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American resolution and blunders of the FM G.L. Peiris

There was a significant development in this regard in Sri Lanka this week. It was a breakfast meeting President Mahinda Rajapaksa had with the United States Ambassador Patricia Butenis. It was at the President’s House in Kandy. The Sunday Times learnt that the meeting has been lined up on the “strict understanding” that the US-backed resolution would not be a subject of discussion.

At first, there was a one-on-one meeting between Rajapaksa and Butenis. It later extended to the breakfast table where some politicians and officials were present. According to authoritative official sources, Butenis asked Rajapaksa to take advantage of what the United States would like to see taking place. She said the government should evolve an action plan, both long term and short term to address issues dealt with in the LLRC report. Matters related to missing persons as well as the government’s dialogue with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) also figured in the discussion. “The dialogue was very cordial and the atmosphere at breakfast was friendly,” these sources added.

The message during the meeting further underscores a reality — the government’s assurances made to the Council by Minister Samarasinghe have not been totally accepted by the United States and its allies. Not surprisingly when the entire exercise of handling the UNHRC sessions appears to be a mega blunder. Sri Lanka did not field delegations, since the US announcement of a resolution in February, to cover Western Europe, Latin America and other important countries like Canada, France and the United Kingdom.

Nor did External Affairs Minister, G.L.Peiris, heed the invitation extended to him by US Secretary of State, Ms Hillary Clinton to visit Washington DC this month. Making matters worse was a remark by Minister Samarasinghe, repeatedly broadcast by radio stations in Sri Lanka, that India was backing Sri Lanka ‘one hundred per cent.’ The voice cuts were played repeatedly and infuriated politicians in Tamil Nadu. Setting aside their differences, governing and opposition parties in the state appealed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh not to back Sri Lanka. Since then, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jeyaram Jeyalalitha has been stepping up criticism making public remarks on Sri Lanka. Just this week, she opposed Sri Lankan VIPs visiting her state without the centre informing them of such visits.

If these factors weigh heavily on the failure in the conduct of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, it is made worse by the absence of “experienced officials” in the delegation to Geneva. The vast majority of the 52-member delegation was neither briefed nor had a proper, co-ordinated strategy. Hence, it became only an all-expenses paid junket for most of them. Added to it were the contradictory remarks made by Minister G.L. Peiris and delegation leader Minister Samarasinghe.

Making the situation even worse are the tours undertaken by Minister Peiris and the statements drafted by him and released by his Ministry. There is a complete disconnect between what is said in these ‘news releases’ and what has been going on at the UNHRC in Geneva or the government’s objectives. Their importance seems to be lost on the man who is tasked with conducting the nation’s foreign policy. Peiris, who was on his African safari, last week was to highlight this deficiency once more.

He toured Nigeria, Botswana and South Africa. Whilst the first two countries are voting members of the UNHRC, South Africa is not. In all three visits, Peiris was to write his own media statements and send them for distribution in Colombo through the Ministry of External Affairs. None of them reflected Sri Lanka’s appeal for help from those countries to either thwart the US-backed resolution or deal directly with the subject. In Nigeria, Peiris said of himself, “Professor Peiris observed that the developing world has a particular interest in ensuring that organs of the United Nations system, such as the Human Rights Council, are not politicized, in the sense that they become instruments for giving effect to decisions made by power blocs for political reasons…..”

Peiris said in Botswana’s capital, Gabarone, on Friday, he declared “there is a time, a place and a method for intervention by the Human Rights Council in the affairs of individual States, and what is distressing about the current initiative in respect of Sri Lanka is its highly selective and discriminating character.

A week before he headed for Botswana, their Defence, Justice and Security Minister Dikggamatso Nseretse told the ‘high level segment’ of the UNHRC “I have no doubt in my mind that UNHRC will agree with me that impunity is unjustifiable. Therefore, it is within this realm that all those responsible for committing atrocities and serious violations of human rights, in any part of the world, must account and be accountable.

“In this regard, we welcome the decision by this council at its last sessions in September last year to establish a mandate of a Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence. We urge all states emerging from internal conflicts to work with this Special Rapporteur. This would assist in ensuring that the policies and measures they put in place to address gross human rights and international humanitarian law violations, are able to prevent the recurrence of crisis and future violations of human rights. It would also assist in ensuring social cohesion, nation building, ownership and inclusiveness at the national and local levels, as well as to promote a meaningful process of reconciliation….”

Nseretse was representing Botswana at the UNHCR. Though not making a pointed reference to Sri Lanka, his remarks are clearly relevant. If Peiris did raise these issues during talks with his Botswana counterpart, Phandu Skelemani, there was no mention in his own news release. The most striking was Peiris’ own ‘news release’ giving details of the South Africa visit. References to what was at issue were not contained in what he wrote and had the EAM distribute. However, in marked contrast his South African counterpart, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, set out a different story in an official news release. Appearing in a box story on this page is Peiris’ own account followed by the one issued by his South African counterpart. The two show how Peiris hides the fact that South Africa has raised issues relating to accountability and the need to implement recommendations of the LLRC.

According to reports from Geneva, the resolution on Sri Lanka is to be taken up for debate by the Council on March 21 or 22, just before the on-going 19th sessions conclude on March 23. No matter how the prestige battle would end, it will be the beginning of a new chapter for Sri Lanka. The three-tiered approach – External Affairs Minister Peiris taking a tough line with the international community, Sri Lanka delegation leader Minister Samarasinghe taking a soft one at the UNHRC and the government in Colombo adopting a third dimension – encouraging more protests against the west, most of them supervised by government politicians – will all have their impact.

Yet, before long, the fact that Sri Lanka needs to adopt a cohesive foreign policy on which all ministers and officials in the government could work singularly to enforce it, would become imperative. Painting all adversaries black and name calling will not help since the UNHRC is not a village fair. Whether the resolution is adopted or not, that is the lesson for Sri Lanka.

From ST political column

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