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 Politics

Govt. on a razor's edge and the threat of international blacklisting


Rauf Hakeem, Mahinda Rajapakse, Basil Rajapakse and Arumugam Thondaman

Security forces personnel and policemen
face int'l. blacklisting

Govt. submits service chiefs to jurisdiction of
int'l. criminal courts

Thondaman boycotts cabinet and CWC walks
out of Emergency Vote as warning to Govt.

Hakeem battles President in cabinet on plight of Muslims

SLMC working Comm. wants MPs to vote against budget

While the government sat on a razor's edge last week with the outcome of the final vote on the budget scheduled for December 14 tantalisingly poised, the human rights noose was also being tightened internationally with security forces personnel reduced to pariah status and the administration itself facing growing isolation.

For a long time now, it was the LTTE that was on the backfoot internationally over human rights abuse but with increasing condemnation of the government's own failure to address gross violations, the international community appears to be now fast-tracking action on the administration and security forces personnel no less, as evinced from recent developments.

To make matters worse the LTTE too having distanced themselves from the international community for failing to hold the government accountable for human rights abuses in the same measure the organisation was, has now started targeting civilians, signalling in the process the country would slide further into a bloody Christmas and a gory new year.

This development would no doubt upset the government's planned military offensives with troops now having to be deployed throughout the country to maintain a high level of security with the attacks on Nugegoda, Yala and Kebethigollewa during the last two weeks being good indicators.

Fell for trap

And predictably the government walked right into the LTTE's trap in the face of such attacks by cracking down on civilians in direct violation of their human rights with even Chief Justice Sarath Silva getting in on the act and commenting harshly on the checkpoints that have mushroomed all over the country.

The fact that the government had no proper security network in place despite the empty boasts of Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse was also evident from the knee jerk reactions following the attacks with schools being closed and arbitrary arrests made of Tamil civilians while the ailing tourism industry too faced a body blow with plans to bus passengers departing from and arriving in Sri Lanka.

Thus, what the LTTE has done by just a couple of attacks however unpalatable it may be for the south to swallow in the context of the war euphoria that was built up, is show how vulnerable the south can be with panic being the buzzword, further impacting in the process on an economy already in a tailspin.

Mind you there is going to be no respite for the people from this bloody scenario in the foreseeable future either with both the government and the LTTE shutting the door for negotiations with increasing human rights violations and civilian deaths both in the north and the south bound to be the order of the day.

In the dog house

But what the Rajapakse brothers may not realise is the devastating effect their chosen path would lead the country to with the international community all set to put the government in the dog house economically and politically.

Already, the US has stopped the Millennium Challenge Account funds to Sri Lanka over its human rights record with Congress too introducing a provision in the Appropriations Act of 2008 stopping all military assistance on the same grounds; while the European Union threat over GSP plus looms large.

The Generalised System Preferences Plus  is what allows Sri Lankan garments made of fabrics from South Asia enter Europe without duty and removal of this facility will be the death knell for the country's garment industry and this prospect also seems real as the European Union gets set to review the facility in March in light of the country's human rights record.

The special incentive arrangement for sustainable development and good governance identified as GSP plus covers 15 countries of which Sri Lanka is one but runs the risk of losing that benefit due to the country's human rights record.

Further to this development, the EU is also considering introducing a resolution against Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council next week, with the US too expected to back the effort in the face of Rajapakse tilting towards Iran, all of which necessarily means, the government will be left with few fall back options such as the African nations.

And the most significant warning for Sri Lanka in the current context came from Canada with a clear message sent that as much as the LTTE, any person attached to the security forces or police will also be treated as a human rights offender and refused entry.

Complicity in war crimes

This fact was highlighted in an article published on Monday, December 3 in Canada's National Post under the heading, "Deportation orders: Ottawa treating government forces same as Tigers," where the fate of a former Sri Lankan Police Officer, Raja Kasturiarachchi was discussed.

The article quotes the Canada Border Service Agency as stating it intends to deport Kasturiarachchi because he was complicit in war crimes, and mind you, he is facing this ordeal merely because of serving in the national police force.

"As a former Sri Lankan police chief, the CBSA says  Kasturiarachchi is to blame for 'systematic' and 'widespread' abuses committed by the force 'on a regular, on going basis.' The case is one of several that suggest Canada has adopted a new hardline approach against those involved in Sri Lanka's bloody civil war - regardless of which side they were on," the report adds (see Page 13 for full report).

This development no doubt will be worrying especially for those in public office holding foreign passports since they could be held accountable for war crimes someday, when they return to the country in which they have citizenship merely for being party to a government accused of human rights violations and this aspect the international community is seriously looking at.

The irony of course is that the government has submitted itself to the jurisdictions of foreign courts while publicly professing it has not subscribed to the UN War Crimes Tribunal and the like as much as it decries UN peace keeping in Sri Lanka as an affront to national sovereignty but at the same time despatches security forces personnel by the hundreds to other countries for peace keeping, Haiti being an example.

And so it was with Sri Lanka's Army Commander Sarath Fonseka and Navy Commander Wasantha Karannagoda who were mandated by the Foreign Ministry to give evidence in an Australian Court on a case involving three Tamils suspected to have funded the LTTE.

Precedent created

It is not immediately clear whether Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona being an Australian citizen authorised the service chiefs to submit themselves to the jurisdiction of the Australian criminal courts but it has now created a precedent from which the state will be hard put to pull back when it comes to other nations too.

True, in the instant case, the two service chiefs were witnesses for the prosecution but were subjected to intense cross examination on human rights violations in Sri Lanka and for the sake of argument, what if they perjured themselves? Does that mean they can be prosecuted in the Australian courts since they had submitted to their jurisdiction or is the government to at that point plead diplomatic immunity?

It is this type of foolhardy and contradictory positions on foreign policy that has left the government vulnerable on the human rights front which will come to haunt the movers and shakers in the administration at a future date, unless the human rights trend in the country is reversed even though it may be even now too late.

Interestingly, it was on Monday, December 3, the Navy Commander, Wasantha Karannagoda appeared by video link in the Melbourne Magistrates Court and faced intense cross examination on the country's human rights record, where he denied extracting evidence under torture.

"Under questioning from Defence Barrister, Philip Boulten SC, Vice Admiral Karannagoda denied ever hearing of widely reported allegations that Sri Lankan authorities had tortured former members of the separatist LTTE during interrogations. He cited military intelligence obtained during 'interviews' with Tamil Tiger cadres who had fled the LTTE's command and 'sought assistance' from the Sri Lankan government as the source of much of the sworn material contained in his witness statement tendered to court," the newspaper Australian reported on Tuesday.

Trials in foreign

 criminal courts

The bottom line however is that the government has allowed its service chiefs to submit themselves to the jurisdiction of foreign criminal courts and there is now no turning back if the roles are reversed, with a precedent already set, lest it becomes an admissibility of guilt.

And the chaos and confusion in government continued with CWC Leader Thondaman himself taking the government to court Friday for violating the human rights of estate Tamils through their arbitrary arrest and detention in last weekend's crackdown.

That the CWC was furious at the happenings in the country was also evident with Thondaman boycotting the cabinet meeting on Wednesday, December 5 and all its members boycotting the emergency debate in parliament on Thursday, sending a clear message to the government, its lifeline may soon run out of oxygen. Mind you these decisions were taken by the party after intense internal deliberations on Wednesday.

That the CWC meant business was also evident from the orders that went out to Deputy Minister S. Sellasamy, who due to a miscommunication was present in the chamber for the emergency debate vote.

But within moments, Sellasamy got orders from the CWC leadership to leave the chamber and leave he did before the vote was taken. Indeed, the CWC was also absent for the Defence Ministry vote with Sellasamy the only exception not having got the message at the time to move out.

That same Wednesday Thondaman boycotted cabinet, the government was to receive yet another body blow with Muslim Congress Leader and Posts Minister, Rauf Hakeem locking horns with President Rajapakse over the fate of the northern Muslims, once again bringing into sharp focus how vulnerable the administration is.

Just 72 hours earlier, when the SLMC Working Committee met, the overwhelming opinion was that the party should vote against the budget on December 14 due to the harassment the community was subjected to, especially on issues concerning their lands with JHU Minister Champika Ranawaka's Environment Ministry accused of forcible eviction of Muslim farmers.

Resettling Puttalam Muslims

In fact, there was only one working committee member who called upon the party to abstain from voting with all other members calling for the budget's defeat, prompting Minister Hakeem to ask for one more week to take a final decision.

Thus, it is with  the full weight of the party behind him that Hakeem strode into cabinet and rose to the challenge when President Rajapakse called on the Muslims settled in Puttalam to return to their homes in the north without being a burden to the south.

The issue erupted when Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services Minister Rishard Bathiudeen submitted a cabinet paper for the appointment of a consultant which saw the President breathing fire over the issue of the Muslims resettled in Puttalam not returning to their homes in the north.

Said President Rajapakse, "The Muslims resettled in Puttalam must go back to their homes in the north. They cannot reside there permanently. They have given up their lands to the Tigers and come here. They must go back."

Whilst Minister Bathiudeen was lost for words in the face of the President's stinging response, his erstwhile leader Rauf Hakeem rose to his colleague's defence telling Rajapakse the issue cannot be dispensed with in such simplistic logic.

Said Hakeem, "You cannot ask the Muslims resettled in Puttalam to go back in this fashion. It can only happen in stages under a properly coordinated plan. Because of security fears they will not go back in large numbers."

President's comparison

Shot back Rajapakse - "If the Muslims in Vaharai could have gone back why can't those resettled in Puttalam?"

Retorted Hakeem, "They (Muslims in Vaharai) were displaced only recently and the conditions were created for them to go back. The Muslims resettled in Puttalam have been there for over 17 years. That is, practically a whole generation has grown up in this area. You cannot just order them to go back without having proper systems and infrastructure in place. It should be a long term resettlement programme."

Rising to the challenge as the leader among the Muslims both in and out of cabinet, added Hakeem for effect - "There must be a political settlement before they are forced to go back. Otherwise, they will not have the necessary security to go back. Will the Sinhalese who were displaced from Jaffna go back if they are given orders to do so?"

Not relenting, the President said even the Muslims displaced from Muttur had returned to their lands and that there was no reason only for those resettled in Puttalam to remain and add to the burdens of the people in the area, comments, Hakeem scoffed at.

Pedestrian solution

Replied he - "Those Muslims were displaced under different circumstances. The east has a substantial concentration of Muslims and they have safety in numbers at least theoretically. Therefore, there is a sense of security. It is not the case in the north. There must be a more professional approach and a broader understanding of the problem. You cannot have pedestrian solutions to such grave human problems by simply saying those resettled in Puttalam must go back."

The President however did not agree and continued to reiterate his position that the Muslims resettled in Puttalam from the north must be asked to go back, and finally an exasperated Hakeem let go of the issue, no doubt biding his time for an appropriate response. And on Thursday, when it came to the emergency vote, Hakeem too like Thondaman was absent from the House.

All these developments, the government realises are problems that have to be overcome before December 14 and President Rajapakse himself struck a note of caution when he addressed the parliamentary group of the ruling alliance on Monday.

At that meeting, the President said he was confident of winning the budget vote on December 14 but added that in any event MPs should not fear facing a general election because they could win it.

Sign of vulnerability

This reference to a general election was to most MPs a sure sign of vulnerability on the part of the government when it came to the December 14 vote and they were to vent their feelings after the  meeting to Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapakse, who reassured them not a single member who voted for the government on November 19 will do otherwise during the third reading.

But Rajapakse knew all was not honky-dory with the Muslim Congress informing him that the party's working committee decided overwhelmingly to vote against the budget unless the President acted on issues raised by them before December 14.

For the SLMC, mere assurances by the President did not suffice. They wanted action taken to restore the lands from which Muslims were evicted before December 14.

Such concrete action was deemed essential because the SLMC knew only too well, they will not get another opportunity to put the Rajapakses to the sword after December 14 because the JVP will not necessarily vote against the government collectively with the opposition on any other issue outside the budget.

Thus, the minority parties took the view, unless they get their demands met before December 14, they will once again be at the mercy of the Rajapakse brothers and it is towards this end that the CWC took the fight to the administration over the detention of Tamils in last weekend's crackdown.

Shift of alliance

In simple terms, with the JVP already announcing it will vote against the budget on December 14, the combined opposition will count for 105 votes with the government having 118 votes in its bag. And with the CWC and the SLMC counting for 12 votes, any shift in alliance will make the Rajapakse administration history.

This fact the government knows but President Rajapakse was assured by Basil Rajapakse he will ensure victory on December 14 provided he agrees to all the demands forwarded by the CWC and the SLMC.

The younger Rajapakse being the political animal he is was to impress upon the President the importance of conceding all the demands, stating after December 14, they would once again hold the whip hand with both parties then being completely at the government's mercy for survival.

Interestingly, such was the desperation in government, the editor of one Sunday newspaper had been reportedly summoned to the Presidential Secretariat and played an alleged taped telephone conversation between two politicos on a possible crossover with a request for the story to be published. That at least is what the editor later claimed to a party identified in the story when confronted with several inaccuracies in the report.

Possible upset

Be that as it may, the government became all the more alert to a possible upset in parliament after UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe made public new constitutional provisions which needed to be introduced to strengthen parliament and control the powers of the executive presidency.

That move was a sure sign to keen political observers that the proposals had to be a consensus effort in consultation with other parties in parliament but the success or failure of the proposals will depend on the outcome in parliament on December 14.

For now, the government appears to be on life support.

 


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