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Take Middle Path on Foreign Policy

By Editor, Sunday Times, Sri Lanka
Nov 28 2016 (The Sunday Times – Sri Lanka)

The Government received a reality check last week in Geneva when the Attorney General (AG) and the chief of National Intelligence (CNI) got a rude shock at a UN committee monitoring torture when they were cross-examined to the point that they had to beat a hasty retreat from the floor.

That some of the UN agencies are now agents of the West and its double-standards is a given. Russia has just pulled out of the International Criminal Court on these grounds; one hopes it is not like Hitler pulling Germany out of a Disarmament conference in Geneva in 1933 as a prelude to withdrawing from the League of Nations before unleashing World War II.

The torture at the US prison at Guantanamo is well documented, but there is nary a UN investigation into it. And yet, the US is in the forefront of UN agencies on torture. That is the world right now, and the Government of Sri Lanka made a serious error of judgement recently by abstaining in a Western triggered UN vote on the human rights situation in Iran, a longtime friend of this country.

India and Pakistan both have close relations with the West, yet voted against the resolution and in support of Iran. Only a month or so ago, Sri Lanka abstained in voting in UNESCO, hurting Palestine’s sentiments. On November 29, we celebrate Palestine Solidarity Day. Is our foreign policy drifting in a different direction?

We have dumped the Non Aligned Movement and are seemingly gravitating towards the Western orbit. There again, in Britain we miscalculated and supported the wrong side in the ‘Brexit’ vote. In the US, we seem to have put all our eggs in the Democratic Party basket and have some catching up to do now with the newly elected President. At least the UNP kept a line open to the victorious Republicans.

While we get bashed in Geneva ourselves we showed no solidarity with those at the receiving end of the same stick. Back in Colombo, the Government remains on the defensive over its human rights record with a draft law on counter-terror causing concern on the basis that its proposed contents are even more draconian than the Prevention of Terrorism Act which it seeks to replace. The draft, much of which has already been written on, denies the right of independent legal counsel to a detainee until the Police statement is recorded; a similar provision having crept into a proposed amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code, raising a storm of protests and forcing the Government to backtrack.

That draft is wide-ranging and even defines “an act of terror” as attempting to “illegally cause a change of the Government of Sri Lanka” through inter-alia, “endangering of the lives of the public”. This can cover a wide range of political activity.

There is little doubt that stringent laws are required at times when the nation-state is under siege. What Sri Lanka needs for its contemplated counter-terror legislation is to strive for a midway point between being idealistic and merely bowing to external pressure and being pragmatic because people exploit loosely drafted laws – on either side of the divide. Achieving that essential balance should be up for public discussion rather than left to be conceived behind closed doors. That would arouse fear and suspicion and is contrary to transparency which still remains the avowed policy of this Government.

Special commission to try former CB Governors

A month after the Parliamentary COPE report findings and recommendations on the Central Bank bond issues of 2015, the Government is still grappling with what to do next, i.e. if it really wants to do something at all.

After several efforts at sweeping the dirt under several carpets, the Prime Minister has sent the report for the Attorney General’s opinion, while the President is seeking independent legal counsel. The JVP, the JHU and a section of the SLFP are howling for urgent action to book the culprits – at least to freeze the bank accounts of those involved, pending the next step. That the usually vociferous former President is studiously silent on this matter has also raised suspicion about the nexus between the Central Bank Governors past and present and their connections with Dubai bank accounts held by one party and managed by the other.

In any event, the COPE report is only an extension of the Auditor General’s findings, but whether even this is sufficient to file criminal proceedings on those responsible for a mega deal, or further investigations are required is for the AG to say.

While the AG studies his brief, there is a prima facie swindle that has taken place at the expense of the people of this country and the funds accrued therefrom have already found their way into local private commercial banks through the purchase of shares; these being a text-book case of money laundering.

Ordinary folk justifiably ask why the COPE report was not given to the Financial Crimes Investigations Division (FCID), and if the basic laws of the country on issues such as Cheating, Money Laundering and Insider Dealing are insufficient to indict those involved or whether a specific legal mechanism like a Special Presidential Commission of Inquiry is needed simply because the sums involved are big. The other burning question is whether smalltime crooks are thrown to ravenous wolves while everything is done to protect those with political patronage.

One suggestion has been the creation of a Criminal Justice Commission-like special tribunal where the laws of evidence are reversed, but while the CJC was designed to try persons accused of conspiring to overthrow the Government in 1971, it was misused for the trial on exchange control offences.

Unless existing laws are to be used by the AG, the best option has to be a strong Commission of Inquiry with appropriate Terms of Reference assisted by a Special Independent Prosecutor and a team of investigators, lawyers – and accountants and bankers. The Act, however, has to be amended so that while it has powers to call for bank accounts and tax files, it also can empower the Commissioner or Commissioners to inter-alia, order the freezing of bank accounts pending the inquiry because that seems to be the immediate priority.

The ill-gotten monies are quickly seeping into the ‘white economy’ as the Government either procrastinates, or wilfully vacillates. The World Bank’s Stolen Assets Unit has the expertise to assist in the recovery of the loot wherever it exists. Either the former Central Bank Governors must be acquitted or found guilty — quickly. The Government cannot do nothing if it wants Sri Lanka to be a Financial Hub. There must be credibility that Sri Lanka is not a place where underhand business deals are covered up. There is always a way, if only there is a will.

This story was originally published by The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka

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Take Middle Path on Foreign Policy


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