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UN Special Rapporteurs visiting detainees: President wants new guidelines

President Maithripala Sirisena has asked that new guidelines be put in place when UN Special Rapporteurs visit the country so all parties involved are aware of their activities.

Co-cabinet Spokesperson, Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara yesterday stressed that the President was not displeased with the UN Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson having visited Tamil political prisoners but that he simply wanted all relevant departments such as the Ministry of Defence informed of such visits.

Emmerson visited the country from July 10 to 14 and found fault with the government for being too slow with the reforms process.

Excerpts of the Cabinet media briefing on the topic are as follows:

Journalist: There were reports that the Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa had an argument with the Special Rapporteur, Ben Emmerson. He then delivered a very negative report, what is the response of the government?

Minister Rajitha Senaratne: We saw the consequences the former regime reaped when they had conflicts with the international community. We must understand who we are and have a realistic estimate of our power.We are a small island nation.So we are going to fight with the UN, who is the UN? It is us. There are people here who launch fasts against the UN, which means they are fasting against Sri Lanka. The UN is not a country, it is an organization we are a member of. We pay a fee for it, we get certain facilities through it and are allowed to address the international community through it. And we get to attend its various committees.

So when their representatives come here, we must explain things to them carefully. They come with various reports which at times are negative towards us. They are complaints and that’s what they bring and we are bound to answer them. It is not only us but every country is bound thus. We are party to all their treaties and have to submit to their inspections, similar to all countries. The only treaty we haven’t signed is the Statute of Rome, thanks the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, because he did not sign it in 2002. Which means that they cannot arrest any of us for war crimes.

So when they come to question us, all those questions are not going to be in our favour. And when these people come we must deal with it diplomatically. Though we might be angry with their reports, because they tend to be biased as they come with reports from extremists there. But we saw what happened when the previous regime chose a more adversarial approach. If we had not been elected into government in 2015, it would not have been possible to stop the international community from imposing sanctions on us in March of that year. If that happened, millions would be on the streets without jobs, our reserves would have dropped, and the country would be in an abyss.

So we saved the country with diplomacy not by fighting.We accept that as a country we still have to provide solutions for many issues. We still have no solution for political prisoners, we still haven’t resolved the land issues of the Tamil people, the missing still have not been found, so when we have all these issues, we cannot say that as a government we have been successful.

You also realize that whatever the government does, there are extremist forces on the other side trying to disrupt everything. So we need to resolve this issue within the country first and the international community too is aware of this.

The Emmerson report also notes that we have also taken some progressive steps. They also understand the problems we have.

Journalist: The report also shows that extreme torture methods are still practiced by the police. Why can’t the government tackle this?

Minister Senaratne: No we cannot accept all that because we don’t what the basis of their data is.

Journalist: They say that over 70 people have been detained for over five years without trial?

Minister Senaratne: Those are Tamil political prisoners. I have told Cabinet to resolve this issue and either lodge a case against them or release them. Similar to what they did with the JVP activists in the 70s and 80s. Because not all these people become terrorists the second time around. The JVP activists who were released in the 70s, later greatly opposed the JVP. But there is a delay in the Attorney Generals Department and we have asked them to speed things up.

Journalist: Did the President in Cabinet ask who gave permission for Emmerson to visit the prisons?

Minister Senaratne: No he did not question that.He said that they had not taken permission from the Ministry of Defence before they visited the prisons. He questioned because the armed forces had complained about it to him as the Minister of Defence. When the Commissioner General of Prisons was asked about it, he said that it was done through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and that has been the procedure for some time now. Even during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time, Rapporteurs had visited prisons and they had gone through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Journalist: Did the President express displeasure over the meetings or did he just question the process that was followed?

Minister Senaratne: It was the process that was questioned.

Journalist: Why is it necessary to take permission from the Ministry of Defence to visit prisoners as they do not come under their purview?

Rajitha: It is customary to get permission from the Defence Ministry but we don’t have such a system in place.

Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara: The President asked that new guidelines be put in place and followed when foreign Rapporteurs visit so that there is no misinformation. He also asked that the Ministry of Defence be kept in the loop because rumours spread that they went with various people.