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Rajapaksa Govt. faces uphill battle in Geneva

Vital need to review country’s foreign policy, top professionals must be called in to avoid more debacles
India’s position double-edged, vote against Lanka will weaken its position and give walkover to China
A week that will be a milestone in Sri Lanka’s contemporary history begins tomorrow. On Thursday, the UN Human Rights Council will take for voting a United States-backed resolution, described as “non-condemnatory,” on Sri Lanka. Among its co-sponsors are France, Norway, Nigeria and Cameroon.

Since the UNHRC sessions began on February 23 in Geneva, government ministers, officials, politicians and their supporters have been engaged in a campaign in Geneva. Even if their approach was contradictory and multi-pronged, the goals remained one – to either defeat or seek the withdrawal of the resolution. Both seemed a formidable task. The prognosis came just three days ago from the man who conducts Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, External Affairs Minister, G.L. Peiris. He literally toured the world, churning out one statement after another, and holding out great hope. He bitterly criticised the west and called for a change in the United Nations system. It seems his campaign has not worked.

Last Wednesday evening, he told the weekly cabinet meeting that there was only a “50-50 chance” of Sri Lanka thwarting the resolution. His remarks came during a briefing which President Mahinda Rajapaksa asked Peiris to give ministers when they had finished the day’s official business. The Minister explained why he was pessimistic and expected a ‘photo finish’ outcome. In his view, the United States, which had diplomatic representation in all capitals of member nations of the Human Rights Council, had carried out a vigorous campaign. Whether Peiris was unaware of the worldwide reach of US diplomatic missions or their vigorous campaign is indeed a critical question. After all, he is Sri Lanka’s Minister of External Affairs. However, when he ended his briefing, Rajapaksa was in a defiant mood.

Whilst Sri Lanka delegations were lobbying foreign countries for their vote at Thursday’s sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council, a team from the London based Global Tamil Forum has been following suit. On Friday, the delegation was in Oslo, Norway meeting Erik Solheim, Minister of Environment and International Development. Norway is a co-sponsor of the US backed resolution on Sri Lanka and is a voting member of the UNHRC.
“Ena ona deyakata moona demu. Mama paava denney nehe,” (Whatever comes, let us face it. I am not going to betray) he told his ministers. Chipping in was Basil Rajapaksa, Minister of Economic Development. He said that the External Affairs Ministry should concentrate on the countries that were extending their support to Sri Lanka. Though he did not name these countries, he did mention their number. The idea was to ensure they, less than the figure required for a majority vote, are not forced to change their stance under pressure.

There was still a semblance of hope in some diplomatic quarters in Geneva on the likelihood of the resolution being adopted without a vote. This is the result of behind-the-scene moves by India to strike a deal with the US where the resolution could be further moderated by amendments enabling member states of the Council to adopt it through a consensus. A ranking diplomatic source in Geneva said such a move was highly unlikely for a number of reasons. “Already, the draft which was condemnatory has been modified to acceptable levels. It is too little too late now,” the source who cannot make public statements said. Sri Lanka’s delegation to the UNHRC has also not been mandated to back any move for a consensus without a vote.

They have been told to lobby to thwart the resolution or face a vote, said an External Affairs Ministry official in Colombo. However, the official said such a decision could be made by the political leadership in Colombo but was ‘highly unlikely.’ The official also disclosed that India would support Sri Lanka and would not vote for the resolution. The likelihood of a defeat has prompted the government to initiate a number of other diplomatic initiatives.

External Affairs Minister Peiris now wants to visit Washington for a meeting with US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. He earlier ignored such an invitation to visit the US capital in March this year, well ahead of the resolution being taken up at the Human Rights Council. Instead, he went on a tour of African countries. Diplomatic consultations are now under way between Colombo and Washington to decide on a suitable date. If Peiris did honour the invitation, and was able to use diplomatic persuasion there were strong prospects that the resolution could have been withdrawn or re-worded to Sri Lanka’s benefit. He was not up to the challenge. As later explained in this commentary, there is convergence of positions in the US-backed resolution and the official stance of the government, at least before the UNHRC.

In what seems a measure to galvanise public support, President Rajapaksa is to visit every district. Besides inspecting the government’s development programmes, he will brief the people of the UPFA government’s position vis-à-vis the issues before the UNHRC. His thrust, a government source said yesterday, was to “assure the people that he would face the brunt of any international action but would not betray the troops who defeated Tiger guerrilla terrorism nearly three years ago.” The first such event takes place on Wednesday in Puttalam, a predominantly Muslim town.

In Geneva, where there is still hectic lobbying by the Sri Lankan side, the final draft of the US-backed resolution remains unchanged. A distinct difference between the first draft and the current one is the exclusion of “condemnatory” references to Sri Lanka. The draft sought to “express concern” that the LLRC report does not adequately address serious allegations of international law. It also sought to express disappointment over the government failing to fulfil “its relevant legal obligations and stated commitment to initiate credible and independent investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for such violations.” Furthermore, calls to “address serious allegations of violations of international law” and prosecution of those responsible have been replaced.

Instead, in essence, the resolution as it stands now focuses on the following elements:

= Calls on the government to implement “the constructive recommendations in the LLRC report” and “initiate actions to ensure justice, equity, accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.”

= Calls upon the government to present a “comprehensive action plan as ‘expeditiously as possible’ detailing the steps the Government has taken and will take to implement the LLRC recommendations and also address alleged violations of international law.”

= Calls upon the government to accept “procedures,” advice and technical assistance in implementing the above steps from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. It calls upon that office to “present a report to the Council on the provision of such assistance at its 22nd session.”

A dispassionate, hard look at the first two points above shows it is in accord with the position officially taken up by the government, at least before the UNHRC. Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, who wears around his neck a UN identity card which says he is head of the Sri Lanka delegation said in his address “…I am happy to observe that advances have been made with regard to many of the recommendations (in the LLRC) Report. The Government will continue to address these issues in a systematic and thorough manner. Some of the areas in which gains have been made include the resettlement of IDPs; demining; rehabilitation of ex-combatants; implementation of the language policy; the recruitment of Tamil speaking police officers; the removal of the military from facilitation of civil administration in the north; making available land previously used for security purposes for resettlement/return; and carrying out a comprehensive census in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. There are also other recommendations in the report to be comprehensively addressed….

“….The Attorney General is currently studying the recommendations in the report with regard to allegations of violations of International Humanitarian Law. Military Courts of Inquiry in keeping with international practice have commenced investigations into specific incidents identified by the LLRC…..
…..In the light of Sri Lanka’s demonstrated commitment to an internal reconciliation process, including the implementation of the range of recommendations of the LLRC by the adoption of a road map for implementation…..”

Hundreds of Muslims took to the streets on Thursday in a government-sponsored rally against the US sponsored Geneva resolution on Sri Lanka. The protest was held near the US Embassy in Kollupitiya. Pic by Indika Handuwala.
Thus, the official statement by Minister Samarasinghe makes clear there is a virtual government concurrence to the first two points. However, to some degree it is “negated” by the third, say government officials. There are both intrusive and supervisory elements incorporated there, they complain. It means that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will monitor the enforcement of provisions in the resolution through their “special procedures.” Added to that, the High Commissioner will also report to the Council in March, next year, on the progress. On the other hand, it could still be argued that there is nothing to prevent the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, with or without a resolution, to report to the Council on Sri Lanka.

With a near certainty of the resolution being carried through, what is perceived as a blow for Sri Lanka would be the role to be played by the office of the Human Rights Commissioner. This situation clearly highlights the lack of focus on the part of the External Affairs Ministry in correctly advising the Sri Lanka delegation on the issues involved. It also shows the futility of merely despatching a 52 member delegation to Geneva in the misguided belief that diplomacy is just a show of numbers. A passage of the resolution naturally turns the spotlight on what next? If the government chooses to abide by the resolution, if it is carried through by a majority, the process would go on to and fro. Compliance would even moderate the Commissioner for Human Rights in reporting to the Council. Non-compliance, on the other hand, will set the government on a collision course with the United Nations system and earn the ire of western nations. One of two scenarios would certainly play out during the span of a year.
from ST political column


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