Columns - From The Sidelines

Sri Lanka at UNHRC - guilty till proven innocent?
By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

The maneuverings by western powers in relation to Sri Lanka in advance of the 19th sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva have given rise to much speculation. The latest move has been an email dated 21 February, apparently circulated by the US mission to Council members and diplomatic missions in Geneva, that sought to create the impression that US diplomats have been in close contact with the government of Sri Lanka and its mission in Geneva to work "collaboratively" on issues of accountability and the implementation of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission Report.

Sri Lanka at UNHRC - guilty till proven innocent?

Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative to the UN, Tamara Kunanayakam, in a swift responsehas written to Council members alerting them to what she described as an "inaccurate and misleading" communication. She said the email "obliquely canvasses the position of a co-sponsorship of a resolution and conveys a false impression that Sri Lanka is working with the United States on this resolution. "

Stating that neither the government nor its mission in Geneva ever worked with the US on any resolution, the Sri Lankan envoy reiterated the government's position that such a resolution would be "unnecessary, unhelpful and counterproductive."

Earlier this month two US officials visited Colombo to announce the planned US move. The resolution is to say that the government has not done enough to implement the recommendations of the LLRC Report, and to demand a roadmap for reconciliation in keeping with them. The Ministry of External Affairs has already expressed its 'disappointment' over the US stance, so it remains a mystery how the US mission in Geneva could have made assumptions to the contrary.

Of the 47 member states of the UN Human Rights Council in its current composition, only nine are from the West. They are Austria, Belgium, Hungary, Italy, Norway, Poland, Spain, Switzerland and USA. If there was any concerted western move against Sri Lanka the US was perhaps an obvious choice, to take the lead in bringing the resolution. Latest reports say that Norway too will back it.

The EU has also timed its statement on the LLRC Report to coincide with the commencement of the UNHRC sessions. The statement expresses regret that the questions raised in the UNSecretary General's Advisory Panel Report have "to a large extent not been reflected" in it. Many in Sri Lanka consider the UNSG's report to have been unduly influenced by input from the LTTE rump, its proxies and sympathisers domiciled in the West. Those who are of this opinion would not find it regrettable, or surprising, that the deliberations of this controversial Panel that never visited Sri Lanka, were not a special focus of the LLRC's Commissioners, who travelled the length and breadth of the country and preferred to rely on the evidence they saw and heard with their own eyes and ears.

Hard on the heels of the offending Geneva email was the news of concerns raised by UNHRC Chief Navi Pillay, regarding the appointment of Major General Shavendra Silva, who is Sri Lanka's Deputy UN ambassador in New York, to a Senior Advisory Group (SAG) relating to UN peacekeeping. In a new development the chairperson of the Group, Louise Frechette is said to have asked the Sri Lankan envoy to meet her and rudely told him not to attend the panel's meetings, on pain of having him 'removed' from the room.

Seeing that Silva had been appointed to the SAG as the representative of the Asia Pacific Group, and in keeping with the General Assembly's rules and procedures, the arrogant and churlish behavior of the SAG's chairperson seems inexplicable. Frechette is reported to have told Silva "You may have been nominated by the Asia Pacific Group, but I will decide whether you participate or not." Sri Lanka's Permanent Mission in New York has described this episode as "a public lynching without trial."This apparent hijacking of the UN and its procedures by western powers is not a phenomenon confined to matters relating to Sri Lanka, as recent world events have shown.

The manner in which the Security Council resolution 1973 on Libya, meant to 'protect civilians,' was subverted and used as a cover by the US, UK and other European states to bring about regime change with NATO intervention, is now a matter of history. A similar fiasco seems to be on the cards with respect to Syria, where again in all likelihood "humanitarian concerns" will be cited for the intervention.

But Sri Lanka has no oil, so what are the stakes? The advantages to western politicians, domestically, of pandering to diaspora Tamils who represent significant voting constituencies, and who may bankroll their election campaigns, is now well known. This domestic factor was established beyond doubt in the admission made by former British Foreign Secretary David Milliband with regard to his interest in Sri Lanka, as revealed in a Wikileaks cable.

But could there be also be strategic objectives in a region increasingly important for geopolitical reasons? Why this intense focus on human rights in Sri Lanka?Why hasn't the 'rights conscious' west turned its attention to ethnic tensions in Kashmir, for example, or simmering discontent in Tibet? Is it because they wouldn't dare take on the Asian giants, whereas 'little' Sri Lanka is just a nice soft target?

Perhaps western powers, struggling to come to terms with the rise of China, would find a "human rights weapon" handy to use against a strategically located island in the emerging Indian Ocean scenario. Though forcible intervention is unlikely, and anyway difficult to justify, perhaps a little arm twisting could yield significant benefits. Perhaps this has something to do with why the heat is being turned up on Sri Lanka, and why this country is being treated as if it is "guilty until proven innocent" at the UNHRC.

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