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Saturday, May 28, 2022
Analysis by Amantha Perera
COLOMBO, Nov 7 2009 (IPS) - One thing that has set apart the current administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa from those of his predecessors is its diplomatic duels with international heavyweights.
While battling the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the government took criticism of its conduct of the war and other rights violations by western nations in international fora head-on, and on more than one occasion came out a winner.
It has successfully fended off scrutiny at United Nation bodies like the Security Council and the U.N. Human Rights Council with the help of regional powers like India and China. Now once again the government is engaged in high-stakes diplomatic manoeuvres, this time with the U.S. and the European Union.
With the former, it is on the request by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to interview the former commander of Army and the current chief of defence staff Lt Gen Sarath Fonseka. With the EU it is over the extension of a preferable tariff waver known as Generalised System of Preference Plus or GSP Plus that was worth over 100 million U.S. dollars in 2008.
The EU last month released the report of an investigation it carried out on whether Sri Lanka should be given the GSP Plus extension. The report said that Sri Lanka was in breach of full implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The failure could spell the end, at least temporarily, of the tariff concessions.
The Sri Lankan government had until Nov. 6 to make an appeal or representations against the suspension. The government submitted a 48- page document to the EU in Colombo on Nov. 6, titled ‘Observations of the GOSL [Government of Sri Lanka] in Respect of the Report on the Findings of the Investigation with Respect to the Effective Implementation of Certain Human Rights Conventions in Sri Lanka’.
The government has maintained that while not cooperating with the EU investigation, its preferred mode of negotiation was through bilateral dialogue.
“The government of Sri Lanka is taking positive action (on the GSP Plus extension),” Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said on Nov. 5. “We are in dialogue with the EU.”
High-level Sri Lankan diplomats accredited to the EU in Brussels were in Sri Lanka finalising the government’s response over this week before it was handed over. Export Development and International Trade Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris told the Sri Lankan parliament on Nov. 5 that the government had prepared a comprehensive response to the EU report.
Immediately after the October EU report came out, Peiris said that the government would not change its stance and subject itself to any kind of EU investigation. The government had rejected EU requests for an investigation in October 2008 and maintained that such an investigation from foreign powers would undermine the country’s sovereignty.
The EU too has said that it wanted to keep an open dialogue with the Sri Lankan government. EU Ambassador to Sri Lanka Bernard Savage told IPS last month the EU hoped that continued dialogue would result in a positive development.
Some members of the EU have been staunch critics of the government’s war efforts, but they have had limited clout within the U.N. to force any kind of resolution against Sri Lanka.
The U.S. has also been vociferous in its criticism of the conduct of Sri Lanka’s decades-long war that finally ended in May. The State Department last month released a report to Congress on the conduct of the final months of the war. It was critical of both the armed forces and the defeated Tigers.
The rising diplomatic tensions between the U.S. and Sri Lanka went up by notches when on Oct. 28 the DHS requested Lt Gen Fonseka to attend a voluntary meeting at the DHS office in Oklahoma. Fonseka, who is a U.S. green card holder, was in the U.S. visiting his daughters but was travelling on a Sri Lankan diplomatic passport.
According to Bogollagama the DHS officials had informed Fonseka he was to be interviewed as a source on Defence Secretary Gottabaya Rajapaksa and alleged war crimes. Rajapaksa, who is a U.S. citizen, was instrumental in leading the final war efforts alongside Fonseka.
The Sri Lankan government immediately called the request for the interview beyond U.S. jurisdiction. Bogollagama said that Fonseka was privy to privileged information due to his office and he could not share them with a third party without the approval of the government.
“There is no separation between your public life and private life (when you hold high office),” he said, referring to the nature of Fonseka’s visit.
He met with the U.S. ambassador to Sri Lanka, Patricia Butenis, on Nov. 2 and conveyed the government position. He also held a telephone discussion with Butenis on the night of Nov. 3. The U.S. ambassador had informed the foreign minister that she would convey Colombo’s position to Washington. The U.S. Embassy in Colombo and the DHS office were tight-lipped on the details of the interview that was scheduled for 3:00 p.m. on Nov. 4, U.S. time, at the DHS Oklahoma office.
As the country waited in suspense to see whether Fonseka would in fact attend the meeting, in the afternoon of Nov. 4, Sri Lankan time, about 18 hours before he was to attend the meeting, news broke in the Sri Lankan parliament that Fonseka had left the U.S.
His departure was hailed as a diplomatic success by the Sri Lankan foreign office. “I consider it as a success of the diplomatic relationship (between Sri Lanka and the U.S.),” Minister Bogollagama said on Thursday morning after Fonseka had arrived on the island.
Bogollagama said that Fonseka had initially agreed to attend the interview but had later changed his mind after the government conveyed its decision. Before the request for the interview with Fonseka, Defence Secretary Rajapaksa had been interviewed on arrival in the U.S. by immigration officials when he was travelling as a delegate to the U.N. General Assembly sessions in October.
Bogollagama, who was present at the interview, said that Rajapaksa was interviewed as the Defence Secretary of Sri Lanka and not on the basis of his U.S. citizenship. He did not divulge any details of the interview but said he saw no connection between the immigration interview with Rajapaksa and the DHS request for one with Fonseka.
In between the two came the State Department’s 68-page report to Congress on the conduct of the last phase of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. The sequence of events has led nationalist groups in Colombo to accuse the U.S. of trying use high-handed tactics.
“This attempt to interview the general is an effort to influence the sovereignty of Sri Lanka,” member of parliament for the People’s Liberation Front Vijitha Herath said. The same accusation has been levelled against the EU—that of using financial instruments like tax concessions to influence internal decision making in Sri Lanka.
By the end of the week, though, Bogollagama appeared to be satisfied that the latest diplomatic storms had been weathered. But many more may be around the corner.
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