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U.S. gives its final judgment on Rajapaksa regime via State Department Report

(Courtesy of Asian Tribune)

US State Dept.The U.S. State Department’s overseas diplomatic mission in Colombo had all the liberty in the first several months of this year – due to Washington’s unusual delay in preparing the Annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices – to provide a forceful and pugnacious judgment of the previous Rajapaksa administration’s entire second term not only for the year 2014 as mandated by the US Congress in reporting human rights practices on individual nations.

Instead of reporting what the state department learned through its investigation and inquiries for the year 2014, the department’s South and
Central Asian Affairs Bureau worked with its Colombo diplomatic mission to cover the Rajapaksa second term of five years in its report – not a practice done when assessing human rights records of many other nations.

Report of each country is prepared by the state department’s overseas diplomatic mission based in that country. The Colombo-based US foreign
service officers (FSOs) throughout the year gather information to be assessed and compiled in the year’s end report which is incorporated in the
‘Bulky’ report released not later than March each year.

The drafts are shared and revised many a time by Washington South Asia Bureau and Colombo diplomatic mission until the final product is shaped. This year it was unusually late in releasing it on June 25. It gave the diplomats in the Colombo mission unusual liberty to cover the entire second term of the Rajapaksa administration as a final judgment of a regime – which was ousted while the report is being shaped. It was no secret that the the relations between the two nations during the Rajapaksa regime was at its lowest ebb.

The Rajapaksa regime did not heed the call of the United States and some Western powers to arrange a ceasefire with the leadership of the LTTE which faced an imminent defeat in the final weeks in May 2009, a state department design to prevent a total annihilation of the secessionist movement to save the group as a ‘pressure group’ to check the ‘Sinhalese chauvinistic tendencies’ of the nation’s governance.

The final report – the Sri Lanka section – was refined and broadened obviously since the advent of the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe administration.
The contents of the report willingly give fodder to the new Sri Lanka regime to pound on the previous Rajapaksa regime. And also to adhere the Washington call that Sri Lanka needs to cooperate with Geneva to settle its accountability and openness issues.

It is very obvious that the Human Rights Report mentions about the UN Darusman Report, the 2010 LLRC Report and many other ‘ancient’ details, that were connected to the 2014 report. Scant mention of previous reports are done but not extensively as done in this year’s report.

Nevertheless, the 2014 Report has seen the light of the day vehemently denouncing the governing style of the Rajapaksa regime proving much fodder to the current Sri Lanka regime which is on a well disclosed campaign to round-up that regime’s principal individuals and the regimes policy decisions and actions to consolidate its power at present and beyond the parliamentary elections expected in a few months.

Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa has gone on record that the United States is guiding the current regime.  The State Department report also gives a signal that its contempt of the previous regime is an indication that the current administration need to enter the American orbit.

The report refreshes the memories of the contents of the 2011 UN Secretary-General appointed committee in this manner:

(Quote) In 2011 a panel of experts appointed by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon published a report stating there were credible allegations of
serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by the government, including large-scale shelling of no-fire zones; systematic shelling of hospitals and other civilian targets; and summary execution, rape, and torture of those in the conflict zone in 2009 as the conflict came to an end. The report also highlighted a number of credible allegations against the LTTE, including using civilians as a
strategic buffer, using forced labor (including children), and committing summary executions of civilians attempting to flee the conflict zone. The
report estimated there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths, including victims on both sides of the conflict. Government officials issued statements strongly criticizing the report’s findings and opposing the report’s recommendations but refused to respond formally to the United Nations. In October the government reiterated its rejection of the panel’s findings. At year’s end there was still no progress on the panel’s
recommendations. (End Quote)

This state department observation signals to the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe administration that it needs to work closely with the UNHRC in Geneva to bring alleged war criminals to task.

At the outset of the report in its Executive Summary the report identifies the group of persons who were responsible for the governance of the country: “President Rajapaksa’s family dominated government. Two of President Rajapaksa’s brothers held key executive branch posts, as defense secretary and economic development minister, and a third brother was the speaker of Parliament. A large number of the President Rajapaksa’s other relatives, including his son, also served in important political and diplomatic positions.”

Then it goes on to say: “Government officials and others tied to the ruling coalition enjoyed a high degree of impunity. The government prosecuted a very small number of government and military officials implicated in human rights abuses and had yet to hold anyone accountable for alleged violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law that occurred during the conflict that ended in 2009.”

The State Department provides its previous knowledge of the following for the current Sri Lanka administration to comprehend:

(Quote) In its August 4 report to the UN General Assembly, the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) noted the number of outstanding cases of enforced or involuntary disappearances had risen from 5,676 at the end of 2012 to 5,731. Between December 2012 and March, the UN WGEID submitted four official letters requesting “prompt intervention” by the government in response to alleged threats, intimidation, and the arrest of human rights defenders, most of them from the Northern Province. In its August report, the WGEID reiterated that the government needed to “ensure that all involved in the investigation” of enforced and involuntary disappearances, “including the complainant, counsel, witnesses and those conducting the investigation, are protected against ill-treatment, intimidation, or reprisal.” In October 2013 the WGEID issued its fifth reminder to the government of its initial 2006 request to be invited to the country for an official visit. At year’s end the government still had not responded to the eight-year standing request. (End Quote)

Of the disappearances and the steps taken by the Rajapaksa administration, the State Department Human Rights Report observes:

(Quote) There was very limited progress made with regard to the thousands of disappearances from past years. The government did not publish the results of any investigations into disappearances, nor did it publish information on any investigations, indictments, or convictions of anyone involved in cases related to disappearances.

In August 2013 President Rajapaksa announced the creation of a new commission to investigate incidents of missing persons during the country’s 26-year civil war. The government appointed Maxwell Parakrama Paranagama, a former Supreme Court justice and member of the LLRC, to chair the three-member commission that was to issue a report after a thorough, six-month investigation. In February and again in August, the president extended the commission’s mandate by six months. The commission took public testimony on just over 1,440 of more than 20,000 cases registered by December, raising concerns regarding the commission’s slow pace of work.

Observers identified numerous problems in the commission’s work. These included, but were not limited to: the intimidation of commission witnesses (including on the same day their testimonies were taken); the provision of transport by the military for witnesses to travel to and from the testimony sites; the presence of intelligence officers at public testimony (including taking photographs of witnesses and those present); commission questioning that overly focused on LTTE culpability and witness compensation; and poor or misleading interpretation of witness testimony, which undermined the quality of evidence gathered in the first instance.

On July 15, via official gazette notification, the government broadened the commission’s scope to include inquiring into, and reporting on, alleged war crimes committed during the country’s civil war. Under the new mandate, which many observers viewed as an effort by the government to counter or replace the OHCHR investigation, the government tasked the commission on missing persons with determining whether the loss of civilian life during the war resulted from “proportionate attacks against targeted military objectives in armed conflict” and whether the civilian casualties were either the deliberate or unintended consequences of war. The commission was to also report on whether the LTTE, as a non state actor, was subject to international humanitarian law in the conduct of its military operations; inquire into the LTTE’s use of civilians as human shields, recruitment of child soldiers, and suicide bombings; and determine whether these constituted a violation of international humanitarian law or international human rights law. In November the media reported the commission would also gather evidence of human rights violations and that it set a deadline of December 31 for the receipt of such evidence. (End Quote)

The paragraph in Italics is the most vital observation of the State Department advocating the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe administration to
establish a mechanism to work with the UN in Geneva.

To justify the rapport with Geneva, the report states “This view of the commission’s inability to provide justice was widely held among Tamils.”

On Freedom of Speech and Media Freedom, the State Department noted:

“Freedom of Speech: The constitution provides for the right to free speech. Authorities subjected this right, however, to a host of restrictions,
including public morality and national security. The government attempted to impede criticism throughout the year, including through harassment, intimidation, violence, and detention. The government monitored political meetings, particularly in the north and east. There also were credible reports that civilian and military officials questioned local residents who met with foreign diplomats regarding the content of their meetings as well as groups that held similar meetings.

Press Freedoms: In its Freedom of the Press 2014 report, Freedom House noted a “dramatic decline” in press freedom in the country over the previous decade. The report attributed the continued decline in press freedom to “increased harassment of both local and foreign journalists trying to cover protests and sensitive stories” and “attacks on printing and distribution channels for private media and blocks on web content” that resulted in a “more constricted space for independent news.””

The Rajapaksa government’s attitude regarding international and nongovernmental investigation of alleged violations of human rights, the
report states:

(Excerpts) A number of domestic and international human rights groups continued to investigate and publish their findings on human rights cases, despite government restrictions and physical threats of attack, including death threats. The government often denounced local and international NGOs, failed to respond to NGO requests for assistance, and pressured NGOs that sought such assistance. The NGO Secretariat moved from the Social Services Ministry to the Ministry of Defense in 2010 and remained under the ministry at year’s end. Several NGOs noted a lack of clarity in ministry procedures and enforcement of regulations.

Authorities frequently harassed, followed, and arbitrarily detained human rights defenders for their activities (see section 1.d.). On March 16,
security forces detained human rights defenders Ruki Fernando and Praveen Mahesan for their effort to gather details regarding the March 13 arrest of Balendran Jeyakumari at her Kilinochchi home (see also section 1.d.). Following international criticism of the arrests, authorities released the two on March 19 after 51 hours in detention.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The UNHRC passed  resolution 25/1 in March, to promote “reconciliation, accountability and
human rights in Sri Lanka,” and asked the OHCHR to begin a comprehensive investigation into “alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties” during the period covered by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. The government refused to assist the OHCHR in its inquiry. In response to subsequent UN requests for the government to cooperate with the investigation, the government publicly rejected the investigation and declined to cooperate in any way, including denying visas to members of the OHCHR investigation team. In September, UN high commissioner for human rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s oral update to the UNHRC reiterated the OHCHR’s request for government cooperation with the investigation; asked the government to “initiate a comprehensive truth seeking process”; and urged it to “end the climate of intimidation, threat and harassment against civil society actors advocating for justice and human rights.”

On November 7, in response to repeated public statements by the government questioning the credibility and integrity of the OHCHR investigation on Sri Lanka, as well as mounting evidence of the government’s efforts to intimidate potential witnesses, the high commissioner issued a press release that “condemned the intimidation of human rights defenders and individuals who may wish to cooperate with the investigation” and asked, “Why would governments with nothing to hide go to such extraordinary lengths to sabotage an impartial international investigation?” He called the government’s actions “unacceptable conduct for any Member State of the United Nations which has committed to uphold the UN Charter” and criticized “the wall of fear” the government was creating “to deter people from submitting evidence.” On November 8, permanent representative to the United Nations, Ravinatha Aryasinha, wrote to the high commissioner, calling the press release “regrettable” and claimed the government had made no attempt “to deter and intimidate individuals from submitting evidence” to the OHCHR investigation. He stated that the government had continuing concerns regarding the OHCHR investigation process and questioned the high commissioner for having “challenged the right of a sovereign State to raise concerns regarding procedural aspects of an Investigation which impacts its persons and their future in the context of the ongoing sensitive reconciliation process.” (End Excerpts)

The report highlights: “At year’s end there were nine outstanding requests for visits to the country from UN special procedures mandate holders,
including on the independence of judges and lawyers; minority issues; enforced or involuntary disappearances; human rights defenders; freedom of expression; extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions; freedom of peaceful assembly and association; discrimination against women in law and practice; and truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non recurrence. The UN high commissioner for human rights reiterated former high commissioner Pillay’s August 2013 request that the government move forward with the visits by the independent expert on minority issues and the special rapporteur on enforced and involuntary disappearances, in particular.”

The State Department reminds Sri Lanka that “Throughout the year there was little, if any, progress on recommendations relating to international
humanitarian law, human rights, democratic governance, and press freedom concerns.”

Former assistant secretary of the state department Richard Boucher during his 2006 visit to Colombo acknowledged the Tamil demand for a ‘Homeland’, the first occasion an American official referred to these controversial issues.

The final paragraph of the US State Department report on Sri Lanka’s human rights practices carry this observation somewhat closer to what Mr. Richard Boucher declared in 2006.

“Tamils stated the government was undertaking efforts to alter the demographic realities of the north and east to diminish Tamil-speaking
peoples’ claim to majority status in any single geographical region in the country. Throughout the year evidence of state-sponsored settlements of Sinhalese communities in the north continued to mount, especially in Vavuniya District. Government officials stated that the Vavuniya settlements consisted of resettled Sinhalese families who fled the area during the war,
but such claims were impossible to verify.”

By Daya Gamage

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