by Kalana Senaratne
First the government stated that the establishment of the Panel of Experts by the UN Secretary General (UNSG) Ban ki-Moon was ‘illegal’ and the members of the Panel would not be permitted to enter Sri Lanka. A few weeks later, the government said that if a request was made, it would be willing to ‘consider’ granting visas.
A few more months have gone by, and the government now announces that it is ready and willing to facilitate the visit of the UNSG-Panel. Yesterday, the Panel was illegal, unacceptable. Today, a warm and gentle embrace, everything is alright. But, tomorrow? One has to wait and see.
Did the government do the correct and diplomatic thing by deciding to grant visas and facilitate the visit of the members of the UNSG-Panel? It seems to be so, but there are many questions which neither the government nor the Panel, has answered to dispel the doubts of those observing and following this grand drama. The answer depends, in large measure, on the bona fides of the parties concerned; i.e. the government and the UNSG-Panel.
The members of the Panel would want to visit Sri Lanka, meet as many groups/individuals as possible, collect information concerning alleged crimes committed by both parties, and also meet members of the local ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ (LLRC).
The Panel will not be here to investigate (or it has no mandate to ‘investigate’ we are told), but there’s nothing much, viewed from a practical perspective, that one could do to prevent anyone from meeting members of the Panel and handing over relevant documents; ‘evidence’. For instance, the members of the Panel could decide to stay back in their hotel rooms, but still, one could easily visit the hotel and hand over relevant documents, discuss, etc. One could even phone them, if necessary.
Given these considerations, the government cannot, in all seriousness, grant visas and then impose conditions which are meant to curtail or limit the freedom of movement of the members of the Panel or prevent anyone meeting the members of the Panel. If the real intention of the government is to invite the Panel and then impose conditions, it should be stressed that it would have been far better if the government had not agreed to facilitate the visit, given its initial (hyper) reaction.
Besides, two general questions arise here. Firstly, if the mandate of the UNSG-Panel does not refer to ‘investigations’, why should the UNSG-Panel be all that concerned about visiting Sri Lanka? If collecting documents is what it wants to do, or talk to people, then why travel, in this day and age when all of this could be done via a simple email and a telephone conversation, for instance? Does it want to visit the North and the East, the ‘battleground’? If so, has the Panel spelt out what it wants to do? Farhan Haq, the acting deputy spokesperson for the UNSG has reportedly stated that the "Panel’s work is broader than meeting the LLRC". How broad is it, really?
Secondly, is the Sri Lankan government really revealing all that it has discussed with the Panel?
The understanding of the government seems to be a curious one. The press release of the Ministry of External Affairs, dated 18 December 2010, states that "in the event of the Panel of the Secretary-General wishing to present representations to the Commission [LLRC], the Ministry of External Affairs will make the arrangements that are necessary to enable the Panel to do so." Now, what happens if the Panel wants to meet interested individuals/organizations, i.e. do more than simply "present representations" to the LLRC? Will the government then state that it is not willing to facilitate the visit? Will the situation turn out to be that absurd?
Also, there’s something strange about the UNSG-Panel meeting the LLRC, and here, both the government and the UNSG-Panel seem to be acting in a rather dubious way. What is the main function of the UNSG-Panel? It is to advise the UNSG on what he (UNSG) ought to do in terms of ensuring accountability in Sri Lanka. Now, what kind of representations can such a body which is required to advise the UNSG present, before the LLRC?
Let’s also remember this: it was the UNSG who informed that the Panel "will be available as a resource to Sri Lankan authorities should they wish to avail themselves of its expertise in implementing the commitment". If then, what is the UNSG-Panel doing here, unless the LLRC has made a request. The LLRC has not made a public request. Why should the UNSG-Panel visit Sri Lanka and meet the LLRC and why should the government state that it is willing to facilitate the visit? Is it the government which has, surreptitiously, asked the Panel to visit Sri Lanka so that it could ‘enhance’ its image during these turbulent times?
The UNSG-Panel is not established to advise the government of Sri Lanka or the LLRC on what needs to be done. Its main function is to advise the UNSG. So, what is purpose of the UNSG-Panel, and what is the government thinking? Are we to blame the UNSG-panel, or are we to blame the government for being unable to think before acting?
These are some of the questions that arise and one does not know whether the government, or even the UNSG-Panel, would provide any answers in the near future.
Yet, like many other decisions made by the present Sri Lankan government, there are broader and very basic questions concerning foreign policy-making and governance that arise from this latest volte-face. For instance, have those in government given any serious thought to how contradictory and confusing their statements and policy decisions have been, especially during the past few months?
There seems to be no clear and principled policy, no proper coordination between relevant organs of the State, no single and authoritative decision-maker concerning issues of foreign policy and no single voice that could be relied upon on matters concerning Sri Lanka’s external affairs.
And, underlying all those questions above is the broader question: why such glaring contradictions? Has the government finally realized that the way in which it acted, over the last few months, has been wholly unbecoming and ungainly? Or is this a government that can be trusted?
One of the main problems seems to be this: the government seems to be trying hard to please too many people at the same time. It attempts to please those who are strongly opposed to the UNSG-Panel. It attempts to please those who are not. It attempts to please the people of Sri Lanka, and others elsewhere. It bashes the Western/Europe, and then when the going gets tough, it goes and attempts to please the same Western/European States. And by trying to do all this, it pleases no one.
The government should be far more principled, and think hard before it acts. It is sad if this government is turning out to be one which cannot be trusted.