Nisthar Cassim in New York
President Mahinda Rajapaksa described his engagement with the United Nations member countries last week as very successful for him personally and Sri Lanka at large. “I am very happy with the visit as it was very productive and through our discussions we were able to portray the true picture,” President Rajapaksa told the Daily FT.
We have never hesitated to meaningfully engage with the UN,” he said during a brief relaxed moment at his Ritz Carlton suite in New York in an otherwise hectic schedule.
In his fifth attendance at the UN’s Annual General Assembly, the President met with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, interacted with US President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton and held an unprecedented number of bilateral meetings with leaders of India, Iran, Palestine, Qatar, Columbia, Slovenia, Nigeria, Uganda, Nepal and Kyrgyzstan among others.
He also attended Ban’s luncheon as well as dinner hosted by President Obama in addition to other receptions.
Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma and US Assistant Secretary of State for Central and South Asia Robert O. Blake paid courtesy calls. The Sri Lankan delegation to the UN forum held around 23 bilateral discussions whilst prior to that the team to Geneva attending the UNHRC held meetings with 30 delegations. President Rajapaksa was also interviewed by the influential Wall Street Journal and The Economist magazine.
The President said that the response to Sri Lanka’s stand on allegations of human rights violations in the final days of the battle against terror had been well received. A key breakthrough appears to be Canada deferring a resolution to take up human rights allegations at UNHCR’s 2012 March sessions. “Canada has said it is not proceeding,”
External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris said. Analysts said that the development suggests waning international support for discriminatory action against Sri Lanka spearheaded by a few yet powerful countries with a massive base of Tamil Diaspora. The Government’s position has been that the international community must respect home-grown solutions and processes whilst recognising the ongoing work and upcoming report of the independent Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) before rushing to conclusions.
The LLRC report is due in November. The key highlight of President Rajapaksa’s visit was the address made at the 66th General Assembly debate of the UN on Friday. In response to a remark that it was a strongly-worded speech, Rajapaksa told the Daily FT that “I said what is right”.
Referring to the international community’s continued campaign to draw attention to human rights regarding Sri Lanka, President Rajapaksa told the UN Annual General Assembly: “It is important to remind ourselves that every country cherishes the values and traditions, and deeply held religious convictions it has nurtured over the centuries. These cannot be diluted or distorted under the guise of human rights, by the imposition of attitudes or approaches which are characteristics of alien cultures.”
He went on to say: “If this were done, it would amount to a violation of human rights in a fundamental sense. It must also be pointed out that even where sanctions are imposed, extreme care has to be taken to ensure that the people at large, men, women and children yet to be born, are not harmed by such action.”
“It is vitally important to insist that the structures and procedures of multilateral organisations are uniform and consistent and devoid of discrimination,” Rajapaksa stressed.
“My country has reason for concern with approaches tainted by an unacceptable degree of selectivity, which we have brought to the notice of the organisations in question in recent weeks. The developing world must keep a vigil against these irregular modalities, which should be resisted through our collective strength,” he added, clearly pointing at the controversial Darusman report and it being shared by the UN with the Human Rights Council and members without Sri Lanka’s knowledge.
Reiterating Sri Lanka’s stance against terrorism, President Rajapaksa called for solid practical action to stamp out world terrorism. However, he pointed out that alleged double standards employed by the West could undermine these efforts.
“The most significant challenge to stability and progress in the modern world is posed by the menace of terrorism. Recent experience the world over amply demonstrates that inconsistent standards and discriminating approaches can unintentionally give a fresh lease of life to the forces of terror. An explicit and uniform response which refuses to recognise political shades of terrorism is necessarily required.”
He warned that terrorists operate under front organisations and that “conferring legitimacy on these has the inevitable effect of providing comfort and encouragement to the merchants of terror”.
During his speech, Sri Lanka’s stand on the Palestine issue, the key focus of UN meeting, was explicit. “Despite repeated references in this Assembly by many member countries on the right of the Palestinian people to a state of their own within secure borders, we still have not been able to make it a reality,” the President said.
“It is a matter for profound disappointment that this has not yet happened. There is a window of opportunity now and we must make use of it before it is too late. It is time for decisive action rather than more discussion. This will be in the interest of the security and wellbeing of the entire region including Israel,” said Rajapaksa, who also held a bilateral meeting with Palestine Leader Mahmoud Abbas.
The Sri Lankan President also spoke for Africa as well as Cuba.
He began his speech saying, “One of the principal attributes is the spirit of flexibility which has always been a feature of the United Nations. We must acknowledge the need for that spirit of openness and adaptability today, more than at any other time. This is because the foundations of the world order are being transformed dramatically and fundamentally. At the heart of these changes is the need to protect smaller countries in the developing world and to advance their interests vigorously.”
Rajapaksa was also among over a dozen global political leaders who attended the inauguration of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) Annual Meeting last Tuesday.
External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena, Environment Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Secretary to President Lalith Weeratunga, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Secretary in New York Palitha Kohona, Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Major General Shavendra Silva, MP Sajin Vas Gunawardena, Lankan Ambassador in the US Jaliya Wickramasuriya and Transport Ministry Secretary Dhammika Perera are among the official Sri Lankan team for UN sessions. Central Bank Governor Nivard Cabraal and Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in UK Dr. Chris Nonis joined the delegation at the latter stage.
Health Minister Sirisena and Environment Minister Yapa separately addressed high level sessions on non-communicable diseases and desertification, land degradation and drought respectively.