Statement by SL Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva Head of Delegation, Government of Sri Lanka at the opening session of the talks between Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, 22 February 2006, follows:
Hon. Minister Erik Solheim and the Facilitation team, Mr. Anton Balasingham and members of the LTTE delegation, Colleagues,
On behalf of H.E. the President of the Republic of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Government of Sri Lanka, I am pleased to make these preliminary comments at the commencement of the talks between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE, facilitated by the Royal Norwegian Government and hosted by the Government of Switzerland. At the outset, let me thank all the parties, including the Co-Chairs, who have worked tirelessly to make this event a reality.
At this stage, I would also like to express the hope of the Government and the People of Sri Lanka that these discussions will mark a significant chapter in the dialogue between the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE. It is also our wish that this dialogue would form the basis of a meaningful ceasefire where the beneficiaries of it would be all the People of Sri Lanka.
An analysis of successful negotiations worldwide would perhaps establish the fact that successes have resulted on occasions where parties to the conflict have had the courage, dedication and determination to pursue a solution through a continuous process of dialogue with sincerity. We should keep in mind that no issue is insurmountable, if the interests of the People and the Country are kept uppermost in our minds. Accordingly, it is our desire to express our views in a frank and forthright manner, rather than to make vague and ambiguous statements that would serve no useful purpose, although they may appear more acceptable on the surface.
As we all know, H.E. the President Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected on a platform of seeking an “honorable peace.” On that basis, our delegation affirms and emphasizes the position of the Government of Sri Lanka that the Ceasefire Agreement entered into between the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mr. V. Prabhakaran, the leader of the LTTE on the 22nd February 2002 is contrary to our Constitution and law. Furthermore, it is prejudicial to the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the Republic of Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, we acknowledge that certain benefits flowed to the People from the observance of the ceasefire, which resulted in our strong determination and desire to preserve the ceasefire.
We also consider the ceasefire as a first step to arrive at a negotiated settlement to the ongoing conflict and we propose to rectify certain grave anomalies arising from the agreement.
Since assuming office, our President has at various times and occasions extended invitations to begin a dialogue with the LTTE. Furthermore, our Government has been keen that the overall process of discussion and dialogue should be of an inclusive nature since it affects the whole Nation. We take pride in the fact that the Government’s participation at these talks in Geneva is with the support and goodwill of all the democratically elected political parties in Sri Lanka.
The discussions at the All Parties Conference held over the past few weeks resulted in the consensus that we initiate this dialogue with the LTTE. These discussions also served to prepare a common platform for the dialogue that we are commencing today with renewed hopes and expectations. This fact is significant since it is the first time in the history of this conflict that such a consensus has been reached. Therefore, I am privileged and honored to lead the Government’s delegation that is in Geneva today with the strong support from the Peoples’ representatives of Sri Lanka.
II. A Fresh Approach
H.E. President Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected to office on 17th November 2005 with a mandate from the Nation to work towards the achievement of an honourable peace. The Mahinda Chintana, which encapsulates the President’s vision for the country, makes it clear that the President has recognized the need for a direct dialogue with the LTTE, in the pursuit of such a goal. He has even stated that he is prepared to meet with the Leader of the LTTE and other representatives for such discussions. Notwithstanding the clear enunciation of such a position, it was unfortunate that upon assumption of office, H.E. the President was confronted with a number of acts which would easily qualify as being highly provocative. Such acts had the potential to disturb and deflect us from the path of dialogue and discussion. However, our President with his deep commitment to peace, reacted with patience and restraint to contain the tension that resulted from these acts of provocation and hostilities.
This enlightened response was certainly not a sign of weakness, but a display of our firm commitment to peace. We are therefore thankful to the international community for their steadfast encouragement for the commencement of these discussions. It is also our considered view that in the event such provocations had continued unabated, the repercussions may have been extremely dangerous with further loss of lives and the ceasefire becoming totally meaningless and leading to its eventual collapse.
Let me at this stage assure all, that it is the desire of H.E. President Rajapaksa to look at issues from a fresh perspective to find a sustainable solution to the conflict that engulfs our country. Let me also re-iterate that our Government is committed to talk, listen and think afresh.
III. Democracy and Human Rights
Sri Lanka is one of Asia’s most long-standing democracies. The people have enjoyed uninterrupted universal franchise since 1931, long before gaining independence in 1948. For over 65 years, our people have elected their own representatives to Parliament, from all ethnic groups. Both within the confines of Parliament and beyond, the right to criticize both the Government and the Opposition is an integral part of the freedom of expression. We must therefore ensure that all citizens of our country, wherever they may live, are free to exercise their franchise at free and fair elections, whether they be Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Malay, Burgher or any other group however small in numbers. The democratic process must prevail. Accordingly, no community or any section of a community should be deprived and denied their right to vote freely and to exercise their right to elect the representatives of their choice to whom they would entrust leadership.
It was a sad day for democracy in our country when at the Presidential Elections of November 2005, the LTTE forced the people in certain districts to observe a boycott of elections through coercion and general intimidation. It was a gross violation of democratic rights. In addition, the widespread rigging and corrupt election practices in many parts of the North at the general elections in April 2004 which was confirmed by the international election monitors could also be cited as further evidence of the LTTE’s disregard for democracy. It is in that context that the Government of Sri Lanka sincerely hopes that with a meaningful ceasefire, the people in the North could participate freely in the democratic process. We are confident that these sentiments will also be endorsed by the international community where such democratic norms prevail.
Mindful of the respective rights of the ethnic and religious groupings as enshrined in the Constitution, our Government is committed to maintaining the multi-ethnic, multi-religious and pluralist character of Sri Lanka. All persons irrespective of their race, religion, caste or gender are equal before our law. All our people whichever part of Sri Lanka they live in, are protected by these basic fundamental rights. These rights must not be truncated in any part of Sri Lanka, thereby depriving those persons of equality before the law. It is unfortunate that the LTTE has unlawfully deprived the Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese of these fundamental and human rights, recognized in our law and in international law, in particular in Killinochchi and Mullaitivu districts in the North of Sri Lanka.
As we all know, as a result of the ceasefire that has been in effect since February 2002, the LTTE has been able to engage itself in political activity. At that time, it was the intention that other political parties, too, should also be permitted to engage themselves in political activity in the North and East without hindrance. However, it is regrettable that this aim could not be achieved due to the LTTE’s hostile acts, including the assassination and abduction of political activists, which has obstructed the legitimate political activity of others. It is our hope that we would be able to move towards the restoration of the democratic values which are so important in a civilized society.
IV. Ceasefire Violations
As set out in the preamble of the Agreement on a Ceasefire between the then Prime Minister Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe and the LTTE, entered into on 22nd February 2002, four years to the day today, the importance of bringing the end to hostilities and improving the living conditions of all persons affected by the conflict was recognized. An end to hostilities was also seen as a means of establishing a positive atmosphere in which further steps towards a lasting solution could be taken.
However, the available evidence suggests that the LTTE had taken undue and unfair advantage of the ceasefire to strengthen its military capability. Repeated calls by the Government of Sri Lanka, the SLMM, and the international community to the LTTE to desist from such behavior has unfortunately not been heeded. This has resulted in a large number of significant violations which has seriously undermined the spirit of the ceasefire and threatened its termination.
The number of ruled violations by the LTTE as determined by the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM) since the beginning of the ceasefire up to the end of last month is a massive 3519. In comparison, the SLMM has determined that the GOSL has violated the agreement on 163 occasions. This shows that 96% of all violations have been committed by the LTTE. The violent incidents committed by the LTTE include assassinations, child recruitment and kidnappings, abductions of adults, suicide missions, killings of military and civilian persons, harassment of students and political workers, and destruction of property. Such incidents have seriously undermined the sustainability of the ceasefire and disturbed the return to normalcy for civilians in Sri Lanka, particularly in the North and East.
At this moment, we also wish to pay tribute to one of the great statesmen of our times, the late Hon. Lakshman Kadirgamar, President’s Counsel, the former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka. Hon. Lakshman Kadirgamar was internationally respected, widely acclaimed and highly honored. As the Minister of Foreign Affairs, he toiled hard pursuing a solution to our conflict. The fact that such a person was assassinated by the LTTE when the ceasefire was in force demonstrates the disregard with which the agreement had been treated and also highlights the significant deficiencies of the current ceasefire.
These circumstances underscore the inherent weaknesses in the existing ceasefire agreement as well as the lacuna in setting out norms for its effective implementation. These also show that the lack of sanctions being attached to violations when there are clear determinations made by the SLMM, is a very serious shortcoming that needs to be addressed in the interest of all concerned.
In expressing its views about the ceasefire, the Government of Sri Lanka must take into account the concerns of all of the people of Sri Lanka. The Government takes this obligation seriously and has engaged in consultations with representatives of all ethnic communities in preparing for these talks. In this context, we also wish to raise some of the concerns of the Muslim community with regard to the ceasefire.
As we all know, almost the entire Muslim community in the North was forcibly expelled by the LTTE during the time of the conflict. Families were ordered to leave their homes with only the possessions they could carry in their hands, on a few hours notice. Lives were lost, homes abandoned, and businesses forced to shut down. It was the hope of the Muslim people that the ceasefire would create the conditions that would enable them to feel secure to return to their homes and re-establish their lives. Unfortunately, most of these internally displaced people still linger in refugee camps or have been resettled elsewhere. Muslim people also face serious challenges to their security in the East, where incidents of violence threaten the civilian population at regular intervals.
It is the belief of the Government of Sri Lanka that the dialogue about the ceasefire would take into account the urgent concerns of the Muslim community. Accordingly, these issues and interests must be adequately addressed for the ceasefire to be meaningful.
V. Children Affected by the Armed Conflict
The Government of Sri Lanka has always endeavored to respect the rights of children. We have demonstrated this commitment by becoming a party to the major international human rights conventions, including the International Convention on the Rights of the Child. This convention casts upon the Government, the obligation to protect the rights of all Sri Lankan children including children affected by armed conflict.
Well before assuming office as President, H.E. President Mahinda Rajapaksa had earned himself an outstanding reputation as a champion of human rights and as an ardent advocate for safeguarding the rights of children. It was therefore not surprising that as soon as he was elected as President, he established a new ministry for children to provide for the legal and social conditions to protect all children and ensure their welfare. Naturally therefore, we are seriously concerned whenever the denial of these rights takes place within the territory of Sri Lanka as it is contrary to our law, international obligations and the basic fundamentals of a civilised society.
In the context of the Government of Sri Lanka’s overall commitment toward children and the obligations it has undertaken under international law, we find the violations of the rights of children committed by the LTTE as being totally unacceptable and deeply distressing.
The use of children by the LTTE in combat has been extensively documented by the SLMM, UNICEF, and other international agencies. According to UNICEF documentation, 5368 children are known by UNICEF to have been recruited by the LTTE, a figure that UNICEF acknowledges is under-representative of the actual number. Since the beginning of the ceasefire through 30 January 2006, the SLMM has ruled 2,011 violations against the LTTE for incidents of child recruitment and abduction; this number represents 55% of the total violations of the Ceasefire Agreement. UNICEF has also reported that child recruitment and kidnapping is continuing unabated as per their latest report of January 2006. Notwithstanding the concerns of almost the entire world community, it is sad that the LTTE has continued to demonstrate their disregard for the rights of children. The recent incident where three Government police officers associated with the National Child Protection Agency were abducted by the LTTE while the officers were in pursuit of a known pedophile is a clear illustration of this unfortunate situation.
The importance and urgency of addressing the issue of child soldiers has been recognized by the United Nations Security Council, which in its recently passed Resolution 1612 urged strong action to be taken against parties that recruit and abduct underage children into their ranks. The LTTE has been identified as such a violating party in a Report submitted to the Security Council by the Secretary-General of the United Nations. However, despite repeated international condemnations of the incidents of recruitment and abduction of children, the violations continue to occur. It is the Government of Sri Lanka’s fervent hope that a dialogue on this issue could contribute to creating a meaningful ceasefire, one in which all children of Sri Lanka are free to blossom and develop themselves into healthy and productive members of society.
VI. Law and Order
One of the cornerstones of a democracy is an environment of security. Without law and order and its enforcement, individuals are not free to exercise the full range of rights they are entitled to. Freedom of speech and the right to engage in political activities are meaningless if the exercise of these rights could lead to abduction or death. A state of ceasefire does not override the existing law and order mechanisms in society. For this reason, the Government of Sri Lanka deplores the large number of killings of Sri Lankans of various ethnic groups after the ceasefire of February 2002. These killings have seriously undermined the ceasefire. The Government expresses its grave displeasure and disappointment that deficiencies in the ceasefire agreement have been exploited in this manner, leading to serious strains being placed on the enforcement machinery of our system of law and order.
The Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is committed to maintaining law and order without discrimination in every part of our country. His new administration initiated a program that extensively cracked down on organized criminals, underworld gangs, armed groups and narcotics dealers. This program is continuing with great intensity today. Criminals, whichever part of the country they operate in, are subject to this crack-down as the scope of this program covers the entire country. On that basis, the Government has already taken all necessary action to bring the perpetrators of certain recent crimes to justice in accordance with the due process of law. The murders of youth in Trincomalee, the reported abductions of members of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization, TRO, the assassination of Parliamentarian Joseph Pararajasingham and all other reported incidents are being diligently investigated by our law enforcement authorities and we are taking all necessary action to bring the perpetrators of these crimes to justice.
It is also clear that certain parties with vested interests are attempting to accuse and discredit the Government of Sri Lanka for various alleged incidents. A critical examination of some of the recent allegations indicates that the media had been informed of some incidents well before such incidents have even been brought to the notice of the law enforcement authorities. In some cases, evidence has not been freely forthcoming and hardly any cooperation has been extended by the complainants. Such behaviour casts serious doubt on the reliability and authenticity of the complaints themselves. These facts seem to suggest that some of these allegations may have been cleverly stage managed and hence we wish to inform the international community that such incidents would have to be more extensively investigated prior to opinions being expressed about the veracity of the claims.
VII. Economic development
From the first day of his election to the office of President, the Government of H.E. the President Mahinda Rajapaksa has demonstrated its unwavering commitment to achieve substantial and sustainable economic development in all parts of the country. It is our stated goal to bring prosperity to all citizens of Sri Lanka. It is with that objective in mind that the Government has invested heavily in provincial development. In particular, the Government recognizes that the Northern and the Eastern provinces should be accorded special attention so as to enable these areas to expeditiously recover from the devastation of the conflict and the tsunami.
It is in this context that the Mahinda Chintana has enumerated a series of development projects to expeditiously solve the problems of the people living in the Northern and Eastern provinces. These proposals have been given life through appropriations in the budget that was presented by H.E. the President. As a Government, we are committed towards implementing these projects so as to restore accelerated economic activity.
The Government is also fully aware that the people of the North and the East have suffered tremendously in the wake of the tsunami that struck our country in December 2004. We have already implemented many schemes to provide relief to the tsunami affected people with the consultation and participation of the affected communities.
In our view, certain violations of the ceasefire have resulted in serious economic hardships being caused to farmers, fishermen, and others involved in economic pursuit in the Northern and Eastern provinces. For example, in the Jaffna district, monetary surcharges are imposed on farmers and they also undergo tremendous difficulties in the transportation of their produce. Such factors result in lowering the prices that they could command for their produce. Consequently, their earnings are reduced considerably. The Government of Sri Lanka is concerned about the plight of these farmers and others whose living standards have declined as a result of the restrictive practices imposed by the LTTE. We believe these issues too, should be resolved so as to restore normalcy in the economic conditions in the North and the East.
The Government sincerely believes that taking steps towards establishing a meaningful and effective ceasefire would be one of the most important initiatives to provide for the improvement of the economic conditions of the people in the North and the East.
It is our earnest hope that our discussions would pave the way for the realization of such a ceasefire, which would thereby lead to a peaceful environment that is so important for economic development and investment.
VII. Concluding Remarks
Hon. Minister Erik Solheim and the Facilitation team, Mr. Anton Balasingham and members of the LTTE delegation, Our talks today marks a new beginning. Given the pragmatism, courage and far-sightedness of H.E. the President, we are confident that this beginning could be nurtured towards the achievement of the goals we have set ourselves.
We recognize, however, that the path ahead is likely to be one of challenge and complexity. Nevertheless, we sincerely believe that we should leave no stone unturned to bring about a peaceful environment in our country. We fervently hope that the LTTE would also respond with sincerity to develop a framework that would result in the cessation of hostilities and embark on the path of non-violence.
We owe that duty and commitment to our people wherever they may live.