Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives and Secretary of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu spoke to the Nation regarding the outcome of the last United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in Geneva, Switzerland, the country’s foreign policy, the ongoing constitutional reforms and transitional justice processes and their relation to reconciliation, the involvement of the diaspora in the debate, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, India’s stance in relation to the national question and his views on where the civil society stood in relation the zeitgeist.

Q: What are youR views on the sessions in Geneva?

The latest Resolution co-sponsored by Sri Lanka is not a new one. The Government has already announced that it will get the extra two years it requested for the implementation of the Resolution which is the UNHRC Resolution on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka co-sponsored by Sri Lanka in 2015 October at the 30th session in Geneva.

The international community has not jettisoned the previous Resolution. The international community has accepted that the Government of Sri Lanka has done certain things in this regard and that there is more to be done for which more time is required. The latest one is an extension of the time period required in order to fulfil the implementation of the Resolution.

Q: What do you make of the charge that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is found wanting in terms of negotiating the present political situation in the world, especially the change of guard in the United States of America (USA) to the country’s advantage?

The position of the Trump (President of the USA, Donald Trump) administration is not clear with regard to Sri Lanka and the UNHRC. The administration has stated on an occasion that it would cut funding to United Nations agencies. However, the USA continues to be involved with the process in relation to Sri Lanka. I don’t believe as some have opined that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is slavish to the West and is caught in a time warp of sorts. There is no problem with regard to the USA and Sri Lanka to the question of accountability and international judges.

Q: The Resolution recognizes a hybrid court. How does one interpret this situation in light of public statements made by President Maithripala Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mangala Samaraweera with regard to the question of the involvement of foreign judges in a mechanism to investigate alleged war crimes?   

On the question of accountability, the presence of international judges and a wholly local process, if the Government is definitely not going to go ahead with having foreign judges, then the Government should inform the UNHRC of such a decision. The Government must however ensure that there will not be any adverse impact on the country as the result of such a decision. The UNHRC is a body that cannot impose sanctions. Individual countries however for example can impose sanctions in relation to bilateral agreements involving Sri Lanka. Therefore, if Sri Lanka is definitely not going ahead with foreign judges, it is up to the Government to negotiate and convince stakeholders regarding its position on internationals in an entirely domestic probe. The whole point concerning the only reason why the call for foreign involvement in the said mechanism was because a section of the Sri Lankan population including victims had in firm conviction expressed the view that an exclusively domestic mechanism would not be credible. The Government should then work towards building sufficient confidence and trust in a domestic mechanism, following which the Government should negotiate and convince the relevant parties. The international community is not obsessed with having foreign judges and internationals in a judicial mechanism with a special counsel to probe alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka.

Q: What do you make of the current constitutional reforms process?

The Government’s priority with regard to the constitutional reforms process should be shown in the form of demonstrable progress. The process does seem to have come to a standstill of sorts. The Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly has yet to submit their interim report. The two main parties of the Government (the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party) are yet to get together and decide whether what they are going to do is to bring in piecemeal constitutional reforms (whether such would be in any way meaningful is another question) or a new constitution, in the case of the latter, a referendum would be essential. If it is going to be that the Government is going to go ahead with a new constitution, then the Government must get their skates on and go out campaigning and inform the public on how and why pertaining to a new constitution. There must be a clear decision on what they are going to do nationally.

Q: What has been the role that the Diaspora has played in these events?

The Diaspora is not a monolith. It is in different shapes and sizes. There is a section of the Diaspora which supports the Government’s efforts in this regard and is therefore supportive of the Government being granted the time it requested for the implementation of the Resolution. There are two other sections of the Diaspora which may be characterized as more extreme elements of the Diaspora. In these sections, one opposes the extension while the other holds the view that one should forget about Geneva and instead take the matter to the United Nations Security Council in New York and then take it to the International Criminal Court. The latter is pie in the sky. The latter two are not helpful in terms of reconciliation.

Q: How do you see the Indian Foreign Secretary’s recent statements in reference to the Tamil politicians?

There are other elements in the political representation of Tamils who hold a much harder stance. There is transitional justice and constitutional reforms. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the government of Sri Lanka have a reasonably working relationship with each other. The TNA too is frustrated at the lack of progress in the constitutional reforms process. Their support must be sought when prioritizing transitional justice. Yet, we, including the TNA are yet to know what is on offer in terms of constitutional reforms. Constitutional reforms should entail a political and constitutional settlement to the ethnic question.

Q: What are your thoughts on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, the devolution of power and the proposed merging of the Northern and Eastern Provinces?

The question is how far beyond the 13th Amendment to the Constitution does one go and how far the people are willing to go. The said Amendment is the baseline and it should be implemented in full. The political and constitutional settlement should go beyond the said Amendment. Personally, I am for a federal solution, yet there is opposition to it. However, curtailing certain powers afforded to the Governors of the Provinces and allowing the Provincial Councils powers to raise their own finances are aspects of utmost importance as far as autonomy is concerned.
Q: Where do you stand with regard to these matters?
Civil society organizations and non-governmental organizations continue to advocate for transitional justice and constitutional reforms. We push for the reform agenda, which we helped to define and defend under inhospitable circumstances.