ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday December 16, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 29
Columns - Inside the glass house  

Should Lanka fight UN or quit the world body?

By Thalif Deen at the united nations

A cartoon by Lebanese artist Stavro Jabra (L) with others on display 12 December 2007 as part of an exhibition entitled "Sketching Human Rights" in the Main Gallery of the Visitors' Lobby at United Nations headquarters in New York. The exhibit, in commemoration of Human Rights Day, features a collection of thought-provoking cartoons from a range of international cartoonists on the subject of human rights that will be on display through mid-January 2008. This year, Human Rights Day will see the launch of a year-long commemoration leading up to the sixtieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The theme for both the day and the year is "Dignity and justice for all of us". AFP

NEW YORK - At a meeting of the now-defunct UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva in the mid-1980s, Sri Lanka was being threatened by a proposed European Union (EU) draft resolution aimed at "condemning" our human rights violations following the riots of 1983.

In anticipation of this, Sri Lanka fielded a high powered delegation led by then President J.R. Jayewardene's younger brother, Harry Jayewardene, a lawyer by profession, who later unsuccessfully ran for the prestigious post of judge at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague.

After several rounds of negotiations and closed door meetings, the Sri Lankan delegation was finding it difficult to stall the resolution from being brought to the floor. As the delegates huddled in a hotel room in Geneva to devise their next move, Harry placed an overseas call to his brother JRJ, affectionately known in the family as Dicky (short for Richard, in Junius Richard Jayewardene), in order to apprise him of the possibly catastrophic situation -- diplomatically speaking.

As the phone conversation continued, Harry was overheard saying: "Yes, Dicky, Yes, Dicky, Yes, Dicky," and then suddenly changed his pitch: "No, Dicky, but you can't do that." Harry then turned to the Sri Lankan delegates, who were holding their collective breath trying to figure out what was going on, and then blurted out: "He wants us to get out of the UN."

But, of course, Sri Lanka didn't — despite JRJ's seemingly enlightened advice. And now more than two decades later, is it time for us to really leave the UN— as there is no love lost between Sri Lanka and the world body? The present government has been engaged in a running battle with the UN over several politically sensitive issues, including refusal of visas to some UN staffers, charges of human rights violations against the government, lack of security to humanitarian aid workers, and the participation of UN staffers in at least one public demonstration.

The latest onslaught comes from the 13,000-strong UN Staff Union which has virtually told all staffers worldwide to avoid duty assignments in Sri Lanka, if given the option. "Sri Lanka is among the world's most dangerous places for aid workers," the Staff Union said, in a statement last week, echoing similar sentiments expressed by the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes. "Recent attacks and accusations are affecting the ability of the United Nations to carry out its mission," the Staff Union complained.

Last June, the UN singled out Sri Lanka as one of several crisis-stricken countries -- along with Sudan, Lebanon and the Central African Republic-- that has failed to track down the killers of humanitarian workers. Addressing the Security Council, Holmes said that in 2006, 24 aid workers were killed in Sri Lanka, including 17 from Action Contre Le Faim, "in a single horrifying act." Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanded an investigation into the killings.

At least four countries -- the UK, France, the Republic of Congo and Canada, along with the European Union -- castigated Sri Lanka specifically for its continued human rights abuses and the lack of protection for civilians caught in the cross fire. At no time has Sri Lanka come under such intense scrutiny of member states at a Security Council meeting, as it did last June.

After a visit to Sri Lanka, Holmes described Sri Lanka as one of the world's "most dangerous place for international aid workers". In response, two senior ministers in Sri Lanka blasted Holmes, one of them, Chief Government Whip Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, accusing Holmes of being in the payroll of the LTTE. "I would say Holmes is completely a terrorist, a terrorist who supports terrorism. We consider people who support terrorists also terrorists," said Fernandopulle, in an obvious knee-jerk reaction.

At a UN press conference last September, Foreign Minister Rohita Bogallagama was asked whether the government has any tangible evidence that Holmes was a "terrorist"-- and if so, can he produce it, and if not, will the government tender a public apology to Holmes? Bogollagama pointedly rejected the accusation made by one his own cabinet colleagues. Asked if the government had any concrete evidence, he said there wasn't. "Obviously, there is no foundation to the charges," he added.

When President Mahinda Rajapaksa addressed the General Assembly in September, he took some well-aimed shots at the world body when he said that the UN has a mixed record of achievements. "As resources received by the UN are limited, it has been only possible to deliver limited results. We need to focus on these as they often have been characterized by countless, poorly coordinated, ineffectively designed, ineptly staffed and overlapping programs, with unnecessary inter-agency competition. The UN must always remember that its primary function is to render assistance for the well being of its Member States."

If the government thinks it's getting an unfair deal, it should perhaps show its disdain by refusing any high level representation during the next General Assembly sessions rather than bring a 70-member delegation on a junket. The best way to insult the UN is to send our Second or Third Secretary to address the next General Assembly, come September, if protocol permits.

The only Sri Lankan head of government to avoid the UN was J.R. Jayewardene, who refused to step into the UN premises or seek a photo opportunity with the Secretary-General, even when he was in New York where he held a press conference at the Waldorf Astoria. Was he contemptuous of the world body or did he think the UN was an ineffective organisation?

Ernest Corea, a longtime confidant of JRJ and a former Sri Lankan Ambassador to the U.S., has a different take. President Jayewardene made only one formal visit to the US as head of state and government, and that was his State Visit, at the invitation of U.S. President Reagan, in mid-June 1984, he said.

That was the first -- and up to now, only -- State Visit to the US by a Sri Lankan head of state on the invitation of the US President, said Corea, who until recently was a senior consultant at the World Bank. Corea also said Jayewardene valued the UN as an institution, although he felt that too many "deals" were cut there. He was concerned by the economic mess he had inherited in Sri Lanka, and therefore concentrated on attempting to revive the domestic economy.

To free himself from the obligations of a Foreign Minister, he set up a separate Foreign Ministry, for the first time, and entrusted it to Shahul Hameed. He kept a "watching brief" on the new ministry, and to maintain continuity, stability, and dignity in the ministry he retained W. T. Jayasinghe, formerly Secretary of Defence and External Affairs, as the Secretary of the new Foreign Ministry. And the rest, as they say, is history.

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