Columns - Political Column

Rajapaksa Govt. faces uphill battle in Geneva

  • Vital need to review country's foreign policy, top professionals must be called in to avoid more debacles
  • India's position double-edged, vote against Lanka will weaken its position and give walkover to China
By Our Political Editor

A week that will be a milestone in Sri Lanka's contemporary history begins tomorrow. On Thursday, the UN Human Rights Council will take for voting a United States-backed resolution, described as "non-condemnatory," on Sri Lanka. Among its co-sponsors are France, Norway, Nigeria and Cameroon.
Since the UNHRC sessions began on February 23 in Geneva, government ministers, officials, politicians and their supporters have been engaged in a campaign in Geneva. Even if their approach was contradictory and multi-pronged, the goals remained one - to either defeat or seek the withdrawal of the resolution. Both seemed a formidable task. The prognosis came just three days ago from the man who conducts Sri Lanka's foreign policy, External Affairs Minister, G.L. Peiris. He literally toured the world, churning out one statement after another, and holding out great hope. He bitterly criticised the west and called for a change in the United Nations system. It seems his campaign has not worked.

Last Wednesday evening, he told the weekly cabinet meeting that there was only a "50-50 chance" of Sri Lanka thwarting the resolution. His remarks came during a briefing which President Mahinda Rajapaksa asked Peiris to give ministers when they had finished the day's official business. The Minister explained why he was pessimistic and expected a 'photo finish' outcome. In his view, the United States, which had diplomatic representation in all capitals of member nations of the Human Rights Council, had carried out a vigorous campaign. Whether Peiris was unaware of the worldwide reach of US diplomatic missions or their vigorous campaign is indeed a critical question. After all, he is Sri Lanka's Minister of External Affairs. However, when he ended his briefing, Rajapaksa was in a defiant mood.

Whilst Sri Lanka delegations were lobbying foreign countries for their vote at Thursday's sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council, a team from the London based Global Tamil Forum has been following suit. On Friday, the delegation was in Oslo, Norway meeting Erik Solheim, Minister of Environment and International Development. Norway is a co-sponsor of the US backed resolution on Sri Lanka and is a voting member of the UNHRC.

"Ena ona deyakata moona demu. Mama paava denney nehe," (Whatever comes, let us face it. I am not going to betray) he told his ministers. Chipping in was Basil Rajapaksa, Minister of Economic Development. He said that the External Affairs Ministry should concentrate on the countries that were extending their support to Sri Lanka. Though he did not name these countries, he did mention their number. The idea was to ensure they, less than the figure required for a majority vote, are not forced to change their stance under pressure.

There was still a semblance of hope in some diplomatic quarters in Geneva on the likelihood of the resolution being adopted without a vote. This is the result of behind-the-scene moves by India to strike a deal with the US where the resolution could be further moderated by amendments enabling member states of the Council to adopt it through a consensus. A ranking diplomatic source in Geneva said such a move was highly unlikely for a number of reasons. "Already, the draft which was condemnatory has been modified to acceptable levels. It is too little too late now," the source who cannot make public statements said. Sri Lanka's delegation to the UNHRC has also not been mandated to back any move for a consensus without a vote.

They have been told to lobby to thwart the resolution or face a vote, said an External Affairs Ministry official in Colombo. However, the official said such a decision could be made by the political leadership in Colombo but was 'highly unlikely.' The official also disclosed that India would support Sri Lanka and would not vote for the resolution. The likelihood of a defeat has prompted the government to initiate a number of other diplomatic initiatives.

External Affairs Minister Peiris now wants to visit Washington for a meeting with US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. He earlier ignored such an invitation to visit the US capital in March this year, well ahead of the resolution being taken up at the Human Rights Council. Instead, he went on a tour of African countries. Diplomatic consultations are now under way between Colombo and Washington to decide on a suitable date. If Peiris did honour the invitation, and was able to use diplomatic persuasion there were strong prospects that the resolution could have been withdrawn or re-worded to Sri Lanka's benefit. He was not up to the challenge. As later explained in this commentary, there is convergence of positions in the US-backed resolution and the official stance of the government, at least before the UNHRC.

In what seems a measure to galvanise public support, President Rajapaksa is to visit every district. Besides inspecting the government's development programmes, he will brief the people of the UPFA government's position vis-à-vis the issues before the UNHRC. His thrust, a government source said yesterday, was to "assure the people that he would face the brunt of any international action but would not betray the troops who defeated Tiger guerrilla terrorism nearly three years ago." The first such event takes place on Wednesday in Puttalam, a predominantly Muslim town.

In Geneva, where there is still hectic lobbying by the Sri Lankan side, the final draft of the US-backed resolution remains unchanged. A distinct difference between the first draft and the current one is the exclusion of "condemnatory" references to Sri Lanka. The draft sought to "express concern" that the LLRC report does not adequately address serious allegations of international law. It also sought to express disappointment over the government failing to fulfil "its relevant legal obligations and stated commitment to initiate credible and independent investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for such violations." Furthermore, calls to "address serious allegations of violations of international law" and prosecution of those responsible have been replaced.

Instead, in essence, the resolution as it stands now focuses on the following elements:

= Calls on the government to implement "the constructive recommendations in the LLRC report" and "initiate actions to ensure justice, equity, accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka."

= Calls upon the government to present a "comprehensive action plan as 'expeditiously as possible' detailing the steps the Government has taken and will take to implement the LLRC recommendations and also address alleged violations of international law."

= Calls upon the government to accept "procedures," advice and technical assistance in implementing the above steps from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. It calls upon that office to "present a report to the Council on the provision of such assistance at its 22nd session."

A dispassionate, hard look at the first two points above shows it is in accord with the position officially taken up by the government, at least before the UNHRC. Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, who wears around his neck a UN identity card which says he is head of the Sri Lanka delegation said in his address "…I am happy to observe that advances have been made with regard to many of the recommendations (in the LLRC) Report. The Government will continue to address these issues in a systematic and thorough manner. Some of the areas in which gains have been made include the resettlement of IDPs; demining; rehabilitation of ex-combatants; implementation of the language policy; the recruitment of Tamil speaking police officers; the removal of the military from facilitation of civil administration in the north; making available land previously used for security purposes for resettlement/return; and carrying out a comprehensive census in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. There are also other recommendations in the report to be comprehensively addressed….

"….The Attorney General is currently studying the recommendations in the report with regard to allegations of violations of International Humanitarian Law. Military Courts of Inquiry in keeping with international practice have commenced investigations into specific incidents identified by the LLRC…..
…..In the light of Sri Lanka's demonstrated commitment to an internal reconciliation process, including the implementation of the range of recommendations of the LLRC by the adoption of a road map for implementation….."

Hundreds of Muslims took to the streets on Thursday in a government-sponsored rally against the US sponsored Geneva resolution on Sri Lanka. The protest was held near the US Embassy in Kollupitiya. Pic by Indika Handuwala.

Thus, the official statement by Minister Samarasinghe makes clear there is a virtual government concurrence to the first two points. However, to some degree it is "negated" by the third, say government officials. There are both intrusive and supervisory elements incorporated there, they complain. It means that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights will monitor the enforcement of provisions in the resolution through their "special procedures." Added to that, the High Commissioner will also report to the Council in March, next year, on the progress. On the other hand, it could still be argued that there is nothing to prevent the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, with or without a resolution, to report to the Council on Sri Lanka.

With a near certainty of the resolution being carried through, what is perceived as a blow for Sri Lanka would be the role to be played by the office of the Human Rights Commissioner. This situation clearly highlights the lack of focus on the part of the External Affairs Ministry in correctly advising the Sri Lanka delegation on the issues involved. It also shows the futility of merely despatching a 52 member delegation to Geneva in the misguided belief that diplomacy is just a show of numbers. A passage of the resolution naturally turns the spotlight on what next? If the government chooses to abide by the resolution, if it is carried through by a majority, the process would go on to and fro. Compliance would even moderate the Commissioner for Human Rights in reporting to the Council. Non-compliance, on the other hand, will set the government on a collision course with the United Nations system and earn the ire of western nations. One of two scenarios would certainly play out during the span of a year.

Ahead of the coming crucial week, a number of other factors appear to have heightened the mood. One was the screening of a second Channel 4 video titled Sri Lanka's Killing Fields - War Crimes Unpunished. The other was the uproar in the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha over India's vote for the US-backed resolution on Sri Lanka. A 55 minute documentary was aired on Channel 4 at 10.55 p.m. on Wednesday. London time projecting what were described as war crimes. The documentary gave four different examples which it alleged constituted war crimes and contained repeated voice cuts from former British Foreign Secretary, David Milliband. There were some immediate responses. London's Lord Mayor Boris Johnson vowed his continued support for the victims portrayed in the footage. He said he had seen the previous Channel 4 video too.

"Alistair Burt, Britain's Minister for South Asia said in a statement, ""Once again, Channel 4 has brought to international attention important and disturbing evidence to support allegations of grave abuses in Sri Lanka.

"Since the end of the conflict, the international community has called for an independent, credible and thorough investigation into alleged war crimes on both sides of the conflict. Channel 4's documentaries reinforce the need for that investigation.

"I continue to believe that Sri Lanka, in accordance with its Government's public statements, can achieve lasting peace and reconciliation. But this requires a full and honest acknowledgement of the past and it requires processes, in which all parties take part, to ensure justice, reconciliation and political progress.
"That is why the UK will urge the UN Human Rights Council to pass a resolution next week which calls on Sri Lanka to take these steps and implement the recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission."

"Sri Lanka's Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished (Channel 4) was a follow-up to last year's harrowing film about the end of the war against the Tamil Tigers - a film that came complete with footage of shelled hospitals and summary executions. Faced with the resulting global outrage, the Sri Lankan government promised a full inquiry, said James Walton in the Telegraph. So, has it now admitted the truth? he asked. Sri Lanka's Killing Fields: War Crimes Unpunished was essentially a work of frustration, a reiteration of the original charges and a repeat of a call for action that went nowhere last time. They had some new facts too: what looked like credible evidence that the 12-year-old son of the Tamil Tiger leader had been executed along with his father added Tom Sutcliffe in The Independent. There were reviews in the BBC and other British media outlets too.

However, the video drew an angry reaction from the Ministry of Defence. A statement issued by it on Thursday said:

"The Ministry of Defence in Sri Lanka yesterday noted the release of a new video by the Channel Four based on the alleged HR violations during the final stages of the humanitarian movement the country went through with the LTTE terrorist group.

"The Ministry categorically rejects the above video as baseless and unacceptable. Referring to the first such defamatory video released by the same source, it was announced that when the Sri Lankan government proved beyond doubt that the footage featured was definitely technically engineered, all media groups which were ready to support channel four did not respond. Channel four itself was unable to prove the authenticity of the first video once the Sri Lankan Government publicized the actual footage which was a part of the documentary done in 2010-2011 by the Ministry of Defence for public awareness both local and international.

"It is noted that the Channel four has come up with the second and similar video aiming at defaming Sri Lanka at the current UN summit for Human Rights held in Geneva. The Ministry of Defence rejects all allegations of human rights violation stating that it is able to prove with valid evidence that it was the LTTE that committed gross violation of human rights over the past three decades.

"The Channel Four had the opportunity to present the said information to the LLRC officially and take action internationally against HR violation. Instead they opted to air the video purely given the fact that they are unable to prove the authenticity of the footage if confronted by a responsible body. "The video aims to impress on the international community that thousands of lives were lost periodically with no provable supporting evidence."

Both in the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha, members of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK) and All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (AIADMK) demanded that India support the US-backed resolution at the UNHRC. The DMK is a constituent partner of the UPA government. Earlier, Sri Lanka was the subject of written correspondence between the DMK leader, Muthuvel Karunanidhi and Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh.

Singh wrote to Karunanidhi, hinting that India would vote for the resolution. He noted that India has emphasised the need for an "independent and credible mechanism to investigate allegations of human rights violations in a time-bound manner, which has also been recommended by the LLRC." He added, "With regard to the resolution in the UN Human Rights Council, we are engaged with all parties in an effort to achieve an outcome that is forward-looking and that ensures that rather than deepening confrontation and mistrust between the concerned parties, a way forward is found on issues related to accountability and reconciliation. Our objective, as always, remains the achievement of a future for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka that is marked by equality, dignity, justice and self-respect."

Similar sentiments were expressed by India's External Affairs Minister, S.M. Krishna, in an extended statement made to the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday. It contains reference to some significant matters in the bilateral relations between Sri Lanka and India. Important among them is a re-iteration by Krishna that the Sri Lanka government has assured him about the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. It is pertinent to note the repetition of this assurance when the official stance of the Sri Lanka government has shifted considerably. The UPFA leaders have declared that any political package to address Tamil grievances should be evolved by the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC).

However, the appointment of such a committee has been indefinitely delayed. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), with whom Krishna says there should be a "broader dialogue" together with other Tamil parties is refusing to nominate its representatives. The party insists that a package that should evolve during its talks with the government should form the basis for discussion by the proposed PSC. Another is Krishna's observation that "it is mainly as a result of our constructive engagement with the Government of Sri Lanka and our considerable assistance programme that a modicum of normalcy is beginning to return to the Tamil areas in Sri Lanka."

Though seemingly harmless, the remarks make the point that there would have been no normalcy in the north after the defeat of the Tiger guerrillas if not for Indian intervention.

Krishna explains why the Indian government is taking up the present position. Here are highlights of a much-nuanced statement:

"…….The end of the long period of armed conflict in Sri Lanka in May 2009, left around 300,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) living in camps in Northern Sri Lanka and general devastation of infrastructure in the affected areas…...

"……… The Prime Minister, in June 2009 immediately after the conflict announced a grant of Rs. 500 crores for relief, rehabilitation and resettlement work in Sri Lanka. The Government of India has implemented and continues to implement a wide range of projects covering assistance projects for IDPs in the areas of housing, de-mining, education, connectivity, livelihood restoration, economic revival etc. We have been informed by representatives of Sri Lankan Tamils that the tractors, seeds and agricultural implements gifted by the Government of India have greatly benefited the people in the area.

"India also announced the construction of 50,000 houses, mainly for IDPs in Sri Lanka. During my visit to Sri Lanka in January 2012, I handed over the first lot of completed houses to the beneficiaries at Ariyalai, Jaffna and Kilinochchi. These houses have been constructed under a pilot project for construction of 1000 houses. As of end-February 2012, a total of 365 houses had been completed, another 370 houses completed up to roof level and 230 houses completed up to lintel level. It may also be kept in mind that construction is taking place in largely inaccessible areas, which in many cases has to be freed of mines and other explosive ordnance and cleared of jungle……

"………I would like to underline that it is mainly as a result of our constructive engagement with the Government of Sri Lanka and our considerable assistance programme that a modicum of normalcy is beginning to return to the Tamil areas in Sri Lanka. There has also been progress given the withdrawal of emergency regulations by the Government of Sri Lanka and the conduct of elections to local bodies in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka.

"Our primary objective in all that we are doing in Sri Lanka is to ensure the welfare and wellbeing of Sri Lankan Tamils, including IDPs, and to assist in the reconstruction and development of areas affected by the conflict.

"Several Members of the House have raised the issue of alleged human rights violations during the protracted conflict in Sri Lanka and on the US-initiated draft resolution on 'Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka' at the on-going 19th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Concerns have been expressed by various quarters on allegations of human rights violations, including as shown in the Channel 4 documentaries; it is the responsibility of the Sri Lankan Government, in the first instance to investigate and inquire into them through a transparent process.

"We understand that the Government of Sri Lanka has initiated a series of measures, including appointment of a Cabinet Sub-committee to monitor implementation of the proposals in the National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP) and reactivating the National Police Commission, in line with the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report. Separately, the Sri Lankan defence authorities are reported to have appointed a Court of Inquiry to look into allegations of human rights violations as required by the LLRC report.

"The Government of India has, nonetheless, emphasised to the Government of Sri Lanka the importance of a genuine process of reconciliation to address the grievances of the Tamil community. In this connection, we have called for implementation of the recommendations in the Report of the LLRC that has been tabled before the Sri Lankan Parliament. These include various constructive measures for healing the wounds of the conflict and fostering a process of lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

"We have been assured by the Government of Sri Lanka, including during my visit to Sri Lanka in January this year, of its commitment towards pursuit of a political process, through a broader dialogue with all parties, including the TNA, leading to the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, so as to achieve meaningful devolution of powers and genuine national reconciliation. We hope that the Government of Sri Lanka, recognising the critical importance of this issue, acts decisively and with vision in this regard. We will remain engaged with them through this process and in the spirit of partnership encourage them to take forward the dialogue with the elected representatives of the Sri Lankan Tamils……………

"………I would like to highlight here that on such sensitive issues we will need to consider the implications of our actions carefully. Any assertions on our part may have implications on our historically friendly relations with a neighbouring country. We would also need to examine whether our actions will actually assist in the process of reconciliation in Sri Lanka, and enhance the current dialogue between the Government of Sri Lanka and Tamil parties, including the Tamil National Alliance.

"As far as our position on the resolution is concerned, we are engaged with all parties in an effort to achieve a forward looking outcome that is based on reconciliation and accountability rather than deepening confrontation and mistrust between the concerned parties. I may mention that the issue of human rights allegations against Sri Lanka is yet to come up for formal discussion at the 19th Session of the UNHRC in Geneva. A view on this issue will be taken as and when the time is finalized for consideration of the draft resolution on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC.

"I, therefore, would like to inform this House that our objectives, as always, continue to remain the achievement of a future for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka that is marked by equality, dignity, justice and self-respect. I may assure the House that the Government will bear in mind the views and sentiments expressed in this House, and once a final view is taken Government will keep the Parliament informed."
It is only because of India's behind the scene diplomacy in Geneva at the UNHCR that Krishna noted in his statement that "A view on this issue will be taken as and when the time is finalized for consideration of the draft resolution on Sri Lanka in the UNHRC."

Titled "The Situation in Sri Lanka," Krishna's statement, no doubt, is one that is double-edged. One is to brief members of India's legislature on the current status of the bi-lateral relations. It explains why India cannot, after investment of crores of Indian rupees in Sri Lanka, particularly in the north, engage in a course of action that will place New Delhi at odds with Colombo.

That would also mean a "diplomatic walk over" to China which India perceives is expanding its influence in Sri Lanka. The other is a message to the Sri Lanka government giving the broader objectives of India's foreign policy and a reminder that New Delhi has not changed positions. Whatever is the outcome of the resolution, India is making clear it would back Sri Lanka and reminds Colombo it also has obligations to fulfil in return.

Without doubt, how Sri Lanka fares in Geneva would be the subject of debate not only in the coming week, but for months to follow. It comes as an eye opener that there is an important need to review the conduct of the country's foreign policy. Subjugating national interest for personal aggrandisement or image building could turn futile if Sri Lanka continues to get isolated in the international community. The challenge before the UPFA leadership is to place the running of the country's foreign policy in efficient and capable hands or face more debacles.

Who's who in the UNHRC

The following 47 countries are members of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The year when their term of office expires is given in brackets:

Angola (2013), Austria (2014), Bangladesh (2012), Belgium (2012), Benin (2014), Botswana (2014), Burkina Faso (2014), Cameroon (2012), Chile (2014), China (2012), Congo (2014), Costa Rica (2014), Cuba (2012), Czech Republic (2014), Djibouti (2012), Ecuador (2013), Guatemala (2013), Hungary (2012), India (2014), Indonesia (2014), Italy (2014), Jordan (2012), Kuwait (2014), Kyrgyzstan (2012), Libya (2013), Malaysia (2013), Maldives (2013), Mauritania (2013), Mauritius (2012), Mexico (2012), Nigeria (2012), Norway (2012), Peru (2014), Philippines (2014), Poland (2013), Qatar (2013), Republic of Moldova (2013), Romania (2014), Russian Federation (2012), Saudi Arabia (2012), Senegal (2012), Spain (2013), Switzerland (2013), Thailand (2013), Uganda (2013), United States of America (2012) and Uruguay (2012).

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