The bombshell that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights left behind last week on the eve of her departure after a week-long tour ought not really to have been a great shock. That the Government made a mess of her visit, not entirely, but in part is even admitted by the highest in the [...]


Pillorying Pillay


The bombshell that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights left behind last week on the eve of her departure after a week-long tour ought not really to have been a great shock.

That the Government made a mess of her visit, not entirely, but in part is even admitted by the highest in the land. The inappropriate comments of some Cabinet Ministers only added insult to injury. Yet for all, as one Minister aptly put it, there were several plus points to her visit, not least the slamming of the Diaspora that continues to support the LTTE.

On the other hand, the Minister of External Affairs has been tasked, or taken it upon himself to come out with all guns blazing after the lady left, and as she prepares her oral submissions to the UN Human Rights Council sessions later this month in Geneva. These mixed signals only display what a confused state prevails, and are an admission that the Government has been unable to fully convince UN Human Rights High Commissioner Navi Pillay on many issues, among which fundamentally, is that the country is drifting towards authoritarianism.

In order to critically analyse Pillay’s visit, it is imperative to go back in time to the utter failure of the Government’s Foreign Policy in pre-empting a UN resolution against the country in the first place. There is no gainsaying that the Government is mired in the mud today due to its own ineptness at stalling such a resolution. In this newspaper it was then revealed how the External Affairs Minister misled the President by advising him that the US was only playacting and would never introduce a resolution against Sri Lanka.

He, who visits every country on earth refused to visit Washington and defuse the situation before the crucial resolution was brought. Even to the UN he spoke of “seamless integration” with local mechanism thus opening the door to international scrutiny. Then came Geneva and Ministers tripping over each other in one-upmanship, ambassadors being transferred and no coherent strategy — and eventually, India stabbing Sri Lanka in the back for good measure because of a failed India policy.
There is, however, no purpose in crying over spilt milk, so to say. The issue at hand is how to deal with the UN Human Rights Chief and what her submissions to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) are likely to be and how those countries led by the US are going to react to her report.

The UNHRC and its predecessor UN Human Rights Commission have been places with their own agendas on human rights. Sri Lanka has been on the rack for decades, long before Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time. Then, India kept stoking the fires thrusting Argentina to propose anti-Sri Lanka resolutions because Sri Lanka had voted against Argentina in the Falklands/Malvinas issue. 

The sooner the Government realises that the UNHRC is a fact of life and ‘media statement diplomacy’ will not win the day for it, the better. That Geneva is replete with hypocrisy and double standards is something Sri Lanka can shout about, but will have to stomach and learn to live with. The reality is that as much as it galls one to experience such duplicity, it is also a fact that when a government does not listen to domestic voices of dissent, it brings upon itself the indignity of being forced to be scrutinised and has to listen to external voices of these inter-governmental agencies, even those with their own agendas.

That the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has prejudices is correct, but then everyone has prejudices. It is the Government’s job to have convinced her. The problem is that it cannot. Who can say that the 18th Amendment (18A) to the Constitution is not an authoritarian move, not so much about the unlimited term of office of the Presidency, but in reversing the progressive 17A that re-established independent institutions like the Police Commission, Bribery Commission, the higher Judiciary and Elections Commission that were the pillars of a democratic state.

Who can say that the absence of a Right to Information Law, when all others in South Asia have given their citizens one, and over a hundred other democratic countries in the world possess one, is not one huge deficiency of a modern democratic state? No doubt, the slip showed when Pillay asked why the Buddhist flag was flying at Independence Square and ignored the total picture of religious tolerance in this country, which surpasses that of many other countries, including in the West, by quoting some isolated aberrations that have taken place in recent times in this country.

Similarly, her crusade, like those of the Diaspora and Western nations eager to crucify the Government of Sri Lanka and the Armed Forces for what happened in the last stages of the military assault on the LTTE is also not in accordance with justification. Again, she has not taken the total picture of the misery that a 30-year insurgency brought upon all Sri Lankans.
She maintains that an independent national inquiry must be held into the allegations of violations of International Humanitarian Law during those last stages of the ‘war’, but adds it should be credible so that it does not warrant an international tribunal. Her position right along, however, has been for an international probe – even giving credence to the terribly flawed ‘Darusman Report’ given to the UN Secretary General by a team that never visited Sri Lanka.

A prejudicial approach may be, but the Government cannot dismiss this preconceived opinion. To do so is to flirt with danger because the subject has not gone away from the UN (Geneva) agenda. This could be the trajectory for the UNHRC sessions later this month and the 25th Sessions of the Council in March next year. Backed by those nations furious with Sri Lanka’s new foreign policy line, it does not augur well for the Government to remain idle.

Engagement with our detractors is the name of the game in diplomacy. And diplomacy means finesse, something terribly lacking in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. Recently, the incumbent External Affairs Minister praised one of his predecessors for the manner in which he got the US and the West to ban the LTTE. That Minister conducted diplomacy by engagement; he would send a strongly worded missive protesting that Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Washington was being ‘summoned’ to the US Congress for a briefing and under his watch a proper brief would be prepared by his team of officials and the brief would be argued behind closed doors, and at the same time he would send flowers to his counterpart, Madeleine Albright on her birthday. That is diplomacy.

This Government must come to terms with that aspect of foreign policy — as much as heed the voices of dissent domestically and re-route its path on the road to democracy.

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