Interview with Nimalka Fernando: The UN HRC resolution and beyond

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Nimalka, now we’ve seen that the council voted for the resolution on Sri Lanka. What is your initial impression?

It’s a serious voting pattern. Because if you look at the resolution, the resolution has very substantial  concerns raised by civil society for a period of time. From holding elections in the North, addressing issues of impunity, collapse of rule of law, the unaddressed issues of accountability, the failure of Sri Lankan Government to address issues of reconciliation for a long time, and also the selective manner in which the LLRC action plan has been constructed and also the inadequacies in the national human rights action plan. So if you take all those subjects one by one, if you look at the voting pattern one by one, I feel very serious in terms of the resolution. If you take for instance the statement made by Thailand; Thailand voted against the resolution. But Thailand made a very significant statement calling on to GoSL to look in to issues of accountability and reconciliation.

Then if you take Korea, a country from South Asia, which made a very strong statement of the need for Sri Lanka to take strong efforts to address issues of accountability; they very categorically said that the issues of justice and accountability are important for reconciliation. So just merely saying LLRC is available, and LLRC is enough was actually rejected by South Korea. And if you take the abstention of Japan, and the manner in which Japan intervened in this council session, taking on the issue of Human Rights, saying that Sri Lanka has to address unresolved issues of human rights. And also they mentioned that the president has given an assurance to hold elections in September for Northern Province, and also that the President will promptly resume the Parliamentary select committee process. So if you take the statements made by the countries like Thailand who did not vote for and Japan which had abstained and South Korea which voted for, herald a serious attitude being adopted by these countries. And India for example, categorically stated that this is our friend, this is our neighbor, what happens in Sri Lanka matters to us. And they further looked towards a credible and independent investigation to take place with regards to violation of human rights law and humanitarian law. Across the board, those who voted in favor have always been addressing these issues, but if you look at the voting pattern I think that on one hand this is serious.

On the other hand it is serious because the Muslim community in Sri Lanka has been led down by the OIC countries. Pakistan led the campaign against the resolution from the very beginning and I was amazed to see that. We’ve had discussions with the their  representatives in Geneva, bringing it to their notice what is happening in Sri Lanka. We all know that “”Bodu Bala Sena” has connections to the defense establishment in Sri Lanka and supported by Mr. Gotabhaya Rajapakse. So even though the Cabinet is just a rubber stamp, as we all know it is, but these decisions are taken by the Defense Secretary. And whatever decisions the Defense Secretary is taking, because he is the Presdent’s brother, I have to purely assume that he has the blessings of his brother. Otherwise you can’t have a government. Otherwise you would say there are two States working inside Sri Lanka. So you naturally come to conclusion that this position is also supported by the executive president. So if you look at the dangerous manner and the Bodu Bala Sena is behaving and imposing discriminatory practices in our society, this should have been taken note by Pakistan, Qatar Kuwait and Indonesia.

And no country even expressed their concern about the situation of Muslim people in Sri Lanka?

None of the countries. And also  during the presentations of the country reports, there was enough room for these Muslim countries to express concerns with  regard to religious beliefs, and the manner in which the anti-Muslim sentiments are rising in Sri Lanka. it was  the  Western countries who were talking about religious belief, religious, fundamental freedoms, to have your own belief and the countries with whom we have been critical of Islam-phobia, these are the countries, including America, talking about the need for religious freedom  in Sri Lanka.  So this is why I say this is serious. The Muslim community in Sri Lanka has to take note that they have no champion internationally.

I think now  they have to now begin to align with the Sinhala civil society, probably  they have to begin to work with Tamil Diaspora with whom they have not been having linkages for a long period of time because it has not a religious issue  or an ethnic issue anymore. It’s an issue of democracy and fundamental freedoms in Sri Lanka.

Given the past years experience, especially after the 19/02 resolution, do you think GoSL will change their mind and start implementing some of the substantial recommendations of the LLRC and will at least look at this resolution positively?

No, the GoSL is fooling themselves. And fooling us .Unfortunately for us as the civil society, these resolutions are giving us more responsibility than to the GoSL. If you look at the GoSL, they do not need resolutions like this. They have the 500-page document called LLRC and I really want to ask the GoSL what actually they have implemented. They keep on telling the international community here that “this will impact on the delicate reconciliation process”.  Mr. Mahinda Smarasinha’s statement is an example.

Now what do you mean by delicate reconciliation process? Has the GoSL started involving the Tamil National Alliance and Tamil parties in looking at and redressing the situation? For instance what is the consultation Sri Lanka has had with the Tamil National Alliance on the affected communities, on the main recommendations made in the LLRC; for instance clearing high security zones, handing back the land to the owners, what is the dialogue that has happened. We are not talking about “delicate reconciliation process”, this is what we are referring to. In order to have confidence in people, they need to know that there is normalcy in their lives. People don’t know what will happen the next day. So this “delicate reconciliation process” is mere word. For me “delicate” means asking or giving a response to Mrs. Anandi who is informing the LLRC that 59 people including her husband were surrendees and these surrendees have never come back home. This is delicate. Has the GoSL sat with Mrs. Anandi to discuss these issues.

I don’t think that the GoSL has any political will or a genuine effort to embark on reconciliation. The GoSL is thriving on its executive powers. And the minister is just white-washing the sins of an executive Presidency.

Then the other issue the GoSL mentioned  is that there is domestic process. Now what has happened to the domestic process with regards to the 17 ACF workers. What has happened regarding the Eknaligoda case. Sandya Eknaligoda is going in and out of courts. So if you look at these terminologies and the whole attitude against all constructive recommendations that the High Commissioner  who is coming from an anti-apartheid struggle is making: truth seeking mechanism, transitional justice: these words are like anathema to the GoSL.

So you think that nothing will change in Sri Lankan politics over the resolution and they will try to fool UNHCR and themselves and continue like this? for how long?

They will continue like this. These resolutions, built on the vision of people who are struggling; the families of the disappeared, the journalists who are outside the country who are calling for justice in Sri Lanka, thousands of people who have surrendered, the ex-combatants who don’t know what will happen to their lives. So these resolutions are actually the political agenda for people’s empowerment and the civil society empowerment and for us to challenge the political forces in Sri Lanka who are talking about change. And I think the importance for us is that we are giving a  warning to the future political leaders in Sri Lanka that they cannot think about the future or political change in Sri Lanka without campaigning for these issues.

Then  what will be the foreseeable repercussions if the Sri Lankan government does not implement it or look at is positively?

There will be two instances  where it’s in the agenda of the Human Rights Council in the next twelve months. Getting a resolution in to the Human Rights Council is very difficult and we know what happened in 2009. As a result you yourself had to be out of the country for a long time. So getting to the agenda, the international focus is on Sri Lanka; on war crimes, allegations; international investigation is hanging on Sri Lanka. So now the international community including we, have also as civil society agreed to these things, because it is asking Sri Lanka to do a credible national investigation. Failing that we’ll have to build the next stage where we need to ask an international credible investigation to redress the situation. Because international community still is giving time for Sri Lanka. And India very categorically said that Sri Lanka needs a  proper investigation mechanisms in place. So the next stage is we, the civil society with the international support, with the UN systems to call  for international investigation.  This is why those who are supporting Sri Lanka says this is intrusion. Surely, this is intrusion. If the Human Rights Council does not take action, who will? Human Rights Council is intrusive. Human rights council has to ask serious questions from countries. Or else what’s the meaning of being the human rights civilization or why do you have all the conventions and councils spending so much of money.

So we have an oral reporting and then we have a substantive reporting. Sri Lanka has to perform. It will have an obstinate attitude of not reporting. But it has to report. It has to deliver. Up to now there has been no witness protection in place. What about re-working the human rights commission, what is going to happen to the filing Trincomalee summary proceedings. So it is serious.

They have to take these action if not there will be further calls. I really  don’t see the reason why Sri Lanka cannot invite the UN Working Group on Disappearances. In 1999 we know the UNP government invited and the reports were formulated. Just formulation of reports and giving the families a chance to speak. So Sri Lank has to take action. In March there will be this substantive discussion and in the substantive discussion still if there is no progress the next stage will have to be calling for a special country repporteur. Like North Korea. You can’t go but there is a special country repporteur sitting outside listing to all the comments and responding. I think Sri Lanka shouldn’t go to such stage. If Sri Lanka has enough expertise and political will and we can address these situations. These are issues of justice: Nobody is going to throttle the government. If you want to catch the thief, you want to catch the thief. This is exactly what we are asking for. But if you are the thief yourself, you won’t catch the thief.

Given the concern about the power within the family and looking at the tendencies of getting more and more laws passed towards a  authoritarian regime, can actually Rajapakse rule change their course of action in  Sri Lanka. Will Sri Lanka become a democratic country, because of these pressures or ………..            

Mahinda Rakapakse the politician I knew long time ago would have made the changes. The politician I knew long time ago. But the new Mahinda Rajapakse has taken upon himself to develop this personality cult. The earlier Rajapakse, when he was a progressive man, he was moving with the masses. Now it is popularity. Now they have built a cult like Kim Il Sung….So that cult, Mahinda Rajapaksa  is getting pumped up by the military. Like what happened in North Korea. I see this trend in Sri Lanka. Everybody is dressing up as Mahinda Rajapakse. Everybody is eating Kurakkan, or wanting to eat Kurakkan. This is like a cult. So this cultish thing is not going to work for long in a country where we have enjoyed a vibrant democracy. There is still room for Mahinda Rajapakse to change. And the senior left politicians who are in the government  are also concerned about this cult driven Mahinda Rajapakse behavior. So Mahinda Rajapakse has friends in side his ruling alliance to change. He has to kick out the people who are sending him in this. If he enjoys the cult  he can’t do it.

Politics has been militarised to such a extent  today; do you think Rajapakse can still hold his political power in militarised state set up and make political reforms?

Even in 1994 when we were at a one point of time towards Chandrika Bandaranayaka Kumaratunga who had an alliance with the military so much, used to every time tell us that I am unable to do anything because the  military will be unhappy with me. Now it is not “military unhappy with me”, it’s military that is ruling. And I think it is much more serious than Chandrika’s time. Chandrika was at least able to deal with the navy commander at that time who she felt was a not following the government polices. Now the government policy with regard to land is dictated by the military. The government policy with regards to resettling and demographic changes is handled by the defense ministry. The ubernisation, cleaning up Colombo is handled by militarization. So it is a complex thing. I hope the people in our country who value democracy and also the political leaders inside the UPFA will rally around and urge Mahanda Rajapakse, to change. If not we have to change.

What is the message for opposition in UN HRC the resolution ?

See the Opposition has to take serious note of what is happening in Geneva. I am rather disturbed by this opposition trying to assist Mahanda Rajapakse through forming alliances or memorandums, asking him to respond. This should have happen long time ago. But the opposition now has to take the note of this: we have to sit with the Tamil National Alliance and those politicians may be in the UPFA who are unhappy with what is happening in Sri Lanka and we need to develop national political forum  that will take this resolutions seriously. And that we will make a new civil society force; clamoring for change. Requesting the government or pressurizing the government like we are pressurizing the government through this resolution to address issues. I don’t see the same pressure we brought on the government, by the opposition towards these things. It is politics after all. So I think we can’t just say things like ‘I didn’t sign the ICC therefore the army cannot be brought before the Rome statute’;  these are international mechanisms.  The issue of accountability and the issue of reconciliation are two sides of the same coin. Without either, you can’t have the other. So it is also a serious message that the international community has given to the opposition. So opposition has to now take note of this. It cannot just say we will protect Mahinda Rajapakse, you can’t protect Mahanda Rajapakses regime but we have to protect the country.

Country is not equal to Mahinda Rajapakse. Country is equal to accountability and reconciliation. So you can’t support Mahanda Rajapakse and at the same time support accountability and reconciliation. You oppose Mahinda Rajapakse, and you provide for reconciliation, accountability, 13th amendment and devolution of power to take place in Sri Lanka. So the opposition has to have a different political agenda. It’s a different ball game now. We as civil society have already thrown that ball to the opposition. They have the resolutions to mobilize people, to mobilize support and to mobilize necessary stamina. So they have to now take this. Civil society has done our part.

  • Peter

    “They have the resolutions to mobilize people, to mobilize support and to mobilize necessary stamina. So they have to now take this. Civil society has done our part.”

    Thank you civil society for the job well done !!

    It is very clear that the current opposition will not take these resolutions to the masses and mobilise them on them towards accountability and democracy. Then the question is who is going to do it. The international community has shown that they are prepared to help if there are takers for that job. Sri lanka needs a mass movement based on agitations, acts of civil disobedience, Satyagrhas, death fasts, national strike actions, calling for international trade/sports/cultural embargoes etc.

    Rajapakshas have been lucky so far because their bogus anti imperialism theory could survive in the short term given the Sinhalese left were able to fool the masses with evil Anti Americanism in the past. But the it is changing now.

    The international Community could support the left movements in Sri Lanka whose names have not been tainted. The “intrusions” from the Human Rights Council have to be supported with funding progressive mass movements, providing international mentors,safe havens and forums for exiled leaders and dissidents etc. If worst comes to worse, we have the precedent of EU/US arming the Syrian Opposition freedom fighters.