The United States is “not satisfied” with progress in Sri Lanka and is eyeing up a broader involvement in the island’s ethnic turmoil, said Tamil National Alliance parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran, who held a series of high-level meetings in Washington DC, New York, Toronto and London last month.
Speaking to the Tamil Guardian in London, the lawmaker said that there had been discussions regarding “greater involvement by the US, broadly speaking, in the Tamil affairs in Sri Lanka”.
Under the Biden administration, the US is set to re-join the UN Human Rights Council and play a “lead role” in the Core Group on Sri Lanka, Sumanthiran added. And though successive resolutions at the global body have focussed on accountability for mass atrocities, Sumanthiran said that now a “lasting political solution” was also being discussed with Washington.
He spoke of how tools such as targeted sanctions on accused Sri Lankan war criminals had been discussed and on how “the accountability matter must go beyond the Human Rights Council”. “We are now being left with no other alternative” but a “full international accountability mechanism,” Sumanthiran added.
“I have always held and even expressed that genocide did take place,” he said. “I said that in parliament from 2013 onwards.”
“Yes – genocide did take place. And we have evidence of those facts.” However, he continued to state that the intention aspect of genocide “must be carefully looked at”. “We shouldn't start that process without being able to be sure somewhat, that we can get a positive result,” he added.
Sumanthiran noted that alongside discussions on accountability, the US also “wanted to know more about political solution aspect”.
“We consider political solution also as urgent,” he said. “Our stance that it must be on a federal model remains,” he added.
“What I mean by that is that whatever power sharing arrangement that we agree to, the subjects that are given to the province… the province must be supreme in respect of those objects and functions. The centre should not be able to interfere with that. They must have legislative power over that and executive power.”
“Whatever power that is devolved, the centre ought not to be able to take it back unilaterally or override it in any way.”
The parliamentarian noted that even calls for early Provincial Council elections from the US were a “good thing”, despite the fact that a new Sri Lankan constitution may dissolve them entirely. Describing how land grabs and forceful demographic changes have taken place in the North-East, Sumanthiran claimed that “those can be curtailed if there is a Chief Minister and board of ministers of an elected Provincial Council”.
“To some extent,” he continued. “I'm not saying that that can go to halt them, but it certainly can prevent some of these things or at least slow down that process.”
A new constitution from this particular Sri Lankan regime “will be in the opposite direction to power sharing arrangements” he continued.
“It’ll be just a complete unitary state model, with Sri Lankan being declared as a Buddhist republic, etc. So even to stop that particular constitution making process can be seen as progress.”
Sumanthiran concluded by stating,
“There is I must say, some renewed hope that I have with interest being shown from the Western world as it were, to work along with India in securing a lasting political solution for ourselves.”
See the full transcript of his interview below.
In terms of your meetings in the US, Canada and the UK, how did they go? What kind of things did you discuss and what was the outcome of them?
This was actually delegation that came to the US on an invitation by the State Department to the TNA, because there have been some discussions between us as to greater involvement by the US, broadly speaking, in the Tamil affairs in Sri Lanka.
The US stepped out of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. But after the change in administration, they've announced that they're coming back in this year. This March a resolution was adopted, 46/1, which incorporated a paragraph which was not there in the first zero draft with regards to touching on the political solution as well. Now, so the US has been talking to us about that. They will join the Core Group and probably will play a lead role as before. And they wanted to know more about political solution aspect.
The resolution, although it's titled ‘Accountability and Reconciliation’, it has largely focused on accountability, justice and human rights violations. It hasn't really gone into the political solution aspect. Now that that is also brought into the resolution specifically, the US wanted to discuss that in its contents.
So far, only India has addressed the nature of a political solution. Other international friends have urged Sri Lanka to go for a negotiated political settlement with the Tamils. But they haven't signed anything or they haven't really gone into the content of the solution. Only India since 1987 has been saying that and even up to date, that's what they articulate. So here is a situation that that's been brought into the resolution. And the Core Group, and perhaps the leader of the group, because they started off the resolution in 2012, being interested in knowing more about the contents, and possible greater involvement of the of the US - meaning that they will take on the plate as a political solution as well, in addition to justice and accountability.
So that was a broad scope. And that is why when Mr Sampanthan was asked to name a delegation, he named a legal team. Mrs Chandrahaasan, has been, and was an expert in the Mahinda Rajapaksa-appointed the APRC Experts Committee - She is a signatory to the majority experts report of the APRC between 2006 and 2009. Mr Kanag-isvaran, was actually a member of the TNA delegation itself that held talks, 18 rounds of talks, in 2011 with the Mahinda Rajapaksa government and in any case, has been a chief legal adviser for several years. So he suggested that I go with both of them.
This was to happen in September, but then got put off for various reasons. So by November, he wasn't able to travel due to other commitments. So it was the three of us. We were told that they would also invite persons from the diaspora. So they had invited the GTF… there were three from the US itself, and three other from other countries. So we had a nine-member delegation.
And so the meetings were just as one would expect in the US because I'm used to this. In 2011 Sampanthan led a delegation, we had talks with different bureaus… And then all of that sort of comes to a central place where they start formulating policy on what has been discussed.
So we had a series of meetings with the different bureaus. But Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Donald Lu, who was to meet us at that time had to suddenly go to Nepal. And Deputy Assistant Secretary Ambassador Kelly went to Colombo, so when they both were back, they asked whether we would meet again the following Monday. And so I had gone to Toronto, but I flew back just for the day and others came back and six of us.
Lu participated online because he had come back from Nepal and he was concerned about coming into the State Department buildings, but the others were there and so we had a long discussion with him on this particular question.
What line were you pushing – on those two things accountability and a political solution. What is your stance on both of those things?
Yeah, so we see it is as one whole, in the sense that accountability and justice have to be pursued more vigorously. In fact, Donald Lu himself conceded that they are not satisfied with the progress there. He actually gives us an undertaking that they will get into the Core Group and they will push hard on that.
We consider political solution also as urgent. Our submission was that I mean, amongst other things, the land grabs, as we call it, and gerrymandering with the objective of changing the demography of the North and East is happening at an accelerated pace now, with archaeology various instruments being used for that purpose. And in the East it’s most prevalent but even in Vavuniya and Mullaitivu, it's happening - changing the boundaries of division, actually bringing people from other districts and settling them and so on and so forth. We have a challenged number of those in courts and we've had partial success, but that can’t go on.
The point was, that if some kind of access to power over land and a few other things are not exercised by us at this juncture, it’s going to be the governors of these provinces, who will consent to anything and the percentage of the Tamil population in these two provinces will diminish and actually disappear.
That was our argument as to why whilst pursuing justice, some kind of even an interim arrangement in the political solution arena has to be struck, so that we don't lose ground literally and be left without land in which we can call to exercise self-determination, even internally.
Once that was made clear, their response was… they will now go into that particular process. They will consider what, if any, US involvement can be in a situation like this. But they gave us an undertaking that they will continue to pursue justice, accountability, etc, more vigorously. And also that they will call for early Provincial Council elections. But with regard to negotiated settlement, they will have to formulate a policy in regard to that.
In terms of pursuing justice and accountability more vigorously, previous resolutions have spoken of hybrid mechanism, mechanisms. It's been 12, nearly 13 years now. Are you in the TNA advocating for an internationalised mechanism? Do you think a hybrid mechanism was even possible within Sri Lanka? Or does it have to be fully internationalised?
We did go with the idea of a hybrid mechanism because that would have taken root in the country, it would have had to function with the law being enacted for that purpose and it would have affected whatever happens in the country. But that attempt, I think, hasn’t been borne fruit. And although the government agreed in the [UN HRC resolution] 30/1, that same government started backtracking on that.
So I suppose a full international accountability mechanism, a judicial mechanism will have to be resorted to. How that can happen, is another question. But I think we are now being left with no other alternative but to pursue that direction. The evidence gathering and protection mechanism and all of that sort of groundwork that can be done in that in that direction.
There's talk of a new constitution in Sri Lanka now. What is the utility in having Provincial Council elections when this government has even spoken about dissolving Provincial Councils? Is there any point in pushing for early elections when a new constitution which this regime is pushing could dissolve that all entirely?
It’s true that they are talking about a new constitution, but of course, if that new constitution comes, it will be in the opposite direction to power sharing arrangements. It’ll be just a complete unitary state model, with Sri Lankan being declared as a Buddhist republic, etc. So even to stop that particular constitution making process can be seen as progress. But if you have Provincial council elections with even the diminished powers of the 13th Amendment - there are some powers relating to land - and if elected Provincial Council, exercises those powers, then you can actually stop some of the procurement activities now.
The Eastern Province governor you may have seen a picture, she’s going and sitting in that pasture land with somebody holding an umbrella over her head, and she's just surveying and saying “okay, you know, you take this part, you take this part, you take the part”.
That kind of actions are going on. So those can be curtailed if there is a Chief Minister and board of ministers of an elected Provincial Council. To some extent. I'm not saying that that can go to halt them, but it certainly can prevent some of these things or at least slow down that process.
So in a situation where we are fast losing ground from beneath our feet, even that isn't a steady step. I think that that's a good thing that the US does call for early Provincial Council elections. Anyway, that is part of the part of the resolution, whatever involvement they decide to have, whatever method they choose to follow.
If they choose to help or get involved in a backdoor negotiations or you know, quiet diplomacy as they call it, then we will need some other countries to back this process. In any case, we need support from the entire international community to do so. That's what I did in Canada and in Britain because they also part of the Core Group. If this move takes place of the US getting more involved in consultations with India, then we need the world support for that. So the discussions in Canada, more particularly in Britain, where I met minister those I communicated. I can say that, broadly, there is support for that kind of support network by the other countries.
In terms of a future path forwards internationally. There have been calls now, obviously, to move beyond the UN Human Rights Council. There have been criticisms of it - resolutions have been passed in 2012 and unfortunately, there has been little to no progress in terms of accountability, and very little on a political solution as well. Would you support calls to go beyond the Human Rights Council and explore other international fora? Or do you think the international community is right to continue to keep things at the UN Human Rights Council?
I would go with the call we made earlier this year when three parties and some others signed a joint letter on the 15th of January. The accountability matter must go beyond the Human Rights Council. We took note of the fact that in 2011 the Secretary-General sent the Panel of Experts report to the council and that's how the Council came to be seized of that matter, to send it back to the Secretary General to pursue other avenues.
The other issues with regard to current violations etc. that process must continue to remain in the Human Rights Council, if only to ensure that there is continuous international oversight over Sri Lanka over these matters.
In terms of power sharing and a new political solution, what is your stance on that? How far do you think we should be going? There's talk of the Provincial Council, 13th Amendment, 13 Plus. Where does your party stand on a political solution going forwards?
Our stance that it must be on a federal model remains. What I mean by that is that whatever power sharing arrangement that we agree to, the subjects that are given to the province… the province must be supreme in respect of those objects and functions. The centre should not be able to interfere with that. They must have legislative power over that and executive power.
The other, of course, is that whatever power that is devolved, the centre ought not to be able to take it back unilaterally or override it in any way.
I want to move on more to the internal TNA politics. There's been a little bit of rumbling that some of the constituent parties are unhappy with some of the directions that the coalition is going in. There is talk of separate meetings being held or some discomfort essentially, within the coalition. How would you respond to that?
Within the coalition, as you would expect with any alliance of political parties, different parties will all always be trying to gain more space for themselves within the alliance. They'll be elbowing others out, a little more space, a little more prominence within the alliance. That’s part of the democratic process and particularly in alliances. So you see that a lot in the TNA in recent times.
I would say that that is also because of the fact that the TNA suffered a huge setback at the last election and so the blame game starts also. One party says “it's because of you” and the other party says “no, it’s because of you” and try to gain upper hand within the coalition. Those are the dynamics that you are seeing. So, I would think that that is natural in any democracy.
There are criticisms of the TNA. As you mentioned, there was a setback during the last parliamentary elections. Some members of the coalition take more hardline stances than the others, which people have said wins votes for the TNA. But other TNA members are accused of not fully expressing enough what other members of the coalition say during election times or during speeches, and the demands are not fully expressing the will of the Tamil people.
What would your response be to criticisms of the TNA?
One has to make deductions based on who won the election and who lost.
Are the ones who are thinking more strident sort of positions, did they win? No. More moderate? Yes, they won. I mean, if you take Jaffna administrative district, I came first within the TNA lot there. If you take Battialoca electoral district itself Shanakiyan Rasamanickam came first.
So if you take North and East… that's the kind of result that you had. So if there has been a reduction in the in the vote base, it is those who couldn't make who took a far more strident and approach
Did you discuss further sanctions with the US State Department when it comes to accused Sri Lankan war criminals? There's already sanctions on people such as Shavendra Silva. Was that a topic of discussion? Or would you support broadening those set of restrictions that are put in place?
Yes, we did discuss the other tools that can be used sanctions, targeted sanctions, etc. I think those must be used. In the justice space those are important tools to use. Yes, we discussed some of those.
Where do you stand on the on the question of genocide, whether a genocide took place? What is your position on it?
With regards to genocide, I have always held and even expressed that genocide did take place. I said that in parliament from 2013 onwards.
Some people think that I have said that there is no evidence. I have not even said that. There is evidence. On facts, yes, there is evidence.
The reservation that I have expressed is with regards to the requirement of the law - international law. Genocide is the only offence for which you have to prove intention as well. Not just recently, I found in an online discussion [former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights] Navanethem Pillay herself has said it. Other international crimes don't require that particular element. This requires that. The point that I have made is that because of that, one needs to be careful in asking the question, lest we get a get a no for an answer. We must never be in a position where we get that. So as a lawyer as someone who thinks about how we establish what, with regard to the international crime of genocide in criminal proceedings, one of the elements that needs to be there is intention. It’s a tricky situation because we are talking about a structural genocide over generations. And then whose intention. I remember Navanethem Pillay saying, you know, preparation getting ready, various things, all of that are necessary elements. It has to be clinically looked at, not emotionally.
Yes – genocide did take place. And we have evidence of those facts.
But the intention part and given that it's spread over a period of time, several decades, how one approaches that must be carefully looked at.
It’s not a denial that this happened at all. It’s a caution, that if we do take that and go forward, that we don't fail in that. We shouldn't start that process without being able to be sure somewhat, that we can get a positive result.
Lastly, what are your hopes for the future both with in terms of US or international action and on the island?
International support is the only tool that we have now. Because in terms of getting anything democratically, we are numerically in the minority. And unless we convince the majority numbers it's difficult. We should try that also. Because eventually whatever sort of comes and will be durable in the country, you must have substantial support from the majority committee also.
But to get it done, to get over the lines to say, you need the push from the friends in the civilised world internationally. And so there is I must say, some renewed hope that I have with interest being shown from the Western world as it were, to work along with India in securing a lasting political solution for ourselves.