Come March every year, Sri Lanka has been the subject of a great deal of unfavourable attention from the international community with regard to its Human Rights record. With the conclusion of the armed conflict in May 2009, attention at the sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council has repeatedly been drawn to alleged  [...]


The fault is not in Geneva but in ourselves


Come March every year, Sri Lanka has been the subject of a great deal of unfavourable attention from the international community with regard to its Human Rights record.

With the conclusion of the armed conflict in May 2009, attention at the sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council has repeatedly been drawn to alleged  violations of  human rights during the last days of the conflict.

The resolution against Sri Lanka  was adopted in Geneva last week with 22 countries voting in support and 11 voting against while 14 abstained. The resolution while expressing  “deep concern” at the “deteriorating situation” in Sri Lanka, also criticised the erosion of judicial independence, the marginalisation of minorities and impunity. The Resolution has also empowered the UNHRC with a mandate to collect and preserve information and evidence of crimes related to Sri Lanka’s 37-year long civil war which ended in 2009.

The issues relating to Human Rights violations during the war are therefore kept alive with the prospect of prosecutions hanging over the head of any one or more individuals who may have committed such violations.

The Government for its part did not make its task of defending its human rights record any easier by its own  actions as well as by the statements of its own spokesmen.

In January 2021 UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a report documenting recent trends in Sri Lanka.

She said the failure to deal with the past continued to have devastating effects on tens of thousands of family members from all communities who persist in seeking justice, reparations – and the truth about the fate of their loved ones.

She urged States to consider targeted sanctions, such as asset freezes and travel bans against credibly alleged perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses. Ms Bachelet also urged the Council to support a dedicated capacity to collect and preserve evidence for future accountability processes.

The High Commissioner said Sri Lanka will only achieve sustainable development and peace if it effectively addresses systemic impunity and ensures civic space.

“The failure to do so carries with it the seeds of repeated patterns of human rights violations and potential conflict in the future,” she said.

She also pointed out the fact that Sri Lanka’s Muslim community was increasingly scapegoated, both in the context of COVID-19 and in the wake of the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks.

Foreign Affairs Minister Dinesh Gunawerdena in a subsequent statement to the Human Rights Council described Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and plural society. But in the run up to the discussion and vote on the Resolution last week, ministers in Colombo were almost falling over each other to prove the  Foreign Minister wrong in the eyes of the international community.

They spoke of banning the Burka, closing of Madrasa schools while orders were issued that no Islamic books could be imported into the country without the approval of Governmental authorities.

The situation became so bad that Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Geneva C. A. Chandraprema publicly complained that some of the actions and statements of ministers was making it difficult to promote Sri Lanka’s interests before the Human Rights Council.

The pattern of voting on the Resolution too provided interesting insights. Of the immediate neighbours, only Pakistan and Bangladesh voted with Sri Lanka while both India and Nepal abstained from voting.

India which had repeatedly conveyed its interest in the 13th Amendment to Sri Lanka could not make up its mind to vote against the Resolution. One of the factors that influenced its decision may have been the forthcoming elections in Tamil Nadu.

Pakistan’s stand on the resolution too was interesting. Many believe that it was Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to Sri Lanka which eventually made the Government change its position on forcibly cremating bodies of those who died or were suspected to have died due to COVID-19.

After stubbornly  refusing to budge from its position of forcible cremations for over one year despite the overwhelming scientific evidence that no harm could be caused by such burials,  Imran Khan’s short visit helped to change the Government’s stance on the matter.

Many believed that in return the Government expected Pakistan to use its considerable influence among the Organisation of Islamic Countries to gather the support of its Members in favour of Sri Lanka at the voting in Geneva.

However this was not to be. One is not sure whether the OIC countries were not convinced or whether the Pakistani Government was ticked off following the Government’s attitude to the Muslims.

Shortly after Imran Khan left the shores of Sri Lanka, the Government announced its intention of banning the Burka. The Pakistan High Commissioner in Colombo Maj. Gen. (Retd) Muhammad Saad Khattak said in a Twitter thread: “The likely ban on Niqab #SriLanka will only serve as injury to the feelings of ordinary Sri Lankan Muslims and Muslims across the globe. At today’s economically difficult time due to the pandemic and other image related challenges faced by the country at international fora, such divisive steps in the name of security, besides accentuating economic difficulties, will only serve as fillip to further strengthen wider apprehensions about fundamental human rights of minorities in the country.”

Yet Pakistan did stand by Sri Lanka in the voting on the resolution. Whether it was because of its longstanding friendship with Sri Lanka despite its own concerns with regard to the treatment of Muslims in the country or whether it was due to pressure from China to whom Pakistan is economically beholden it is difficult to say.

In the final analysis one cannot decide on who Sri Lanka’s friends are based on how they voted in Geneva. Most of the countries in the Human Rights Council are friends whatever stand they may have taken. After all the best of friends are those who point out faults and help one to find the correct path.

What Sri Lanka should and can do is to correct its human rights trajectory without succumbing to political or other pressures. The fault is not in Geneva but in our own hands.

Meanwhile in a lighter aside Minister Dinesh Gunawardene has been coming in for a great deal of flak with regard to his Mathematics in terms of the voting in Geneva. The Foreign Minister claimed victory for Sri Lanka on the basis that the votes against together with the abstentions was greater than the number of votes for the resolution.

Professor A. N. I. Ekanayake, an old boy of Royal College in Colombo in a letter to the Foreign Minister which is doing the rounds in social media has pleaded with him to desist from advertising the fact that he is an old Royalist. Professor Ekanayake said if Mr. Gunawardene’s college affiliations are known, people would conclude that the standards of Mathematics at Royal College were low at that time both were studying.

In defence of Mr. Gunawardene, it must be said this formula was not his invention. Professor G. L. Pieris was the inventor of this new Maths on a previous occasion when Sri Lanka lost the vote in Geneva. However it would be unfair to ‘credit’ the school by the sea for the ingenuity of a professorial mind. (

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