ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, December 3, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 27
Columns - Inside the glass house

Flushing the Palestinian cause down UN toilet

By Thalif Deen at the united nations

NEW YORK -- Whenever an ambassador or a delegate receives instructions from his home country to play truant during a politically-sensitive vote at the UN, the hapless diplomat is told to take the easy way out: temporarily abandon his seat in the General Assembly hall and rush to the toilet pretending his bladder is about to burst.

Paolo Fulci, a former Italian ambassador to the UN, dubbed it the "toilet factor" in UN voting. And the only way to resolve this problem, Fulci argued with tongue firmly entrenched in his cheek, is to install portable toilets in the General Assembly hall. A creative solution that may well be flushed down the drain.

So, when the Sri Lanka Mission to the UN received instructions from the Foreign Ministry in Colombo to abandon its seat during a crucial vote against Israel on the Palestinian issue last month, our delegate was nowhere to seen (as recounted on page one of the Sunday Times last week) — not even under the chair. “An absolute disgrace,” is how a former Sri Lankan ambassador described our subterfuge.

The excuses for not being present at voting time reminds us of a hilarious scene in that rollicking Hollywood comedy blockbuster "The Blues Brothers" when a highly-enraged and gun-toting Carrie Fisher demands from her boyfriend John Belushi as to why he did not turn up in church on his wedding day, leaving her and an entire wedding party high and dry.

“I had a flat tyre,” the roly-poly Belushi mockingly pleads with his trigger-happy girlfriend, “I didn't have the taxi fare to get to the church,” he pleads again. “My wedding suit did not come from the dry cleaners,” he says a third time, before Fisher unleashes all the firepower at her command. Great but implausible excuses — like the primary student in American schools reputed to stand before his or her teacher and beseech on a grim Monday morning: "My dog ate my homework."

So when Piyaratne de Silva, the Sri Lankan delegate who sits in the General Assembly, was a no-show during the Palestine vote, what was the excuse proffered by the Foreign Ministry in Colombo? Let's imagine: “Our delegate was held up because of a subway strike.”
“His taxi broke down before he could reach the UN building.”
“He ran out of shaving cream and couldn't appear unkempt before the General Assembly.”
Surely, the Foreign Ministry or the Sri Lanka government doesn't lack imagination? Or does it?

When the US vetoed a Security Council resolution last month condemning Israel for the atrocities and the killings of Palestinian civilians, the Muslim countries took the same resolution before the 192-member General Assembly which collectively represents the voice of the international community.

Although a vote in the General Assembly does not have as much political clout as one in the Security Council— primarily because of the manner in which the founding fathers of the UN manipulated the UN charter to provide more power to the five big powers in the Security Council — it still reflects the real political mood of the UN's entire membership.

So, not surprisingly a resolution that was vetoed by the Bush administration in the Security Council — primarily to protect its ally Israel — was adopted overwhelming by the General Assembly. The voting was 156 (out of 192 member states), with seven against and six abstentions (Canada, Cote d'Ivoire, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuautu).

The US was supported only by Australia and Israel — and by what is known here as the “usual suspects” — namely Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau. With the exception of Israel and Australia, these four Pacific Islands are best described as “mickey mouse” countries who stand by the US, right or wrong, during voting time at the UN.

But Sri Lanka did not have the courage of its convictions either to vote for, against or even abstain. It just ran away from the Assembly Hall — in the company of Burundi, Equatorial Guinea, Rwanda, Dominican Republic, Turkmenistan, Liberia and Samoa. We certainly were not in illustrious company — to say the least.

But every South Asia, nation, with the exception of Sri Lanka, voted for the resolution, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Nepal (all members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation or SAARC). The others who voted for the resolution included Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, South Korea and China.

Even the 25-member European Union, which is usually sympathetic to the Israelis, went along with the resolution because it just couldn't justify the relentless and unjustified attacks on the Palestinians last month by Israel. The interesting question is: why is Sri Lanka breaking ranks with the international community, with the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), and with SAARC, and absconding on a vote against Israeli atrocities against Palestinians? Is it under US pressure or has Sri Lanka decided to abandon the Palestinian cause in favour of the Israelis?

As the Sunday Times rightly pointed out, this change in policy comes under the administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa who was a one-time President of the Sri Lanka-Palestine Solidarity Movement. When the Foreign Ministry years ago routinely sent out a message — in the name of then Prime Minster Mahinda Rajapaksa — congratulating Israel on its national day, there was hell to pay. The Foreign Ministry took a severe beating on that so-called diplomatic faux pas — even though it wasn't.

Ironically, our decision to sit out the General Assembly vote came on the same week when our Permanent Representative to the UN, Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam, was touring the Middle East in his capacity as chairman of the three-member UN Special Committee on Israeli Practices (which investigates human rights violations of Palestinians in Israeli occupied territories). Sri Lanka has chaired this committee (its other members include Senegal and Malaysia) since it was created in the late 1960s during the time of Ambassador Shirley Amerasinghe. Now that we are possibly on the verge of abandoning the Palestinian cause, does Sri Lanka still have the legitimate right to continue to chair this Committee? This is a question that Arab nations may well ask — sooner than later.

When we tried to seek membership in the newly-created UN Human Rights Council recently, we went with a begging bowl to the Arab and Islamic states seeking their votes. The 57-member Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) was solidly behind us ensuring our victory in the Human Rights Council. The OIC will now think twice before its members offer their votes when we run for office at the UN the next time around. Sri Lanka should not take for granted the support it receives from the 57 Muslim states at the UN.
Perhaps the most interesting question crying out for an answer is: Who is responsible for this change of policy? The Foreign Ministry? Or is it the Presidential Secretariat? And is the President aware of this change in policy which is undermining his own stand in the Palestinian cause?

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.