De-militarisation of the North-East will be complete by next year said Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, whilst calling on the international community to “give Sri Lanka a chance” amidst civil society concerns of the government’s slow progress and reneging on its commitment to the UN Human Rights Council resolution and accountability and reconciliation.
Speaking in Geneva at a public side event held by Sri Lanka’s permanent mission to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Mr Samaraweera commented on the issue of foreign judges, investigators and prosecutors in the accountability process, stating,
“There are many different opinions on what levels the international participation in the judicial mechanism ought to be. Some people say the participation of judges is paramount others say it is not possible. The decision on the contours of the mechanism will only be taken after consultations. The assurance I can give you now is that whatever the final outcome of the judicial mechanism it will be a mechanism that will have credibility and address the needs of all stakeholders and be done in consultation with all political parties.”
Responding to questions asking why Sri Lanka was scared of international judges Mangala Samaraweera said,
“We are not scared of international investigations. We feel that domestic mechanisms with international support is much easier than the process you’re suggesting which is not practical. Let me underline, a domestic mechanism does not preclude foreign participation. There is circumstances were foreign participation in certain areas is needed, especially foreign investigators and forensic experts.”
When quizzed further on the reneging by elements of Sri Lanka’s government on its commitment at the UNHRC to international judges, prosecutors and investigators in an accountability process, Mr Samaraweera said,
“We are doing it and we have the political will to do so. There are various statements made by different people, but our commitment to the Geneva resolution remains unchanged. In February addressing the nation President Sirisena said Sri Lanka is committed to implement the resolution to protect the dignity of the state, our people and the armed forces.”
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Responding to questions on whether the government would commit to addressing the intense military presence in the North-East, Mr Samaraweera said,
“We are in the process of demilitarisaiton. We have asked the armed forces to gradually move out of the north. Many of the lands held under the armed forces are now being returned. To be frank we are not happy with the speed at which land is being given back…We have asked the military to give a time line..Many of the businesses run by the army have been handed back but there are still some more. The process is ongoing and hopefully by the end of next year things will be back to normal.”
Noting that the military had given a time line, he added, “All the lands will be returned by 2018.”
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When asked about what initiatives Sri Lanka was taking to educate the Sinhala south on the need to prosecute for mass atrocities and the true meaning of the UNHRC resolution on accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, the foreign minister said,
“That is one area that our communication has not been the best in the world. We have not communicated enough about what we are doing here and what we will be doing. That is why we now have some communications people to start educating the people.”
In response to a question asking if the Sri Lanka government would ask the United Nations to extend its mandate on Sri Lanka beyond 2017 to Mr Samaraweera referred to the Secretary General of Sri Lanka’s Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM) M Tittawella, who said,
“We are in the process of setting up the legislation to deal with the truth justice and reconciliation process and once the legislation is passed we will require significant international experts and advisors and assistance in sustaining these organisations… Yes we will be asking assistance from the UN and other international systems in terms of expertise. So the short answer is yes. There is a lot more work to be done past the March.”
Commenting on recent evidence of cluster munition in Sri Lanka’s former No Fire Zone that saw the killings of Tamil civilians, the foreign minister, said,
“I have never accepted that cluster bombs were used, just that if the allegations are true, we will look into it. I have not accepted these allegations, this government has not rejected or accepted the allegations. “
In response to allegations that the Sri Lankan state was committing genocide against the Tamil people, Mr Samaraweera added,
“I really do not agree that there was genocide. But having said that there were extremely serious cases of human rights violations. Some may amount to war crimes, we don’t know. I think the time has come for Sri Lanka to know the truth. In the process of seeking the truth, we may also find out / if there were allegations of genocide we are willing to look into it.”
Speaking alongside Tamil civil society, both the International Commission of Jurists and Human Rights Watch stressed the importance of legitimate international participation in any accountability mechanism in Sri Lanka due to several past failures in Sri Lanka’s judiciary.
Human Rights Watch, further stressed the need to repeal the Prevention for Terrorism Act and asked if Sri Lanka would continue to seek further assistance from the UNHRC in implementing the resolution.
Concluding the event, which was chaired by Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to Geneva, Ravinatha Aryasinha, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister said,
“There are still the forces of reaction.. and ghosts of the past waiting for the government to make the wrong move in order to somehow get the populist leaders back into action again. This is why we are proceeding cautiously and slowly because those who have suffered want justice and they want to be assured that it will be given through a credible mechanism. Sri Lanka has a window of opportunity that it has never had before… We have to come to terms with our past and make sure all peoples of Sri Lanka can share a future.”
Other excerpts from Mr Samraweera’s opening statement at the event below:
On the government’s path since the presidential elections of 2015, Mr Samaraweera said,
“As we all know soon after the elections in 2015, a historic government consisted of a unity government that did a 180 degree turn in terms of human rights and engagement with the international community. With the election of the new government we ended a self-imposed isolation of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka broke away from the past and began to engage with the rest of the world after. Our engagement with the office of the high commissioner was advanced. We have been working closely with the OHCHR and all UN human rights mechanisms.”
Calling on the diaspora to join hands with the government, Mr Samaraweera said,
“Our government is only 10 months old and the journey ahead would be much easier especially if all those that are truly concerned join hands with us. The diaspora has a very important role. In fact that is why one of the first steps we took was to de-list some of the organisations which were listed by the earlier government.”
Speaking on the recent set up of a draft bill for a new Office of Missing Persons, the minister said,
“I am aware that some of you have expressed concerns about the public consultation process. Some are concerned that you haven’t consulted enough with the office of missing persons. The bill is available online at the moment and we would appreciate your opinion because until it is taken up in parliament there is room for more input.
However I must note that influential members of the Tamil diaspora have said the OMP is a good proposal. In drafting the legislation for the office of missing persons we consulted civil society and consulted international experts including the ICRC from the beginning.”
Sri Lanka’s Justice Minister W Rajapaksa was also present on the event panel.