Time and again, this government has been caught napping, blundering its way through key policy issues, revising crucial budget proposals, being chastised by the courts for increasing the Value Added Tax (VAT) before it was sanctioned by Parliament and clumsily negotiating the appointment of a Governor to the Central Bank before finally getting it right.
Now, it is stumbling yet again over the issue of ‘foreign’ involvement in any inquiry that will probe alleged war crimes during the final stages of the Eelam war.
The inquiry is a necessity because it has been mandated by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), following a resolution proposed by the United States which was co-sponsored by Sri Lanka. Now, Sri Lanka has to work out the modalities of how the inquiry will be conducted.
It is here that the picture gets confusing. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera struts around the world stage hinting that there would be international judges. Addressing a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva Samaraweera said last week that “we have strategies and plans to deal with the more serious and controversial issue of setting up a judicial mechanism with international assistance. Sri Lanka is no stranger to international assistance and participation”.
Samaraweera’s comments raised eyebrows in Colombo. Within days, President Maithripala Sirisena publicly declared that as long as he was President, he would not allow foreign judges to probe alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had also previously assured senior officers of the armed forces that any inquiry into alleged atrocities during the war would be carried out through a domestic mechanism.
Why then is the government speaking with forked tongue? Is it that there is a genuine difference of opinion between Minister Samaraweera and his President and Prime Minister? Even if there isn’t, it appears as if there is, if their public utterances are anything to go by. In fact, opposition stalwart Dinesh Gunewardena has already called for Samaraweera’s resignation saying that he was at variance with the Head of State’s stated position on this critical issue.
This is not a matter to be taken lightly. The UNHRC issue may have been relegated to the back pages as the government grapples with more pressing domestic concerns of the day but it won’t go away.
Minister Samaraweera’s comments in Geneva and the President’s observations that followed were already being noticed. The matter was raised in the British House of Commons where State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Hugo Swire said that “there needed to be an international element in the accountability mechanism in Sri Lanka to reassure the communities that the process was credible”.
Needless to say, United States Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Nisha Biswal who is again in Colombo this week will also raise the issue when she meets with government leaders.
The dichotomy of opinion is at best an indication that the government has no cohesive policy with regard to how any inquiry into the last stages of the war is to be conducted. At worst, it suggests that Colombo is trying to dupe the international community and buy time. While the former paints Sri Lanka in a rather poor light, the latter will have the influential Eelam lobby working overtime to exploit the situation as only they know how to.
The principal figures of this government have blamed the previous regime led by Mahinda Rajapaksa for taking a hardline stance at the UNHRC. In hindsight, that was probably to Sri Lanka’s detriment. However, even if their position was flawed, no one could blame the previous administration of inconsistency: it steadfastly opposed the UNHRC resolutions year after year and did so with one resolute voice.
Surely, it shouldn’t take much for the President, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister to agree on an issue, especially when there is much at stake for the country? Or, is that too much to ask from a government that took weeks to reach a consensus on who should be appointed as Governor of its Central Bank?