GoSL vs UNSG: Who’s zooming whom?

By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s grim determination to go ahead with a ‘panel of inquiry’ on Sri Lanka is not unrelated to the lobbying that western states engaged in last year during their attempt to bring a resolution against this country at the UN Human Rights Council. That effort was defeated by a counter resolution by Sri Lanka titled “Assistance to Sri Lanka in the promotion and protection of human rights,” that won the support of a majority of the Council and was adopted by a vote of 29 to 12.

Unable to stomach that defeat, these western states, mainly from the EU, supported by UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay persisted in pushing for an inquiry by other means even after the vote. A UN deputy spokesperson told reporters at the UN that “Although the Human Rights Council did not agree to set up a war crimes inquiry in Sri Lanka at this time, the session and resolution does not close other avenues for such a probe.” Pillay herself made a statement to the effect that “the UN stands ready to support an inquiry into abuses in Sri Lanka’s civil war.”

UNDP-Sri Lanka office

In a sharp response to Pillay, Indian Ambassador to the UN Gopinathan Achamkulangare pointed out that “... It is important to recall and reaffirm that the outcome of the special session reflects an inter-governmental decision, adopted according to the rules of procedure of the council. ….. It would be extremely unfortunate if the inter-governmental decisions adopted by the Human Rights Council were to be ignored or set aside, and the High Commissioner and /or her office were to misinterpret them or wilfully neglect them, or supersede them according to their convenience or in accordance with the agenda of some states, or unrepresentative or unaccountable organizations, or to pursue their own agendas.”

Does the setting up of the three member panel by the UNSG as a precursor to a war crimes investigation “supersede intergovernmental decisions in accordance with the agenda of some states” as the Indian ambassador feared?

Cuba’s Permanent Representative to the UN Juan Antonia Fernandes Palacios who, along with other non-aligned nations supported Sri Lanka, was highly critical of the states that sought to pass the resolution against Sri Lanka. “Clearly the proponents of this special session imposed an approach of confrontation that has divided the Council, closing the door to other initiatives and proposals …” he said.

Mr. Palacios described Sri Lanka’s counter resolution as a document that “gets off the hackneyed path of cold, condemnatory language, and goes through the path of good faith, cooperation and full involvement of the concerned state, while not neglecting the main concerns on the situation in the country …” The difference between the first and second documents he said was that “The first one is based on cooperation and constructive dialogue. It captures a comprehensive and cross-regional new vision on how this Council should operate. The second one is the same inquisitorial look of those that do not accept the new realities of the world in which we live.”

As the Cuban ambassador indicated in so many words, the approach of the western states has more to do with “punishing” than “helping.” Ban’s eagerness to please these western powers (casting their “inquisitorial look”) was betrayed in his recent statement to reporters in New York that the UN Regional Centre in Colombo was being closed as a direct result of Housing Minister Wimal Weerawansa’s unruly demonstration outside the UN office. Ban’s statement was misleading because it gave the impression that it was the UNDP office in Colombo that was being shut down. It turned out that not a single UN office in Colombo had been shut down. The UNDP’s Regional Centre for Asia and the Pacific is a different entity, providing policy advice to 37 countries in the region. It is located at Independence Avenue and not in the main UN compound at Bauddhaloka Mawatha where the demonstration was held.

So it is left to our imaginations to figure out how the closure of this Centre could be directly linked to the demonstration. It also turned out that the closure of this Centre, which is to be shifted to Bangkok, had been on the cards for some time. UN spokesman Farhan Haq seemed to be contradicting himself while talking to reporters in New York, asserting that the closure of the Centre was a “direct response” to the situation at the main UN compound, and in the next breath admitting that discussions regarding the operation had taken place earlier.

Ban’s dramatic statements had the effect of blowing up the demonstration incident beyond its actual dimensions, thereby buttressing the case for “punishing” Sri Lanka. They also seemed designed to show western powers demanding war crimes investigations that he can be “tough.”

This is not the first time Ban acted in a manner that appeared to advance western interests in international affairs. After the fraudulent election in Afghanistan last August, Peter Galbraith, deputy to the UN special envoy in Afghanistan was sacked by Ban because of his disagreements with the head of mission over the cover-up of large scale election fraud. The Telegraph (London) citing the Washington Post reported that Ban’s final instruction before firing him was “Do not talk.” After the cover-up Ban was the first world figure to congratulate Karzai on his second term.

Ban’s bid for re-election to the post of Secretary General for a second term will come up at the end of 2011, and no doubt he will need to win the support of western powers to this end. The Secretary-General is appointed by the General Assembly for a five year term upon the nomination of the Security Council. So the selection is subject to the veto of any of the Security Council’s five permanent members (China, France, Russia, UK and US).

The government of Sri Lanka needs to use all the diplomatic skills in its power to rally the support of friendly nations and reverse its present downturn in international relations. With a new dispensation at the Ministry of External Affairs, there should be no obstacle to inviting back those like former UN Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleke who proved they were able to mobilize that kind of support. It was largely thanks to former ambassador Jayatilleke’s efforts that Sri Lanka won the vote at the special session of the UNHRC last year. Many will agree that the country cannot afford to have useless political appointees in diplomatic missions at a time when it needs to deploy the best brains for the job.

The writer is a senior freelance journalist.

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