THERE CAN BE NO ARMED GROUPS OTHER THAN THE STATE says Reynout van Dijke Netherlands Ambassador to Sri Lanka
(Courtesy: The Sunday Leader of February 3 and 17, 2008)
Interviewed by Ruan Pethiyagoda
Breaking the silence maintained by European envoys to Sri Lanka in recent days, The Netherlands Ambassador Reynout van Dijke spoke at length with The Sunday Leader.
Q: As a former representative of the EU Presidency in Sri Lanka, what is your opinion on where the peace process went wrong?
A: The Co-Chairs drafted a statement in May 2006, and I would argue that it was the most powerful statement ever made by the Co-Chairs, and I would argue that the position of the Co-Chairs from that time has not changed. Everything that was stated in that press release is still totally valid and reflects our position up to date. It says that the LTTE must renounce terrorism and change its methods to avoid deeper isolation.
We warned that they would be listed as a terrorist group if they continued to partake in terrorism — and this happened. We also said:
‘The government must address the immediate grievances of the Tamils. It must prevent armed groups inside its territory from carrying out violence and terrorism. It must ensure the rights and security of Tamils throughout the country and ensure that violators are prosecuted. It must show that it is ready to bring about the dramatic changes needed to bring about a new system of governance, which will enhance the rights of all Sri Lankans including the Muslims. The international community will support such steps and failure to take such steps will diminish international support.’
In other words, those parties will become more or less irrelevant to the international community. That has been our position as of May 30, 2006 — nearly two years ago.
Q: In your view, what significant steps is the government taking to end hostilities in the north and east?
A: The government has done more than many people would assume. I am convinced that the government made serious efforts to find out what the possible agenda of the LTTE would be — to find — although not through direct talks, some sort of common ground. I am convinced that the government made that move before taking the position where they are now.
Q: When exactly did these efforts take place?
A: Last summer, I am convinced that the government did try to find ways to establish a process of constructive communication with the LTTE, recognising the limitations that all parties have. I do not have the feeling that the LTTE responded in any way to the very open ended question by the government of "how do we go on from here?"
Within Sri Lanka there are a lot of comments on the government. These are not for me to judge because I am just a diplomat. But I am convinced that the government did try to find ways to restart the process of communication with the LTTE. In that respect I feel that President Rajapakse did make a true effort before the fully fledged hostilities started.
Q: So you would blame today’s "fully fledged hostilities" entirely on the LTTE?
A: ‘Entirely’ and ‘blame,’ these are words that I would like to avoid. In the three years that I have been in this country, I have been told that the blame starts somewhere like 3,000 years ago or around thereabouts. So I am not very interested in the blaming game.
Since I have been here, we lived in a relatively stable period until the murder of the late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, and hostilities were basically limited to eliminating each other’s intelligence officers. That was a game that was going on for quite some while. The escalation of the violence on one hand of course was related to the defection of the Karuna Group, which was not only a government problem, but also a LTTE problem. It is not sensible to hold only the government responsible for this.
I feel that the government showed a lot of restraint during the first six months of President Rajapakse’s administration — they clearly stated that one day their patience would end, and this is exactly what happened. If we are in a blaming game, I can only state these facts. If I have to come to a judgement on whether the LTTE took the trouble to avoid the situation that we are in right now, my answer is no. They did bring this on, by victimising many in the Tamil community.
Q: The EU has been accused of imposing federalism on Sri Lanka. What is so important about federalism?
A: I don’t think the EU ever said federal state. The word federal was used in the 2002 and 2003 talks, but I think there is a big misperception amongst the public that we are forcing a certain type of solution on Sri Lanka. It is not up to the EU or anyone to dictate to Sri Lanka how it should share power amongst its people in a democracy.
Q: So the EU does not mind what form a solution takes as long as it is within a united Sri Lanka?
A: As long as it is within a United Sri Lanka and so long as the problems are addressed in a practical way. Compare this to Aceh, where people did not negotiate on semantics but said, what is it we want from each other, what are the things needed for us to live together peacefully? This would be a logical way to start. Our concern is primarily humanitarian, not political. Why would we care what form of government Sri Lanka adopts?
Our concern is that over many years people have been dying in numbers over a conflict related to the past. Our concern is to try to help resolve this conflict. It doesn’t mean that we have any view on how Sri Lanka should arrange its internal affairs. It should be something within the political parties and those parties in conflict.
Q: What has happened to the EU’s resolution on Sri Lanka’s human rights record? Is it on hold because you do not have the numbers within the council to pass such a resolution?
A: The normal practice within the Human Rights Council is to come to a common text on a country where there are different opinions. As far as I know that dialogue is still ongoing and a resolution has not been tabled. I know that there are great concerns and we are loud and clear on our concerns on human rights. In the last couple of weeks there have been several attacks on people travelling in public transport.
I was personally in Kebethigollewa for a funeral after the bus bombing in 2005, and I can still smell the consequences of these appalling offences. Somewhere in the shrubs people are found executed with their hands tied. The rest of the world is worried about this situation in Sri Lanka, and Sri Lanka should also be worried as a member of the world community. It is a very longstanding member of the UN, so I feel there should be no difference between anyone who signed up for the conventions regarding human rights. We should all have the same kind of concern.
Q: So do you believe the government’s assertions that it is against a military solution to the ethnic crisis, and believes in a negotiated settlement?
A: I have a strong feeling that the government will neither be able to communicate what measures are in place to stave off conflict nor the results of such measures, thus there will be consequences. Sri Lanka has a preferred trade status in Europe. It deserves that status as it has signed up to several important conventions. When you sign such conventions you also have the sacred duty to live up to the norms and standards in those conventions. If not, you simply lose your preferred status.
If such a thing happens in a world economy that doesn’t look that prosperous, exports might be hit hard. We estimate that this might affect 100-150,000 workers. This is why it is really urgent to address the concerns of the international community. We all have a right and try to be concerned as we are all members of the United Nations.
Q: When is the Sri Lanka’s GSP+ status slated to be taken up for review, and is there a prospect of Sri Lanka maintaining GSP+ status without a major shift in the government’s human rights policy?
A: It is a very technical process that takes into account past years and uses a checklist of requirements, with evidence of any statement. The outcome will be affected by several sources such as the World Bank, European heads of mission, and of course the Sri Lankan government itself. At the end of it all there will be a sort of balance sheet which will determine if Sri Lanka is still eligible for GSP+ status.
The business community should be concerned. In politics perceptions are just as important as the truth. If there is a negative perception all efforts should be focused on addressing these perceptions to take away the negativity. Instead of taking a defensive stance, I would take a more offensive one by explaining to the world what has been done to address concerns on humanitarian issues.
Q: Could Sri Lanka maintain GSP+ without a single human rights prosecution at the time that it comes up for consideration?
A: In political reality the proof of the pudding is in the eating. I would assess that if there is no proof of an active policy prosecuting human rights offenders, it would be naive to think that it would have no consequences.
Q: So no prosecutions means no GSP+?
A: I am only a diplomat. I can only say that it would do no good.
Q: What would be the international consequences of Sri Lanka sliding into a protracted war?
A: We are already in the phase where the international community is responding. The response is three-fold. Firstly when you are in a war, I quote General Fonseka when he said that Sri Lanka is looking to clear the northern part of the island by military action. In this situation we would continue our humanitarian assistance as regardless of what is going on, civilians need our support. There is a huge increase in the amounts granted to the ICRC, UNHCR and those who are able to deliver emergency aid to those in need. That’s the first response.
Secondly, whatever conflicts are going on, humanitarian rights should be maintained. We will be vocal on human rights issues. The third consequence is that our well meant efforts to help parties to come together simply come to a stage of hibernation. If the LTTE does not give any sign that they would like to have active mediation in this conflict, there will be little political activity, even behind the scenes to get the warring parties to the negotiating tables.
Last but not least there are the internationally agreed ‘Paris Principles’ on countries in conflict, which say that budget support to countries in conflict is not a good practice. That means that all aid that could be funnelled through the budget would come to a standstill, according to the same principles that we have all agreed upon.
Q: So if the war grows deeper and bloodier, all non humanitarian assistance from the EU will come to a standstill?
A: It would be a logical consequence because the Co-Chairs have made clear that war is not a solution. It would be the same if those same countries indirectly helped to finance a war.
Q: There is a growing perception in Sri Lanka that the criticism of the international community is confined to mere lectures. Since those words have not been translated into action, the government feels it need not pay heed to their concerns. What is your opinion on this?
A: I don’t think the international community feels that it is necessary to lecture Sri Lanka, and I feel that it is not effective. What we will do is stop signing cheques. This needn’t be done publicly. It is simply a matter of following guidelines that have been set up a long time ago. Although some find it irresistible to lecture Sri Lanka, I feel that most professional diplomats would not lecture at all. They would simply explain to the government how the world feels about something and leave it there. The silence of the international community is the best way to judge how we feel about what is going on in the country.
Q: What is the EU’s stance on the recent affronts to press freedom in Sri Lanka, including some journalists being branded as traitors by public servants?
A: There will be no living democracy without the right to differ. As much as nationalistic parties have the right to differ, other parties have the right to differ as well. By labelling those who differ as traitors you create a situation that puts a lot of responsibility on the persons that do this labelling. We have no problem with any intellectual debate.
Aside from media freedom I do have a concern regarding public servants. Ministry secretaries are answerable to ministers. Ministers are then accountable to parliament. I am quite amazed by the statements that public servants make on political issues without having any ministerial responsibility. In other words they can make statements without being answerable to parliament. It is a new trend that is emerging in Sri Lanka.
Internationally we take a politician’s statement as being a government statement. Any cabinet minister who expresses his or her opinion does so in the capacity of representing the government. In European governments, we take everything seriously. Any official cabinet minister is taken seriously. We find it sometimes confusing that a government is not concerted, so you get different opinions on the same issue from different players.
There is room for improvement to convince the international community of what the government’s intentions are, and restricting policy statements to politicians who are accountable. It is simply a matter of consideration of how confusing it is sometimes for us to interpret what is going on in Sri Lanka.
Q: So how far is the EU willing to go to protect the human rights of Sri Lankan civilians?
A: I think it is a very long shot that the situation will get so dramatic that any country at all will ‘send in the marines’ to separate the warring parties. Such action would only come through a resolution by the UN Security Council and that would have to be the result of a very dramatic situation.
If you go one level lower, I’d say that if there was proof that human rights offenders are protected like the LTTE protects their human rights offenders (LTTE members do not get visas to the EU and if caught their funds will be frozen), the same kind of measures are put in place as for the 150 people in the Government of Zimbabwe because we do not agree with their human rights policy.
These kinds of measures are not excluded for a later stage. But these measures require proof of what is going on in the island. I strongly hope that it will not come to such a state because I feel that President Rajapakse will go to lengths to convince the international community that he is addressing these problems actively and effectively.
Q: Would you consider Karuna Amman to be one of those liable for the same fate as the 150 Zimbabweans?
A: Under Sri Lankan law I have not seen any debate on those who are ex-LTTE members in the East, and if there would be a general amnesty for actions they committed whilst they were a part of the LTTE. It would be an interesting debate because there is a coalition between one of the ruling parties in the government and a political party on which I’m not sure what the status is.
The thing with international law is that some crimes internationally do not have an expiration date. This means that if crimes are committed against humanity, such as the systematic eradication of police officers who were seized as prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions and then murdered in cold blood, it is very defendable to say that this is a crime against humanity. You need proof that Mr. Karuna was involved.
Q: So how would the EU treat other persons who were found to have aided a war criminal to evade justice within Europe?
A: Karuna’s current situation is strictly between Britain and Sri Lanka. But generally if there is any proof that there is an active cooperation between a criminal and those protecting the criminal, those protecting the criminal will be considered as accomplices. It is a legal reasoning on which I am absolutely not making any statement on the current political elite or the rulers of Sri Lanka.
Q: How do you respond to the widely publicised accusations by nationalist movements that the EU and other Co-Chairs are performing the task of "colonial remnants" and standing in the way of the fight against the LTTE?
A: It is a plural democracy and the right of free speech allows anyone to state whatever they want. That is not to mean that all speech makes sense. I am inclined to think that the JVP and JHU are overestimating the interest that the international community might have in Sri Lanka. We are vocal on human rights in Sri Lanka, but we are also vocal on human rights in Burma, Afghanistan, or even if need be, in The Netherlands. Being vocal on human rights is a consequence of a series of treaties that we all signed up for, so political parties who criticise friends for being critical — it is their right. Our concern is not political parties but on how the Government of Sri Lanka lives up to the conventions to which Sri Lanka is a signatory. That is the only thing that is really important.
I can say with authority that there is no international conspiracy against Sri Lanka. There is no reason for such a conspiracy to exist. However for some it is always convenient to blame others instead of being self critical. They choose to attack diplomats knowing that we are unable to defend ourselves by going to court for slander due to our diplomatic immunity. There is something wrong with this culture of attacking the defenceless.
Q: The European Union banned the LTTE despite being a Co-Chair of the peace process. Was this a politically prudent move in hindsight, given the consequences that followed?
A: In hindsight the LTTE was not listed until May 2006 because the European Union worked on the assumption that by not listing them as a terrorist group, we could exercise influence over the LTTE. The discussion of whether or not to list the LTTE had been ongoing for nearly two years in Brussels. It was clear that something had to be done. We announced repeatedly in January and February 2006 to the LTTE that "serious steps are now on their way" to list them unless they were to make a move and reactivate their part of the deal on the peace process.
Despite the positive replies they gave verbally there was no concrete new agenda on the part of the LTTE and meanwhile they were stepping up terrorist attacks. The most dramatic was the assault on the trooper ship with 700 people aboard. We argue that if that one had been successful the damage done to the overall Tamil population in this island would have been tremendous. You cannot risk your own people by carrying out this kind of barbaric act.
I fully feel that the LTTE have had time and the position to start negotiating and convince the international community that they are serious about the peace process. By simply not doing this and responding to everything by means of violence there was no other alternative for us than listing the LTTE as a terrorist group.
Q: Has the government lived up to international expectations on following human rights conventions?
A: I guess it's no secret that concern has been expressed and that concern has not been taken away with recent events or any action that may have led to the conviction of human rights offenders. It is disappointing to see that cases that are two years old have not led to any convictions. The Presidential Commission of Inquiry has not yet delivered a product to the President or the Attorney General with any concrete leads for indictment. It is not a moral judgement but more a factual statement saying human rights have been offended, and no one has been brought before trial and convicted. Although circumstances may complicate things for the government, the perception of the world would be that if nothing happens, the issues are not being addressed sufficiently. This is how the world works.
Q: What conclusion could you draw from the fact that the government is not doing anything about this situation?
A: I cannot judge that the government is not doing anything about human rights prosecutions in this country simply because no results are known to the public. That as such creates a perception that there is a climate of impunity, which as such leads to criticism of this government. It is up to the government to develop an effective strategy of communication with the rest of the world showing the world what they are doing about human rights issues. Killing the messenger, strict denials, making basic things like human rights an instrument in a political dialogue is not well perceived.
Q: Do you feel that the government is ignoring the issue, or taking covert steps to resolve it?
A: I have no proof that the government is doing nothing to resolve the human rights issue. But I also have no proof that the government is taking the appropriate action. If even one case had been successfully prosecuted it would have made a huge difference in the eyes of the international community. The international community understands very well that a struggle is going on against a quite ruthless organisation. In any war situation things go wrong. This is an unfortunate fact of life. By not addressing these atrocities publicly you don't create a message of restraint, or a message that rights offences are prosecuted.
I am certain that 99% of field commanders believe that those who commit human rights violations, and shoot the wrong person, killing an unarmed civilian should be brought to trial. It also means that the type of indictment would imply that this was not a deliberate action. But in order to maintain discipline the commanders need to know that they would be backed if it comes to prosecution.
I am a bit flabbergasted that human rights are such an issue in a country like Sri Lanka where human rights have been high on the agenda since 1989. Most Sri Lankans do not agree with violation of human rights, so I am puzzled as to what has taken so long to communicate to the public and international community the effective measures being taken and the results that they have produced. I know we have lots of commissions and working committees but the bottom line is that some people should end up in prison.
Q: Are you saying directly that the armed forces are involved in these human rights abuses?
A: I would say that if you have the military operating in a certain zone, and if you have civilian casualties in the same zone then the outcome of the investigation into such tragedies should be totally public, and there should be nothing to hide. The one thing that is important is that even when things go wrong, people know that there is a transparent process for preventing such incidents being repeated in the future.
I am not accusing field commanders because I don't know how these investigations are going. Neither does the public have any idea on what has been investigated, the methodology of investigations or hearings that take place. The only thing we can see in say the execution of the people who worked for Action Contra La Faim or the students in Trincomalee, so far there has not been any result that has led to prosecution from the Attorney General's office. In these instances the circumstances are so complex that we will never solve them, and it would be the right thing to communicate these circumstances to the public.
I know from reliable sources that every now and then individual soldiers get punished for crossing the line. I applaud this, it is important. I would encourage that these actions are communicated to the public. It would be a warning that there is no climate of impunity and thus reduce the risk of people overstepping the line, and it would convince the international community that our assumptions on human rights violations are incorrect. So if the charge is that all our concerns are based on assumptions, the right answer would be to take these assumptions away. Show the world that something is being done.
There is no link between neo-colonianism and a legitimate question of how human rights violators are being prosecuted. I don't see how this can be perceived as a Western conspiracy when Article 1 of the United Nations Charter says that we all should respect human rights. I hardly can believe that anyone can boil it down to a political issue and say it's not important enough to merit our concern. I think it should be a universal issue.
Q: The LTTE has made it clear through word and deed that they will not settle for less than a separate state. What is the EU's stance on this demand?
A: My government has made it clear, as have the Co-Chairs, that a political solution within a united Sri Lanka as it is right now on the map, there should be room for a political solution. When the President took office he stated openly that he was willing to sit down with Pirapaharan to discuss any solution other than a separate state. He mentioned any model would be feasible. He did not go into the semantics and did not exclude any kind of model. That was an open state of mind with the only condition that there cannot be a separate state.
The international community feels that a separate state is not a logical, feasible, durable or even an economically viable form of solution. There is no democracy in the north. There is no multi-party mechanism that can prove that all the Tamils would like to have a separate state. Such a stance should emerge from within a democratic process.
I would prefer to go totally beyond the intellectual semantics. From a practical point of view, the IC is convinced that any solution should be within a united Sri Lanka. This island has a long history of many ethnic groups living together. There are Dutch and Portuguese Burghers, Muslims, Tamils, and of course Sinhalese. Looking at the history of this island I would challenge anyone to say that they were a "pure" Sinhalese or Tamil, given Sri Lanka's ethnic plurality. We regret very much that this ethnic issue has become so political, because many years ago it was not like that.
Concepts like land and race simply have little future. The future will be about brains and capital. These things that parties are willing to die for are quite old fashioned. If I were to go to Tamil Nadu, no one will want to know if I am a Tamil. They will ask where did you go to college, what is your business plan, and what would be your contribution to our economy. That's the future. We are very much focused on the past here. History is unfortunately holding Sri Lanka hostage.
Q: What is your opinion on the document presented by the APRC to President Rajapakse? Can it lead towards a negotiated settlement to the conflict?
A: I have no opinion on the content, as it is a political document. As a process, the fact that the government puts a card, whatever the contents are, on the table, is always positive. It is better to do something and show that you are trying to solve a problem than to just ignore it. It is up to the Sri Lankan people to decide if it is a realistic proposal or not. I don't think it is within the mandate of a diplomat to comment on its contents.
Q: It has been reported that the President imposed the 13th Amendment minus proposals on the APRC withholding many of the powers already included in the amendment. In your view does this attach credibility to the whole exercise?
A: There is a positive sentiment that after sixty five sessions that now a card has come to the table. It means that something is progressing.
Q: Even though the content of the document had nothing to do with the 65 sessions that took place, you're saying it is adequate to get a pat on the back from the EU?
A: I wonder if a solution presented by the APRC or even by the President should be a subject of discussion within the international community. So far as I know, apart from India, the international community has not commented at all. What we do is follow the political discussion between all parties on this island. I am positive about the fact that something is in motion.
Q: Do you see a distinction between how the international community deals with the LTTE and al Qaeda? If so, why?
A: There is a distinction. Al Qaeda declared war on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and several regimes including the United States. Al Qaeda also attacked targets outside of their own areas, so you cannot compare the objectives of al Qaeda to the objectives of the LTTE.
The objective of al Qaeda is through the means of a jihad; defend the Islamic states against the influence of the West. Whereas the LTTE says that having no alternative option, they are fighting for a separate state of Eelam.
Q: You just said earlier that they had the option of beginning talks last summer. So could you believe their claim that they have no other option but to fight for Eelam?
A: What the two organisations share in common ground is that the means they apply are not considered as legitimate means. Everyone in the Netherlands is free to say that the Northern Province of the Netherlands must be independent. We have no issues with people who want to declare the north part of our country as independent. We would have an issue if they began to explode claymore mines, kill politicians and use other violent means. This makes the difference.
Q: What are the chances of a free and fair election in the east when there is a coalition between a government constituent party and an ex-LTTE party currently armed to the teeth?
A: As long as there are non-state armed groups the EU does not believe that the region can be stable. There is only one institution that can exercise power, and that is the state. If the state is aware of armed groups and not addressing these concerns by disarming them, we would find it complicated to help the government to stabilise the region. It is a precondition for ending any armed conflict anywhere that there can be no armed groups other than the state.
Q: You paint a very gloomy picture for Sri Lanka's future. What can be done to stave off such a tragic situation?
A: The GSP+ issue is a logical consequence of a document that Sri Lanka signed all by themselves. It is not a choice of the EU. It is the choice of the government to live up to what they signed. The EU has always been very friendly and positive about Sri Lanka and that sentiment really did not change. However if you express concerns as a friend these concerns should be addressed. If you are voluntarily part of a convention, you have to live up to it. You can't blame another party. That would be turning the world upside down.
On the peace process, there comes a stage where if you dig deep enough everybody has a point. It is amazing that people use this kind of energy to prove that they are right somewhere back in history and not use it to come to a solution.