Following is an interview with Plantation Industries Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, on how Sri Lanka is bracing itself to meet the challenges of the upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of the UNHRC, in November. Minister Samarasinghe who is also the special Presidential Envoy for Human Rights explaining how the UPR will be held this year, shrugged off Opposition Leader’s call for tabling the UPR country report in Parliament adding, “I am sure he is anxious to find out what is in the report and he would soon be able to once it is posted in the HRC website shortly.”
Q: What was the feed back from the international community on the LLRC Action Plan?
A: Several important countries have issued public statements welcoming the action plan. Various ambassadors based in Colombo whom I made contact with gave the impression that they were encouraged by the action plan and the commitment shown on the part of the Government to implement some of the key recommendations.
Since it is a time-bound action plan, a full-time monitoring
mechanism has to be there to ensure that time lines are met. When you come out with time lines, you put yourself up for accountability.
Whenever we go to international forums, to represent Sri Lanka, those who are interested will ask us to explain where we are, in terms of fulfilling the time lines. Any shortcoming is not keeping to the time lines would be known.
I must also explain that the action plan was not put out, due to international pressure. Sri Lanka from the outset, as soon as the LLRC report came out, acted in a transparent manner. The first step was to make the report public by tabling it in Parliament.
The translations into Sinhala and Tamil have also been completed.
The next step was appointing a high level official committee to
work out the Action Plan and they have also accomplished their part. We have always talked about a time-bound action plan and they have done their job.
Q: What will take place on November 1, where Sri Lanka’s human rights situation will be discussed before the UNHRC at the Universal Periodic Review?
A: I led the Sri Lankan delegation in 2008, when we had to submit ourselves to the first Universal Periodic Review. On November 1 we will be given 70 minutes and we have to manage that time. The usual procedure is that the country concerned presents the report that has already been submitted to the High Commissioner’s office to be published for perusal by other members of the UNHRC.
The Report was prepared by my office in consultation with key
government ministries and respective Government Agents. We also consulted civil society on their views on the ground situation. The people who were complimentary as well as those who were critical of the situation here were consulted and their concerns were taken on board in preparing the country Report.
After the Report is presented by Sri Lanka, the debate will be open and various countries will take the floor and make observations. At this point those countries are allowed to make recommendations to improve the HR situation in the respective country. When the final Report is being prepared by the Rapporteurs (the Troika led by India), they will liaise with Sri Lanka. Then we must make it known if Sri Lanka is willing to take on board those recommendations. We also have an opportunity to submit voluntary pledges to be implemented during the next four years of the UPR cycle.
We will work on these voluntary pledges before hand. It is an interesting way of engaging. Very rarely the countries get named and shamed, it is rather a constructive way of engagement.
Q: Can the countries refuse to take on board recommendations that are intrusive?
A: We have the right to accept or reject the recommendations made by countries taking part in the peer review.
We could even say ‘yes we accept the principle of the recommendation but the language that it has been proposed is not acceptable to us’.
Then we will go in for negotiations, with the country which had made the recommendation. If they are not willing to change the language then it is up to us to accept the recommendation or not. That is how it works.
To give you a good example, in 2008, several countries proposed that we fully implement the 13th Amendment. At the time the Secretary General of the UN had just visited SL and there was a joint communiqué issued. In that they had said, ‘we would agree to implement the 13th Amendment’. We referred to this and we said we cannot agree to the language in the recommendation that said ‘full implementation of 13th Amendment’, since we have to go by the official position in the joint communiqué.
The country proposed it also agreed. That was a recommendation that we took on board in 2008. We did not deviate from our official stance.
We will update the country Report by sending added information between now and November 1. The updates may not be translated into other working languages of the UN by the High Commissioner’s office but the English copy will be posted on the website by her office.
Q: Is the Sri Lankan team expecting any unforeseen challenges at the UPR this time?
A: There are challenges, it will not be smooth sailing for any country. None are perfect in their record of promotion and protection of Human Rights. There are always parochial issues that may be brought up. This is the whole idea of the UPR – to constructively engage with the countries to improve their HR conditions.
However, we are confident that our Report would amply demonstrate the country has achieved a lot especially since the end of the conflict.
At the Human Rights Council sessions there is a limit to what you can say but here you have 10,700 words to describe your achievements and an additional 70 minutes to speak during the debate to clarify and answer any concern. It is an excellent opportunity to explain what we plan to do to achieve comprehensive reconciliation.
Q: The Opposition Leader, yesterday in Parliament has said that the UPR report should be tabled in Parliament. What is your comment?
A: This is the first time ever I have heard of an Opposition leader asking a country Report to be tabled before the Report has been made public by the HRC, as per the procedure established. I am sure he is anxious to find out what is in the Report and he would be able to look at the Report soon because the High Commissioner’s office is now in the process of translating the document into the UN languages.
Then it will be posted on their website.
As soon it is published on the website the Opposition Leader and anyone who is interested in the report can have access to it and make whatever observation they want to make.
I think it is premature to ask for the report even before it is translated and officially put on their website.
Q: Opposition MP Lakshman Kiriella has also said that there had been 72 recommendations in the final Report that was adopted in 2008 and whether all these recommendations have been fulfilled by the Government?
A: We have systematically prepared the Report. We have looked at all the recommendations that we took on board in 2008. And taking one by one we have demonstrated how they have been implemented. Not just that, we have explained what has been accomplished in the area of voluntary pledges. It’s a detailed Report, it’s not a rhetorical vision that has been put out. We have adhered to the methodology stipulated by the Council resolution. The Opposition’s curiosity will be sufficiently addressed when the report is made public.
In addition to the country Report there is also a UN Report and a stakeholders report on Sri Lanka. The stakeholders are civil society groups and National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. These Reports will also be posted in their website. The UN Report will update on the work of various UN agencies present in Sri Lanka as well as the ground situation and the challenges here. All these will be accessible to anyone. It will be interesting to see what they have observed on the situation.
Q: The Sri Lanka country Report is expected to be made public in a few weeks?
A: No. I think it will be put on the website sooner. I can’t tell you the exact date but the report was received by the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights on August 9. Today is 23. I am sure the OHCHR is on the verge of finishing the translations by now.
Q: Any changes between 2008 and 1012 UPRs?
A: The UPR mechanism was established by way of a resolution that was adopted. There have been slight logistical and practical modifications here and there over time. Other than very minor procedural changes it will be the same as 2008.
Q: Who will be taking active part in the Sri Lankan UPR, making recommendations, etc?
A: The Report has to be first posted on the website. The countries taking active part in the debate will be made known after that.
Q: On the LLRC Report there were constitutional changes proposed to implement some of the recommendations?
A: These have been referred to the Parliamentary Select committee, we are awaiting opposition nominees to continue the work of the PSC. The whole idea of having this parliamentary select committee is to have a meeting of minds where people with different ideologies, political objectives can come together and deliberate, and reach an acceptable solution to all the people in the country. Constitutional changes must stand the test of time, it is not something that a government can force down the people.
By Manjula FERNANDO