‘Overseas rump of the LTTE is still active’
In the back drop of opposition claims that the Rajapaksa government messed up the foreign policy of the country, Dr Palitha Kohona foreign secretary and permanent representative to the UN, speaks to C.A.Chandraprema about the foreign policy of the Rajapaksa regime. He also touches on the current tensions with the European Commission regarding the extension of GSP+.
Q. There is this view that over the past four years, the foreign relations of Sri Lanka were strained as never before. The main reason for this was obviously the war. Is there a way that this could have been done without the acrimony that we saw in the recent past?
A. I don’t agree with your assertion that the foreign relations of Sri Lanka were strained over the last four years. We had excellent relations with India, Russia, China, Japan, Korea, Iran and a range of countries. President Rajapaksa personally handled our relationship with India and as you know, India supported us in winning the war.
Q. I was referring mainly to the west.
A. With regard to the west, we had some difficulties mainly owing to the fact that the LTTE had a well oiled propaganda machine operating in western capitals and in various international agencies. They influenced the policy makers in such a way that they tended to take a fairly sympathetic view of the LTTE. Despite this, Sri Lanka was successful in getting the LTTE proscribed in 27 European Commission states, in the United States, in Canada and so on. So we did have a number of significant successes in our foreign relations, even with regard to the west. We also had the TRO an LTTE front organisation, banned in the USA and Canada and an application to ban the TRO is before the EU at the present moment. We also succeeded in getting western countries like the USA, France, Italy, Canada among others, to prosecute a large number of LTTE operatives, fundraisers and organisers. The president has consistently maintained that Sri Lanka is a non-aligned country, and therefore, we have to ensure that good relations are maintained with all countries. It has to be said that the president’s influence on foreign policy formulation in the last four years was a significant factor in managing our foreign relations in a satisfactory way. There was a time when we were not getting what we needed from the west including military material and funding for our development efforts. President Rajapaksa turned to other friends in the region which led to Sri Lanka being accommodated by countries like India, Iran, China and Russia.
Q. During the time of Mr Lakshman Kadirgamar, tensions with the west went down significantly. But things seem to have regressed since then.
A. The proscription of the LTTE in Europe, took place after the time of Mr Kadirgamar. The TRO was banned by the USA after Mr Kadirgamar. Most of the prosecutions of LTTE operatives took place after Mr Kadirgamar. So I think it’s wrong to say that tensions were eased during one period and they got aggravated later on. By and large I think Sri Lanka as a country, both during the time of Mr Kadirgamar and subsequently, succeeded in convincing our critics that ours was a worthwhile cause, and that the LTTE which masqueraded as the sole representatives of the Tamils was a brutal terrorist organisation that needed to be stamped out.
Q. With regard to Europe, what we notice is that the European Commission seems to have gone out of its way to come down hard on Sri Lanka. If we take the two reports that they released last, year, it shows that there is some sort of tension between the EU and the Sri Lankan government.
A. It is not the European Union, but the European Commission that put out these reports, and it was done by a committee engaged by the commission. The commission has been bombarded by human rights groups and LTTE supporters and sympathizers. Like many western governments and institutions, they tend to respond fairly positively to NGO pressure. This was one such case. We have a task in front of us. We need to counter the pressures being exerted on institutions such as the European Commission.
Q. The GSP+ trade concession is in limbo at the present moment with a recommendation for its withdrawal by the European Commission. What steps has the government taken in this regard?
A. The government will take several steps. On the one hand, we continue to engage western capitals on this issue, and point out that the withdrawal of GSP+ will be a greater violation of human rights than what they seek to address thereby.
Q. How concerned do you think the Europeans are about the human cost of their reprisals? I remember watching an NHK World programme in which you were also a participant where Yasushi Akashi revealed that the Co-chairs, Norway, USA and the EU wanted to cut off all aid and concessions to Sri Lanka but that Japan blocked the move. So how do you convince a party with a mentality like that?
A. It is a curious phenomenon that on the one hand, the proponents of human rights will unsheathe their sword ostensibly to advance the cause of human rights, but in the process will not have any compunction in taking measures that will result in greater violations of humanitarian standards and human rights. It’s unbelievable that right thinking people would even dream of taking measures of this nature.
Q. The opposition says that if there is a change of government, they can guarantee the continuation of GSP+. Do you think a change of government would suffice to ensure the continuation of GSP+?
A. The European Commission has consistently maintained that they are recommending this measure on the basis of their own guidelines. As to whether a change of government in Sri Lanka is part of those guidelines, is not very clear to me.
Q. The USA has not been as half as judgmental in their State Department report on Sri Lanka put out late last year as the EU has been. What do you make of that?
A. I think it is a recognition that all the hype generated by the LTTE and its sympathizers should not be the basis of policy making. I think at last the reality is sinking in. The foreign ministry has been conducting a campaign to convince western capitals that here was another point of view in addition to that of the LTTE and its sympathizers. This is now beginning to sink in. Then of course there is another factor touched upon in that US report. Sri Lanka is an important country in that she sits in the middle of one of the busiest sea lanes in the world, and the US report acknowledges that instead of pushing Sri Lanka away, it would be far better to engage SL. This country of course will respond to friendly gestures rather than threatening actions.
Q. Coming to the question of engagement, there is this question of Philip Alston. I would say that Alston has been extremely fair by Sri Lanka in the past – much more so than most other UN officials who visited Sri Lanka. He has asked for an investigation on that Channel 4 tape. There are arguments going back and forth, but what’s finally going to be done about his request?
A. I think Philip Alston has been totally misguided in the recommendations he has made. I have serious concerns about the manner in which he presented the report. He went to New York to present the report, where the UN general assembly and security council meets. That suggests to me that he was looking for political mileage. Moreover, he chose to release the report (on the Channel 4 video) just two weeks before the presidential election. In addition to that there are serious doubts about the conclusions drawn by him on the basis of reports by his experts who were engaged and paid by him. We have contrary reports by experts engaged by the government of Sri Lanka.
Q. When the LTTE was wiped off in Sri Lanka, their overseas network remained intact. So is what we are faced with is a long drawn out tussle with an LTTE in exile?
A. The entirety of the LTTE’s foreign operations does not exist in the same form any more. Their main arms procurer and fund manager is in our custody now. There are other senior operatives who have been prosecuted by western countries. However the rump of the LTTE is still active. The government will continue to work with friendly countries to ensure that the terrorist organisation does not raise its head again. We have reached out to the Tamil diaspora groups and invited them to become partners in building a prosperous Sri Lanka. Many have responded to that call.