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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

UNHCR March session: Three cabinet ministers to travel to capitals of member countries of the UNHRC

On the international front, with just three weeks to go for the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in Geneva, pressure is building up on the government. Last week, Steven Ratner, a member of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s panel that probed alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka, addressed an audience in Geneva. It was at an “off-the-record” event organised by the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights.
The event was attended by several diplomats accredited to the UN in Geneva as well as international organisations. According to reports reaching the government, Ratner had belittled the final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).

He had claimed there was “credible evidence” that the Sri Lanka government had not discharged its responsibilities on accountability issues. The event has once again brought to the fore the ineffectiveness of Sri Lanka’s diplomatic missions. The office of Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative at the UN, when questioned by the External Affairs Ministry (EAM) in Colombo, had explained that no representative attended the event since there was no invitation. However, it has now come to light that diplomats from some countries including China and Afghanistan had taken part though no invitations had been extended to them. The Sri Lanka mission has also explained to the EAM in Colombo that the proceedings of the event would be posted on the website of the Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. However, diplomatic sources in Geneva confirmed yesterday that the event was “off the record”.

Last Monday, Canada’s Foreign Minister, John Baird, addressed the Royal Commonwealth Society in London on his government’s foreign policy. He made reference to several trouble spots in the world and how Canada had reacted. Making his speech from the Mandela Hall, Baird said, “Some of the world’s poorest and smallest countries are among our Commonwealth cousins. Solidarity with them, in support of enterprise, investment, aid and development absolutely requires firm resolve on the issues of disagreement and discord.

We see the important role the Commonwealth can play, and we cherish the fundamental values it was built upon. That is why we cannot sit idly by and watch these values be undermined.” The fact that Baird made no reference to Sri Lanka prompted the Royal Commonwealth Chairman, Peter Kellner to say, “Your speech on human rights was remarkable. Thank you very much. However I noticed that you didn’t mention Sri Lanka specifically in this speech. You have been very vocal on that country’s human rights record. Where do you think we as international community, the Commonwealth, should go from here with regard to Sri Lanka?”

Replied John Baird: Our Prime Minister and I as Foreign Minister of Canada have been highlighting issues and the deteriorating record on human rights in Sri Lanka at many international fora. We have three areas of concern: (1) Address the accountability issue of what went on at the end of war back in 2009 to the satisfaction of all in Sri Lanka and the international community; (2) Begin a process of ‘genuine’ reconciliation with the minority Tamil community; (3) Quite frankly there is a ‘growing authoritarian trend’ by the government in Colombo. We are working with like-minded governments in the region and others to see how to improve the situation in Sri Lanka. We will continue to engage them and the government of Sri Lanka.

Q – Dr Raj: Hon, Minister I wish to start with Mahatma Gandhi’s quote before I put my question; “The Weak can never forgive, forgiveness is the attribute of the strong”. In Sri Lanka unfortunately the strong is continuing with its oppression…You having championed on human rights, women rights and other minority rights, are these only in the realm of words and sentiments, can you and the International community be able to show any action? Thank you.

Baird: I have a plaque of ten quotes from Mahatma on my table at the Foreign Ministry. I have been highlighting some of our past actions in South Africa during the apartheid regime and been very clear to the world in many fora of our policy on Sri Lanka.

Q – Dr Shiranee Joseph: I just want to know where you are getting this information of women being abused and others in Sri Lanka. What is your source of information?

Baird: Our main source is our embassy in Colombo. However we also get information from NGOs, media organizations, local institutions and others. However the main source is our post in Colombo.
Present at the event was Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Dr. Chris Nonis and a group of High Commission officials.

It is not immediately clear to the government how issues related to Sri Lanka will play out at the UNHRC sessions. Ahead of the previous sessions in September, last year, the United States sought Sri Lanka’s consent, as required, for an “interactive dialogue”, at the Council. The government, however, did not give its consent to such a request. Such a ‘dialogue’ would have meant the placing of both the reports of the UN Panel of Experts (PoE) and the LLRC on the Council agenda at the upcoming sessions. That was to facilitate a discussion.

On Thursday, External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris told a news conference that the final report of the LLRC would not be tabled at the UNHRC sessions. He, however, did not clarify the reasons for such a move. According to highly-placed government sources, the move stems from Sri Lanka’s position that the LLRC was an ‘internal Government of Sri Lanka’ investigation, much in line with the government’s thinking that the PoE is an internal UN investigation for the Secretary General. However, these sources said should any issue concerning Sri Lanka be raised, the country’s delegation has been mandated to produce the report and argue the country’s case.

Heads of Sri Lanka diplomatic missions have already handed over copies of the LLRC report to the foreign offices of the countries to which they are posted. For this purpose, the External Affairs Ministry in Colombo air freighted the copies. Similarly, the spokesperson for UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in New York this week that it was up to the member countries of the UN to decide what to do with the report of the Panel of Experts. This is on the basis that copies of this report too had been handed over. Thus, a scenario that could bring a discussion on Sri Lanka could evolve only if a member country of the UNHRC moves a resolution or raises issue. The government is yet to receive firm indications with regard to this matter.

The United States, which earlier proposed an “interactive dialogue”, has pressed the government through diplomatic channels that it should address ‘accountability issues’. The US position is learnt to have been reiterated by officials who have been visiting Colombo in the recent weeks. They include Dr. Alyssa Ayres, Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia, and Thomas O. Melia, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Democracy in the Department of State. Another US official who visited Sri Lanka was Holly Vineyard, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Africa, the Middle East and South Asia in the Department of Commerce. Her visit is learnt to be to brief her counterparts in Sri Lanka about the US sanctions on Iran, a subject that has drawn strong protests from a section of the cabinet.

Those who are not in favour of the sanctions argue that Sri Lanka should follow India’s example and not pay heed to the ‘unilateral’ sanctions. A US Treasury official is also expected in Colombo to brief the government over matters relating to the sanctions issue. Also expected in Colombo is Stephen Rapp, United States Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes. He has already sought a visa from the Sri Lanka Embassy in Washington DC.

Nevertheless, President Rajapaksa is not taking any chances. He wants to reach out to as many members of the UN Human Rights Council as possible. The current members are Angola, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chile, China, Congo, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czech Republic, Djibouti, Ecuador, Guatemala, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Jordan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Libya, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Mauritius, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, Peru, Phillippines, Poland, Qatar, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Uganda, the United States of America and Uruguay.

External Affairs Minister Peiris has already toured Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Mauritania though he skipped South Africa. The tour came as the ruling South African National Congress was celebrating its centenary. He had chosen to boycott the event after it was found that the UK-based Global Tamil Forum was taking part. When the exclusive front-page report appeared in the Sunday Times of January 8, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Pretoria Shehan Ratnavale was asked to attend the event – a move that showed that the conduct of Sri Lanka’s diplomacy abroad was ad hoc.

Rajapaksa has assigned three cabinet ministers – John Seneviratne, Dilan Perera and Keheliya Rambukwella — to travel to capitals of member countries of the UNHRC. They will meet tomorrow at the External Affairs Ministry to finalise their itineraries. With barely three weeks to go for the Geneva sessions, winning the support of UNHRC members has become an item of top priority. This is notwithstanding the absence of a clearer picture in the External Affairs Ministry over what would happen at the sessions.

For Rajapaksa, domestic challenges, compared to his first year, have increased. There is both student and trade union unrest. Problems of law and order are on the rise. Another fuel price hike would become extremely inevitable if sanctions on Iran take full effect. The International Monetary Fund has warned that it would be the third world countries that will be most hit.

Yet, the silver line for Rajapaksa is the absence of a vibrant opposition. Not surprisingly, there are murmurs in the so called reformist group of the main opposition United National Party (UNP) to ‘kiss and make up’ with their leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. That no doubt would be on the leader’s terms. Even then, it will still be a galaxy away from offering a strong opposition to the Rajapaksa administration. As he continues his second year in a second term, that is both the strength and the weakness for Rajapaksa and his UPFA government.

From ST political column


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