A reputed Tamil Canadian lawyer, human rights activist and currently Member of Parliament representing his constituency Scarborough, Toronto in the House of Commons, Gary Anandasangaree speaks to Ceylon Today on the lack of interest shown by the Sri Lankan Government in implementing the UN resolution and constitutional reforms. “Inaction by the Government to form a mechanism to address this issue, and in absence of anything happening, this is what the government should be expecting. This sort of thing will be escalating from outside within the international community. It is expected to derive its own justice and ultimately someone is going to get caught under Universal Jurisdiction if Sri Lanka fails to act.”
The unity government is today at a crossroads with its own share of internal issues. As they are surrounded by hardliners, they are unable to fulfil their commitments towards good governance, which is the mandate given by the people. How do the Canadian Government and you, as a Member of Canadian Parliament, who has been fully supportive of this Government’s initiatives, view the current situation in the country?
A: I can’t speak for the Government of Canada but I can on my own behalf as a Member of Parliament and as someone who has observed the situation in Sri Lanka for a number of years. I’m afraid the current Government has really missed important commitments they had agreed at the start of the campaign on the previous election and obtained the mandate from all people of the island.
The mandate is for a number of things, particularly to come up with a workable constitutional proposal that goes for a national referendum. I think that opportunity was missed. But, the responsibility lies on the government to fulfil the promises and follow it up with the constitutional amendments and commitments and bring that to a national referendum.
The Canadian Government has fully supported the Lankan Government financially and otherwise to meet the agendas they committed to the international community and promote good governance, particularly in terms of women’s participation in politics, reconciliation process etc. Do you see a progress in that direction?
A: The role of women in public office is essential. Across the world this has been the message from our Canadian Prime Minister and that is for Sri Lanka as well.
One of the things we saw in Sri Lanka is that it has one of the lowest levels of women in elected office. There is a culture on the island where women do participate in ‘appearance’ but are unable to be serving in important offices partly because the process is quite unwelcoming towards women and I think we saw that recurrence in the recent LG poll where the regional requirement for municipal level leads to have a higher degree of women being involved in elected offices. It is an important step but there is a very long way to go because Sri Lanka still lies far behind many other developed and developing countries.
You were in Geneva attending the 37th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council to observe the discussion of Sri Lanka’s Tamil issue. You represent a constituency where a large number of Tamil speaking Sri Lankans are living. What are you pushing for?
A: There are a number of things. First and foremost, ensuring Sri Lanka undertakes fulfilling its commitments in implementing Resolution 30/1 and other areas where very little progress has been seen, which includes land release in the North that are occupied by the Security Forces, establishing transitional justice mechanisms enabling laws that allow prosecution of crimes. Also, utilizing foreign judges and prosecutors should be ensured too. I think those are the areas where we are expecting to see some significant movements and commitment from the Government on a clear time-bound schedule for progress. The appointment of the officers should have been months ago but the Government appointed them just a week before the UNHRC session began.
So, Sri Lanka has been watched closely with lots of concern and caution and I think the expectation is generally that Sri Lanka goes forward by its commitment if not it does risk endangering the international public opinion and once again falling into that rogue State status that was before the new regime took office in 2015.
One year of the two-year ‘grace period’ granted by the UNHRC is over and in the next year the incumbent Government has to fulfil its co-sponsored promises, we are told. We know there won’t be a resolution passed on Sri Lanka again, however we hear a strong message awaits Sri Lanka when the review is taken on 21 March.What is expected following the review in your opinion?
A: In fact, it’s serious. Three years have passed since this Government came to power and it had the 30/1 resolution to fulfil. There has been a higher degree of frustration with the lack of movement. The general opinion is that Sri Lanka had the opportunity to fulfil its commitments to the international community. But they were not able to advance it. A clear cut mandate was and is there for this Government to move forward on its commitments to the international community.
The spate of violence against the Muslim minority in the country has agitated them and the other minority community as well. The government has not fully explained the reason why incidents of communal tension are recurring, which led to even the imposition of State of Emergency. What do you gather from this situation?
A: First and foremost, this is a very dangerous sign that this has happened again. Looking back at the violence against the Tamils in 1983 and periodically, the first anti-Moor riots took place in 1919. So, even in the last 100 years, violence against the minorities has been taking place with impunity. We notice that people who are responsible, often the authorities, stand by idly without taking any action.
Apart from words, we are not seeing any concrete actions taken by the government to combat the violence. Yes, condemning is good but beyond those, actions must be taken and those who are held responsible should be held to account. Otherwise, the rogue elements will go out picking on the vulnerable and this cycle of violence will repeat itself. A resolution once and for all is needed.
On the US sponsored UN resolution on Sri Lanka, the Government has explained that there will be no hybrid court or foreign judges but will work on a local mechanism with some inputs by international experts. Will this be a good workable solution?
A: That’s a decision taken by the international community and it’s the obligation of the Government of Sri Lanka to fulfil it. Sri Lanka cannot say one thing in Geneva and say another thing on the ground. At this point they should have implemented it entirely.
Some 1.8 million signatures from the Tamils around the world along with Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam’s TNPF party that collected around 200,000 signatures, have been submitted at the ongoing UNHRC session, urging the International Criminal Court to investigate the alleged war crimes. What do you think of this move by the Tamil Diaspora?
A: I think it definitely happened on the island in 2009 and before, and it does constitute violation of international human rights and humanitarian law and as such the inaction by the government to form a mechanism to address this issue, and in absence of anything happening, this is what the government should be expecting. This sort of thing will be escalating from outside within the international community. It is expected to derive from its own justice and ultimately someone is going to get caught under Universal Jurisdiction if Sri Lanka fails to act.
It should also be mentioned in this backdrop, Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Al Raad Hussein has urged the international community to seek a way to bring universal jurisdiction on Sri Lanka’s alleged war criminals. Is that the right thinking by the UNHRC Chief?
A: Sri Lanka has had nine years to deal with the issue of accountability. It has continuously failed to advance the issue and in the High Commissioner’s call for the international community to exercise universal jurisdiction is a reflection of that frustration.
The overall perception or the voice of the Joint Opposition is that the government is ‘lenient’ towards the Tamils and working for the best of the Tamils, undermines the majority’s aspirations and sentiments and working on the agendas of the UNHRC which is biased. This has led to the ‘victory’ of the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the Local Government polls reminding of a feared comeback. Your guess on this?
A: The current government came into office with a decisive mandate. Instead of fulfilling it and working towards achieving its objectives, it has failed to move its agenda forward. The recent local election results cannot be an excuse for this government to fail to act and fulfil its promises. Failing to act would be a betrayal to all those who placed their trust in the current government.
If the government does not fulfil its co-sponsored reconciliation mechanism what can be expected in another year?
A: There is certainly a great deal of frustration at the lack of movement of this government. Accordingly, the international community will need to look at all of its options as it moves into next year without substantive results on the island.
Sri Lanka has had nine years to deal with the issue of accountability. It has continuously failed to advance the issue and in the High Commissioner’s call for the international community to exercise universal jurisdiction is a reflection of that frustration
(The writer can be contacted on [email protected])