As top priorities for Lanka
by ‘The Island,’ Colombo, April 8, 2019
Former Opposition Leader Rajavarothiam Sampanthan told Parliament, on Budget 2019 voting day, last Friday, that implementing of the UNHRC resolution and the adoption of a new constitution are two issues of utmost importance to the country today.
Sampanthan’s statement: Before I commence my speech, may I say that the Government and the Opposition have both agreed to give me five minutes each which means I would have 30 minutes. But, let me commence and go along, Sir. We are on the final day of the Budget Discussion. As I have often stated earlier, the future of the country is not purely an economic issue. It is a very multifaceted issue. Even the future economy of the country is dependent upon several issues; it is dependent upon its unity and its strengths based upon the unity; it is dependent upon the reputation that it enjoys both domestically and internationally. The two issues of utmost importance to the country today, in my view are; the implementation of the Resolution co-sponsored by the Sri Lankan Government and unanimously adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2015, 2017 and 2019; and the adoption of a new Constitution for the country as unanimously decided by Resolution adopted in this Parliament in 2016. With regard to the first matter, the United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution is also based upon two investigations; the first, conducted by an independent panel appointed by the Secretary-General of the UN comprising of three experts from different parts of the world and the second, an investigation conducted by the UN Human Rights Council itself. Both have come to the conclusion that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed, that there were violations against international humanitarian and human rights laws during the civil conflict and that the matter needs to be further investigated upon and determined. Sri Lanka has conducted no investigation of any sort, not even a domestic investigation and persists that it will not implement certain aspects of the UN Human Rights Council Resolution. From the point of view of Sri Lanka, there was only one report, the Report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission; even that Report has not yet been implemented. I have spoken on this civil conflict, Sir, in Parliament in 2009 and before that -the conflict came to an end in May 2009 -without being contradicted by the Government and in fact, not merely me, but many others-both those in this Parliament and other personalities -have referred to at least some of the matters that happened during the course of the conflict.
It is my intention, Sir, to make reference to some of these matters to demonstrate what was stated in this Parliament and by others at the time the conflict took place without any contradiction by the Government. I will read, Sir, from the position that I stated in Parliament in 21st January, 2009.
“What has been happening to the Tamil people as a result of the war that is being waged in the North and the East? There is constant aerial bombing, continuous aerial bombing, sometimes several bombings per day. There is constant multi-barrel rocket launcher fire, constant artillery fire, all into civilian populated areas. Is this happening in any part of the world? Are civilian- populated areas being bombed aerially and are multi-barrel rocket launchers and heavy artilleries being fired into civilian populated areas in any other part of the world? I got some statistics here. They are short of food; they are short of medicine; they are short of shelter; they are short of drinking water; they are short of sanitation facilities. People are undergoing immense difficulties in the Vanni. There are about 350,000 to 400,000 people now in the Mullaitivu District, in a part of the Mullaitivu District, running helter-skelter from one place to another depending on where the bombing is taking place, where the shelling is taking place.”
That was the position in this area when I spoke in this Parliament in January, 2009, a position which was not contradicted by the Government.
“Nobody knows what is happening in this area. There are no United Nations agencies in this area. There are no International Non-Governmental Organizaitons in the Vanni. They were all asked to get out of that place in September last year and since then, they are not stationed there permanently and they cannot act freely and independently as they wish.”
So, Sir, that was the position that prevailed in the Vanni in 2018 and 2019.
So what do we see in the statements made by Madam Navanethem Pillay who was the Head of the UN Human Rights Commission at that point of time, the statement made by Madam Louise Arbour, who was also the Head of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights a little earlier, and the statement made by Justice Bhagwati -the Chairman of the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons, a retired Chief Justice of India who was in Sri Lanka in order to assist in the investigations that have been conducted by the Udalagama Commission in regard to several human rights violations. They have all made their position very clear, Sir, in the statements they have made.
Madam Navanethem Pillay said, Sir, “Certain actions being undertaken by the Sri Lankan military and by the LTTE may constitute violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. We need to know more about what is going on, but we know enough to be sure that the situation is absolutely desperate.” She went on to say, Sir, “Despite the Government’s designation of safe or ‘no fire’ zones for civilians, repeated shelling had continued in those zones. Other areas holding civilians had also been shelled, she claimed. Credible sources had indicated that more than 2,800 civilians may have been killed and more than 7,000 in these zones in the past few days. Even after the Government’s announcement on 24 February that heavy weapons would not be fired into the no-fire zones, close to 500 people were reportedly killed and more than a thousand injured in these areas.”
That is what Madam Navaneetham Pillay, High Commissioner for Human Rights had to say in regard to the situation in this area. There are limited quantities of food, reports of severe malnutrition, medicines are unavailable even in the one makeshift medical facility that is still functioning.
Madam Louise Arbour, Sir, was also the Commissioner for Human Rights in the UN. She urged the Government of Sri Lanka to establish in Sri Lanka an Office of the High Commission for Human Rights to be in a position to monitor what is happening in Sri Lanka. That was declined, refused, rejected and this is what she had to say. I quote”
“There was a culture of impunity which had so deeply permeated into the Sri Lankan society, that if we wanted to eradicate the culture of impunity, there was an urgent need to set up a human rights mechanism, a human rights office in Sri Lanka under UN auspices to monitor the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.”
Sir, that was the position expressed by Human Rights High Commissioners in regard to the situation prevalent in this area.
Justice Bhagwati, the Chairman of the International Independent Eminent Group of Persons (IIGEP) a renowned jurist, who had been responsible for extreme changes in India pertaining to human rights had this to say. I quote:
“Summary executions, massacres, disappearances, wanton destruction of property and forcible transfers of population can never be justified. No efforts should be spared to uncover responsibility, including recognition of command responsibility, for such actions. The International Independent Group of Eminent Persons has, however, found an absence of will on the part of the Government of Sri Lanka in the present inquiry to investigate cases with vigour, where the conduct of its own forces has been called into question”
This was the position, Sir, that was stated by the different persons of repute, who are international personalities.
The reason why I am reminding the House of these matters is that you cannot sweep everything under the carpet. Your current approach can do immense harm to this country. Much has been said about the fact that there is a complaint that 40,000 people have been killed and as to how that can be accepted. There were at least 350,000 people in this area, probably around 400,000 based on our own investigations, only 290,000 people came out. What happened to the balance? Your estimate was that there were only 60,000 to 70,000 people who lived in this area at this point of time. You sent food, medicine and other supplies only for that number – 60,000 or 70,000. When the number was as large as 350,000 why did you restrict the number to only 60,000 or 70,000?
We conducted our own investigation in regard to this matter and we were satisfied that there were at least 350,000 to 400,000 people in that part of Mullaitivu at that point of time.
I want to make it very clear, Sir, that no one is saying that all the Armed Forces who fought the LTTE on the instructions of the Sri Lankan State should be blamed or punished. The Armed Forces acted on the instructions of the Sri Lankan Government, but those responsible for domestic and international crimes including those responsible on the basis of command responsibility and the chain of command should not be allowed to get away scot-free. I say this, because that would be extremely harmful to the future interests of this country, the long-term interests of this country. It is absolutely essential, Sir, that the truth must be ascertained.
The second matter I referred to was the Constitution. We all adopted a Resolution in this Parliament unanimously to frame a new Constitution, but we seem stuck. I do not know why, but we seem stuck. I want to refer, Sir, to something which President Barack Obama, the first black American President said shortly after he was elected as the President for the first time in the United States. He said, “The American people must be true to our founding documents, the documents on which America came into being. American people must be true to their founding documents, the document on which America came into being.” Do we, in Sri Lanka, have any founding document, any Constitution to which we can go back and say, “This is our founding document; this is the document on which the country is built, our society is built, which we cherish, which we value, which is the ultimate law of the land? Do we have any such founding document? How can we survive as a nation? How can we survive as a country, when we do not have in this country a constitution which has been accepted by the majority of the people in this country based upon a consensus as much as possible a national consensus? And, this Parliament adopted a unanimous Resolution to frame a new Constitution. Much work has been done in regard to that matter, in fact, the constitutional process has been going on from 1988 for almost 30 years. There was a “Mangala-Moonesinghe Select Committee Report during President Premadasa’s time; there was a Madam Chandrika Bandaranaike’s Report during her term as President- August 2000 Constitutional Proposals; there was a proposal made by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Tissa Vitharana Report -the APRC Report. With all these being available to us, we are still unable to frame a Constitution. And, do you think, that is a good thing for the country? Is it good for the country to go on like this? Can you go on like this indefinitely? Is it not harmful to the country? In regard to the national question, Sir, your position appears to be that you have brought about a military solution and there is no need for a political solution now.
I want to in this context, refer to a Statement made by Srimati Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India. When the new State of Bangladesh came into being in 1971, the late Prime Minister of India, Shrimathi Indira Gandhi, in a letter to President Nixon on 15th December, 1971, in regard to the situation in Bangladesh stated as follows. I quote:
“The fact of the matter is that the rulers of West Pakistan got away with the impression that they could do what they liked, because no one, not even the United States, would choose to take a public position that while Pakistan’s integrity was certainly sacrosanct, human rights, liberty were no less so, and that there was a necessary inter-connection between the inviolability of states and the contentment of their people.”
If you cannot keep the people contented, if you cannot give the people their legitimate rights, then, the sustainability of your unity and your territorial integrity become gravely questionable. Are we not in the same state? How long has the Tamil question remained unresolved? For the last 70 years? And the Constitutional process that we started in 1988 -we are today in 2019 – 30 years down the road. – has not yet been completed and you are unable to complete it. We do not know what is happening. You do not have the will to complete the process and you want to keep the Tamil people as second-class citizens and you want to suppress them militarily even if they were to rise again. Through civil disobedience based upon ahimsa and sathyagraha, you think they can be suppressed. More than 50 per cent of the Tamil population who lived in this country have left this country. Is it your belief that if you proceed with your military course of action even the balance 50 per cent would leave? Is that your position? Is that your thinking? We are committed to a solution within the framework of a united, undivided, indivisible Sri Lanka. We are firmly committed in regard to that. We want to evolve a solution within the framework of a united, undivided, indivisible Sri Lanka. But, if you do not accept that, please do not expect us to live in this country as second-class citizens. We will not live in this country as second-class citizens. We have our own sovereignty to which we will be entitled. In that situation, on account of your lapse, on account of your default to ensure that we are able to exercise our sovereignty within a united country you will create a situation harmful to the country.
Before I conclude, Sir, I want to say a few words on North-Eastern development. I have just sent the Hon. Minister, our good Friend, Mangala Samaraweera a copy of the letter I gave the Prime Minister yesterday. The North-East, Sir, was neglected in the matter of development even prior to the war commencing. We were backwards. We were not given equal treatment. We suffered in development. When the war commenced, the North-East was devastated and destroyed both by the Army and by the LTTE. When we were trying to rebuild the North-East, I and my Colleague, the Hon. Sumanthiran met the Hon. Minister of Finance and impressed upon him the need to start a special fund for the rebuilding of the North-East in the field of agriculture, in the field of fisheries, in the field of livestock development, in the field of industry, in various other activities, employment generation and skills development to enable our youth, our women, our widows to be able to recommence life and lead a respectable life.
We wanted the Minister to start a fund and the Minister promptly agreed and said, “I understand the need for it and we will start a North-East development fund with an initial allocation of Rs. 5 billion from the Ministry to which we add more funds. We will ensure that more funds go in.”
Mangala Samaraweera: I am happy to say that we have also started drafting the Bill which will be brought to Parliament and the fund will be called “Palmyrah Fund”. It will be open for donations from the private sector as well as the diaspora.
Sampanthan: Minister, when we met you, you assured us that you will transfer Rs. 5 billion this year for the commencement of development activities in the North- East. We have eight districts in the North-East. I do not have to give you the names. The Prime Minister started a mechanism under his chairmanship; coordinators have been appointed; they have consulted our people; they have consulted us and come up with proposals. Each district has come up with proposals up to about Rs. 3 billion. We need in all for a start Rs. 24 billion. We are not demanding the whole thing now. But, kindly give us a substantial percentage, at least 60 or 70 per cent of the Rs. 24 billion, to be able to commence the activities that must be given priority, to ensure that we are able to carry on those activities and to have them fully implemented. I have not a slightest doubt that you will be very sympathetic and very understanding in regard to my request. I would urge you to kindly discuss this matter with the Prime Minister.
After all, Jaffna is an important district, a peninsula; there is the Vanni; there is the Eastern Province which is a large area, comprising of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara where all people have suffered. Tamil people, in particular, have suffered a great deal. There is much development that is urgently required, particularly, in agriculture, fisheries, livestock development, industries and employment. Women, widows, ex-militants and ex-LTTE cadres who have come back to civilian life need to be looked after. All these things cannot be done if there is no money. We are formulating programmes so that we will be able to deal with these issues expeditiously. That is necessary. There is no purpose in talking about national reconciliation and there is not purpose in talking about goodwill and harmony unless you are able to make a contribution to uplift these people and to improve the standard of living of these people. That is what we are asking for.
So, I would kindly urge you respectfully to enhance your fund for the development of the North-East. Thank you, Sir.