Ban adds muscle to UN panel

Eight-member secretariat set up; NAM still divided on Lankan issue; third draft being put into shape
By our Diplomatic Editor

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has raised his stakes with plans to set up an eight person secretariat, headed by a senior official at a director level (D-2), to facilitate the work of his advisory panel on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka.

The move comes after he ignored the abortive “fast unto death” outside the UN complex in Colombo and a vociferous charge that he has exceeded his administrative authority. With the establishment of the secretariat, the three-member panel will begin work at the UN in New York.

The Inner City Press, a UN-based website, reported that the Chief of Staff of the secretariat would be Jessica Neuwirth, known to be a human rights activist and confidante of UN Human Rights Commissioner Navy Pillay, who has taken a strong stand on the Sri Lankan issue.

The three members of the panel tasked to advise UN Chief Ban on accountability issues during the last stages of the separatist war last year are from Indonesia, South Africa and the United States. The move is a prelude to a UN probe on alleged war crimes by troops and guerrillas.

The temporary secretariat, funded by the secretary-general's own contingency budget, is expected to provide logistical assistance to the panel during the proposed four-month inquiry due to begin later this month or early next month.

The government has virtually lost its bruising battle against the United Nations in its attempt to demand the dismantling of the three-member Panel of Experts. "We have now reached a point of no return," a Foreign Ministry official confessed. "The panel is an accomplished fact. There is no turning back." A former Sri Lankan diplomat told the Sunday Times that while the secretary-general's action might be politically unwise, "it cannot be faulted legally or administratively".

"So, the government of Sri Lanka is barking up the wrong tree in contesting the legality of Mr. Ban's action,” he said. The government is also on the verge of losing a second battle by failing to get the 118-member Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to pressure the secretary-general to back down.

After a first draft letter failed to get a consensus approval from NAM members, a second draft letter has also run into trouble (as reported in the Sunday Times last week). The strongest objections have come from some of the Latin American countries, including Guatemala, Colombia, Chile and Peru.

They have said the proposed NAM letter, critical of Mr. Ban's decision to appoint a panel, could set a precedent for NAM in issuing statements on specific problems of its members (the Israel-Palestine issue being an exception).

And, in any case, it was the secretary-general's prerogative, within his good offices function, to set up a panel to advise him on the matter, especially since this was just an advisory, not an inquiry panel.

They also feel that NAM would be guilty of double standards if it objected to the panel as it had supported an international investigation into the Gaza flotilla incident – an inquiry which is strongly backed by the Muslim countries in the Organization of Islamic Conference.

Meanwhile, the government is toying with the idea of submitting a third draft letter seeking NAM approval, this time incorporating amendments made, and concerns expressed, by other NAM countries.
The third draft, so far, is not in circulation since it is still being licked into shape at the External Affairs Ministry.

When finalised, the third draft is expected to tone down the language and drop references to "serious concerns" while “taking note” of the appointment of the panel. As a compromise, the draft will suggest how best the Sri Lanka commission of inquiry could "co-exist" with the UN panel.

The draft also calls for the results of both mechanisms (the SL commission and UN panel) being reported to the general membership of the UN.

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