ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday May 25, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 52
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Human rights and wrongs

Listening to Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister and the Human Rights Minister explain last Wednesday's election to the United Nations Human Rights Council, one would think Sri Lanka had won. The fact of the matter is that we lost our seat on the Council obtaining 101 votes (down from 126 in 2006) in the 192-member UN, an insufficient number to find a place on the Council.

The Ministers -- especially the latter, made the contest unnecessarily high profile, camping out of the country, lobbying furiously when they must have known that by challenging Pakistan and Bahrain for a seat, one was up against the collective clout of the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Conference) -- a vote bank that has often to come to Sri Lanka's own aid to resist western pressure in other human rights fora.

It is in times like this, that this country misses the sagacity of former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar who could not only take up the telephone and speak to the likes of former EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten "as one Balliol man to another", but also put in the quiet hard work at his office with officials from his Ministry and the Attorney General's Department to safeguard the country's reputation on the diplomatic front.

It was not as if the Kadirgamar era did not engage and expose duplicitous foreign humbug, but there was consummate skill involved, always the quest for perfection. His armoury was not the sledgehammer, but the rapier. Theatrics was limited and the fruits of victory savoured only after victory was announced.

On this occasion, the Government raised the expectations of the people by claiming victory even before the polling. They should have known better; that this was not like contesting the Eastern Province election, and that threatening member-states and stuffing ballot boxes was not a possibility.

The UNHRC itself is riddled with controversy and accusations are aplenty that the OIC has a stranglehold on its agenda and deliberations.

For example, an amendment proposed by Pakistan on behalf of the OIC to ask the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Freedom of Opinion and Expression to "report instances where abuse of the right to freedom of expression constitutes an act of racial or religious discrimination", has come under heavy fire for the negative trend by the UN to support censorship of opinion at the request of autocracies.

The Government needlessly made this election a prestige battle, pitting itself -- given its own highly questionable human rights track record -- against various forces determined to teach it a lesson, and has now ended up with egg on the face.

Its terrible record on the press freedom front, for instance -- the continued detention of journalists without trial, or white vans picking them up and thrashing them for what they write, only makes the advocates of the Government look pretty silly internationally when they say that Sri Lanka is a lily-white Republic where the rule of law prevails. You can't have one arm of the Government canvassing votes for a seat in a human rights council, and another arm of the Government going about violating human rights and fundamental freedoms with impunity.

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