Tamil National Alliance parliamentarian MA Sumanthiran warned that Sri Lanka would face “serious repercussions if you resile from international commitments” as he spoke in parliament on UN resolutions on accountability for mass atrocities and the devolution of powers to the North-East.
The lawmaker recalled the several commitments Sri Lanka has made to the UN Human Rights Council on accountability and to the UNJ Secretary-General and India on a political solution to the island’s ethnic conflict.
“I am saying this because there are repercussions if you do not deliver on your promises to the international community,” he added. “For 11 years, you fooled the world and now, for 11 months also, you have fooled the world or you think that you can fool all the people all the time. That is what you think.”
Sumanthiran concluded by stating that “sovereignty is for all the people; sovereignty is not to be enjoyed by the majority only”.
“That must be kept in mind,” he added. “If the majority only enjoys sovereignty, then you are leaving the other peoples out, you are forcing them to claim their own sovereignty and that would be your own act.”
“When the Europeans conquered this Island, was there one State here, was there one kingdom in this Island? No, there was not one kingdom in this Island. There were three kingdoms in this Island and they all fell to western powers at different times. It was only in 1833 consequent to the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission Report, for administrative convenience, it was made one country.
“So, when you try to take lessons on how India became a Union or how the United States of America became States coming together, you must remember the history of this country as well. This country consists of different peoples who each have their own rights under international law. Violation of international law is not a domestic matter. You cannot hide behind the cloak of State sovereignty. There is nothing called “State sovereignty” today. Sovereignty is to be enjoyed by the people.”
Read the full text of his speech below.
Hon. Presiding Member, I am happy to follow the Hon. Minister himself as we discuss the Votes of the Ministry of Foreign. The Minister is an experienced Parliamentarian and an able person and I am glad to discuss a few matters with regard to Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy while he is present together with a very able and dynamic young Parliamentarian, the Minister of State for Regional Co-operation, Hon. Tharaka Balasuriya.
It was rather comical to witness the spectacle this morning as we started the Discussion, the bickering between the Government Benches and the main Opposition, each trying to absolve themselves from responsibilities they had undertaken in the international arena.
The Hon. Lakshman Kiriella was blaming President Mahinda Rajapaksa for agreeing with the SecretaryGeneral of the UN on the 26th of May, 2009 in Kandy, undertaking to inquire into the allegations of human rights violations. And for his part, the Hon. Minister was blaming the main Opposition for co-sponsoring, when they were in Office, Resolution HRC 30/1 before the UN Human Rights Commission. These acts are not acts of certain governments that are in office at a particular point in time. These undertakings are given on behalf of the State and in the international system these obligations are taken very seriously. The Minister read out the letter sent in February this year claiming to withdraw from the cosponsorship of HRC Resolution 30/1. All of us know that you cannot withdraw from an act that is already done. The Minister was hurt to say in this House that that co-sponsorship happened without the knowledge of anyone, not even the President at that time. I want to ask a question. If that be so, how did Sri Lanka co-sponsor Resolutions 34/1 and 40/1 several months thereafter, both of which were merely rollover Resolutions of 30/1? Resolution 30/1 was done on the 1st of October, 2015; Resolution 34/1 was in March, 2017 and Resolution 40/1 was in March, 2019 - three times over, the same contents. How does a responsible Minister stand up here and say that nobody knew about the contents? These undertakings are on behalf of Sri Lanka - of the State. There are serious repercussions if you resile from international commitments.
Sir, I want to pose another question. On the 29th of July, 1987 Sri Lanka entered into an international bilateral agreement with India commonly known as the Indo-Lanka Accord. Various speakers in this House, at various times, say various things about this Accord. Mr. Foreign Minister, would you have the courage to write a letter to India like you did to the UN Human Rights Council and withdraw from the Indo-Lanka Accord? If you do not and you have not done that over several decades of your party in office, you must honour it. You must honour it. There is no point in saying, "This was thrust down our throat". If it was thrust down your throat, withdraw from it. Write a letter to India like you did to the UN Human Rights Council. Are you brave enough to do that?
I will read out the fundamental principles of the Indo-Lanka Accord, which is still binding on Sri Lanka. It is an international bilateral agreement.
One, Sri Lanka is a multiethnic and a multilingual society. Two, each ethnic group has a distinct cultural and linguistic identity which has to be carefully nurtured. Three, the Northern and the Eastern Provinces have been areas of historical habitation of Sri Lankan Tamil speaking peoples. Those are the basic principles laid down at the forefront of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord.
So, you cannot resile from that nor can you even resile from undertakings given to the UN Human Rights Council, not once but three times. But, more importantly, before President Rajapaksa did that in May, 2009, on the 2nd of March, 2009, the Hon. Mahinda Samarasinghe, on behalf of Sri Lanka, said this at the UN Human Rights Council. He said, “Our national discourse has been dominated for decades by an ethnic issue which requires a political solution as a means to resolve the problem". He did not say "a military solution"; he said it requires a "political solution". "On a recommendation of the All Party Representative Committee, we are able to properly implement the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution which was passed in 1987". Those were words of a Minister of your Government at that time.
Following that, on the 26th of May, this is what President Mahinda Rajapaksa said in a joint communiqué with the UN Secretary-General: "President Rajapaksa expressed his firm resolve to proceed with the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment as well as to begin a broader dialogue with all parties, including the Tamil parties in the new circumstances to further enhance this process and to bring about lasting peace and development in Sri Lanka". Why did he do that? Will you now write a letter to the UN Secretary-General withdrawing from this commitment that your President made on the 26th of May, 2009? He said, "Not only the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment". Eleven years have passed and that has not been implemented. Your leader’s solemn promise to the Secretary-General of the UN, no less! I am saying this because there are repercussions if you do not deliver on your promises to the international community. You pride yourself that we are a part of the civilized community of nations. We will not be part of a civilized community of nations if we willy -nilly ignore and violate commitments that we make to the international community. I am only referring to his guarantee of implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment and going beyond that. But, there are other agreements in that with regard to violation of human rights and that there will be a domestic mechanism. In your letter in February this year too, you say that there will be a domestic mechanism. Where is it? Several months have passed, but where is that plan? For 11 years, you fooled the world and now, for 11 months also, you have fooled the world or you think that you can fool all the people all the time. That is what you think. Then, on the very next day after President Mahinda Rajapaksa agreed with that, on the 27th of May, 2009, at the UN Human Rights Council a Resolution was adopted which stated, “Welcoming also the recent assurance given by the President of Sri Lanka....” - the previous day, he gave that assurance - ".....that he does not regard a military solution as a final solution as well as his commitment to a political solution with the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment to bring about lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka,". So, the implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment was the first step that was promised over and over and over again, not just to the UN Human Rights Council, but also to India.
Then, I am going to read the three joint communiqués that were issued, once with the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh where President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s commitment was recorded.
It stated, "The Prime Minister emphasized that a meaningful devolution package...." - this was in June, 2010 and ten years have passed - "....building upon the Thirteenth Amendment..." - that is what President Mahinda Rajapaksa said - "... would create the necessary conditions for a lasting political settlement". Ah, there comes the Hon. Mahinda Samarasinghe who gave the assurance to the UN on the 2nd of March, 2009. That communiqué went on to say, "The President of Sri Lanka reiterated its determination to evolve a political settlement acceptable to all communities that would act as a catalyst to create necessary conditions in which all the people of Sri Lanka could lead their lives in an atmosphere of peace, justice and dignity consistent with democracy, pluralism, equal opportunity and respect for human rights. Towards this end, the President expressed his resolve to continue to implement in particular the relevant provisions of the constitution designed to strengthen national amity and reconciliation through empowerment. In this context, he shared his ideas on conducting a broader dialogue with all parties involved". The Prime Minister of India expressed India’s constructive support for efforts that build peace and reconciliation among all communities in Sri Lanka.
The then External Affairs Minister the Hon. (Prof.) G.L. Peiris visited New Delhi in May, 2011. I am glad that the Hon. (Prof.) G.L. Peiris is in the House when I quote from the joint press statement issued after that. "The External Affairs Minister of Sri Lanka affirmed his Government’s commitment to ensuring expeditious and concrete progress in the ongoing dialogue between the Government of Sri Lanka and representatives of Tamil parties. A devolution package building upon the Thirteenth Amendment ...." - those are words of assurance given by the Hon. (Prof.) G.L. Peiris to India - "....would contribute towards creating the necessary conditions for such reconciliation".
That was again reiterated in January, 2012 when the External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna visited Sri Lanka. With the Hon. (Prof.) G.L. Peiris by his side, Mr. S.M. Krishna said, "The Government of Sri Lanka has, on many occasions, conveyed to us its commitment to move towards a political settlement based on full implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment of Sri Lankan Constitution and building on it so as to achieve meaningful devolution of powers. We look forward to an expeditious and constructive approach to the dialogue process".
Now, a decade has passed. You have not done a thing. Some effort was taken by the last Government. We participated in good faith; the Hon. Members who are now in the Government also participated. The Hon. Minister of Foreign Affairs was a Member of the Steering Committee. The Hon. Susil Premajayantha even headed an ad hoc committee with regard to relations between the Parliament and Provincial Councils and gave a good report. The Hon. Bandula Gunawardena chaired another committee. The Hon. Mahinda Samarasinghe chaired another committee on human rights or fundamental rights and gave a brilliant report. The Hon. (Dr.) Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe who hides behind his lamp all the time here in this House, in these sessions, was also a Member of the Steering Committee and drafted the proposals with regard to land powers. So, there was an effort.
But, you have abandoned that now and you talk of repealing - [Interruption.] Yes, Hon. State Minister Tharaka Balasuriya? - [Interruption.] Thank you for that assurance, that you all will abide by all the assurances given to the world.
Sir, before I conclude, I need to touch on one or two other matters. I am thankful to the Hon. Minister for giving the number of Sri Lankans who have been repatriated. But, there is a serious issue with regard to our labour force in the Middle East, who contribute so much to our economy, not being given priority in the repatriation process.
So, I hope the Hon. Foreign Minister will look into that and give them priority.
Secondly, this is the month of November - I said this some time ago also - in which all those who died in wars are remembered. That is why we sell poppy the world over. This is the period in which that happens. And in Sri Lanka, particularly in the Tamil areas, for the last three decades, it has become a custom to remember the dead who fought the war. They may have fought the State, but nevertheless, they are dead and their families and others have a right to remember them as they are accustomed to do. The Government has taken great exemption to this suddenly this year and is flying members of the Attorney General’s Department by special helicopters to Jaffna, Mullaitivu and all over the place amid COVID-19 restrictions when the Attorney-General’s Department is an isolated zone - they are flying around all over without being quarantined - to oppose and to obtain orders from Magistrates preventing mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers from remembering the dead, which is most unfortunate and a most undignified act by the State.
Honouring and remembering the dead, even in our culture is a solemn affair. The other day, I stood with a mother who is 83 years old. She has only a shack for a house. Her son died in 1985. She lit her lamp and I participated in that event. It is a solemn occasion. Why are you so worried? Why are you so scared of the dead? Is it because you put them to death in the most brutal manner violating all the international norms?
The other thing is, sovereignty is for all the people; sovereignty is not to be enjoyed by the majority only. That must be kept in mind. If the majority only enjoys sovereignty, then you are leaving the other peoples out, you are forcing them to claim their own sovereignty and that would be your own act.
When the Foreign Minister started his speech, he said he wants to give a lesson to the Hon. Lakshman Kiriella about the fact that India is a Union because there were princely States and they all had to be brought together. I want to ask him about the history of this Island. When the Europeans conquered this Island, was there one State here, was there one kingdom in this Island? No, there was not one kingdom in this Island. There were three kingdoms in this Island and they all fell to western powers at different times. It was only in 1833 consequent to the Colebrooke-Cameron Commission Report, for administrative convenience, it was made one country.
So, when you try to take lessons on how India became a Union or how the United States of America became States coming together, you must remember the history of this country as well. This country consists of different peoples who each have their own rights under international law. Violation of international law is not a domestic matter. You cannot hide behind the cloak of State sovereignty. There is nothing called “State sovereignty” today. Sovereignty is to be enjoyed by the people. You cannot hide behind the concept of State sovereignty, violate international law and claim that this is a domestic matter. No, it is not. You know that very well. So, in fashioning the country’s foreign policy you have now gone on reverse gear, you have put the country at peril.
On this particular occasion when we debate the Votes of the Foreign Ministry, I think it is our duty to bring it to your notice that you need to turn around, and promoting accountability and reconciliation is not a matter that violates the sovereignty of any country.