What a surprise! There I was last Sunday peacefully turning, as it were, the pages of this newspaper when I found my name unexpectedly popping up and hitting me between the eyes. “A Response to Neville de Silva’s Thoughts from London” it screamed, What concerned me initially was why Rear Admiral (rtd) Weerasekera wanted to [...]


If the heat is unbearable stay out of the kitchen


What a surprise! There I was last Sunday peacefully turning, as it were, the pages of this newspaper when I found my name unexpectedly popping up and hitting me between the eyes. “A Response to Neville de Silva’s Thoughts from London” it screamed,

What concerned me initially was why Rear Admiral (rtd) Weerasekera wanted to throw Foreign Minister Ali Sabry’s words at me as though they were the ultimate words of wisdom that settled whatever disagreement Mr Weerasekera had.

My main contention was that Sri Lanka had made a host of promises to the UNHRC over the years and had some of them at least been kept, the human rights body would have reacted less abrasively, as is claimed. Instead, Colombo thought it could cock- a -snook and get away with it.

As the poet Andrew Marvell wrote, had I but world enough and time and this newspaper gave wide latitude in terms of space I might have replied to all the irrelevancies– remarks that strayed far afield and old hat like the Darusman panel report that is now largely passé and arguments that were extraneous to my comments.

But since he has indicated he was responding to my Christmas Day column let me be charitable even belatedly and not only reply to what is relevant but also draw attention to what he has left unsaid– why Sri Lanka is losing old friends from the non-aligned community and the faith of the wider world.

So let’s begin at the beginning as the King said in Alice in Wonderland. Mr Weerasekera who addresses me as NS (NdeS would have been more appropriate) says I was being sarcastic in questioning a statement made by Foreign Minister Ali Sabry objecting to extra funds for the Sri Lanka ‘project’ of collecting and collating information on supposed human rights violations.

“When Foreign Minister Ali Sabry very correctly opposed it in Geneva, stating that it’s against the constitution and it pre-judges the commitment of its domestic legal processes, NS sarcastically condemns it asking “what are those domestic legal processes that have proved their worth in bringing justice and accountability?”.

I don’t quite understand how he came to detect sarcasm or condemnation when it was a genuine 24-carat question. What are the domestic legal processes that have served the purpose many have posed-justice and accountability.

Foreign Minister Ali Sabry can tell the world about pre-judging the commitment. But surely he has a duty to tell the sovereign people of Sri Lanka now that he mentions the constitution, what those legal processes are, their commitments and commitments met, without bleating about it in Geneva.

I said in my column that Sri Lanka had made a litany of promises to the UN Human Rights Council and a possible starting point to it might be traced to the post-war Joint Communiquḗ between UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and President Mahinda Rajapaksa in late May 2009.

In support of that I quoted the last paragraph of the communiquḗ which read: “Sri Lanka reiterated its strongest commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights, in keeping with international human rights standards and Sri Lanka’s international obligations.  The Secretary-General underlined the importance of an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.  The Government will take measures to address those grievances.”

But that first sentence is omitted and we are told that Sri Lanka made no promises.

This was not the first time that Sri Lanka was pledging its “strongest commitment” but it had done so before and maybe more than once as the word “reiterated clearly shows.

Having deleted that all-important opening line, I’m asked where are the promises.

Thereafter, what the communiqué purportedly states is interpreted. In doing so, it is concluded that the statement implies that “the government will investigate violations IF they have occurred…”.

That skewed reading of it after engaging in word dropping is not what the communiqué states if that para is read in full and sequentially.

With space running out let me deal with at least two other issues. The first is what is judiciously avoided. Why is Sri Lanka fast losing support at the UNHRC to the point that last October it was able to muster only seven votes out of a Council of 47 members-the lowest votes Sri Lanka ever received?

It might be recalled that in April 2000 the cabinet banned the burial of Muslim victims of Covid-19 despite WHO guidelines that clearly permitted both cremation and burial, a traditional Muslim practice.

Such was the reaction of the Islamic world that ultimately then- Pakistan leader Imran Khan made a hasty visit to Colombo and urged the government to withdraw the ban which it subsequently but belatedly did. Also, there was the ban of the burqa- the face covering worn by Muslim women- for security concerns. The burqa was seen as a “sign of religious extremism”.

The relevant issue here is whether this proposal coming after the government’s earlier decision to ban burials and only days before the Geneva secessions of the UNHRC, was a grave diplomatic faux pas.

It is not the merit or otherwise of the proposal that matters. What was relevant was whether the irresponsible timing of the announcement contributed to the loss of support for Sri Lanka at a time when a strong resolution condemning Sri Lanka’s human rights record was due before the UNHRC.

As it happened 10 of the 14 members of the Organisation of Islamic Countries abstained from voting for Sri Lanka though some of them were long-time friends. This withdrawal of support was reflected in October last when Sri Lanka was virtually mauled at the voting.

Finally, I am reminded of the words of then British Prime Minister Theresa May. Rallying the faithful at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham in October 2016, she said that she would throw away the European human rights law to defend British soldiers “the bravest of the brave”.

Why, asks Mr Weerasekera jeeringly, haven’t we “heard any Thoughts from London” on this statement.

He can still read my Sunday Times column of 9th October 2016 which deals precisely with Theresa May’s rhetorical triumphalism and read several other of my related columns in the same newspaper.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)


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