the only thing they had taken forward, albeit too slowly for my liking, was the Human Rights Action Plan, and that only because the then Attorney General found time in the midst of everything he was loaded with to promote it. I remember at the time the Minister of External Affairs telling me that the Attorney General should not take on more than he could handle – this was after his abortive trip to New York to meet the Secretary General about the Darusman Panel – to which my response was that the same was true of him. I suppose that is one reason why I am said to be disliked too much to be entrusted with formal responsibilities, but I would prefer to say what needs to be said rather than restrain myself in the hope of promotion. Sadly, though, I have to recognize that what is said has as much effect as water off a duck’s back.

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Sri Lankans sometimes tend to feel that foreign forces are trying to destabilize the country, and they may not be altogether wrong, given the concerted efforts of a few individuals, who exercise disproportionate influence in some countries, to upset things. But instead of only reacting angrily to perceived interference, we should also work more coherently to get rid of the reasons for such interference. Even if they are sometimes only pretexts, there is no reason for us to lay ourselves open to attack – especially since getting rid of the causes of complaint is not difficult.

Thus, given that the Action Plan on implementation of the LLRC Recommendations has been accepted by Cabinet, we could easily set up a formal mechanism to ensure action. Such a mechanism should also involve systematic reporting, so that what we are doing is apparent to all, including ourselves – for knowing what has been done is the best way of identifying for ourselves what more needs to be done.

We also need to give teeth to any mechanism that is established, since there is no point simply engaging in platitudes. The Action Plan on Human Rights for instance suffers because there is no clear mechanism to ensure progress. There is an Inter-Ministerial Committee which is supposed to coordinate work, and that Committee set up a Task Force which I convene to expedite action – but even though I have received excellent cooperation from most agencies involved, actually getting action is not easy. Given the range of responsibilities that a few ministries have, and the range of responsible ministries for some areas, coordination is not easy, and swift action impossible.

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Having been away during the visit of my old friend Robert Blake, I was surprised at the very different interpretations of what he had said. One email I got asked what I made of efforts to renew charges of war crimes. Though it was not clear whether this referred to Blake’s pronouncements, I was also told on return that he had basically read the riot act, and said that there would be a much tougher resolution on Sri Lanka in Geneva next March unless we did better.

Conversely I was assured by the Ministry of External Affairs that the visit had passed off extremely well, and that negative interpretations were simply due to the media playing its usual games. That seemed to me too sanguine. Unless there was actually misreporting, some of the things quoted seemed very definite, for instance ‘“I emphasized the importance of progress in reducing the role and profile of the military in the North, and full respect for human rights,” he said.  On issues of accountability, Blake said the US hoped that three years after the end of the conflict, there can be a credible and transparent accounting, investigation and prosecution of some of the outstanding and serious allegations of human rights violations, as well as progress on the missing. “I also urged that the Northern Provincial Council elections be held as soon as possible and encouraged an early resumption of talks between the TNA and the government to agree on powers to be devolved to the provinces,”

What the United States wants then seems clear. Unfortunately, following the debacle in Geneva, and what we were told by Foreign Ministry sources was a decision to cleave to the West, there was an assumption that all was well and, since we were firmly allied to the West, we would not be persecuted again.

This is a nonsensical view, though not unexpected in those who think international relations are conducted on the ‘machang’ basis that now seems to characterize many policy decisions. Clearly there are principles that we need to uphold, and we must work systematically to assert their primacy, and make it clear we are doing this. In particular we need, as we have often pledged, to strengthen our human rights mechanisms, and we need to move swiftly on implementing the LLRC Recommendations, at least as approved by Cabinet.

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Hina Rabbani Khar MP – Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pakistan

I was privileged, at the recent South Asia Economic Summit, to hear Hina Rabbani Khar, the Pakistani Foreign Minister, an extremely attractive young lady of what seemed enormous intelligence. She was quite definite in her commitment to greater regional cooperation, and in particular to improving trade and connectivity, in particular with India.

I was reminded then of reports of the visit of the Indian Foreign Minister to Islamabad. Mr Krishna is an old man, but also very wise, and very kindly it seemed, in the meeting we had with him last year, when a Parliamentary delegation visited India. I could imagine he and his Pakistani counterpart had got on very well, given the combination of charm and intelligence that both evince – which sadly we in Sri Lanka have not yet understood have to go together, thinking one or the other enough, with disastrous consequences.

Hina Rabbani forcefully made the point that all major parties in Pakistan understood the need for good relations with their neighbours and in particular India. Peace within, she noted, would only come when there was peace outside. Given the abuse of the Pakistani people by interest groups, both internal and external, pursuing their own selfish agendas, abuse that sadly many Pakistanis promoted given their own political predilections, it was a relief to feel that current policy was based on promoting common interests.

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The results of the recent Provincial Council elections are such that everyone can claim some sort of success. The UPFA got the most seats in all three Councils that were contested. The UNP did less badly than at previous elections. The TNA, contesting Provincial Council elections for the first time ever since Provincial Councils were created, largely to satisfy the claims of the party they have succeeded to, won the most votes in two of the three Districts of the Eastern Province.

Of parties that have representation in the national Parliament only through coalitions now, the Muslim Congress did very well in Amparai, and won seats also in Batticaloa and Trincomalee. The National Freedom Front got a seat in Trincomalee, and the JVP kept itself alive in the Sabaragamuwa and North Central Provincial legislatures.

Everyone then can claim victory of sorts, and will doubtless do so. My own feeling however is that the government lost a great opportunity to win a resounding victory, and at the same time to lay the ground for comprehensive reconciliation.

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After the Resolution targeting Sri Lanka was passed in Geneva in March, there seemed to be a scramble in the Ministry of External Affairs to jump on what was seen as a Western bandwagon. The egregious Dharisha Bastians engaged in much bashing of many of those entrusted with various aspects of international relations over the preceding few years who had also been in the forefront of advocating, long before the LLRC made its report, that we should move swiftly towards reconciliation.

Instead, claiming to have inside information from the Ministry, which may well have been the case, she declared that a decision had been made to cleave to the West. This was accompanied by active denigration of many countries that had supported Sri Lanka in the last few years.

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When I was asked to write a regular column for an e-journal, I was not sure I had much more to offer than appeared in the regular newspaper columns I was writing. There were two a week on Human Rights for the ‘Daily News’ and one a week on Children for the ‘Island’. I thought therefore of dealing with Reconciliation, but not necessarily in terms of the Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committees that meet in the North and East. I cover those meetings in irregular columns in the ‘Daily News’, which is all that is possible since I can go to those areas only once or twice a month, to participate in 4 to 6 meetings on each visit. Instead I will look here at more general issues, including the impact of international interventions, while also considering what it means to be an Adviser on Reconciliation without any facilities to promote suggestions that are made.

I was thinking of this the more deeply during a workshop organized by group of foreign academics, introduced to me primarily because they had no official backing for the workshop, and hence could not apply for visas. Since the Ministry they had contacted had been unwilling to issue an invitation letter, it was clearly not appropriate for me to do this. Still, the initiative seemed a good one, and to be encouraged. Fortunately the group persuaded one of the most effective NGOs we have to invite them, and the meeting therefore went ahead.

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UPFA parliamentarian Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha says the reconciliation process is essentially a multi-pronged approach, as the government approach to anything should be. However, he noted that although there is no guarantee that the proposed PSC would bring about the final political solution there is a trust feature if all parties including the TNA participated in it. Referring to the Eastern Provincial Council election, he observed that the government should have initiated a dialogue with the TNA on a national government since the party had expressed its willingness to discuss. “I think it should have been tried, but I also understand the difficulty. Managing a coalition is not easy. The government should however take note of the results,” Prof. Wijesinha said.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

Q: How confident is the government that the Indian government would put pressure on the TNA to participate in the reconciliation process?

A: I am not privy to what happened in India but I do know that India would like a reasonable solution.  From what I know, while they sympathise with the TNA position they also understand our position and might take a basic line between the two positions.  It is simply that the more dogmatic personnel on both sides perhaps would like to push their points of view; I think we must take all views into account but aim to satisfy the moderates on both sides.

Q: The TNA has questioned the government reconciliation process. What is the reconciliation process proposed by the government?

A: The reconciliation process is essentially a multi-pronged approach, as the government approach to anything should be. The government assumed, with some justification but I think it needs fine-tuning, that they needed to do quick restoration which is also what is prioritized in the National Reconciliation Policy document my office prepared  In that, we divide the reconciliation process into different segments. Of which the most important is restoration, which is based on the enormous physical suffering that the war brought; the bulk of which was borne by the people of the North. The government assumed that a lot of the macro stuff would lead to people returning to normal life; this happened in the East where the remarkable development programme was picked up by the state.  By and large they gained satisfaction, this does not mean that there are no questions but by and large there is satisfaction with the President.

In the North we have two separate problems, neither of which did we address carefully enough.  The first is in the Wanni where I think we did a fantastic job in restoration, and again I think the people are very satisfied, but we are not giving them the extra skills development to take advantage of the situation. I told the Indians we had to introduce local labour for their houses and they agreed.  But when I went up last time there are three contractors in one particular area, one is using local labour the other two are not.

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One of the greatest barriers to Reconciliation, I fear, is the difficulties government has to make its position clear. This springs in part from the systemic failure that will soon overwhelm us if remedial action is not taken swiftly. As it is, I believe we continue to survive only because of the enormous energy of a few, and the general decency of many of our administrators, whom the system however tends to suppress, with no efforts to institutionalize procedures and reporting mechanisms.

Symptomatic of this is the confusion about the guidelines that are issued to Grama Niladharis, the lowest rung of the ladder in the public service, but arguably the most important, for they are the interface between government and the public. Strengthening their administrative capacity would go far towards overcoming many problems government now faces, with more senior decision makers plagued by problems that could so easily – and with much less inconvenience to all concerned, including travel time and money – have been resolved lower down.

When I first realized the wide differences between Grama Niladharis in terms not just of efficiency, but also with regard to understanding of their roles, I asked what instructions were given to them when they were appointed. I was presented then with a Diary, which had in its initial pages a list of responsibilities which seemed to me a regurgitation of what they had been expected to do in the times of the colonial administration. I trust I am wrong, and that amendments have been made over the years, but in general it is clear that a thorough overhaul is essential, not just tinkering. In particular, the ethos should be one of local consultation, with mandatory provisions for this – on the lines of the advisory bodies envisaged in the original Mahinda Chintanaya – rather than the top-down approach that was appropriate for a colonial power co-opting local agents whose responsibilities were to the governors, not the governed.

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I had not been in the East for several months, not least because the North seemed to need much more attention in terms of my work as Adviser on Reconciliation. However, with the system of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committees functioning informatively, if not always effectively, I thought I should pay some attention to the East, since obviously reconciliation had to be taken forward there too, and also better coordination of aid work, in terms of my mandate in that area.

Thikanaveli Tank at Vaharai Division in Batticaloa

I had assumed that the basic government strategy of massive efforts at reconstruction had borne fruit in the East, unlike in the North where it was essential to take other steps too in view of the very different circumstances. My visit confirmed that government had indeed worked wonders in the East, for the developments in communications and irrigation and the basic wherewithal for economic activity were phenomenal.

In 2009, during my last visit as Head of the Peace Secretariat, I was overwhelmed by the changes that had taken place since an earlier visit, when travel was painfully slow and there was still uncertainty about commerce. Subsequently, visiting to inspect some work in English Trainer Training, I felt that the trajectory was steadily upward, but even so I was not prepared for the qualitative leap forward that had occurred between then and now. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

February 2020
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