With the commencement of the UNHRC session featuring Sri Lanka’s case among others, Suren Sirendiran, the spokesperson for Global Tamil Forum, a leading Tamil Diaspora Organisation, articulates the implementation of its resolution, action regarding alleged war crimes and the way forward. The interview conducted by email:
Ahead of the UNHRC session, how do you analyze the progress made by the government in addressing your aspirations?
Progress is dead slow and minimal.
It is now obvious that Sri Lanka wouldn’t have made any significant progress by March 2017 in implementing the UNHRC resolution that it co-sponsored. Therefore, it is inevitable that Sri Lanka will request an extension to the timeline. It will only be conceivable that the member states will agree to extend, through a new rollover resolution.
Status of implementation of the Resolution A/HRC/30/L.29 by the Government of Sri Lanka will still be work in progress. Therefore, until full implementation of the resolution, somehow Sri Lanka must remain in focus for the Human Rights Council. If that formal focus and monitoring can only be delivered via another resolution, then that is what should happen.
As the co-sponsor of the resolution and the responsible government to implement the resolution on behalf of its people, one would hope that Government of Sri Lanka would bring a resolution to extend the timeline without renegotiating the content of the resolution. I am sure that will be supported by majority of the member states.
It is pertinent to be reminded of the Foreign Minister’s speech in September 2015 at the UNHRC,
where he said and I quote “Don’t judge us by the broken promises, experiences and U-turns of the past…. My plea to you Ladies and Gentlemen, is trust us and join us to work together and create the momentum required to move forward and take progressive, meaningful and transformative steps to create a new Sri Lanka.”
One of the reasons Government of Sri Lanka may suggest for the lack of progress is the political reality in the country. Blaming and making the Rajapaksa Demon as one of the reasons for the lack of progress is by and large a false pretence. The so called joint opposition has just over 50 in a 225 Members Parliament. In reality, the joint opposition hasn’t demonstrated in any significant manner as a threat in any form to the current regime, so far.
We were encouraged when Government of Sri Lanka co-sponsored the UNHRC resolution in Oct 2015, which recognised terrible crimes committed by both parties during the armed conflict – was a turning point for human rights in Sri Lanka. We welcomed the less triumphalist approach adopted during the end of war anniversary on May 18th. We also welcomed the much improved cooperation with UN agencies on human rights mechanisms, and the initiatives taken towards setting up the ‘Office of the Missing Persons’ – though legislation was passed in the parliament in August 2016, only a few weeks ago it was finally gazetted, nearly five months after. The action of gazetting allows implementation.
Global Tamil Forum (GTF) also formally welcomed the recommendations of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF) released on January 3, 2017.
However, there has been very little visible progress being made on the accountability mechanism. GTF is also disappointed at the government’s insufficient efforts in embracing the critically important transitional justice mechanisms, which in our view, should be embedded in the constitutional reform process to permanently end the culture of impunity and to promote genuine reconciliation. A wide range of institutional reforms including the much needed ‘security sector reform’, strengthening of the witness protection legislation which at present falls far short of what is required, and genuine consultations with victims and their families in every step of the process to get to truth and justice are vitally important measures ought to be undertaken by the government without further delay. Several of the crimes alleged to have been committed by both sides amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. These are not recognised as crimes in the current judicial system. Legislations have to be passed by the Parliament to recognise these as crimes. These haven’t even begun.
Very little or no discourse has begun on reparation.
How hopeful are you that the constitution making process would be a success?
The success of implementing a new constitution is the only hope for a successful and peaceful Sri Lanka for our next generations. The current political environment with a unity government with leaders of moderate views in power and a very reasonable Tamil opposition in parliament with people overwhelmingly rejecting extremism from both communities in the last two major elections is probably the best time in the history of Sri Lanka to achieve success in implementing a new constitution. Therefore, we are very hopeful.
There is a lot of objection here to the proposed judicial mechanism with the participation of foreign judges to hear accountability issues? What is your stand?
President Maithripala Sirisena publicly states that there won’t be any international judges in the judicial mechanism to address accountability for the alleged crimes. Recently in a speech in Maharagama, the President said that in his speech at the UN General Assembly he has stated this very clearly and the international community has now accepted that there won’t be any international Judges.
Even the Prime Minister said in an interview to an Indian media outlet that there won’t be any international Judges. We have serious concerns over this. The lack of political will and courage demonstrated by the Sinhala leaders including the President and the PM to engage in discourse among the Sinhala people for the need to establish the truth of what happened and the importance of accountability for the wrongs that were done against another community of their own citizens, is a serious impediment we believe, to deliver justice to the victims.
The mixed messages relayed to key stakeholders including the victims, military, other citizens of Sri Lanka and international community by senior state officials including the President, PM and Foreign Minister reflect that there is no cohesive and coordinated government policy as yet on this important international commitment.
UNHRC resolution should not be altered
GTF helped in regime change of Sri Lanka
International pressure is a sin-quo-non to get justice for victims
Concerned over rejection of foreign judges by President, PM
GTF disappointed the way MS Govt. handled N/E issues
Until there are concerted efforts taken to make understand and accept by Sinhala civil society, Sinhala media and Buddhist clergy that there were gross violations of local and international human rights and humanitarian laws by the military but not by the entire military, during and after the end of war, there can only be marginal perceived successes, in the government implementation of the transitional justice program.
As I said above, by co-sponsoring the resolution the President and his government have committed to all its conditions as stipulated.
Just to remind once again, the resolution 30/1 states and I quote again “…affirms that a credible justice process should include independent judicial and prosecutorial institutions led by individuals known for their integrity and impartiality; and also affirms in this regard the importance of participation in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism, including the special counsel’s office, of Commonwealth and other foreign Judges, defence lawyers and authorized prosecutors and investigators”
A credible and impartial judicial process is so fundamental to come to terms with our violent past that is littered with not only the crimes committed against the members of each community, but also on their behalf.
Recommendations of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF) released on January 3, 2017 also very clearly states that ‘foreign participation is required as those who suffered during the conflict had no faith in local judiciary which lacked expertise to undertake such task’ very much resonates with the victims of the Tamil community.
This is a long-standing view that is further reinforced with the recent verdict on the murder case of former Tamil Parliamentarian Nadarajah Raviraj.
GTF shared its deep dismay by the statements of two responsible ministers in the unity government denouncing the recommendations of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF) calling for foreign participation in the judicial mechanisms.
There are talks about the resurgence of LTTE terrorism. One TNA MP has also received death threats. How is it possible for the LTTE to raise its head again?
When asking this question one must remember the history of what really happened to the Tamil people of Sri Lanka since independence and how and why an armed struggle began!
Listed below are a recapture of a few of the circumstances that prevailed prior to an armed struggle that was initiated by the Tamil youth:
- Almost a million Tamils of Indian origin were disenfranchised within an year of independence
- Sinhala only as the official language was introduced
- Several (e.g. 1956, 58, 77, 83 to list a few) State-sponsored pogroms which killed thousands of Tamils and burnt down their assets
- State-sponsored colonisation of Tamil land with Sinhala people with an intention to force change the demography of land which historically is the habitat of Tamils
- Several of the protections of minority communities’ rights that were enshrined in the Soulbury Constitution were abrogated
- The oldest public library in Asia was burnt down by the army with government sponsorship
- Several legislations were passed in the parliament discriminating minorities, particularly targeting Tamils who were performing better than the majority community in education, civil service, industry etc.
- Many of the attempted protests and objections through democratic means since independence until an armed struggle began were summarily suppressed by violent force by successive governments
- Several of the peace pacts that were reached between leaders of communities to resolve these political grievances of Tamil people were unilaterally abrogated by successive Sinhala leaders, parties and governments
To add to some of these same grievances, at present:
- There still remains a constitution that safeguards a majoritarian rule with an executive presidency with most political and legislative powers being centralised and which elevates one religion over the rest
- An overwhelming presence of military in the majority Tamil areas
- Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) still in force
- No judicial mechanism or most demands to serve justice through the UNHRC resolution 30/1 still unaccomplished
- Confiscated private and government land still being occupied by military and people being displaced from their own places of habitat
- Some of the political prisoners who were arrested under the PTA still remain in custody without being charged or due process followed
- Torture and sexual violence, particularly against women still practiced with impunity
- State-sponsored colonisation still being implemented in the north and east of Sri Lanka
- A politicised judiciary that has lost all confidence of victims (e.g. case of former parliamentarian Raviraj, release of suspects in the case of disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda and several others) With points above, I will let the readers decide the answer to your question.
The new US administration has a different world view. In that context, how can Tamil Diaspora count more on that country in pursuing action through the UNHRC?
Sri Lanka has time and time again shown it is both unwilling and unable to investigate allegations of war crimes against its own forces or hold perpetrators of grave abuses to account. It appears the government is now trying to back away from this commitment. Given the history of failures of Government Commissions and judicial processes, international participation as specified in the resolution is a must to guarantee the credibility and effectiveness of any Special Court.
At such a critical time when the Sri Lankan government’s political will and its ability to fully implement the key recommendations of the UNHRC resolution are being questioned, the International Community needs to be resolutely engaged, so that Sri Lanka stays on course towards genuine reform, and implements the resolution it co-sponsored without any exceptions.
In my mind, if there is no international pressure, there won’t be any justice served in Sri Lanka for the victims. I think, that is very well understood by most of the member states including the US, UK of the UNHRC, too.
Tamils voted overwhelmingly for President Maithripala Sirisena at the election. How do you see his performance?
If I have to describe it in a word, unfortunately I will have to say, ‘disappointing’. Most Sri Lankans feel generally let down by this government as several of their manifesto commitments haven’t been implemented.
This government came to power claiming to clean up corruption and mismanagement that prevailed during the previous regime and bring to justice those who abused their authority in various ways. Unfortunately, neither have they been able to prosecute anyone successfully nor have they been able to run a government without various major corruption charges being levelled against them.
Tamils of North and East voted overwhelmingly for the President and made the biggest difference in bringing him to power hoping that the new government will implement Constitutional reforms to resolve the decades old national question, will deliver justice to people for the wrongs that were done to them in breach of international laws, will publicly pronounce of zero tolerance of sexual violence and torture, particularly by the police and military and proactively investigate and prosecute any such allegations without denying, which had been the Rajapaksa attitude. Tamils believed that most of the occupied lands will be released to lawful owners within months, resettlement of internally displaced people would be prioritised, military presence in the North and East will be reduced to the same levels as the rest of the country, political prisoners will be released or will be charged in a court of law forthwith, the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) will be repealed, government will give the war affected provinces a special priority status and create and facilitate investment opportunities to regenerate the areas to be economically at least at par with the rest of Sri Lanka.
The record over the past several months is reflected in the disappointment and despair that these communities feel at present.
However, the overall trajectory remains in the right direction but, just! This government has created democratic space for freedom of expression without fear of reprisals, reversing the 18th Amendment to the Constitution which by and large politicised all independent democratic institutions, initiating a process to introduce a new constitution for the country, agreeing to co-sponsor a resolution at the UNHRC and proactively engaging with the UN and other international institutions, releasing some of the land that were illegally occupied by the military and other state institutions, releasing some of the political prisoners, introducing civilian governors to the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
We hear different voices among the Tamil diaspora groups. How do you respond to it?
Let me speak on behalf of GTF; at GTF, we like to think that we also helped in a small way to bring this change of regime in Sri Lanka. GTF believes that through proactive and constructive engagement further changes can be influenced. We have met the Foreign Minister and other state officials several times and met with the President, twice. GTF will encourage the government when progressive steps are being taken but will not shy away to publicly critique the government when repressive or regressive steps are taken or even suggested.
Among all Diaspora organisations GTF has gained recognition within Sri Lanka and internationally in a relatively short time since the end of war. It didn’t come easily. Sheer hard and committed work by many brought it to this status. As an organisation we also followed certain basic code of conduct to discipline ourselves. For example we committed ourselves not to comment or contradict in public of statements, actions or activities of another fellow Tamil organisation be it from Sri Lanka or in the Diaspora. As an organisation from our formal inauguration at the UK Parliament in February 2010 we also committed that we will not issue statements for the sake of it or to play it to the gallery. As a responsible organisation largely working in international diplomacy and lobbying, we pride ourselves for maintaining discretion which is fundamental. Some of these behaviours and actions earned respect amongst various media and rights organisations as well as within governments of adopted countries. GTF has always acted honourably and reasonably when articulating grievances of our people in Sri Lanka at international forums. This earned respect from organisations and like-minded people of all ethnicities and religions of Sri Lanka. We have a clear and transparent strategy in how we want to deal with issues and grievances of our people in the island, which we generally refer to as the ‘Four Pillar Programme’. They are:
1. Agreeing between Tamil representatives based in Sri Lanka and in the Diaspora a Common Framework Agreement (CFA).
2. Engaging the civil society, political and non-political representatives of the South without discriminating on language, religion, social status or party affiliation to communicate and engage to explain our grievances and understand from them their own grievances and why resolving the political issues including the Tamil National Question is seen or felt as a threat to them. Explain the possible mutual benefits that will be gained by all communities as peace dividends if a durable political solution could be negotiated to the Tamil National Question.
These types of cross community engagements at different levels of the society can also be a way to bridge the trust deficiency that exists between communities in Sri Lanka.
3. Actively lobby and create awareness within the international community, international institutions and governments regarding the injustices and alleged breaches of international laws, including international human rights and humanitarian laws that amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Lobby for international independent investigation of both sides to establish the truth and obtain justice to enable the people who lost their loved ones to be able to move on, which may allow sustainable reconciliation between communities in the future.
4. To work to resolve the socio economic needs of the people of Sri Lanka, particularly in the war affected areas with international help.
We intend to do all of the above with the help of the people in Sri Lanka, in the diaspora and the international community including India.
Obviously everyone can see that none of these are against the State of Sri Lanka or its sovereignty or any group or particular community of Sri Lanka or promotes violence or terrorism. This enabled GTF to work with like-minded people of all communities, groups, organisations, media and political and non-political parties within Sri Lanka. GTF prides itself as one of the most effective and efficient groups which partners with the elected representatives of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka.