ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday June 01, 2008
Vol. 42 - No 53
Columns - Thoughts from London  

Profit from the lessons, not deny them

By Neville de Silva

If I return to the subject of the UN Human Rights Council election in which we lost out, it is not without cause. Since our defeat in New York failing to secure one of the seats for the Asian region much has been said and written. Some have been diatribes mainly against international and local NGOs that joined hands in an appeal to UN members not to vote for us, others against three Nobel Peace Prize laureates and still others against the western world that had criticised Sri Lanka’s human rights record. There were other more sober analyses including a two-piece article by a former ambassador Bandu de Silva who examined UN voting patterns and habits and approached our failure in terms of the religious breakdown of the UN membership and how voting seems to cluster round common persuasions.

While such in-depth and knowledgeable analyses are useful especially since they are also based on personal experiences, and help understand how such multilateral organisations and their membership function, it is also important to look inward at our own record if we are to draw useful lessons for the future. It seems to me that there is a general reluctance to engage in self-criticism and introspection as though we stand on a moral mountain while our critics in the valleys below are moved by nefarious agendas and purely self- serving motives in campaigning internationally against us.

While one cannot deny that some international organisations and UN member states could have been propelled by such reasons to campaign against Sri Lanka to deny it a place on the UNHRC, we cannot shut our eyes to the fact that our own conduct, our often abrasive approach to diplomacy and our defence against critics have contributed in no small measure to the convergence and agglomeration of international antipathy towards us.

We don’t do ourselves or the country any good by self denial and closing our eyes and ears to justifiable criticism in an imitation of the proverbial monkeys. There might be some joy and immediate satisfaction in claiming that there are worse human rights offenders than us. There might indeed be and I dare say one should be able to find some if we look around. But it would be a curious kind of logic to argue that we can be bad because there are those who are worse. The argument that Sri Lanka is fighting a terrorist war, a war against a vicious and ruthless enemy who will not hesitate to kill civilians in anger or for some convoluted logic, has some validity. Yet even that cannot justify the deprivation of human rights and the physical abuse of some persons in the rest of the country and against people who are neither terrorists nor proponents of the terrorist cause.

Who could say with hand on heart that the physical attacks including the use of deadly weapons against journalists and employees of Rupavahini were because they are terrorists or their actions were terrorism-related? In fact it was the perpetrators and not the victims who were guilty of terrorism. Take the recent puerile statement by Lakshman Hulugalle, the director-general of the Media Centre for National Security who claimed that Lake House journalists were not entitled to protest against government policy or decisions because they are government servants. He is wrong on both counts- that they are government servants and they cannot protest. It is such unguarded and ignorant remarks by officials that have antagonised a wide swathe of international organisations from human rights groups to institutions for the protection of journalists that led to such organisations coalescing against Sri Lanka on the issue of its re-election to the UNHRC.

Take the case of the international panel of eminent persons who were invited to observe the work of the Udalagama commission of inquiry. If those persons were at fault in some of their remarks or their observations on the conduct of the inquiry, certainly Sri Lanka was justified in pointing out any errors. But the manner in which that panel was engaged and criticised in language that was, to say the least, intemperate, and by persons who should have known better, hardly enhanced our cause. The administration also appears to have forgotten that those who served on the panel, save for former Indian chief justice Bhagawati who was especially invited, were prominent or eminent persons in their own countries and were nominated by respective governments. When the panel withdrew for reasons that it had already explained, their governments were surely going to be briefed about what caused the demise of that panel or were certainly going to be made aware of the reasons. Those governments were going to have cause to be concerned and they have the votes at the UN.

I already mentioned last Sunday the intemperate remarks made about senior UN officials and our habit of calling everybody who did not see eye to eye with our performance and our activities on the human rights front, as terrorists or in the pay of terrorists. While such illegitimate remarks will win whistles and applause from the gallery at home, they are certainly not going to endear Sri Lanka’s administration to the world body or many of its members. Over recent years Sri Lanka has managed to antagonise nations, international watchdog bodies and professional organisations across the board not only because of what we ourselves have done to undermine faith in Sri Lanka but also what has been said in public by politicians and officials alike.

It has been argued that we lost out to Pakistan because there were two candidates from South Asia and that Islamic countries voted for Pakistan. If the first reason is correct then how did two candidates from East Asia- Japan and South Korea- win? Pakistan won over us not only because it is an Islamic country. As I said last Sunday, Pakistan had been suspended from the Commonwealth over its anti-democratic policies, the suspension of its constitution, its human rights record and its attacks on the rule of law. That suspension was lifted with support from Sri Lanka when it fulfilled the five requirements demanded by the Commonwealth for the restoration of its presence in the councils of the Commonwealth.

Pakistan was thus seen as making amends for its past political sins by restoring the democratic process, by removing the restrictions on the media and releasing political prisoners. While Pakistan was seen by the world as making efforts to return the country to real democracy and restoring the pillars of democratic governance the military regime had dismantled, those international bodies that had put Sri Lanka under the microscope could not see tangible improvements that, from their perspective, justified our presence in the UNHRC. It is argued that we got 101 votes and were only 13 behind Pakistan. One can play the numbers game to one’s heart’s content but that still does not explain away our defeat. One could also argue that we got only nine votes more than East Timor which is relatively new on the international scene whereas Sri Lanka has been a prominent player on the world stage in the decades gone by.

One other fact that seems to be forgotten or deliberately ignored is that many donor governments now divert funds to their NGOs or INGOs instead of providing funds directly to developing country governments. There are several reasons for this, one being the misuse of funds by governments and corrupt politicians. As such these civil society organisations play a prominent role in contemporary times and they are given an ear by respective governments. What they say and what they hear from their own diplomats and international agencies of the UN lead to the decisions they make on how they should vote. So, to condescendingly dismiss such organisations as interfering busy-bodies will simply not do.

Moreover it should not be forgotten that the anti-Sri Lanka diaspora particularly in the West, have been constantly feeding those governments, relevant departments, politicians and organisations with information and news that greatly undermines Sri Lanka’s cause. Sri Lanka had 126 verbal or written pledges of support from member governments. We lost 25 of them on election day. Either these pledges were casually made with no intention of their being translated into votes or some developments since the commitments were given caused a change of heart. We will probably never know as the vote is by secret ballot and it is the ambassadors of the respective countries at the UN that vote. Whatever the reasons for the fiasco-and let’s be frank and admit it was one- unless we examine the criticisms levelled against us and try to make amends we are bound to suffer similar setbacks again.

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