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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2342

A unified Lanka - the need of the hour

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Anjana Jayashan - Dr. Palitha T. B. Kohona, the Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka is due to leave for New York next month, as the Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative for the United Nations. He was the former Secretary-General of the now defunct, Secretariat for Co-ordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) which has been set up to monitor, and negotiate peace process with the LTTE.

Interviewed by Anjana Jayashan in Colombo, Sri Lanka

Colombo, 23 August, (Asiantribune.com): Dr. Palitha T. B. Kohona, the Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka is due to leave for New York next month, as the Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative for the United Nations. He was the former Secretary-General of the now defunct, Secretariat for Co-ordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) which has been set up to monitor, and negotiate peace process with the LTTE.

Hailed from Matale, Dr.Kohona, a grat grandon of a “Lekham,” a noble during the days of Kandyan kings. He received his secondary education at St Thomas College, Mount Lavania. He obtained an LL.B (Hons) at the University of Sri Lanka, LL.M from the Australian National University on International Trade Law and a Doctorate from Cambridge University, UK. He was also a member of the Government delegation at the talks held with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in February and October 2006 Geneva, Switzerland. He also led the Government delegation to Oslo for talks with the LTTE.

He was a member of the delegation to the UN General Assembly in 2006 and 2008. He has led official level delegations to a range of countries on bilateral matters.

Prior to that, he was the Chief of the UN Treaty Section in New York from 1995 to 2006. At the UN he was responsible for introducing major managerial innovations and was awarded the UN 21 PIN for superior performance and efficiency. He managed the computerization of the UN treaty database which contains over one million pages of information.

As he is leaving to New York on a new assignment, Asian Tribune talked to him in his Ministry office, Colombo.

In this exclusive interview to the Asian Tribune he talked about his works at the United Nations, his contribution to defeat the LTTE the terrorists outfit bent on bifurcate the country , Sri Lanka’s humanitarian operation to resettle the IDPs and host of other issues.

He also goes back to the memory of lane how he was given meritorious award by the UN for his superior performance and efficiency.

Excerpts from the interview:

Asian Tribune: - I would like begin from the place where you began your diplomatic career?

Dr. Palitha T. B. Kohona: After I completed my PhD in International Law, at the Cambridge University, I returned to Australia where I was recruited to the Australian Foreign Service. Initially I worked in the Treaty Section of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Then I was posted to Geneva as the First Secretary of the Australian Permanent Mission of the United Nations in Geneva, where I covered the environment debate, which included negotiations on the ozone layer, climate change, biological diversity, and hazardous wastes.

I also chaired the negotiating group established under the Basle Convention on hazardous wastes, also of the negotiating group under the Montreal Protocol to the Vienna Convention on the ozone layer.

I also covered UN reform on Human Rights in Geneva. Subsequently, I returned to Canberra, Australia on the completion of my assignment in Geneva, where I headed the section that was responsible for the negotiation on the Institutional Mechanism, relating to the World Trade Organization.

Subsequently, I headed the section on Trade and Investment in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

In 1995, I was selected by the United Nations through an open competitive process to head United Nations Treaty Office in New York. The UN Treaty Office is responsible for discharging to the Secretary General’s depository functions relating to over 500 multilateral treaties which cover the entire spectrum of international interactions, almost yearly.

These treaties ranged from environment, human rights, outer space, seawater and oceans, transportation, cultural affairs, terrorism and human rights etc., to the European waterways and transportation. In addition, it was also responsible for the functions under article 102 of the UN Charter which required the UN to register and publish, all treaties concluded by the member states of the United Nations.

There were over 50,000 of such treaties which were registered with the United Nations and published over 2100 volumes of such Treaty series.

During my tenure of office at the UN, I computerized UN treaty section comprehensively and made available online. The entire UN treaty collections are now available on untreaty.un.org.

I was also responsible for introducing major management reform in the office which resulted in a series of UN task forces, designed to enhance productivity and efficiency within the UN system.

I was also awarded the UN 21 PIN for my work in the UN Treaty section of the UN treaty office.

Asian Tribune: Give us a brief detail about your diplomatic career in Sri Lanka?

Dr. Palitha T. B. Kohona: Well, in 2006, Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa invited me to work for my country, so I accepted HE’s invitation and I returned to Sri Lanka to assume the office of the Secretary General of the Government Peace Secretariat, mostly known as SCOPP.

The Government's Peace Secretariat was responsible for negotiations and also m monitoring progress in the peace process with the LTTE. In 2006, a round of negotiations was initiated by the government, with the LTTE; unfortunately, the LTTE did not seem to be fully committed in achieving a negotiated peace settlement at that time. They agreed to resume negotiations in April, but a further negotiation never occurred, as the LTTE presented impossible demands.

For an example, they wanted to transport to eastern cadres to the north for pre negotiation consultation. The Government, in good faith, offered to transport the eastern cadres to the North by chartered helicopters, by sea plane and by ferry. But all those efforts were shattered by the LTTE.

Subsequently, I lead the government delegation to Oslo and the LTTE delegation was brought by the Norwegians lead by the Late Tamilselvan. Despite the fact that two delegations stayed in the same hotel and dined in the same dining room, LTTE refused sit at the negotiation table with us.

Asian Tribune: Government’s efforts to negotiate with the LTTE continued until ….?

Dr. Palitha T. B. Kohona: In July 2006, the LTTE cut off the water supply at Mavil Aru in the Muthur region and precipitated the crisis. For almost ten days, we tried to persuade the LTTE to leave Mavil Aru peacefully. But all our persuasions, including my personal efforts were flatly rejected. Subsequently, the government security forces launched the offensive and evicted the LTTE from the Mavil Aru area.

You will recall that the LTTE launched massive attacks against government installations in the South of Trincomalee and in Jaffna in August 2006 . On that occasion, government security forces successfully repelled the LTTE attacks.

In October, another attempt was initiated to negotiate with the LTTE with the two delegations heading to Geneva. However, LTTE walked out of the negotiation table, demanding that they will not return, unless the A-9 road was re-opened.

Later, early in 2007, I was asked by the President to take over the position of the Secretary of Foreign Affairs Ministry, where I was entrusted with new responsibilities.

Asian Tribune: How do you foresee your new role as Sri Lanka’s Permanent representative to the UN?

Dr. Palitha T. B. Kohona: I will proceed to the United Nations in September to assume the position of Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations.

The UN has 193 members. Almost all of them are represented at a high level in New York. The Permanent Representative’s responsibility is to conduct and smoothen Sri Lanka’s relations with the United Nations. In addition, our Mission also has to liaise with other delegations based in New York.

The UN Security Council will occupy a prominent position in the activities with the member countries, as many countries had demonstrated a considerable interest in what was happening in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka UN Mission has to continue to play an important role with the other permanent representatives and also has to liaise with the Secretary General of the United Nations, senior officials and with the Security Council.

It is a crucial time for Sri Lanka internationally. Thanks to the successful efforts of our valiant security forces, the LTTE has been comprehensively beaten on the ground. But the LTTE continues to function overseas and many international organizations are conducting a campaign inimical to Sri Lanka’s interests.

It is observed that the rump LTTE groups abroad have continued to lobby international organizations like United Nations and Western Governments in the hope of recovering what they have lost in the battle field. Sri Lanka will have to be alert to the manipulative mechanization of the LTTE and take appropriate measures to counter their ploys.

Simultaneously, it will also be our responsibility enhances the goodwill of Sri Lanka internationally and also supporting the development efforts by international organizations and friendly nations further encouraging on investments and in tourism.

Asian Tribune: Representing Sri Lanka in the United Nations is not something new for you, In your capacity as the Secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs you have guided Sri Lanka in the UN at the crucial movements the country faced. How do you feel your new role as the Country’s representative to the UN in the post-conflict situation?

Dr. Palitha T. B. Kohona: During the war, our priorities were different. Ensuring Sri Lanka’s military efforts to counter the LTTE was portrayed in a positive manner through the international community, particularly with organizations like the UN.

We had to emphasize that during the war, the government drew a clear distinction between Tamil civilians and the LTTE. The LTTE was proscribed as a terrorist organization as its entire campaign was based on threats, killing, violence and terror. Accordingly the government from the very moment took off major efforts to win over the Tamil civilians by focusing its military efforts on the LTTE and was separating Tamil civilians from the terrorists.

Now, no war and no longer LTTE is there on the ground. Now the effort is on reconciling whith the people who were subjugated by the LTTE for a long time.

Reconstructing the North and extending the possible rehabilitating process for those who had supported the LTTE actively or passively or due to coercion. This frame is important to work in faith in a proactive manner and in a constructive manner, as the country now needs to heal its wounds, bringing all people together. This is the time to move forward to the future as one nation.

There is no conflict situation in the country. It is the country now which looks for peace and seeks to sustain it. Therefore, it is a daunting task and we have to work to achieve a peaceful future by laying down a strong foundation.

Asian Tribune: In the past, Sri Lanka was facing numerous allegations regarding the abuses of human rights. These allegations continue even after the war. Why these type of allegations continue to emerge? Do you see any remedy?

Dr. Palitha T. B. Kohona: You have to remember that allegations of human right violations were in many instances based on inaccurate facts, on exaggerations and based on pure fabrications. Because the government’s security forces conducted the war with the interest of the Tamil civilians very much in their mind and there were instances where the security forces themselves experienced higher casualties.

At the same time, when the LTTE herded 300,000 people, the Government took extreme caution not to create unnecessary harm to the civilians, despite the provocation by the LTTE. It was a well known fact that the LTE tried to hide heavy guns in the midst of the civilians in order to fire at advancing security forces, and they used the innocent civilians as human shield.

Despite all these roadblocks, security forces succeeded in ensuring the safety of the 280,7000 civilians, kept against their will, by the LTTE. Further, those displaced 280,7000 were provided with shelter and food - three meals a day and also with medical care. Making available schooling facility for the children in the welfare camps and common treatment for all are done for the first time, and that is a phenomenal achievement of Sri Lankan government.

We have seen in many countries, displaced people languishing under trees, by roadsides, waiting and longing for some passing trucks for handouts to fill their starving stomachs. However, in Sri Lanka it was entirely different. The civilians who escaped from the clutches of the LTTE and within days they were conducted into well organized camps, where they were housed and well cared for.

Today there are over 40,000 children who attend schools within the camps. Medical facility is exceptionally good. Government had dispatched 230 doctors to attend to the medical needs of these displaces people. Teachers have been dispatched to these camps. And three meals a day is provided at a cost of Rs. One million a day.

The government is fully committed to returning these IDPs to their own homes before the end of the year. Government is very confident that this goal can be achieved and so far over 24,000 people have already been returned to their homes. Another 10,000 have been returned to their homes in the East. Around 10, 000 senior citizens have been identified for release, but many of them have not opt to leave as they nowhere to go. Thousands of the displaced have already been sent back to their homes in thew Mannar district.

The existence of mine fields which the LTTE planted has become the biggest constraint in returning these people in their original places. The demining is a risky process and also time consuming one. The Government is now engaged in the task of demining, particularly with the assistance of lager teams of Indians. And as soon as the areas are cleaned, made free of life-threatening mines, large number of people will be sent back to their homes.

A specific demonstration of the success of the process is the Madhu festival, which was held for the first time recently, after many years of destruction by the LTTE. This year the festival attracted over 100,000 devotees around the country to the Madhu shrine located in the Mannar district.

Just after the demining process, the government is ready with mega development programs on agriculture, reinstalling the irrigation network, providing electricity, rebuilding the roads, railways and other required infrastructures and rehabilitating the schools to make complete the resettlement process. The Northern Spring (Uthuru Wasanthaya ) program has been drafted to achieve these noble targets.

Asian Tribune: There were some campaigns which were targeted in tarnishing Sri Lanka’s image internationally. How do you counter this?

Dr. Palitha T. B. Kohona: The LTTE has tried to smear the Sri Lanka’s image internationally. They would continue lobbying internationally and smudging the country’s image. But, the LTTE remnants have to realize that it will never be able to achieve its goal within Sri Lanka. They have been already squarely defeated in Sri Lanka and the people, especially the Tamils have rejected them.

Now, we are in the process of healing the wound. We need to bring the nation together, where all people are treated equally.

Simply, we need to have a country where a child can go to school without fear of blowing up of a road side mine or dragging them into the jungles, to join terror groups involuntarily. Any remnants of LTTE must realize that dreams are gone and this is the period of reconciliation and development.

Asian Tribune: Do you see any chances of LTTE re-launching?

Dr. Palitha T. B. Kohona: LTTE has been fully defeated in Sri Lanka. They have only a very little chance to come back as far as it remains a proscribed organization by democracies of the world. Operatives are being prosecuted almost everywhere for intimidation and for attempts to influence governments, policy makers, for illicit transactions including guns smuggling, people’s smuggling and drug trafficking. It will be continuing to remained a banned organization in the world as long as it remains a terror outfit.

The remnants of the LTTE have not denounced violence nor have denounced terrorism. But, we succeeded in capturing its leading operative, Kumaran Pathmanathan alias KP and we will continue the pressure on friendly governments to neutralize other operatives also. The government will work hard to trap for any such activities overseas.

Asian Tribune: Anything special you wanted to highlight?

Dr. Palitha T. B. Kohona: Well, I must thank President Mahinda Rajapaksa who provided me the opportunity an opportunity to contribute my share in defeating the LTTE and ensuring the continued integrity of the country. I am truly humble by the opportunity.

Now, I have been given another task of representing and maintaining the country’s good name internationally and I will be there to discharge my responsibility for the utmost satisfaction the President and my country. Thanks to friends and all who sent me wish via email, SMS, letters and by many other ways.

- Asian Tribune -

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