CHOGM should be used as a platform to urge SL Govt. to correct itself

— Lal Wickrematunge

By Sujeeva Nivunhella

in London

Former owner of Leader Publications Lal Wickrematunge, Canadian parliamentarian, Senator Hugh Segal and British journalist, author of the "Still counting the Dead" Frances Harisson appeared on BBC TV program "Impact", debating whether it was right to hold Commonwealth Heads Of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka last week. Presenter Mishal Husain said Sri Lankan Government were invited to take part in this debate but they declined to do so.

Opening the debate Wickrematunge said that the CHOGM should be used as a platform to urge the Sri Lankan Government to correct itself. He said it was time that the international community stood up and took notice. "Now they have two UN resolutions and the LLRC report which the government has itself initiated and I think it would be a good platform to bring the government around to implement what they themselves have recommended", Wickrematunge said. 

He said that the International community was very slow to react. "If you look at the past records of other countries which have been brought to book, it has taken as much as ten years. Unless there is a change of mind with the International community that action has to be taken quickly instead of at the pace they are used to then the question arises whether you should have CHOGM here or whether Sri Lanka should be notified to get their act together as far as war crimes or Human Rights Record is concerned", Wickrematunge further said.

Participating in the debate Senator Segal said that the Government of Canada is very strong believer in Commonwealth Charter. "We are very strong believer in the principles the underline values of the Commonwealth such as democracy, rule of law, religious freedom and in our view since the end of the war in 2009 what is been going on in Sri Lanka is heading in the opposite direction.

"There is being a clear imposition upon judicial independence with the impeachment of the Chief Justice and a fashion that is clearly unconstitutional. There is continued Army occupation of the North in a way that does not allow vast majority of Tamils to rebuild their lives any kind of reconciliation fashion", he said.

"We have the continuing harassment of journalists which includes murders and disappearances, white vanning of people and there is no indication I was there in Sri Lanka to do a fact finding mission, meeting with all sides in the debate. There is no indication of any movement at all in any meaningful way on the question of accountability for what happened at the end of the war. On that basis our prime minister has said so far that he does not intend to be in Colombo and as to the actual status of Canada with respect to the meeting, that is still a matter under determination", the Senator said. 

When put to him by the presenter Husain that what was his answer if the Sri Lankan government said it is no business of his, Senator Segal said, "I don’t look at that in the point of view as a internal affairs of another Commonwealth country. Every Commonwealth country is independent and makes its own sovereign decisions. I look at it in terms of the integrity of the commonwealth and what it stands for. 

"We did not agree to have a meeting in Cape Town during the height of the pre-Mandela years. We had principles in that respect, we’ve had to respect calls to other countries who had to be asked to step out of Commonwealth for brief periods of time", he noted.

When he was asked whether he was comparing Sri Lanka to South Africa in the apartheid era, the Senator said,  "I am saying the same principles with respect to justice and rule of law and democracy should apply and should be applied evenly to all members of the Commonwealth and we shouldn’t be giving a pass particularly when the evidence suggests that things are moving in the opposite direction."   

When asked how much has changed to a ethnic Tamil living in Sri-Lanka four years after the war ended Frances Harrison said, "We have just seen people turning up in Britain as asylum seekers with appalling signs of abuse. People who, for example, have been branded on their backs with hot metal rods. We have seen 31 cases so far. Women who were in the police detention repeatedly gang raped, simply because they are Tamil and suspected to have some links with Tamil Tigers. This is four years on. We are actually in a situation where most survivors from the war even abroad are too scared to come forward to say actually what happened to them. This is why I wrote a book. Many of the people in my book spoke anonymously because they are scared of reprisals against their family members back home. 

Sri Lanka High Commissioner, Dr. Chris Nonis who did not attend the debate later  appeared on the same program and said that people lived in a heterogeneous society in Sri Lanka for two and a half thousand years and had a bitter and internecine conflict with the terrorists for 28 years, but subsequently, finally achieved peace.

He further said, "297,000 people have been rehabilitated. There is a billion dollar programme which has gone into the North and East, ‘Negenahira Navodaya’, ‘Uthuru Vasanthaya’ which is re-building the lives and infrastructure of the people.  11,600 LTTE cadres are now being rehabilitated.  I have met these kids –  they were cruelly snatched by Prabhakaran, they were fighting but they didn’t know what they were fighting for.  It’s so wonderful to see them undergoing vocational training, being rehabilitated and reintegrated into society."  

Talking about the Tamils coming to UK claiming asylum, Dr. Nonis said, "I would say there are many people who for various different reasons come and seek asylum, and I think what we have to separate, is those who seek asylum as economic refugees,  from those who seek asylum as political refugees, and now that we have peace in the country – you must remember the demography of the country, the majority of Tamil people actually live in the Centre and South of Sri Lanka, if you look at Colombo, its roughly a 30-30-30 percent split between Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim– most of us have relatives who are either Tamil or Muslim or Sinhalese– and that is not understood here because the problem is, we have a huge dichotomy or disjuncture in perception between what is portrayed here and the reality of contemporary Sri Lanka".

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