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Foreign relations Swiss fiasco highlights need to revisit Geneva resolution

(Courtesy of  The Island)

One-time Sri Lankan Ambassador in Qatar, A.S.P. Liyanage, was among those who contested the 2019 presidential election. Of the 35 contestants, Liyanage polled 6,447 votes (0.05 per cent). The Sri Lanka Labour Party leader secured the 20th position and was among 33 out of 35 contestants who failed to save their deposits. A section of the media ridiculed Liyanage after he was pictured, in Oct 2018, welcoming Yoshitha Rajapaksa and Rohitha Rajapaksa at the Hamad International Airport, Qatar, and carrying their bags. The former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s sons were there with the CH and FC rugby team for a match. Another political appointee, Ruwan Danansooriya, on the Qatar Embassy staff was pictured pushing a trolley, loaded with visitors’ bags.

The entrepreneur received important diplomatic posting, in early March 2017, courtesy of the then President Maithripala Sirisena. During the Rajapaksa administration, Liyanage served as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Nigeria.

Previously Chairman/MD of the ASP Group, Liyanage contested the presidential polls, in 2010 and 2015. The chubby businessman received 0.14 and 0.12 per cent, of the votes, respectively.

Liyanage was just one political appointee cleared by the so called High Posts Committee of Parliament. Successive governments packed Lankan overseas missions with political appointees. It would be pertinent to mention that President Sirisena gave Liyanage a top diplomatic posting, though the man actually pleaded for a Governorship.

Diplomatic appointments, received by Liyanage, reflected the crisis in the Foreign Service, struggling to cope up with growing challenges. Obviously, in this land like no other, anyone can not only secure a top diplomatic posting, but also seek the highest office in the country.

Passenger Transport and Power and Energy Minister Mahinda Amaraweera, on Dec 19, declared that they couldn’t be satisfied with services rendered by those serving our diplomatic service overseas. Amaraweera found fault with successive governments for accommodating defeated candidates and retired public servants in the Foreign Service. Alleging that the Foreign Service had pathetically failed to serve Sri Lanka’s interests abroad, the SLFPer expressed confidence that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa would uplift the Foreign Service.

Hambantota District lawmaker Amaraweera owed an explanation as to why he waited so long to take up the contentious issue. Amaraweera cannot be unaware that all heads of missions are cleared by the Parliamentary High Posts Committee. Did Amaraweera ever oppose a political appointment made at the expense of career diplomats? In fact, the then President Sirisena cleared the way for A.S.P. Liyanage to take over the Qatar mission when Amaraweera was serving the UNP-UPFA yahapalana coalition, which betrayed the Sri Lankan military at the Geneva-based Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Oct 2015.

Post-Swiss Embassy incident study on challenges

The writer recently had an opportunity to examine failures on the part of successive governments, regarding high profile accusations, with the focus on the Foreign Ministry. Touchy issues were discussed against the backdrop of two recent incidents, involving the Swiss Embassy, in Colombo. The Swiss accommodating Inspector Nishantha Silva on its political asylum programme and Swiss Ambassador Hanspeter Mock alleging on behalf of Embassy worker Garnia Banister Francis, that she was abducted on Nov 25, the day after Inspector Silva left the country.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government acted swiftly, and decisively, to counter the high profile Western project. Veteran politician Dinesh Gunawardena, who had never held the foreign affairs portfolio, handled the situation well, with Foreign Secretary Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha playing a significant role. There had never been a previous instance of Sri Lanka successfully countering such a high profile propaganda project meant to undermine the government.

The Swiss operation took President Gotabaya Rajapaksa government by surprise though the new administration responded admirably. Had the government succumbed to Western pressure, the country would have been in serious trouble. Instead, Ambassador Aryasinha, accompanied by Defence Secretary Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, on Dec 01, 2019, set the record straight at a meeting with Ambassador Mock. Whatever the Swiss say, their project has been exposed.

Foreign Relations Minister Gunawardena can be quite rightly satisfied with the ministry’s performance. President Rajapaksa appointed attorney-at-law Susil Premajayantha as State Minister for International Cooperation. In the absence of a deputy minister, Premajayantha functions as the deputy minister while being called State Minister for International Cooperation. Interestingly, there are no deputy ministers in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government. In addition to 16 cabinet ministers, including Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa, there are 39 State Ministers. The government owed public/media an explanation as to why there are two ministers to handle the vital subject split into Foreign Relations and International Cooperation. Let there be no confusion.

At the onset of eelam War IV, in August 2006, top SLFPer Mangala Samaraweera handled the subject. In early 2007, Rohitha Bogollagama replaced Samaraweera. After the conclusion of the war, in May 2009, and following the April 2010 general election, Prof. G.L. Peiris took over the ministry. One-time UNPer Bogollagama, couldn’t secure a place in parliament, at the first general election, after the end of the war. Prof. Peiris, who functioned as the leader of the then Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe’s delegation for talks with the LTTE in terms of the CFA, finalized in Feb 2002, served as the external affairs minister till the change of government, in January 2015.

The 2015 change of government brought Mangala Samaraweera back to the Foreign Ministry. Having received the backing of the four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) to install Maithripala Sirisena as the President, the UNP-SLFP combine, aka yahapalana government, co-sponsored the accountability resolution at the UNHRC, on Oct 01, 2015. In spite of President Sirisena repeatedly claiming that his approval hadn’t been obtained for the controversial move, he did nothing during his five-year term to reverse the process.

The Foreign Relations Ministry should at least now undertake a thorough examination of past events/disputed policy decisions. Although President Sirisena and many others blamed Samaraweera for the Geneva betrayal, the then minister couldn’t be faulted for implementing yahapalana policies. Had Samaraweera acted unilaterally, President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe should have had the guts to thwart his plans. Sri Lanka suffered for the failure on the part of the top political leadership. Sri Lanka endorsed the Geneva resolution in spite of the then Sri Lanka Permanent Representative in Geneva Ambassador Aryasinha strongly objecting to it at an informal session attended by Western governments. Samaraweera dismissed Aryasinha’s concerns and was instructed to finalize the resolution. Samaraweera couldn’t be faulted for the Geneva co-sponsorship. Instead, the yahapalana administration, led by President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe, should accept responsibility for the Geneva betrayal.

During Sirisena’s presidency, four held the foreign ministry portfolio: Ravi Karunanayake succeeded Samaraweera, in May 2017, before him being removed in early August 2017 amidst the media furor over Treasury bond scams perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016. One time Attorney General Tilak Marapana succeeded Karunanayake, in early August 2017. Having sacked the cabinet in late Oct 2018, President Sirisena placed the foreign ministry under Dr. Sarath Amunugama during what is dubbed as a 51-day government. Thanks to the judicial intervention, Marapana regained the foreign ministry in Dec 2018. The top lawyer held the ministry until one-time Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa convincingly defeated UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa who contested the 2019 presidential poll on the New Democratic Front (NDF), under the ‘swan’ symbol.

Had Premadasa won the presidency, Nishantha Silva, along with his wife and children, wouldn’t have sought political asylum in Switzerland and there was no requirement for the Swiss Embassy drama, orchestrated by interested parties. The UNP, too, had a role to play. No less a person than President Gotabaya Rajapaksa referred to a statement issued by defeated presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa as well as Dr. Rajitha Senaratne. Dr. Senaratne caused media furor by declaring that the abducted Swiss Embassy worker had a pistol trusted in her mouth.

President Rajapaksa assured Ambassador Mock, on Dec 16, that the alleged incident never took place. The President repeated what Ambassador Aryasinha told Mock on Dec 01 when he presented the findings of high profile investigation to the Swiss envoy.

The government earned the wrath of Western powers for its handling of the Swiss issue. Having conveniently forgotten the Swiss, accommodating Inspector Nishantha, they blamed President Rajapaksa’s administration going public with the Francis issue. President Rajapaksa didn’t mince his words when he pointed out to those who expressed concern over the media coverage as to how Garnia’s unsubstantiated allegations ended up in the New York Times as if it was the factual truth, even before Ambassador Mock complained, in writing, having met Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. US President Trump appears to be quite justified in accusing the NYT of repeatedly publishing fake news.

In fact, high profile international media coverage exposed the Swiss project. The Foreign Relations Ministry addressed the Swiss issue commendably, amidst another serious matter caused by the Conservative Party ahead of the UK general election, on Dec 12, 2019. On the instructions from Colombo, High Commissioner Manisha Gunasekera strongly reacted to the Conservative proposal for a two-state solution in Sri Lanka. The HC objected to the Conservative declaration: “We will continue to support international initiatives to achieve reconciliation, stability and justice across the world, and in the former conflict zones such Cyprus, Sri Lanka and the Middle East, where we maintain our support for the two-state solution. The Conservatives made their move at the same time Westminster Magistrate’s court delivered a ruling against Brigadier Priyanka Fernando in respect of him allegedly making a threatening gesture at LTTE supporters, who were shouting abuse against the country in front of our London High Commission, while openly waving Tiger flags. The Foreign Relations Ministry, in a statement issued on Dec 07, 2019, titled ‘Foreign Ministry comments on the judgment in the case of Brigadier Priyanka Fernando,’ without hesitation pointed out the ruling was given on the eve of the UK election general election.

It would have been better if the statement was aptly titled ‘Foreign Relations Ministry comments on the judgment in the case of Brigadier Priyanka Fernando.’ There shouldn’t be confusion over how the ministry is named and a State Minister under a different title.

Negligence on the part of past governments

The failed Swiss move, and Sri Lanka’s spirited response, should be examined against the backdrop of past Foreign/External Affairs Ministry failures. The sharp change in Sri Lanka’s response can be safely attributed to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy.

The writer, attending the workshop at the Sri Lanka College of Journalism, on Dec 21, 2019, briefly discussed as to how Sri Lanka pathetically failed to exploit Lord Naseby’s contradiction of the UN war crimes charges in Oct 2017, Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) bid to deceive the public, in 2007, with regard to war casualties (2002-2007), exposure of those propagating lies over Mannar mass graves early this year, soon after Geneva alleged there could be more secret graves, appearance of a man in Tamil Nadu alleged to have been killed by the Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI), in late 2009, Australia providing a new identity to one-time leading JVP activist, Kumar Gunaratnam and a missing LTTE child soldier appearing in an award-winning French movie, the then Northern Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran accusing the army of poisoning 104 ex-LTTE cadres in government custody and wartime accusations directed at the Navy over what was dubbed as Kanyakumari killings (in Indian waters).

The writer also compared the handling of the situation caused by the Swiss and Sri Lanka’s failure to exploit disclosure of secret talks the UN mission in Colombo had with the LTTE in 2007. Had the Rajapaksa government bothered to examine what was happening on the ground, the country would be in a much better position to counter propaganda offensives directed against our political and military leadership. Unfortunately, there hadn’t been any effort on Sri Lanka’s part to inquire into /oppose Labour Party MP, Siobhain McDonagh’s declaration, in the UK parliament in Sept. 2011, that the Sri Lankan military killed 100,000 Tamils, including 60,000 civilians, in the final phase of the war.

Another Labour Party MP Joan Ryan once functioned as former Chief Executive and Policy Advisor of UK headquartered Global Tamil Forum (GTF). The LTTE enjoyed an extremely close relationship with the GTF. Tiger ideologue/advisor Anton Balasingham lived in the UK. Having bestowed UK citizenship on Balasingham, one-time Veerakesari staffer and British High Commission employee, the British provided the terrorist leader protection, until his death in Dec 2006. Balasingham’s murderous outfit had its International Secretariat in London without impediment. Even after the assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, in early August 2005, the UK allowed Balasingham and his Australian-born wife, Adele, to conduct talks on behalf of the LTTE. Thanks to Wiki Leaks, the secret talks a high level Norwegian delegation had with Balasingham in the immediate aftermath of the Kadirgamar assassination is in the public domain.

Mrs. Balasingham, who participated in the LTTE passing out parades and even presented cyanide capsules to terrorists, lives in the UK. Those who moved court against Brigadier Fernando for allegedly making a threatening gesture never challenged the British over Adele, who nurtured the female Tiger cadres with cyanide capsules, living there.

Sri Lanka paid a very high price for ignoring Lord Naseby’s Oct 2017 disclosure made possible by the UK Freedom of Information Act 2000. The revelation could have been effectively used to counter the primary UN allegation that over 40,000 civilians perished as a result of the Vanni offensive. In an exclusive interview with the writer, in September 2019, in Colombo, Lord Naseby said that he was deeply disappointed by Sri Lanka’s failure to use his disclosure, based on wartime dispatches sent from British High Commission in Colombo to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to defend her armed forces.

The writer also asserted that the war-winning Rajapaksa administration owed the public an explanation as to why US defence attaché Lt. Colonel Lawrence Smith’s far reaching comments, at the inaugural Colombo Defence Seminar, in respect of what was dubbed as white flag killings and other accusations, were never properly used. Instead the Rajapaksa administration squandered millions of USD on PR firms under questionable circumstances. Such hare brained projects never brought any benefit to Sri Lanka. The political leadership bypassed the Foreign Ministry. Actually an inquiry is required to establish the amount of funds spent on costly foreign PR firms and to find out the truth.

The US sustained the project against Sri Lanka until the yahapalana lot betrayed the military, in Geneva, in Oct 2015. In spite of the US quitting the UNHRC, in June 2018, calling the Geneva body ‘a cesspool of political bias’ Sri Lanka remained committed to the process initiated by the US on behalf of the British, Norway et al.

The circumstances under which the US got involved in the Geneva process, having backed the then General Sarath Fonseka at the 2010 presidential election, should be examined against the backdrop of Western and Indian concerns over the Rajapaksas’ relationship with China.

With the US-Japan-India coalition taking on China, Sri Lanka should be mindful of the previous Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government entering into a Comprehensive Partnership with Japan, in Oct 2015. Stepped up Japanese diplomatic initiatives should be viewed in the right context. It would be relevant to mention President Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently received an invitation from Tokyo for an official visit.

A thorough examination of all bilateral agreements, entered into and to be signed, is necessary without further delay. There is no point in denying that Sri Lanka had entered into ACSA (Acquisition and Cross Servicing Agreement) during Sirisena’s presidency and the change of government took place in Nov 2019 when the previous government was having talks with the US on MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) and SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement).

Having played politics with the US issue, the new government finds itself in an unenviable situation. Defeated presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa recently called for the abrogation of ACSA and doing away with talks on MCC and SOFA. It would be the responsibility of the government of the day to take decisions in consultations with political parties represented in the parliament.

Foreign relations should not be undermined by party politics. During the workshop, the writer also recalled the presence of the then Sri Lankan Ambassador in Washington, top career diplomat Prasad Kariyawasam, at an event in June 2016 when TNA lawmaker Sumanthiran disclosed the reaching of an agreement on foreign judges in terms of the Geneva resolution. The head of mission cannot be faulted for following the government policy. Jaffna District MP Sumanthiran wouldn’t have made such a declaration without having specific guarantee from the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration with regard to foreign judges. Although we are being repeatedly told foreign judges, as well as security sector reforms, insisted by the so-called international community, wouldn’t be implemented, the Geneva resolution remains unchanged.

It would be the responsibility of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s administration with Minister Gunawardena’s ministry to set the record straight. The writer believes Sri Lanka should seek a comprehensive review of the Geneva resolution on the basis of Lord Naseby’s disclosure, Wiki Leaks revelations, pertaining to the war, June 2011, the US statement, as well as a still confidential UN report, prepared by the UN during the Vanni offensive. It placed the number of deaths (both LTTE and civilians) at 7,721 and the wounded at 18,479 during the period Aug 2008 to May 13, 2009. Sri Lanka never pushed the UN to examine its own report, based on information provided by those who lived in the North. Instead, the June 2011 report, released by a three-member Panel of Experts (PoE), which prohibited examination of accusations made by unknown persons was accepted. Based on that report, not open to any form of scrutiny, till 2031, Sri Lanka was blamed for deliberately killing 40,000. Lord Naseby convincingly countered these accusations. Let us hope the new government makes a comprehensive presentation in Geneva, next March 2020, to clear its name.

Let me end this piece by inviting those concerned to peruse career diplomat Chanaka Talpahewa’s ‘Peaceful Intervention in intra-State conflicts: Norwegian involvement in the Sri Lanka peace process’ to understand as to how foreign ‘interventions’ could jeopardize a country. Sri Lanka is a case in point.

By Shamindra Ferdinando



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