Sunday Times Political Editor
The clock is ticking away for the Government of Sri Lanka. It is still debating whether or not to respond to a call by the United States for what it terms an “Interactive Dialogue” before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva beginning next month.
That is through a discussion of the impending final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). That report is due in November this year.
Consenting to such a move would mean that participants at the Council sessions will be able to extend the discussions to the report of the UN Panel of Experts on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, matters arising from the Channel 4 videos including the one titled Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields and all other related issues. They would also cover alleged violations of international humanitarian laws and human rights abuses during the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas.
This is on the basis that some of the issues raised by the UN Panel of Experts may be addressed in the LLRC final report due to be released in November, this year. In fact, speeches by members of the Sri Lanka delegations to previous UNHRC sessions have indicated that some of the matters, which were raised in the report, were under review by the Commission. Even Sri Lanka’s diplomatic missions have been briefed of this position earlier so they may apprise host governments and diplomats in those countries. However, the LLRC is not officially acknowledging the UN POE (panel of experts) report or any of its findings/recommendations but may address issues on its own.
The government response is awaited by the US before September 20 when the UNHRC meets for its 18th sessions or in just over six weeks. It will continue till December 20. If a reply is not forthcoming, Sri Lankan diplomats, both in Geneva and Washington DC, have warned the External Affairs Ministry (EAM) in Colombo of the prospects of a different resolution before the Council at its 18th sessions in Geneva next month. It is to come from a US ally, a member country of the UNHRC and the character of such a resolution could be “more damaging,” the diplomats have said. They are, however, unaware of the shape and content such a resolution would take. According to the diplomats, there are fears there could be calls for an “international investigation,” sanctions and travel bans on those identified in the UN Panel report. The Ministry, the Sunday Times learnt is strongly in favour of rejecting the request but in complete disarray, it fears it has no strategy to altogether prevent the matter coming up. In other words, this situation means that Sri Lanka will most certainly figure at the UNHRC next month.
The Sunday Times reported in its front-page lead story last week that the US has delivered a demarche to Sri Lanka that it wants the final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) discussed at the 19th sessions of the UNHRC in Geneva in March next year. To facilitate such a discussion, US wanted to obtain the Sri Lanka Government’s consent and move a resolution at the UNHRC at their 18th sessions that begin next month.
The draft of such a resolution, handed over to the Government, reads, “Welcoming that the Government of Sri Lanka established the lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in order to establish the persons, groups or institutions that bear responsibility for events between February 2002 and May 2009,
Noting that the LLRC is due to complete its work on November 15, 2011, Decides after consultation and with the consent of the country concerned to hold an interactive dialogue on this matter during its 19th session.”
The idea is to list it as part of the Programme of Work (or agenda) of the UNHRC for its next sessions in March next year. The unavoidable danger to Sri Lanka in this move is the opportunity such a listing affords member countries as well as non-state actors to raise issue from time to time until it is discussed in March next year. Besides governments, even international organisations and NGOs could make contributions at the Council. It would thus become an open forum for them to air their views, which would mostly be critical of Sri Lanka.
More details of the demarche that was delivered first by the US Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Betty E. King to the Office of Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in that city have now emerged. A demarche is a formal diplomatic stance of one government’s official position, views and wishes on a particular subject. It was received by the Charge d’ Affairs U. Jauhar. He transmitted it to the EAM. Since then, there have been regular consultations between Colombo with Sri Lanka’s diplomatic missions in Washington DC and Geneva. However, no reply has yet been formulated to the US request.
The absence of a studied diplomatic offensive, or the lack of it, to counter the fallout from the upcoming UNHRC Geneva sessions, has continued to remain a serious problem for Sri Lanka. Whilst there is an External Affairs Ministry, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, had to undertake some of the task himself. In June this year, he flew to St Petersburg (former Leningrad) for the ‘International Economic Forum.’ On the side-lines of the event, he met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao to seek the support of the two countries. He will undertake a four day visit to China beginning tomorrow. Besides other matters, this is to re-iterate his request to the Chinese leaders on their own soil. Thereafter, he will also travel to New York to meet leaders of several countries when he attends the 66th UN General Assembly sessions that begin on September 13.
In Washington DC, the epicentre of diplomatic activity, a public relations firm hired by the Sri Lanka embassy has been at the centre of some criticism. It has come to light that Paton Boggs, a public relations firm has been paid US $ 35,000 per month (over Rs 3.8 million) with additional fees for any specific tasks undertaken. Surprising enough, for the money that is being paid, the firm has designated two persons, Vinoda Basnayake, an American of Sri Lankan origin and Anurag Varma, an American of Indian origin to liaise with the Embassy of Sri Lanka. “At least seven or more permanent PR experts could have been obtained on a monthly salary for the heavy price paid,” said an exasperated External Affairs Ministry official who did not wish to be identified for obvious reasons. “For the inputs we are getting,” he said “it is a rip off.” Moreover initiatives to win over key players in the House of Representatives the Senate and other establishments have been a dismal failure. In Geneva, though Tamara Kunanayakam, currently Sri Lanka’s envoy in Cuba has been nominated, she is yet to move in.
Sri Lanka issue before the UNHRC
The Sri Lankan issue before the UNHRC will revolve around 46 countries with one member, Libya which remains suspended. They are Angola, Australia, Bangladesh, Belgium, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chile, China, Congo, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Czech Republic, Djibouti, Equador, Gautemala, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, the Maldives, Mauritania, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, Peru, the Philippines, Poland, Qatar, Republic of Moldova, Rumania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Uganda, the United States and Uruguay.
With just over three weeks to go for the UNHRC sessions, there is no visible thrust by the External Affairs Ministry to win the support of these member countries. It would be unwise to speculate which country will take up position in favour of Sri Lanka and who would be against. In modern day diplomacy, it is not unusual even for countries to abandon their allies and leave their seats vacant when it comes to voting on a particular issue.
In international diplomacy, there is an age-old axiom which reads: “there are no permanent friends only permanent interests” — and those interests are mostly national. The Russians and the Chinese have had longstanding economic and military relationships with Sudan and Iran, two countries on the agenda of the UN Security Council. Both Russia and China provide millions of dollars’ worth of weapons, and in turn, receive vital oil supplies from Iran and Sudan (besides involvements in massive construction and oil-drilling projects).
Still when Western countries, led by the US, penalized Iran with drastic economic sanctions spelled out in four different resolutions in the Security Council, both China and Russia went along, dropping their ally. Fast forward to Sudan: Again, when the Western powers decided to refer Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges, both China and Russia caved into Western pressure. Like Sri Lanka, Sudan is not a party to the Rome Convention that established the International Criminal Court. So, al-Bashir could have been taken to the ICC only on a referral by the 15-member Security Council– and specifically with the support of the two veto wielding members, Russia and China. Some retired Sri Lanka diplomats opine that perhaps that is the only route that Western powers could take if Sri Lanka is to be hauled before the ICC –provided Russia and China remain silent (as in the case of Iran and Sudan). But what does Sri Lanka have, that Iran and Sudan doesn’t?
The Russians and the Chinese relented on resolutions against both countries primarily for one reason: national interests. And there is a hidden agenda that reads: we will support you if you do not stir up trouble in our own backyards.
Both Russia and China are accused not only of political repression but also blatant human rights violations in Chechnya (attempting to break away from Russia) and a growing militant insurgency in China’s north western provinces, Xinjiang, Gansu and Ningxia, which are predominantly Muslim. The looming threat that both issues could end up on the Security Council agenda has helped Western powers into twisting Russian and Chinese arms.
The US move for an ‘Interactive Dialogue’ comes hard on the heels of the House Foreign Affairs Committee deciding to recommend a cut in aid to Sri Lanka. It came on a recommendation by Congressman Howard Berman, a Ranking member of President Barrack Obama’s Democratic Party who moved for such a ban winning a unanimous voice vote. This is if the government does not address “accountability issues,” ensures media freedom countrywide and withdraws emergency regulations. It followed an amendment moved to the Foreign Relations Authorisation Act 2012. This amendment, however, will become law only after the US House of Representatives and the Senate have talks on the Authorisation Act which apportions funds for the next financial year. It is for the period October 1 2011 to September 30 2012.
An eleven page Congressional Research Service report which Berman circulated to the Committee members together with his proposal to cut aid notes “…. The West’s ability to pressure the Sri Lankan government was viewed as somewhat limited due to China’s growing involvement in the country. China’s aid to Sri Lanka has reportedly increased dramatically since 2005. In the view of some analysts and observers, China is seeking to gain influence with the Sri Lankan government as part of a ‘string of pearls’ naval strategy to develop port access in the northern reaches of the Indian Ocean.
“Indian defence planners are reportedly particularly concerned with Chinese efforts to develop ports in the region. India is home to an estimated 60 million Tamil people and New Delhi has raised concerns over the treatment of Tamils in Sri Lanka. China is reportedly investing significantly in the development of a port in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, on the country’s southeastern (sic) coast. China is also reportedly helping to develop port facilities in Gwadar, Pakistan, Chittagong, Bangladesh and Sittwe, Burma. Colombo was also reportedly upset with Western calls for a truce in the lead up to their defeat of the LTTE in May 2009. Rajapaksa stated “They are trying to preach to us about civilians. I tell them to go and see what they are doing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Sri Lanka will be watched closely by the international community for how it handles human rights and war crimes issues related to the end of the war and for how it handles reconciliation with its Tamil minority. The international community may also be increasingly interested in the role that Sri Lanka may play in the evolving geopolitics of the Indian Ocean region.”