By Manjula FERNANDO

Plantation Industries Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe who will head the delegation to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) sessions scheduled from February 28 to March 25 in Geneva in an interview with the Sunday Observer said his effort is to win over the West which is currently under the propaganda grip of pro-LTTE elements.

He said there are unseen forces trying to disrupt the social and political stability the country and the people enjoy after 30 years and the Government is watchful over their dealings.

On the lawsuit filed against the President in US the Minister said Bruce Fein published an article in the Washington Post in 2008 calling for a separate state in Sri Lanka. “He had always been a cohort of the LTTE. We don’t take such people seriously,” he expressed adding that the HRC will not be driven by gimmicks of such individuals.

The UN Human Rights Council sessions will be held later this month. Despite new hope in Sri Lanka, a country trying to rise from a long drawn bitter conflict, the campaign fuelled by LTTE remnants to tarnish its image is very much active. In this light are we expecting serious challenges at the forthcoming HRC sessions?

Our record speaks for itself. At the height of the war there was an organised campaign backed by powerful elements which tried to create problems. Everyone knows that they were not successful.

I have been asked to lead the Sri Lankan delegation to the Human Rights sessions in Geneva. During the course of my statement I will apprise the council of the positive developments taken place and show that we are addressing all of the issues that we were confronted in the aftermath of the conflict.

We have not only eliminated terrorism but we are also uniting our people and ensuring that peace is also won. Frankly I don’t see any major hurdles although I would expect the pro LTTE groups to continue to spread falsehood. I will adopt the same strategy that we adopted during the conflict. We will be proactive and brief all those in the council about what has taken place in the country.

One of the main things that I will be talking about is the national action plan on the promotion and protection of the Human Rights which I started as the Human Rights Minister. We are right now on the verge of finalising the document which will be placed before the Cabinet soon.

We have been working on this for the Past two and half years. We did not take any short cuts. I wanted to ensure that the document itself would be a representative document. Bearing this in mind we included civil society leaders, circulated it as a draft widely, within the country as well as overseas for inputs. We looked at best practices internationally. All that was put on the table and wide consultation took place. Now we are in the process of identifying areas that we can quickly start implementing. It will ensure the promotion and protection of Human Rights of all the citizens of the country.

Once the Cabinet approves, it will become a national action plan. We will coordinate with other ministries to ensure that there is an inter ministerial effort.

Q: Have you identified the priority areas that needs immediate

action?

A: Yes, there are several specific areas ranging from building of capacity of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, the area of torture, women and children, disappearances, extra judicial killings, sustainable resettlement of IDPs, problems of the old IDPs. It is a comprehensive document.

Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims, we are all citizens of Sri Lanka and enjoy equal rights. The shortcomings will be addressed in this action plan. It will be an operational document.

This was a voluntary pledge that Sri Lanka made two and a half years ago at the Universal periodic review discussions at the HRC in Geneva, late 2008.

Q: The interim report of the UN Secretary General’s Expert Panel is expected before the HRC sessions. Could this have any bearing on the outcome of the sessions. Is Sri Lanka prepared to face any eventuality?

A: Our position has been that this was a unilateral decision by the Secretary General. It was not based on an inter-governmental decision or established by way of a resolution at the UNGA.

Q: But could some interested parties pick pieces from the report and use it against Sri Lanka at the HRC sessions?

A: We don’t know in the first place if the report will come out before the end of February. From what I understand their mandate is being extended by the Secretary General till end of February. We also have to bear in mind that although they had the opportunity of meeting with the Lessons Learnt Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), that has still not taken place.

The report will be submitted to the Secretary General purely to advise him on issues related to the conflict in Sri Lanka. Whether it can be brought before another inter-Governmental body is something questionable.

This was not a result of a resolution adopted by the UNGA. At the very outset Sri Lanka put forward its position that we do not recognise this panel. In that context whether such a document could be brought before an inter-governmental body is a big question mark. We are in any case closely following what is happening there.

There is a domestic process in place that is striving to learn from past experiences and move towards reconciliation. After 30 years President Mahinda Rajapaksa had been able to once again restore stability in the country. There is a lot of development taking place especially in the North and the East, inflow of foreign direct investment is gaining momentum, the stock market performance is at an all time high, tourism sector is booming.

There is political stability after 30 years. We have a Government which enjoys two-thirds majority in Parliament. We have a President who was elected with 58% votes in a free and fair election. We don’t have a conflict or a civil conflict in the country anymore. There is rule of law and social stability.

Today someone can get into a bus and get to Colombo without fearing that the bus will be blown off by a terrorist bomb or a land mine. People feel secure and safe.

We are in the process of rehabilitating over 10,000 ex-LTTE cadres. Over 5,000 of them have already been re-integrated into society. There are also others who will have to face legal action for the crimes they have committed.

No country had been able to resettle so many IDPs, nearly 300,000, the way Sri Lanka did in a short span. It was a record. We have now resettled nearly 95% of the IDPs. They are back in their villages. Their economic issues are now being addressed.

Q: Do you think the international community has taken notice of these positive developments in Sri Lanka?

A: Very much, the high ranking UN official who visited Sri Lanka recently and travelled to North and East congratulated the Sri Lankan Government on the progress made in terms of the resettlement work. Various Western ambassadors who visited here have expressed similar sentiments.

Most of the areas have been cleared of mines now. The small numbers of IDPs who remain in camps are there due to the on going de-mining activities.

We don’t want this stability in the country to be disrupted in any way. There are elements who want to sabotage this. We know how they operate and we are keeping a close watch over them.

Q: In the light of latest disturbing images released by Channel 4 and various other charges of war crimes mainly instigated by pro-LTTE propaganda, is there a move to call for a special session on Sri Lanka?

A: Definitely not. Our position has been made very clear on the first channel 4 video. As far as the second video is concerned we are in the process of arriving at a consolidated position. I have personally seen these two videos. The first video was very clearly proved, with the help of technical expertise, to have been stage managed.

The subsequent channel 4 videos will also be accounted for and the charges will be rebutted in a similar manner.

We firmly maintained that the statement released by the Special Rapporteur on Extra Judicial Killings Phillip Alston on the first channel 4 video was very biased and subjective. It was not based on verified facts.

We can clearly demonstrate that the new allegations are once again part of the propaganda machine of pro-LTTE groups operating in the West.

For example, during the final stages of the conflict the LTTE concocted and relayed that Sri Lankan forces were shelling hospitals and civilians. This was picked up by all international mainstream media like CNN, BBC, Aljazeera. To authenticate their claims four doctors were dragged into the drama to issue statements corroborating these claims. Ultimately when these doctors came out of the LTTE clutches, they confessed the statements were issued under duress. Their objective was to bring in international pressure to stop the humanitarian operation.

Q: You made a trip to Geneva two weeks ago. Was it part of the effort to harness international support ahead of the HRC sessions?

A: I have been doing this on a regular basis. When I go there I update the key figures in Geneva on what is taking place in Sri Lanka. I resumed the work after a brief period of absence from the scene because the human rights portfolio was not given back to me during the Cabinet re-shuffle. The president asked me to take this over once again and do what is necessary. I am planning to continue the dialogue with the International Community.

My position is that we should not only involve the countries who voted for us at the HRC resolution. The dialogue must continue with those who did not understand our position at that time, as well. That is the strategy that I will follow. Not only I will go to the African Asian or Eastern blocks but I also want to talk to the West, to make myself available to them to seek any clarification. We are committed to addressing issues we have faced in the aftermath of a bitter conflict.

Q: Any particular positive development that took place during your last visit to Geneva?

A: The objective was to prepare for the forthcoming sessions. We are confident of our position.

Q: You currently hold the office of Plantation Industries. But the work related to human rights is still part of your official duty although you are no more the Human Rights Minister?

A: President Mahinda Rajapaksa invited me to take it over. Hopefully the subject will be gazetted shortly under our Ministry.

I think the President has appreciated that being the first Human Rights Minister in the country I own the institutional memory that would be useful at this crucial juncture.

I am very confident that we will be able to ensure Sri Lanka’s good image is maintained internationally in the future.

Q: Will the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts visit Sri Lanka before their interim report is finalised at end of this month?

A: That is an area the Foreign Ministry is looking after. The panel was appointed purely to advise the SG. Let’s wait and see what will happen.

Q: This expert panel drew intense criticism in Sri Lanka including from the strong political; allies of the UPFA, when it was first appointed. Has there been any change in the government stance with the time?

A: I can’t explain all the utterances of different political personalities. But the Government took a principal position that this was not an intergovernmental decision of the UN. As such we have nothing to do with this. This panel had displayed an interest to visit Sri Lanka but there again the offer was to interact with the Commission (LLRC). We have never had any dealings with the panel as such.

Q: An attorney Bruce Fein has filed a lawsuit in the US, representing some Tamil groups. The suit against the President of Sri Lanka is claiming US $ 20 million in damages for alleged war crimes?

A: This is the person who in 2008 published an article in the Washington Post calling for a separate state. He titled the article as ‘Tamil Statehood’. His argument backed by a lot of wrong information tried to prove that there is a justification for a separate state. So someone like that to file a suit claiming damages on behalf of pro-LTTE elements is a natural thing.

He had always been a cohort of the LTTE. We don’t take such people seriously. He’s a very subjective person and the lawsuit is purely for propaganda purposes.

Q: Could these people be targeting the HRC sessions?

A: I don’t think HR council would fall for this kind of gimmicks. It is a private suit filed in the US. I don’t think we have to be too exited about these things.

Q: He has challenged that they will seek an ex-parte ruling if the Sri Lankan side fail to respond to the suit?

A: We can’t respond to every rubbish statement made by people like him. But as far as we are concerned he is a joker.

Source: The Sunday Observer – 06.02.2011