Plantation Industries Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, who led the Sri Lankan delegation to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) sessions last month, speaking to the media for the first time since his return to the country, says Sri Lanka faced a David and Goliath situation against the world’s ‘superpower’ in Geneva. He says Sri Lanka would not have lost the Resolution if an objective decision and an objective assessment on the country’s progress was made.
“If the agenda was promotion and protection of human rights in Sri Lanka, anyone could have seen the progress the country has made, especially after the end of the conflict and acknowledge that the country needed more time to show more progress.”
He says the US entry to the HRC after 2009 affected the composition of the Council and gave the West a significant boost to pursue its agenda through the HRC.
Excerpts of the interview:
Q: As the Human Rights Special Envoy of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, you led the Sri Lankan team to Geneva for the 19th UN Human Rights Council sessions. What was the difference between May 2009 and February 2012? Where did we go wrong?
A: I have been leading the Sri Lankan delegation to the UNHRC sessions successively for six years. This is not just a once-a-year session, the HRC meets three to four times a year.
On all these occasions, I made submissions to the HRC on Sri Lanka’s efforts to protect and promote human rights,assisted by our team. We have been proactively engaging with the international community in Geneva, not only in the aftermath of the conflict, but even during the conflict, to put on record the progress we have been making.
The strategy that we adopted in 2009 was a bit different, in that we presented a counter-resolution at a special session on Sri Lanka called on the request of the European Union (EU) and several others. Under the rules and regulations of the HRC, if there are 16 signatures, a special session can be obtained. This special session was convened one week before the regular session was held.
The counter-resolution on Sri Lanka was drafted in consultation with like-minded States. It was handed over strategically, before the EU draft resolution was tabled in the Council. As per the rules and regulations, the first draft resolution tabled has to be taken initially for discussion and voted. The strategy was superb and the focus was on our counter-resolution and not on the EU resolution.
We were able to get on board a number of countries cross-regionally to co-sponsor our resolution. This counter-resolution was a result of a number of consultations initially with the co-sponsors who, on our behalf, negotiated with others so that as many as possible were brought onto our side. Many big states joined forces with us. So it was not a resolution by Sri Lankans for Sri Lanka, it was a combined effort by like-minded countries.
We prepared the counter-resolution in the lead-up to the special session and further modified it during the special session as a result of further consultations that took place. Even on the day of the vote negotiations were taking place.
A number of countries felt that just one week after defeating one of the worst forms of terrorism the world has seen, that it was unfair for a handful of countries to call a special session on Sri Lanka and condemn what had been done to restore democracy in parts of the island.
We were on a strong footing. A lot of people understood that this was done in bad faith. The other outstanding contribution was the strategy adopted by Cuba, calling for a no action motion which sealed our decisive victory.
Q: Was Cuba the chosen proxy at that time as well as this time?
A: The Cuban Ambassador resorting to a no action motion proposed to set aside the amendments the EU had brought before the Council for consideration. If we started taking up these amendments for vote, our counter-resolution would have got complicated. Even our supporters would not have known which of the amendments should be accepted or rejected. Cuba used the no action motion device to set aside the amendments proposed by the other side. It was a master stroke.
Cuba was our chosen proxy on that occasion. When you are not a member of the Council, you cannot participate in discussions when a resolution is being voted on. The country concerned gets one chance to speak, exercising its right of reply. Cuba was chosen because they are masters in such multilateral dealings, having had to face the might of the US throughout their history. Apart from that we genuinely felt that we could trust them because they were consistent and sincere in their relations and sentiments on Sri Lanka.
We won that vote which set the whole process in motion in ensuring that our resolution was adopted with a larger majority.
Some countries who were on the fence also decided to vote for Sri Lanka. When the no-action motion succeeded, the 16 countries which co-sponsored the EU resolution came down to 14.
I must acknowledge a number of players that helped us in securing this victory apart from the countries who supported us; the then Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama and his Ministry officials including our efficient ambassador Dr. Dayan Jayathilaka, other members of the delegation and of course President Rajapaksa who spoke with a number of Heads of State to explain what we had done in defeating the worst form of terrorism.
Q: What was the reason, in your opinion, for our defeat this time?
A: The difference I see is, the US not being there as a member of the HR council in 2009. The US did not play an active role then although they took part in the meetings. It was the EU which spearheaded the special session and the resolution.
In addition, the US administration in 2009 was Republican. We knew when President Barack Obama was elected and a Democrat came to the White House that the focus on human rights would become much sharper.
The Democrats have strong ties to civil society groups. It is in this backdrop that a decision was made, that the US would also vie for membership of the HRC. This was naturally welcomed by the others in the Western bloc because when the US comes in, they have the world’s superpower championing their interests.
This also meant that there was a number of issues that they could now identify and pursue confidentially. Since the US coming into the Council we noticed that there have been a number of instances where they were able to push their agenda through the HRC successfully.
Furthermore, the cohesion the developing countries could garner and maintain in 2009 began to consistently erode. The US was able to divide the Middle East and Africa, get a majority in Latin America and further consolidate support from the rest in the West. There was a marked change in the composition. They made sure that they used their super clout to get what they wanted.
Last September there was an attempt made by Canada to moot a resolution calling for an interactive dialogue on the Darusman Report. We were able to prevent that. I noticed that the US was not actively engaged as they were this time in the Canadian initiative. Maybe they were feeling the pulse. Sri Lanka was not a priority for them in September, but come March they made it quite clear that we were.
A letter was sent by the US Secretary of State to our Foreign Minister that they were going to support a resolution on Sri Lanka. So the game was on. What has to be looked at now is what happened between 2009 and March 2012, and especially between September 2011 to February 2012 to prompt the US Secretary of State to opt for this course of action.
We were up against the most powerful nation in the world. It was really a David and Goliath fight.
We now know that they made maximum use of all their embassies around the world to garner support. Sri Lanka has only a handful of embassies in Africa; in South Africa, Kenya and North Africa. However, the US has embassies and a strong presence all over the world. This force was mobilised no sooner the decision was taken to present a resolution on Sri Lanka.
Furthermore, the financial resources at their disposal are unlimited. Their powerful economic and military alliances were used to muster support. Despite all that, the final vote did not clearly reflect their superior power. This was primarily because of what we had achieved in the aftermath of the conflict which was hard to dismiss.
Q: Do you mean to say that nothing could have prepared Sri Lanka for the HRC fight this year since we were up against the US?
A: If an objective decision had been taken and an objective assessment had been made on the situation in Sri Lanka, we would have stood a chance. A different agenda was played out. If the agenda was promotion and protection of human rights in Sri Lanka, anyone could have seen the progress the country has made, especially after the end of the conflict and readily acknowledged that the country needed more time to show more progress, but this was not to be. Sri Lanka was sacrificed by some to maintain cordial relations with the world’s superpowers.
India who supported us very clearly, very decisively in 2009, voted with the US. This too has to be studied and analysed in depth and the reasons understood by policy makers.
I am saying this very openly in good faith because we need to go back and see what went wrong. I have seen some people writing under pseudonyms that India voted with the US on the Resolution because Mahinda Samarasinghe made the mistake of revealing India’s intended support to the media.
This is a very simplistic analysis of why India decided to support the US Resolution. My statement was based on the Indian delegate at the Non-Aligned Movement meeting very clearly stating that India was fully supportive of Sri Lanka, in front of a number of ambassadors. When such a public statement is made, it goes on record.
Looking at it from India’s position, they may still think that they were in fact supportive of Sri Lanka because the amendment brought in to the initial US Resolution that any advice and technical assistance by the High Commissioner of Human Rights should be ‘in consultation with and concurrence of the Government of Sri Lanka’. There are still others who argue that by supporting the US Resolution, India in fact helped Sri Lanka to cultivate a sense of urgency in implementing the LLRC recommendations. Justifications of this nature will no doubt go on and on, but one must be truthful in accepting that the 11th hour amendment very clearly watered down the Resolution even to the extent that it may have been perceived by some as harmless. This kind of perception may have influenced some to even vote for the Resolution. What is important in my view is that a deep reflection of our foreign policy is required if we are to further understand what took place between 2009 and 2012.
Q: Why didn’t we propose a counter-resolution on this occasion?
A: Sri Lanka was fighting against a resolution based on principles. We felt very clearly that a resolution in whatever form was ‘unwarranted and unnecessary’. That is why we did not adopt the 2009 strategy of preparing a counter-resolution. We could have brought a counter-resolution and mustered support based on that.
This stance was justified we felt in the backdrop of a clear commitment to work towards more progress in achieving comprehensive reconciliation.
We also felt that the objective of the Resolution was to set in motion an event that could be used in the future to pursue another parochial and harmful agenda which could affect the stability we had achieved in the aftermath of this 30-year conflict. These were some of the reasons why we didn’t want anything to do with this Resolution.
When I arrived in Geneva, the first thing that was communicated to me by our Ambassador there, Thamara Kunanayakam was that an email has been sent by the US Embassy insinuating that our Embassy in Geneva had collaborated with the US Embassy in Geneva in drafting a text of a resolution that was being circulated at that time. When I saw that, I immediately knew the game had started. I called President Rajapaksa from the Airport. He advised me to refute it immediately and state that we never had any consultations in Geneva, Colombo, or Washington and that there was no collaboration whatsoever between the two embassies on this issue of a resolution.
We went straight from the airport to the hotel, sat down and drafted a response in consultation with our Ambassador and issued it to all the embassies in Geneva under Kunanayakam’s name. This speedy action put the record straight. We were very clear, from the beginning that we had nothing to do with this Resolution.
Q: The Indian factor – was it a mistake to have kept so much faith on our big brother?
A: As I said, India firmly stood by us in May 2009. We have to find out what went wrong. I don’t think it was a question of mistake. India is our closest neighbour, India is extremely important for Sri Lanka as much as Sri Lanka is for India. Our bilateral relations should always be at a high point.
We must find out what made them do what they did in Geneva.
I hope those who are responsible for ensuring that India–Sri Lanka bilateral relations are always at a high point will look at this development objectively and unemotionally and do what is required. When the report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka is presented to the HRC in March 2013, India will once again be very useful to have on our side.
Universal Periodic Review
Q: The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on Sri Lanka is scheduled for the end of this year. What will happen then?
A: That will be on November 1. I have been given a mandate by the Cabinet to prepare the UPR report. We are now working with the other ministries to get the first draft of the report ready. We have time till July to do the final draft and send it to Geneva. Three months before the UPR, the country concerned must make available the report to the High Commissioner’s office so that it can be circulated for comments.
On November 1 the report will be discussed. This is Sri Lanka’s second peer review. The first UPR report on Sri Lanka was presented by me five years ago. We are one of the first countries facing the second cycle, with the first cycle having just ended.
Q: What happens in the peer review?
A: The Sri Lankan delegation will be accommodated on the podium, along with the President of the Council. We will present the report after which countries will make their comments, after which there will be a negotiating process with the Member States making recommendations. Those who participate will take note of the pledges Sri Lanka has made five years ago and discuss the progress made thus far. Based on this, further recommendations could be made. There will also be voluntary pledges by the country concerned.
At the end of the last UPR, Sri Lanka ended up with a number of voluntary pledges and recommendations. One of the key pledges was the drafting of a National Action Plan on Human Rights which we have now finished and commenced implementing. My office had been working at these recommendations and voluntary pledges in our last UPR and I am happy to say that a record number of them have been implemented. We will show this clearly in the report.
Q: Can they propose action against the countries at the UPR, if they have underperformed?
A: The whole idea of the UPR is to move away from the exercise of naming and shaming of countries and bringing in adverse resolutions. Instead, it strives to constructively engage with them, but of course a good performance will be excellent for Sri Lanka.
In 2008, quite a number of countries praised Sri Lanka’s report as being very comprehensive. This is the kind of response we expect to achieve this time as well. I am quite confident. This is an excellent opportunity for Sri Lanka to go there and demonstrate once again that the Resolution that was adopted by the Council in March was unwarranted in the backdrop of so much progress being made. The event will be exclusively on Sri Lanka, so we will have plenty of opportunities to explain to the international community the true picture. Of course, there are still a number of challenges before us and no doubt a lot of explaining to do on the lack of progress in a few areas. I am mindful that when we respond to such questions we would have to do it in a credible manner.
Q: Is the Government working on the LLRC recommendations?
A: We will go by the consolidated statement made in Parliament by Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva where he said the Government welcomes the report and is in the process of identifying the areas of implementation.
This is, after all, our own creation. It was an independent commission appointed by the President.
Some of the LLRC recommendations have already been implemented, others have been included in the National Human Rights Action Plan which is a time-bound plan that is also being implemented, and there are some recommendations in which further investigations are suggested.
The Government has put in place mechanisms for such investigations. We need to show progress in this connection.
Another adverse resolution
Q: There was a newspaper report that the abductions taking place in Sri Lanka may call for another adverse resolution. What are your comments?
A: I can’t understand some of these newspaper reports which are increasing in frequency. They have quoted a senior official. We will never know who this senior official is and in the absence of such disclosure, bona-fides are questionable.
The same newspaper recently published an article about what took place in Geneva. The author of this article claimed he’s a Leftist who had observed what happened on the day of the vote. It was very obvious that the motive of writing that article and publishing it was to create friction between me and the President. It is unfortunate that there are some devious personalities who are trying to pursue their private agendas in the midst of a country facing serious challenges.
We did a search and ended up tracing the name of this so called Leftist writer to a fictional detective created by an American writer Donna Leon: Guido Brunetti. The attribution to the article claims that the author is a “European Leftist commentator” and also claims that he was in Geneva (possibly in September 2011 and also in March 2012) – none of which appear to be factual.
Anyway, I am not disillusioned by this kind of devious methods being employed. This is to be expected when you are in the limelight which is unbearable for others. As far as I am concerned I will continue to do the right thing, always.
Q: Do you think there is a hidden hand or a sinister move to attack Sri Lanka’s ‘Geneva team’ and create divisions among them to harm the country’s interests?
A: It is unfortunate that some are trying to play a personal agenda. This is really unfortunate. I can tell you very clearly as the leader of the Sri Lankan delegation that we worked as a team. Prof. G.L. Peiris, as the Minister of External Affairs, did what he had to do.
I did what had to be done on the operational side. I could not speak to the Foreign Ministers, naturally when there was a Foreign Minister present and he did cover that part of the responsibility.
I met the regional groups, made speeches, met ambassadors and discussed strategy along with the members of the rest of our delegation. It was a team effort. Now we have to look to the future and find out why certain countries voted the way they did. Notwithstanding this we need to work very hard towards further progress.
Interviewd by by Manjula FERNANDO