Thursday, October 20, 2011

Australian police examine Sri Lanka war crimes dossier


Australian police have confirmed they're examining a war crimes dossier alleging Sri Lankan authorities shelled civilians during the civil war.

The International Commission of Jurists provided the brief to police, which includes testimony from Sri Lankans who say they were attacked by government forces.

But the ICJ denies reports that the brief names former Navy chief Thisara Samarasinghe, now Sri Lanka's High Commissioner to Australia.

The controversy comes ahead of the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse's visit to Australia for CHOGM - the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting - next week.

Reporter: Joanna McCarthy

Speakers: John Down, International Commission of Jurists; Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, Sri Lankan High Commissioner to Australia; Lee Rhiannon, Australian Greens Senator; Australian MP Don Randall, deputy chair of the Sri Lanka Parliamentary Friendship Group

McCARTHY: The International Commission of Jurists says it originally compiled its dossier for use in an independent war crimes tribunal on Sri Lanka. It includes testimony from Sri Lankans who are now living in Australia, who allege they were attacked by government forces.

The ICJ's John Dowd says they've now handed the dossier to the Australian Federal Police.

DOWD: So that if they considered that a prosecution should be brought, they're in a better position to be able to do that.

McCARTHY: But he denies the ICJ is singling out the former navy chief Thisara Samarasinghe, now the High Commissioner to Australia.

DOWD: We're not commenting on anybody, other than the facts of the civil war and the war crimes. We're not naming anybody. That's a matter for the police, they have a job to do, we're not going to hinder them by nominating particular people.

MCCARTHY: The High Commissioner is the Sri Lankan navy's former eastern and then northern areas commander. He strongly denies allegations that any war crimes were committed by subordinates in his command.

SAMARASINGHE: I will totally reject such baseless and unsubstantiated allegations. I was Sri Lankan navy, never fired at civilians, they fired at terrorists when they were fired upon, and they the terrorists, is the group that fired at civilians. And during my command of the navy there was no conflict. The conflict was over when I took over the navy, but when I was in command of the north, as the area commander, was the final stage of conflict, was taking place in the east. However, I would always and very authentically say that the Sri Lankan navy, at any stage of the conflict, did NOT deliberately or otherwise, target civilians or fired at the civilians.

MCCARTHY: The final offensive against the Tamil Tigers ended in May 2009. It brought to a close a conflict that had lasted 26 years - but Amnesty International says ten to 20,000 civilians were killed in those final months. A United Nations advisory panel has found there is "credible allegations" that both sides committed war crimes, which the government strongly denies.

Australian Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon:

RHIANNON: The UN has reported up to 40,000 people died, there's growing momentum around the world, for a war crimes tribunal, and now, Australia, the foreign minister, Mr Kevin Rudd, should throw weight behind this call.

MCCARTHY: A spokeswoman for the Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd says the Australian Government has made no secret of its concerns about civilian casualties during the final stages of the war. She says Australia's view is that accountability and reconciliation will be a crucial part of long-term peace in Sri Lanka and Australia has made such views known to Sri Lanka.

But John Dowd says more needs to be done.

DOWD: I'm sure that Foreign minister Kevin Rudd has made those representations and I was already aware of that. But it's not enough to do it, directly, diplomatically. It's got to be Australia speaking out publicly on the matter. A communication of a diplomatic nature does not get the public aware of the issues and it doesn't let the rest of the international community, to raise the issue and bring pressure on the Sri Lankan government.

MCCARTHY: But supporters of the Sri Lankan government say human rights groups are just trying to embarrass Colombo ahead of next week's meeting. Don Randall is a federal opposition member of parliament, and deputy chair of the Sri Lanka parliamentary friendship group.

RANDALL: It's designed to try and embarrass the Sri Lankan President when he's in Australia, in front of CHOGM, in front of an international audience. The timing's just too cute to be not recognised for what it is. And as I said, you have this group sorely on the world, who're endeavouring to and discredit a democratically-elected government, who's been through one of the most vicious civil wars. There're faults on all sides, I'm not suggesting that there're not any issues to be dealt with, but that's been dealt with internally, in Sri Lanka, by the Lessons Learnt and REconciliation Commission that the Sri Lankan government has set up, it's taking evidence. And can I say that it's interesting the human rights committee hasn't even made a submission to that Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation body in Sri Lanka.


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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Sri Lanka student union objects military interference in university affairs

Colombo Page

Sri Lanka's Inter University Students' Federation (IUSF) says that university students would join hands to stand against the government's attempt to make the military interfere in the country's university system.

IUSF Convener, Sanjeewa Bandara says that it would discuss with the university lecturers and other students groups on the measures to be taken to safeguard democracy and freedom in universities.

Bandara observed that the government was using the military to suppress democracy and university students.

He says that the whole concept of socializing with the military could have an adverse impact on the university system.

According to Bandara, the government was trying to get the military involved in university affairs through various means like volunteer campaigns (Shramadana) and workshops.

A shramadana had recently been organized at the Ruhuna University despite objections raised by the students and staff.

© Colombo Page

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Current affairs shows face PR attacks, says Channel 4 news boss

By John Plunkett | The Guardian

Current affairs programmes such as the BBC's Panorama and Channel 4's Dispatches face increasingly sophisticated and orchestrated campaigns against their investigations by PR companies and lobbying groups, a Lords committee has been warned.

Dorothy Byrne, Channel 4 head of news and current affairs, told the Lords communications committee that programmes such as the broadcaster's investigation into alleged war crimes during the final weeks of the Sri Lankan civil war faced "worldwide PR exercises".

Byrne said Sri Lanka's Killing Fields, which was broadcast in June and featured graphic footage of alleged war crimes, faced a demonstration outside Channel 4's London headquarters – which she claimed had been organised by the Sri Lankan ministry of defence.

Veteran Panorama journalist John Ware, appearing before the same Lords committee on Tuesday, said that the cost of dealing with a concerted campaign of complaints about a recent edition of BBC1's Panorama was more than it cost to make the programme itself.

Although Ware did not reveal the edition of Panorama in question, it is understood to be Death in the Med, about the Israeli boarding of the Mavi Marmara, which aired in August 2010.

Death in the Med prompted 2,000 calls to the BBC, a quarter of them part of a lobby organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign website. The BBC Trust ruled in April this year that it was "accurate and impartial" overall but upheld three out of 51 points raised in complaints.

Byrne said the impact of PR companies on television current affairs was something "not just us but the whole of society needs to be aware of".

"They will not just try to threaten us with libel actions, they will launch worldwide PR exercises against us," she told the Lords communications committee, which is holding an inquiry into the future of investigative journalism.

"They will try to make complaints against our bosses, leak stories against us to newspaper diaries, they will go to our regulator [Ofcom] and make potentially scores of complaints against us.

"If we are doing a really big investigation that could take six months to a year … We have to be ready that we could be living with an investigation for a year after it has gone out.

Byrne added: "Stories have appeared, for example, about our Sri Lankan investigation all over the world in a highly organised way," she told the committee.

"They appear to be normal stories and they are not – they are obviously coming from somewhere. Demonstrations have taken place in the street – there was one outside Channel 4 – and this demonstration had been organised by the Sri Lankan ministry of defence."

Ware said investigative programmes such as Panorama were at risk of being overwhelmed by complaints from PR companies and lobby groups.

"A recent Panorama was cleared in almost every respect save for some minor matters. I'm pretty sure the bill for that was significantly more than the actual transmission itself," he added.

"That's fine – it's a public service broadcaster – but what I'm saying is there aren't the funds, the resources, to deal with the aftercare and the aftercare is getting greater because of the lobby groups."

Ware's concerns about concerted complaints campaigns which were "utterly determined" with a "never say die" attitude were echoed by Panorama editor Tom Giles.

He said PR companies would start "Twitter bombing" during the course of a programme in a bid to discredit its investigation.

"PR is very wise to it. Ten or 15 people will start tweeting from a particular point of view … it has invariably been set up by a PR organisation," added Giles.

He said dealing with serial complainants, who go first to BBC management before taking it to the BBC Trust and the appeals process "takes up an enormous amount of time and effort and we have to take these things seriously".

"The threat of a mass outbreak of legal action, legal letters from particularly powerful groups, we have had that on an increasing level on Panorama," he added.

"I hope we are still pretty rigorous in facing it off where it needs to be faced off. But there is an increasing amount of spin, PR, and people who are very clever at … stopping us putting material out."

Asked to what degree the BBC had been intimidated by News Corporation over its phone-hacking coverage, Giles claimed a story had been placed in one News International title in an effort to undermine Panorama.

He said the story had appeared after a Panorama investigation into computer hacking at the publisher.

"For my own part I wasn't [intimidated]," added Giles. "In terms of News International and News Corporation there were people within News Corporation who we did deal with and did ring me. When we put a film out about computer hacking there were stories put in one News International paper that were clearly designed to smear Panorama as a result.

"On that level, there was some pressure," added Giles. "In terms of the top corporate level [at the BBC] you would have to ask the top corporate level."

Giles did not specify which title or story he was referring to. However, the Times ran a story about Panorama the day after the current affairs show's investigation into News International in March this year.

© The Guardian

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Sri Lanka diplomat accused of war crimes

By Ben Doherty | WA Today

Sri Lanka's high commissioner to Australia, former admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, should be investigated for war crimes, a brief before the Australian Federal Police says.

The submission, from the International Commission of Jurists' Australian section, has compiled what a source has told the Herald is direct and credible evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity by the Sri Lanka Navy.

There are witnesses - Sri Lankans now living in Australia - who can attest to the alleged crimes, the source said.

The then Admiral Samarasinghe was commander of the navy's eastern and then northern areas, as well as naval chief of staff, in the final years of the bloody civil war against the separatist terrorist group, the Tamil Tigers.

In the final months of fighting in 2009, according to the United Nations, up to 40,000 civilians caught in the north and east were killed when government forces moved against the insurgents.

Separate and independent allegations have been made, to the ICJ and other investigators, that naval ships fired on unarmed civilians as they fled the conflict.

There has been no evidence Mr Samarasinghe was involved in shelling, or gave direct orders to that effect, but the submission before federal police states military superiors hold ''a command responsibility'' for the actions of subordinates.

Mr Samarasinghe said all of his - and the navy's - actions were legal. "There is no truth whatsoever of allegations of misconduct or illegal behaviour,'' he said.

"The Sri Lanka Navy did not fire at civilians during any stage and all action was taken to save the lives [of] civilians from clutches of terrorists."

The Australian section's submission has also been sent to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions, as well as to the offices of the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister. It calls for investigations into Mr Samarasinghe and other military and political figures, including President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is commander-in-chief of Sri Lanka's armed forces, with a view to issuing arrest warrants.

The president of the Australian section is the former NSW Supreme Court justice and attorney-general John Dowd. He declined to comment.

But independent of the dossier, another member of Sri Lanka's diplomatic corps with links to Australia is already under investigation by federal police for his alleged role in possible war crimes.

In May the Herald detailed allegations against a dual Australian-Sri Lankan citizen, Palitha Kohona.

Dr Kohona, who was an Australian diplomat in the 1980s and is now Sri Lanka's representative to the UN, is accused of sending, via intermediaries, text messages to defeated Tamil Tigers and civilians, telling them they could surrender, unarmed and under a white flag, to troops.

About 20 followed the instructions. Witnesses report they were loaded into army trucks. They were later found, shot dead, nearby.

Federal police have confirmed they were evaluating the allegations against Dr Kohona "with a view to determining any potential breaches of Australian law".

Dr Kohona has denied the allegations, admitting he sent the messages, but saying they were never a guarantee of safety, only advice on how best to surrender. "I never had the authority to issue orders to troops or to discuss surrender terms of any terrorists, either directly or indirectly," he said.

Mr Samarasinghe enjoyed a distinguished 37-year-career in the navy. In May 2009, the final month of the war, he was made chief of staff, before being promoted, two months later, to navy commander.

He resigned his commission in January to take up his diplomatic post in Canberra.

Foreign Affairs officials reportedly saw his nomination as "problematic", in light of his command role in a military accused of serious human rights violations. But his appointment was not opposed.

Since the end of the war, allegations the navy fired on civilians have been raised inside Sri Lanka and out. The country's reconciliation tribunal heard from a woman that in May 2009, she tried to escape the war zone in a boat.

"We held two white flags and on seeing the navy we called them 'Aiya, aiya' ['Sir, sir']. There was sudden shelling and eight died on the spot … navy hit; navy attacked and many people died."

Part of the ICJ submission is further testimony from ethnic Tamils now living in Australia that shelling came from the sea in the final weeks of fighting.

Mr Samarasinghe said last week: "All conduct of the [navy] was within the rules governing domestic and international laws.

"There were no orders given to fire by anyone to Sri Lanka naval vessels. Rules of engagements were clear to all commanders."

He said the accusations levelled at him and at other members of the military and political establishment were politically motivated. "I was part of the Sri Lankan military, which prevented the most brutal terrorist organisation from dividing my country. Those that still have aims to divide Sri Lanka continue to hurl baseless, unsubstantiated allegations."

A UN report this year found it was "unable to accept the version of events held by the government of Sri Lanka".

It said the government deliberately shelled no-fire zones where it had encouraged civilians to shelter, as well as attacking the UN, food distribution lines and Red Cross ships rescuing the wounded. "The government systematically shelled hospitals on the front lines … [and] deprived people in the conflict zone of humanitarian aid, in the form of food and medical supplies, particularly surgical supplies, adding to their suffering."

The report was equally condemnatory of the Tamil Tigers. It said they used civilians as hostages and as human shields, forcibly recruited children as young as 14 to fight, and shot - point-blank - any civilians who attempted to escape the conflict.

A federal police spokesman told the Herald: ''The AFP is currently evaluating the submission. Therefore it is not appropriate to comment further.''

© WA Today

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Secrecy and denial are also war crimes

By Gordon Weiss | The Australian

More than two years since the end of Sri Lanka's civil war, new evidence alleges that both sides of this brutal conflict committed serious crimes against civilians.

There are implications for Australia's rule of law, and three possible perpetrators with an immediate connection to our shores.

Sri Lanka's 25-year war culminated in 2009. Hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians were swept up in a final siege as Sri Lankan troops closed in on the Tamil Tigers. The guerillas held women, children and elderly people as human shields. Government assaults killed many thousands.

A brief of evidence handed last week to Australian authorities by the International Commission of Jurists (Australia) reportedly includes eyewitness testimony from those who lost family and friends in those months. A number of witnesses are Australians, or Australian residents.

Compiled by Australian lawyers, this brief apparently triangulates incidents of the killing of civilians. These include attacks on hospitals; targeting civilians with bombardment after directing them to particular areas; striking civilians with cluster and phosphorus weapons; using civilians as human shields; summary executions; torture; disappearance and the denial of food and medicine.

The commission's brief reportedly urges the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions and Australian Federal Police to investigate three people in particular.

The first is Sri Lanka's new ambassador to Australia, Thisara Samarasinghe, formerly an admiral whose ships allegedly bombarded civilian "no-fire zones" declared by the government. Similar allegations compelled Sri Lanka to withdraw another of its military envoys from Germany.

The second is Palitha Kohona, a dual Australian-Sri Lankan national, once an Australian foreign affairs functionary and now Sri Lanka's ambassador to the UN in New York. He is accused of having lured a group into surrender who were then summarily executed. Kohona denies that he held any authority that led to these murders.

The last is Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka's popular president. As commander-in-chief, he bears responsibility for the alleged wrongdoing of his men. Rajapaksa faces a civil suit in the US over similar allegations. In a fortnight he will arrive in Perth to meet other Commonwealth heads of government, as well as the Queen.

The Tamil Tiger leadership was all but wiped out in 2009. Those left to face allegations of murder are from the victorious army. Sri Lanka now smarts under increasingly detailed allegations it says unfairly targets them. It nominates the commission among a lengthy list of agitators supposedly bent on destroying its hard-won peace.

Reading from the cheat sheets compiled by international publicity agencies such as Bell-Pottinger, whose murky Sri Lankan links with disgraced former British defence minister Liam Fox have just been exposed, Samarasinghe said that the commission's brief was "politically motivated".

However, this response underscores the confusion between politics and law that has bedevilled modern Sri Lanka. Disappearance and murder became the stock-in-trade of politics under successive governments. Political interference, fear of retribution, and the deleterious effects of a constant national emergency have sapped the deterrent powers of its once respected judiciary.

During the war, the government controlled the siege area. No foreign journalists could fully report on the conflict. Unlike the killing fields of Bosnia, no independent witness has had access to Sri Lanka's battle zone since.

The best evidence of what happened amid the fog of war lies with people who were there. They are beginning to talk with groups such as the commission.

Don't-ask, don't-tell no longer works with war crimes. The international community has become increasingly intolerant of governments solving their internal problems with impunity.

Ethical considerations aside, a secure and orderly global framework requires that international laws and treaties be respected, even when responding to an insurgency.

Yet Sri Lanka's consistent response to allegations since the end of the war has been blanket denial. For years its envoys insisted their forces were not responsible for a single civilian death. As a result of pressure from emerging evidence, they now admit they may have been responsible for some civilian deaths, albeit unwittingly.

Australia has a duty, under our own laws and in accordance with our international legal obligations, to investigate credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Julia Gillard should join Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's public commitment and boycott next year's Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting should Sri Lanka not satisfactorily account for the deaths of civilians. Incredibly, CHOGM 2013 is scheduled for Hambantota, Rajapaksa's hometown.

Gordon Weiss, the UN spokesman in Sri Lanka during the war, is the author of The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers.

© The Australian

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Thursday, October 20, 2011

HR campaigners want Canberra to investigate Sri Lanka war crime allegations

PM with Mark Colvin | ABC

Efforts by human rights groups to get the Australian Federal Police to conduct a war crimes investigation into Sri Lanka's high commissioner to Australia could cause a diplomatic row at next week's Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth.

The push has already prompted calls by the International Commission of Jurists for Sri Lanka to be sanctioned at the meeting.

In Canberra, the opposition has been demanding to know whether the Government knew of allegations against the former navy second in charge, retired Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, before it accepted him as high commissioner.

Rights campaigners have revealed to PM that they began preparing a legal submission to the Federal Police only after it became clear that both Sri Lanka's government and the United Nations were not going to proceed with an investigation into claims of war crimes in the final stages of Sri Lanka's civil war.

Peter Lloyd reports.

PETER LLOYD: Sri Lanka's president Mahinda Rajapaksa has never accepted the right of the United Nations to investigate the end of the civil war. He refused to let a UN panel speak to ministers or officials.

Back in May when the UN report was made public, the Rajapaksa regime called the document fundamentally flawed and patently biased.

The UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon said he had no power to launch a fully-fledged war crimes investigation unless the Sri Lankans agree to it. So in the absence of action, the International Commission of Jurists stepped in.

It prepared a submission to the Federal Police, among other agencies, that sets out a case for Australia to investigate war crimes.

Media reports named the Sri Lankan high commissioner, Thisara Samarasinghe as a former top navy commander and possible prosecution target.

But John Dowd, the head of the Australian section of the ICJ, declined to name names when he spoke to PM.

JOHN DOWD: Well, we're not talking about the contents of the submission, that's material we furnished to the Australian Federal Police, asking them to carry out an investigation or to continue investigations they've already begun. That's a matter for them and it's our duty to provide them with the information and to assist them in their task.

PETER LLOYD: What's the motivation behind it?

JOHN DOWD: We've been collecting evidence for over a year of war crimes within Sri Lanka. There has not been an independent war crimes tribunal set up; there've been egregious breaches of war crimes legislation, humanitarian, human rights law and nothing's happened thus far.

And we therefore have to go to the Australian Federal Police who are the people tasked, under Australian law, with looking at international war crimes.

PETER LLOYD: The United Nations report on the final stages of the civil war in Sri Lanka found credible allegations of war crimes on both sides of the conflict.

It said heavy shelling by the Sri Lankan Government may have led to tens of thousands of civilian deaths, while Tamil Tiger separatists contributed to the carnage by using civilians as human shields.

This is an excerpt from that report.

VOICEOVER: The panel found credible allegations which if proven indicate that a wide range of serious violations of international law and international human rights law was committed both by the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, some of which would amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity.

PETER LLOYD: The UN said Sri Lankan troops encouraged civilians to gather in three no-fire zones and then carried out large-scale shelling.

When the fighting stopped, the UN said, government troops carried out summary executions of former Tiger fighters.

Sri Lanka's current high commissioner to Canberra, Thisara Samarasinghe, was then the second in charge of the Sri Lanka’s navy.

THISARA SAMARASINGHE: Sri Lankan navy never targeted civilians and never shelled any location during the final stages.

PETER LLOYD: The high commissioner is emphatic in his denial that the navy fired on civilians.

THISARA SAMARASINGHE: I am totally denying any allegations, whoever it may be, that the Sri Lankan navy fired at civilians.

PETER LLOYD: Under questioning at Senate Estimates today, the federal police commissioner, Tony Negus, spoke for the first time about the submission his department received from the ICJ.

TONY NEGUS: It's quite a lengthy document; in fact it's almost a ream of paper, in the context of - to give you an idea of what size the document is.

They are complex legal areas and particularly where most of the evidence that can be obtained is usually offshore and we need to make sure that it is a reasonable chance of the matter progressing.

So there's a lot of factors for consideration before we actually take these matters forward to a prosecution sense.

PETER LLOYD: Commissioner Negus said the AFP had not been asked by government for its views on the appointment of Thisara Samarasinghe before he arrived in Australia.


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Thursday, October 20, 2011

Why shouldn’t Sri Lanka host Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting?

Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative | Scoop World

In early 2009 Sri Lanka’s long running armed conflict came to an end. Following this several serious allegations of human rights violations have been made on the warring parties including the government. A recent report by a Panel of Experts appointed by the UN Secretary General found many of these allegations to be credible.

Towards the end of 2009 the Trinidad and Tobago Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting(CHOGM) faced the task of deciding on Sri Lanka’s proposal to host CHOGM 2011. In the difficult negotiations that ensured Australia and Mauritius put themselves forth as an alternative venue to Sri Lanka. CHOGM 2009 then decided that it would defer Sri Lanka’s proposal from 2011 to 2013. In a rare break with the tradition of deciding just the succeeding venue, the 2009 CHOGM decided the venue of the following three CHOGMs – 2011 in Australia, 2013 in Sri Lanka and 2015 in Mauritius.

In the following years there has been no significant change in Sri Lanka and questions are being raised at several quarters about its suitability to host CHOGM 2013.

1. Q: Why shouldn’t Sri Lanka host CHOGM 2013?

A: The Sri Lankan government has been implicated in egregious humanitarian law violations by international experts including a UN Panel of Experts appointed by the UN Secretary General. Several reputed human rights groups have raised similar concerns and hold that the human rights situation remains dire in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government has repeatedly resisted calls for independent international investigations into allegations of humanitarian law violations. Providing Sri Lanka a free pass to host 2013 CHOGM will amount to condoning violations in the country and is against the Commonwealth’s fundamental political values of human rights and democracy.

2. Q: Sri Lanka has already formed a domestic inquiry into allegations; why not wait for the outcomes of that process before acting on Sri Lanka?

A: Sri Lanka’s domestic mechanism, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) has been found by international and UN experts (such as the Panel of Experts) as well as civil society groups to lack both an adequate mandate and the impartiality necessary for credible investigations. The mechanism will submit its report in November 2011. CHOGM venues are usually decided at the preceding CHOGM and CHOGM 2011 in October is the last chance to decide against Sri Lanka hosting the event. By November when the LLRC report comes out, it will be too late to prevent Sri Lanka from hosting CHOGM. Pinning hopes on an internationally discredited mechanism at the risk of losing the Commonwealth’s legitimacy is dangerous.

3. Q: Why target Sri Lanka when all countries within the Commonwealth are not perfect. Why block a developing island state’s first chance to host CHOGM when a large and developed Western player like Australia has held CHOGM thrice?

A: Sri Lanka’s human rights situation is one of the most acute cases within the Commonwealth. The nature of entrenched impunity and a long history of unaccounted for human rights violations coupled with allegations of egregious human rights violation at the end of Sri Lanka’s long running civil war makes it a special concern. The next CHOGM could be granted to another small developing country such as Mauritius which offered in 2009 to host CHOGM in 2011 as an alternative to Sri Lanka and is to host CHOGM in 2015.

4. Q: CHOGM 2009 decided that Sri Lanka will host the 2013 CHOGM. Wouldn’t it be a major set back if Heads of Government are to re-open a decision?

A: The 2009 CHOGM actually deferred Sri Lanka’s proposal to host the 2011 CHOGM to 2013. In the intervening years between the two CHOGMs there has been little progress in the ground situation in Sri Lanka. Heads of Governments can use their earlier precedent of deferral to set aside their earlier decision to confirm Sri Lanka as the host of the 2013 CHOGM. Procedural set backs such as re-opening a decision should not be weighed against the disastrous consequences of failing to uphold fundamental values by allowing Sri Lanka to host the 2013 CHOGM.

5. Q: Why ask for CHOGM 2013 to altogether not be held in Sri Lanka when there are two years left during which the situation in the country may change? Why not ask for conditions of improvement in the run up to CHOGM 2013?

A: Preparations for CHOGM requires a lot of time, it will be difficult to change the CHOGM venue at a later stage if Sri Lanka is found transgressing conditions. Despite civil society calls, the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) has till date not been able to set any benchmarks for Sri Lanka to host CHOGM. Sri Lanka also has shown little willingness to accept international conditions on its domestic situation. In this context, after CHOGM 2011 there will be too little time for Commonwealth bodies such as CMAG to set benchmarks and effectively asses the country.

6. Q: Why not use the opportunity of a CHOGM to engage with the Sri Lankan government and allow international exposure to the situation in the country when hundreds of delegates visit the country for CHOGM 2013?

A: The Sri Lankan government has not been willing to engage with international bodies that intend to bring about accountability for allegations of violations within the country. If CHOGM 2013 happens in Sri Lanka it is feared that delegates will only be able to see a stage-managed potion of the country specially whitewashed for CHOGM – as is the current scenario where hundreds of tourists continue to travel to the country but have little access to sensitive regions and issues in the country.

7. Q: What will happen if CHOGM 2013 is held in Sri Lanka?

A: Endorsement of Sri Lanka as the host of 2013 CHOGM and the visit of 54 Heads of governments to the country will potentially amount to political apathy towards the human rights allegations Sri Lanka faces and may result in the condoning of such violations. The political clout Sri Lanka derives from hosting the meeting may be used to fend off all other international calls for accountability at forums such as the UN Human Rights Council. Hosting CHOGM 2013 will also allow Sri Lanka to preside over the Commonwealth as its Chair till 2015. The risks and potential consequences of having a country that has been implicated in gross human rights violations Chair the organisation outweighs bleak possibilities of positive engagement.

7. Q: Would attempts not grant CHOGM 2013 to Sri Lanka make the country work against any consensus on progressive Commonwealth reform proposals that are scheduled to be considered at CHOGM 2011? Would it be better to bargain with the country so that reforms are saved?

A: Bargaining with Sri Lanka on reform proposals is unrealistic. Some of the reform proposals under consideration ask for adequate scrutiny of members and Sri Lanka will resist such scrutiny as it has in other forums such as the UN. This stance was very recently made clear by the Sri Lankan External Affairs Minister after the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers Meeting in New York. Referring to proposals for adequate scrutiny of member states in fulfilment of past Commonwealth promises, the Minister stated that the inclusion of such “punitive” measures could cause a split in the Commonwealth. [ ] This is a clear indication that bargaining with Sri Lanka on reforms can only lead to either watered down reforms or no reforms both of which are unrealistic.

8. Q: Can Sri Lanka Host any CHOGM at all?

A: Sri Lanka should be confirmed as a host for a future CHOGM only after the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group reviews the countries performance and is satisfied after assessing it against the following minimum benchmarks that require the government to:

1. Ensure meaningful domestic implementation of the international human rights treaties to which the Government of Sri Lanka is party and bring all legislation in line with international human rights standards;

2. Treat all people within Sri Lanka with dignity and respect as equals while allowing them to live in an environment in which they can enjoy all fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution of Sri Lanka and international human rights law;

3. Restore Constitutional provisions that guarantee separation of powers and re-instate the independence of the three wings of government;

4. Restore the independence of key government institutions, such as the National Human Rights and Police Commissions;

5. Institute effective mechanisms to protect journalists, civil society groups and human rights defenders who work for the promotion and protection of human rights;

6. Support and cooperate with independent and credible domestic and international investigations into all allegations concerning violations of international humanitarian and human rights law in the country, especially relating to the conduct of the armed conflict which ended in 2009; and

7. Commit to collaborate with the Office of the UN Secretary General and initiate the implementation of all recommendations set out in the report of the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts.

© Scoop World

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