An Interview with Jayantha Dhanapala by Namini Wijedasa
Jayantha Dhanapala, one of Sri Lanka ’s most eminent retired diplomats and a former UN under-secretary-general for disarmament affairs, warned last week that filling a man’s pockets or stomach will not make him forget his political or human rights. Excerpts from the interview:
How is Sri Lanka faring on the foreign policy front?
We are facing perhaps one of the gravest challenges since the Indian challenge to us which culminated in the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord.
There has been the cumulative impact of the panel of experts’ report of the UN secretary general, the Channel 4 documentary and The Cage by Gordon Weiss. I have seen and read all these three important elements in the campaign to accuse Sri Lanka of war crimes and general violations of humanitarian law and human rights. The government has now has shown some maturity in transitioning from personal abuse of the UN secretary general, and the questioning of his authority to appoint the panel of experts, to actually voting for his re-election with fulsome praise by Dr Palitha Kohona at the Asian Group meeting. So there is recognition that the secretary general should no longer be abused personally when he does something you disagree with but that you must deal with these things pragmatically. I’m glad that finally wisdom has dawned, first of all in our ministry of external affairs and subsequently in other higher places in government.
How would you assess our reaction to accusations of war crimes?
There appears to be some acknowledgement that the charges about Sri Lanka are in the public domain and have to be addressed. They can’t be wished away and they can’t all be attributed to nasty people who make dirty accusations about our country. They have to be confronted. At a recent meeting in New York , Dr Palitha Kohona and Maj Gen Shavendra Silva did make a very creditable effort to defend the Sri Lanka point of view. I don’t know whether they convinced the audience but at least they confronted the accusers. Likewise, they spoke at another event at which the director of the Channel 4 report presented his documentary. This is very good but not enough. We must stop the knee-jerk, emotional reaction to condemn critics of Sri Lanka as being hired by the Tamil disapora, the rump of the LTTE abroad and other denigratory phrases that are used. We must see that they could constitute a very serious challenge to our national interest. My strong recommendation, which was there in the Friday Forum statement on the panel of experts’ report, is that there has to be a domestic investigation by Sri Lankans of these allegations.
Do you find the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission inadequate?
The LLRC, much as I support what they are doing… I gave evidence before it… and as much as I have confidence in some of the members of the commission, I know that their mandate is a limited one. It’s not as extensive as that which is covered by these people who are accusing Sri Lanka of war crimes and other violations. It is confined to a certain period, it is also focused on reconciliation and, let’s face, it the whole intent of the LLRC was to point a finger at the UNP for what it did during the ceasefire period.
What would be the ideal composition of a local investigative body?
We have still very eminent judges in this country who have retired.
Are you recommending a quasi judicial mechanism?
It has to be. I personally don’t think an international investigation is necessary when we have perfectly capable people in this country who can investigate, provided they are given the independence, the facilities and the budget. But there has also got to be credibility which derives from the personalities of the people appointed as well as the assurance that whatever they report will be published and action will be taken. In the interim report of the LLRC, recommendations were made which were eminently sensible and humane, and which would have been a step in the process of reconciliation that the government talks about. The president accepted the recommendations very promptly, to his credit. A committee was appointed, the usual bureaucratic game, presided over by Attorney General Mohan Peiris, but we have still not heard about implementation. This, itself, is going to cut at the root of the credibility of the LLRC! What guarantee have we got that a) the report will be published b) that it will be implemented if the interim recommendations, which were very, very simple, are not implemented.
Which recommendations are you particularly concerned about?
They asked that the names of those who have been detained be published. This would have alleviated the mental agony of families who don’t know whether the disappeared youth and males in their family were killed or are in detention. All your proud claims about economic development in the north and east, and of having rehabilitated some of the child soldiers, are rendered meaningless when you can’t do a simple thing as reveal the names of these people. These flaws in our record can easily be rectified and it is sad these people who sit in power don’t realise that simple gestures like this can mean a lot to the families of the minorities who have been affected by the war. It is possible that some of these detainees are as guilty as hell for collusion with the LTTE and for various acts of rebellion against the elected state. Then frame charges and punish them. Don’t let them languish, it’s like Guantanamo ! We were righteous in our indignation about what happened at Guantanamo but aren’t we doing the same thing? We have to really clean up our act in a lot of these areas.
At what forum could there be international action, if any, against Sri Lanka ?
The challenge can take place in international bodies such as the Security Council but we are fairly assured that, because of our friendship with some of the permanent members, we are likely to be sheltered from any Chapter 7 resolution against Sri Lanka which is condemnatory and punitive. We are also fairly confident that in the UN Human Rights Council we will not be the subject of a punitive resolution.
The Non-Aligned Movement is still in a majority in the Human Rights Council. The minister of external affairs made a strange statement saying that twenty-two NAM members are in support of us. He forgets that there 116 NAM members so 22 out of 116 is not a sufficient majority. But generally the NAM feels identification with Sri Lanka , which is one of the pioneers of the NAM and a former chairperson. I think we are relatively safe but I don’t think we should be complacent about it. We have to take our case to everybody including those that we perceive to be our opponents. Where we are vulnerable is with regard to bilateral actions. The election of a Tamil woman, and a highly articulate one at that, to the legislature of Canada , albeit from an opposition party, is symptomatic of what could happen in future. There is a growing political power of expat Tamil communities who feel a sense of grievance against the government of Sri Lanka . This is either because they think there is Sinhala Buddhist triumphalism on our part or that the destruction of the LTTE was done on terms which were not acceptable to them and that we have not followed it up with a political solution.
Are you referring to action against Sri Lankan leaders and officials in domestic courts?
Yes, and also in domestic legislatures. The most clear and recent example is the decision of Howard Berman’s International Affairs Committee. It is possible for people like Berman to be converted to our case if we have a good case. There are other Western nations with significant expatriate Tamil elements that are a vocal and potent influence. Just as much as other minorities have helped to shape and influence US and British policy towards the countries from which they came, the same thing will happen. This can affect our fundamental economic interest. Until such time as we make a huge shift, which is like turning an enormous ship around, the pattern of our imports and exports remains Western oriented, the pattern of our tourism is largely Western oriented, the pattern of our investment is Western oriented and so is the pattern of our trade. You can’t immediately jettison all of this. If people are going to impose sanctions on us, it will hurt.
But the US assistance towards Sri Lanka is not significant.
It’s true that the aid package from the US is not so great. But there may be other more significant pieces of the economic cake that might be deprived to us if this snowballs. There is that danger, unless we take that action. Nobody really knows what happened in the concluding stages apart from the soldiers and those who were present on the ground. Let’s find out. I think this total denial is ridiculous. To say no civilians were killed beggars belief! We are painting ourselves into a corner with these Cloud Cuckoo Land theories. Somebody must get serious about it and find out what really happened. If there were no violations of international humanitarian law, fine. But if there were, say, one or two people who did some terrible things, then let’s find out who they were.
In a report released this week, Channel 4 has made further accusations against our military. It is difficult to believe such horrific abuses took place.
We have heard about the fog of war… various items of bestiality shrouded by the fog of war, not only in our war but in other wars. But what is sad is that the fog of war is extending into a fog of peace so that even when we have closed that sad chapter, we are being haunted by what is supposed to have happened. Let’s lay it bare and have a final accounting so that the consciences of the people of Sri Lanka can be clear. Yes, maybe there were one or two incidents but that does not mean the entire army was to blame. It’s a very legitimate exercise. We are not impugning the honour of our army. They did a magnificent job in beating this ruthless, bestial enemy.
Does the result of the recent local government poll in the north reinforce the need for the president to take an initiative?
Absolutely! We have already started a dialogue with the TNA. That should continue with some sense of urgency. We can’t let the minorities feel they have lost status in this country in terms of power-sharing, in terms of their fundamental rights. We know that in many police stations, still, the right to use their own language is not being implemented. We know that land is a serious issue, that there are evidently a lot of investments in land developments in the north and east which ignore the rights of minorities. There are allegations of demographic changes taking place, all of which are serious questions. TNA MP Mr Sumanthiran recently tabled a statement in parliament while Mr Sampanthan had an adjournment motion during which he produced a litany of charges against the government. I’m not saying all those charges are true but let’s have a reasoned response instead of dismissing them as coming from a party which once upon a time were so cowed by the LTTE that they adopted LTTE policies. The situation has changed. The people of the north have elected these people by over 70 percent and in some cases 80 per cent. You have to accept the democratic verdict. We accept it when it comes to the rest of the country but ignore when it comes to the east and to the north.
Could we not win over the minorities with development?
We seem to be making a hugely mistaken assumption that economic development alone will satisfy minority grievances. This is a fundamental misreading of history. If you look at ethnic problems throughout the world, ethnic problems and the question of ethnic identify exists in the most developed countries. The Balkans was quite developed. I have visited Yugoslavia before the breakup and I was amazed. They had 20 million tourists and they were doing very well. They were bidding in developing countries for tenders and yet the Balkans broke up because of the strong ethnic identities. Look at what’s happening in Belgium between the Walloons and the Flemish speaking people; in Spain , with the Basques, and in so many other developed countries. Filling a man or woman’s pockets and filling their stomachs does not make them forget their political and human rights as ethnic or religious minorities. So we must not assume that because we are having development-and we are getting development done in the north and in the east, I have seen it with my own eyes-that is not going to help. The local polls results just this week showed that is not enough. People need to feel that they have equal rights with the rest of the country and we have to make sure that is satisfied.
Are we using India ’s position in the world to our advantage?
India is showing herself as gently as possible, no longer in the ham-fisted way in which Indira Gandhi functioned. India is telling us to please expedite a solution and trying to assist us in many ways. They have helped us with regard to the internally displaced, with regards to economic development, lines of credit and so on. A lot of this is happening but we seem to be not taking that message. courtesy: LakbimaNews