The SOS message arrived after Sri Lanka's 52-member delegation -- which was a heavy burden on the country's purse -- returned to Colombo early this week from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in Geneva.
The breather from the on-going 19th sessions was in the belief that the United States-backed resolution on Sri Lanka would be moved only later this month. So much so, the delegation leader, the President's human rights special envoy and Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe chose to undertake a visit to Japan, return to Colombo and later get back to Geneva. That visit was connected to issues over tea in his capacity as Minister of Plantation Industries. This was whilst the Minister of External Affairs continued his South African safari -- an odyssey that has turned out to be a tragi-comedy in the conduct of Sri Lanka's foreign policy. More chapters unfolded this week.
Tamara Kunanayakam, Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, rang the alarm bell. The United States had sprung a surprise. As revealed exclusively in these columns last week that it would happen come Wednesday, the official text of the US-backed resolution was handed over to the conference secretariat on that day for inclusion in the agenda.
That, however, seemed a shock and surprise for the Sri Lanka mission, which shows how out of touch it was with the happenings around it. The next day, (Thursday), the United States Ambassador for Human Rights Council, Eileen Chamberlain Donahue, called an 'informal consultation' to which all Geneva-based missions and UNHRC delegates were invited. In the light of this, Mohan Peiris, legal advisor to the Cabinet, hurriedly boarded a flight to Geneva on Wednesday.
The next day, he was at the meeting in the afternoon together with Deputy Solicitor General Shavendra Fernando. Donahue announced that the United States had handed over the resolution for inclusion in the agenda. She said countries that wished to co-sponsor it could fill up and turn in the required forms that were on her table. In terms of HRC procedure, not only countries with voting rights but also other UN members are entitled to co-sponsor such resolutions.
Thus, it is still not clear how many would join in as co-sponsors. However, one source in Geneva said, "a number of countries" have already joined in. The government prepared yesterday to rush ministers, MPs, officials and others to Geneva. This is at a time when politicians who represented various countries have returned home after attending the 'high level segment' of the Council. They have left matters in the hands of their permanent missions. The question is with whom are the new Sri Lanka delegation members going to interact? Not that most of them interacted during the first part of the sessions.
In her opening remarks, Donahue said, "After consulting broadly with delegations from all regions and incorporating many helpful suggestions to the initial draft, we have introduced a moderate, reasonable, and balanced resolution text as a basis for further discussion and collaboration with our many partners in the Human Rights Council. In this regard, we reiterate our long-expressed willingness to work in partnership with the government of Sri Lanka on this resolution, and on the broader issues of reconciliation and accountability.
"This resolution is not intended to condemn; indeed, it acknowledges the contributions of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which has made many constructive recommendations to the Sri Lankan government. However, many international and domestic observers share our conclusion that the government has not yet promulgated a credible action plan for implementation of those recommendations, nor has it taken the additional needed steps since the war to foster national reconciliation.
"Our intention is clear: we want the countries of the world to join in encouraging the government of Sri Lanka to take the steps needed to ensure meaningful and lasting national reconciliation after a long conflict, to reach out sincerely to the Tamil population and bring them back in to the national life of Sri Lanka, and to ensure accountability for actions taken during the war.
"Time is slipping by for the people of Sri Lanka. Together with the international community we want to work with Sri Lanka in order to bring lasting peace to the island. We firmly believe that action now in this Council reflects the international community's on-going interest in and support for action on the ground in Sri Lanka. Numerous international and domestic observers have echoed our concern that the government of Sri Lanka must now establish domestic processes that will sow the seeds of lasting peace on the ground. With this resolution, the countries of the world can extend their hand of cooperation to help all the people."
Seated with Donahue was a State Department official who had flown from Washington DC to Geneva for the event. He was Atul Keshap, Director of the Office of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Bhutan in the Bureau of Central and South Asian Affairs in the State Department. He reports directly to Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary who heads the Bureau. The other was Miriam Shahrzad Schive, in charge of political affairs and specialised agencies in the US diplomatic mission in Geneva.
Keshap followed Donahue with some remarks. He said the resolution was not "brought up suddenly." The United States too had helped Sri Lanka eradicate terrorism. He charged that the government has "not been practical" in its approach to issues and recalled that Blake was personally aware of some developments since he had served as Ambassador. Thereafter, in his capacity as Assistant Secretary he had visited Sri Lanka many times for talks with government leaders, opposition political parties and civil society organisations. He (Blake) understood the ground realities well, Keshap noted. There was a slip up during his speech when he referred to Mohan Peiris as the Attorney General. He was reminded by Peiris that he had already relinquished that office.
Participants were allowed a three minute speech. Peiris took the opportunity to strongly defend Sri Lanka. He accused the west of double standards and asked why Sri Lanka was being singled out. When his time was over, Peiris protested that since the resolution was against Sri Lanka, it was nothing but right that he be given more time to argue the country's case. When contributions by some 25 envoys and delegates from UN member countries ended, Donahue noted, "we still have some more time" and invited Peiris to speak again.
The legal advisor to the Cabinet said the final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) had been broadly divided into four different categories. They were (1) National Policy (2) Final stages of the separatist war (3) National Security, and (4) Rehabilitation and Development. Several Committees were being tasked to go into these aspects. The initiatives were being chaired by President Mahinda Rajapaksa. He looked at the chair and remarked "The United States is abusing their might."
Delegates from African and Latin American countries, though present, did not make speeches. Nor did the Indian diplomats who were present there. Besides Sri Lanka, delegates from Denmark (on behalf of the European Union), Pakistan, France, Russian Federation, Switzerland, Norway, Cuba, Hungary, Poland, Egypt (on behalf of the Non Aligned Movement), Sweden, Australia, Thailand, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, Algeria, Indonesia, Austria, Zimbabwe, Germany, China, Canada, Portugal and Ireland also spoke.
Here are brief accounts on the positions taken up by different countries whose delegates made speeches.
Denmark (on behalf of the EU) - The US resolution is moderate, balanced and reasonable. We welcome the text.
Pakistan - Sri Lanka should be given time. We should not be wasting Sri Lanka's time deliberating matters here. There are more serious issues to be discussed.
France - We strongly support the resolution. We would request the Council to consider the report of the UN Panel of Experts too.
Russia (A voting member of the UNHRC) - This is an external intervention into a sovereign nation. It is not acceptable or appropriate.
Switzerland (A voting member) - We thank the United States for bringing this resolution. We completely agree with it. The resolution should be taken in the spirit in which it is being moved.
Norway (A voting member) - We welcome the resolution and support it. It is done in the spirit of consulting or engaging. Sri Lanka must understand that.
China (A voting member) - We do not support country specific resolutions. The US has double standards.
Cuba - Twenty years ago, there was a resolution against Cuba. Nothing happened. Special renditions using aircraft are also violations of human rights like those detained in the Guantanamo base.
Hungary (A voting member) - We fully support the resolution. We are very concerned about the intimidation of NGOs that is continuing even today.
Poland (A voting member) - We are very satisfied with the full text of the resolution.
Egypt - On behalf of the Non Aligned Movement, we strongly oppose the resolution. Reads out a statement issued earlier by NAM in Geneva.
Sweden - The text is well balanced and appropriate.
Australia - The resolution is reasonable and constructive.
Thailand (A voting member) - The resolution is not necessary. It should not be moved.
The Philippines (A voting member) - We support the position taken up by the Non Aligned Movement. Sri Lanka should be given time. We do not support the resolution.
The United Kingdom - The resolution is timely and constructive. Even the report of the UN Panel of Experts should be considered.
Algeria - Sri Lanka must be given time. The resolution should not be rushed. The government process should be allowed to work.
Indonesia (A voting member) - Sri Lanka should be given time. The domestic process in motion should be allowed to work.
Austria (A voting member) - It is unfortunate Sri Lanka is not wanting to be engaged with the international community.
Zimbabwe - We support the NAM position. It is very unfair to bring this resolution.
Germany -The resolution is important and sustainable.
Portugal - We welcome the resolution.
A comparison of the first draft and the final text of the resolution discussed at the 'informal consultation,' lays bare some important changes and the significant nuances underscoring them. The montage on this page gives the deletions and additions made to the draft.
Whilst the first four paragraphs have been retained, some of the strong language used in the draft has been omitted from the final text. The words "expressing concern," has been replaced in the final text with "noting with concern" and goes on to add that "the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report does not adequately address serious allegations of violations of international law." Omitted are the words that come thereafter: "and expressing serious disappointment that the Government of Sri Lanka has not fulfilled its relevant legal obligations and stated commitment to initiate credible and independent investigations and prosecution of those responsible for such violations."
The change no doubt is the result of consultations with member countries of the UNHRC which have sought some form of moderation in return for their support.
In this regard, there are more deletions. One is the call in the original draft for Sri Lanka whilst implementing LLRC recommendations" additionally to take immediate steps to fulfil its relevant obligations and stated commitment to address serious violations of international law by initiating credible and independent investigations and prosecution of those responsible for such violations."
Instead, a milder re-worded paragraph adds that the government should "….. take all necessary additional steps to fulfil its relevant legal obligations and commitment to credible and independent actions to ensure justice, equity, accountability and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans." Also deleted is a request for the "Government of Sri Lanka to present a comprehensive action plan before the 20th session of the Human Rights Council detailing the steps the Government has taken and will take to implement the LLRC recommendations …."
However, the sting for Sri Lanka is in the tail or the final paragraph of the official text of the resolution. First to the last few lines in the draft which said it "Encourages the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the relevant special mandate holders to provide, and the Government of Sri Lanka to accept, advice and technical assistance on implementing those steps." The reference to "mandate holders" has been deleted. Now to the penultimate paragraph in the official text:
"Encourages the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and relevant special procedures to provide, and the Government of Sri Lanka to accept, advice and technical assistance on implementing those steps and requests the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to present a report to the Council on the provision of such assistance at its 22nd session."
In essence, the final official text of the resolution has taken away what appears as strictures on the government of Sri Lanka. The most significant factor, if the resolution is approved, is empowering the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to offer advice to the government and report back to the Council in March next year, or in just one year's time, when the 22nd sessions will be held. In other words, it is the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that will serve as a monitoring agency to ensure (a) the government of Sri Lanka carries out the subject matters spelt out in the resolution, and (b) report its progress to the Council. Thus, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will be mandated to oversee that the Government of Sri Lanka enforces the UN resolution by implementing recommendations of the LLRC and addressing other issues.
The US-backed resolution clearly underscores some key factors. Main among them, if the resolution is passed, is the reluctance to accept Sri Lanka's plea that many recommendations of the LLRC have been or are being implemented. Sri Lanka delegation leader Mahinda Samarasinghe, who spoke at the 'high level segment' of the Council, detailed out the measures taken and appealed to the UNHRC not to go ahead with the resolution.
He wanted time for the government to implement the many other recommendations. On the other hand, some of the movers could argue, the US has done just that by calling upon the government to implement LLRC recommendations and given time till the UNHRC sessions in Geneva in March next year for that purpose. They could also argue that the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has been tasked purely to monitor the commitments made.
Yet, as pointed out in these columns last week, the issues centre on questions of credibility. Even if Minister Samarasinghe has addressed all the issues centring on the LLRC recommendations in the speech he made, by passing a resolution, the US and its allies want to bind the government to a supervisory commitment under the UN Human Rights Council.
There was a significant development in this regard in Sri Lanka this week. It was a breakfast meeting President Mahinda Rajapaksa had with the United States Ambassador Patricia Butenis. It was at the President's House in Kandy. The Sunday Times learnt that the meeting has been lined up on the "strict understanding" that the US-backed resolution would not be a subject of discussion.
At first, there was a one-on-one meeting between Rajapaksa and Butenis. It later extended to the breakfast table where some politicians and officials were present. According to authoritative official sources, Butenis asked Rajapaksa to take advantage of what the United States would like to see taking place. She said the government should evolve an action plan, both long term and short term to address issues dealt with in the LLRC report. Matters related to missing persons as well as the government's dialogue with the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) also figured in the discussion. "The dialogue was very cordial and the atmosphere at breakfast was friendly," these sources added.
The message during the meeting further underscores a reality -- the government's assurances made to the Council by Minister Samarasinghe have not been totally accepted by the United States and its allies. Not surprisingly when the entire exercise of handling the UNHRC sessions appears to be a mega blunder. Sri Lanka did not field delegations, since the US announcement of a resolution in February, to cover Western Europe, Latin America and other important countries like Canada, France and the United Kingdom.
Nor did External Affairs Minister, G.L.Peiris, heed the invitation extended to him by US Secretary of State, Ms Hillary Clinton to visit Washington DC this month. Making matters worse was a remark by Minister Samarasinghe, repeatedly broadcast by radio stations in Sri Lanka, that India was backing Sri Lanka 'one hundred per cent.' The voice cuts were played repeatedly and infuriated politicians in Tamil Nadu. Setting aside their differences, governing and opposition parties in the state appealed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh not to back Sri Lanka. Since then, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jeyaram Jeyalalitha has been stepping up criticism making public remarks on Sri Lanka. Just this week, she opposed Sri Lankan VIPs visiting her state without the centre informing them of such visits.
If these factors weigh heavily on the failure in the conduct of Sri Lanka's foreign policy, it is made worse by the absence of "experienced officials" in the delegation to Geneva. The vast majority of the 52-member delegation was neither briefed nor had a proper, co-ordinated strategy. Hence, it became only an all-expenses paid junket for most of them. Added to it were the contradictory remarks made by Minister G.L. Peiris and delegation leader Minister Samarasinghe.
Making the situation even worse are the tours undertaken by Minister Peiris and the statements drafted by him and released by his Ministry. There is a complete disconnect between what is said in these 'news releases' and what has been going on at the UNHRC in Geneva or the government's objectives. Their importance seems to be lost on the man who is tasked with conducting the nation's foreign policy. Peiris, who was on his African safari, last week was to highlight this deficiency once more.
He toured Nigeria, Botswana and South Africa. Whilst the first two countries are voting members of the UNHRC, South Africa is not. In all three visits, Peiris was to write his own media statements and send them for distribution in Colombo through the Ministry of External Affairs. None of them reflected Sri Lanka's appeal for help from those countries to either thwart the US-backed resolution or deal directly with the subject. In Nigeria, Peiris said of himself, "Professor Peiris observed that the developing world has a particular interest in ensuring that organs of the United Nations system, such as the Human Rights Council, are not politicized, in the sense that they become instruments for giving effect to decisions made by power blocs for political reasons….."
Peiris said in Botswana's capital, Gabarone, on Friday, he declared "there is a time, a place and a method for intervention by the Human Rights Council in the affairs of individual States, and what is distressing about the current initiative in respect of Sri Lanka is its highly selective and discriminating character.
A week before he headed for Botswana, their Defence, Justice and Security Minister Dikggamatso Nseretse told the 'high level segment' of the UNHRC "I have no doubt in my mind that UNHRC will agree with me that impunity is unjustifiable. Therefore, it is within this realm that all those responsible for committing atrocities and serious violations of human rights, in any part of the world, must account and be accountable.
"In this regard, we welcome the decision by this council at its last sessions in September last year to establish a mandate of a Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence. We urge all states emerging from internal conflicts to work with this Special Rapporteur. This would assist in ensuring that the policies and measures they put in place to address gross human rights and international humanitarian law violations, are able to prevent the recurrence of crisis and future violations of human rights. It would also assist in ensuring social cohesion, nation building, ownership and inclusiveness at the national and local levels, as well as to promote a meaningful process of reconciliation…."
Nseretse was representing Botswana at the UNHCR. Though not making a pointed reference to Sri Lanka, his remarks are clearly relevant. If Peiris did raise these issues during talks with his Botswana counterpart, Phandu Skelemani, there was no mention in his own news release. The most striking was Peiris' own 'news release' giving details of the South Africa visit. References to what was at issue were not contained in what he wrote and had the EAM distribute. However, in marked contrast his South African counterpart, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, set out a different story in an official news release. Appearing in a box story on this page is Peiris' own account followed by the one issued by his South African counterpart. The two show how Peiris hides the fact that South Africa has raised issues relating to accountability and the need to implement recommendations of the LLRC.
According to reports from Geneva, the resolution on Sri Lanka is to be taken up for debate by the Council on March 21 or 22, just before the on-going 19th sessions conclude on March 23. No matter how the prestige battle would end, it will be the beginning of a new chapter for Sri Lanka. The three-tiered approach - External Affairs Minister Peiris taking a tough line with the international community, Sri Lanka delegation leader Minister Samarasinghe taking a soft one at the UNHRC and the government in Colombo adopting a third dimension - encouraging more protests against the west, most of them supervised by government politicians - will all have their impact.
Yet, before long, the fact that Sri Lanka needs to adopt a cohesive foreign policy on which all ministers and officials in the government could work singularly to enforce it, would become imperative. Painting all adversaries black and name calling will not help since the UNHRC is not a village fair. Whether the resolution is adopted or not, that is the lesson for Sri Lanka.
Peiris in Pretoria: Different statements on one meeting
Following a visit to South Africa last week, External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris, drafted his own statement. It was later distributed by his Ministry.
If his counterpart raised some critical issues relating to Sri Lanka and the on-going UN Human Rights Council sessions, they were missing in his own account. First to Peiris' own statement:
"A wide range of experiences with regard to challenges in respect of nation building, shared by Sri Lanka and South Africa, serves as a strong foundation for informed dialogue on these issues. The insights deriving from this common experience make close collaboration between the two countries all the more valuable, Professor G.L.Peiris,Minister of External Affairs, said in Pretoria, South Africa on Monday.
"He was participating in bilateral discussions with Ms. Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, Minister of International Relations and Co-operation of the Republic of South Africa. Among the officials present were Mr. Shehan Ratnavale, High Commissioner of Sri Lanka in South Africa and Mr. Geoffrey Quinton Doidge, High Commissioner of South Africa in SriLanka.
"Referring to the inspiring leadership of former President Nelson Mandela, Prof. Peiris said that a salient feature of the structures he had put in place was their home-grown quality, in many fundamental respects. Although not hesitating to draw on positive experiences from other cultures, as Mandela has explained in his fascinating autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, he considered it vital to adapt these experiences to suit the unique context of the South African situation. The result was a model containing features which hardly bear comparison with any other set of constitutional or political arrangements, the Minister said.
"Similarly, it is Sri Lanka's earnest effort, after the defeat of terrorism, to develop in an inclusive spirit structures fulfilling the special needs of our society, he explained. The Minister continued that, while collaboration on the basis of equality and mutual respect is always welcome, Sri Lanka does not consider helpful patronizing attitudes leading to attempts at external intervention.
"Prof. Peiris drew attention to yet another prominent characteristic of the South African experience, with special value to Sri Lanka: namely, the deliberate decision to dispense with external mediation or facilitation in any form, and to rely instead on local creativity and resourcefulness. He recalled the observation made to him many years ago by Mr. Roelf Meyer, the chief negotiator with the African National Congress and the Minister of Defence in the Government of former South African President F.W. de Klerk, that this decision was based on the conviction -- strongly held by both sides -- that no external actor could possibly have the intensity of commitment of the South African people collectively, to find a solution which is equitable and would stand the test of time. This belief is amply vindicated by Sri Lanka's own experience, the Minister observed.
"Minister Peiris warmly welcomed the dynamic role now being played by South Africa, as a rising economic power, not only in African affairs but also in the global arena. South Africa's expanded role in international diplomacy significantly facilitates giving effect to the value systems which both Sri Lanka and South Africa hold to be sacred, he commented. He recalled that these values had been articulated with deep conviction by the representatives of both countries most recently at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Perth, Western Australia, which was attended by President Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Jacob Zuma.
"Prof. Peiris, in his discussions with his South African counterpart, made reference to his intimate connection with South African academic and political life, going back several decades. After the completion of his doctoral thesis at the University of Oxford on avenues of development of the Roman-Dutch Law in Sri Lanka and South Africa, he had accepted with pleasure the invitation extended to him by leading South African Universities including the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Cape Town to deliver a series of lectures. He recalled, as well, his association with the late Mr. Dulla Omar, Minister of Justice in the Mandela administration, and with Mr. Valli Moosa, at that time Minister of Constitutional Affairs.
"The Minister of International Relations and Co-operation of South Africa hosted a lunch in honour of the visiting Sri Lankan Foreign Minister.
"Prof. Peiris also had bilateral discussions with Mr. Ebrahim Ismail Ebrahim, South Africa's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, with special responsibility for the subject in the African National Congress. During a recent visit by Mr. Ebrahim to Sri Lanka, Prof. Peiris had a bilateral meeting with him in the Ministry of External Affairs and also arranged a roundtable discussion in which a number of political personalities, academics, professionals and members of civil society took part.
"The bilateral discussions in Pretoria between the two Foreign Ministers also touched on a variety of topics including expansion of the tea trade, investment promotion, co-operation in science and technology, environmental protection and enhancement, projects in the sphere of education and the possibility of direct flights between Colombo and Johannesburg."
Here is the full text of the official statement issued by South Africa's Ministry of International Relations and Co-operation after the Peiris visit:
"The Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, Ms Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, hosted her counterpart from Sri Lanka, Professor Gamini Lakshman Peiris, Minister of External Affairs, for bilateral discussions on 05 March 2012.
"Minister Peiris briefed the South African Government on plans to implement the recommendations of the Sri Lankan Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission relating to human rights, the return and resettlement of displaced communities, restitution and compensatory relief for the affected people, and post-conflict reconstruction and nation-building.
"South Africa believes in the need for a peaceful and sustainable political solution, which will be best achieved through broad consultation and inclusive dialogue amongst all the peoples of Sri Lanka.
"Both sides agreed on the need to grasp the opportunity to finally settle the conflict in Sri Lanka, including the speedy implementation of the LLRC Report, as well as the setting up of an impartial, inclusive and transparent mechanism to deal decisively with questions of accountability and justice.
"South Africa continues to encourage the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations of the LLRC Report in the same spirit as South Africa implemented the TRC processes. "South Africa stands ready to assist and share with the Government and people of Sri Lanka its experiences in terms of nation-building through the TRC.
"In addition to paying a courtesy call on President Jacob Zuma, Minister Peiris also visited the Constitutional Court in Johannesburg."