By Namini Wijedasa
Sri Lanka’s domestic rights situation will be closely analyzed by the international community during the UN Human Rights Council’s sessions in November. And in its country report recently submitted to the council – and published on the HRC website on Friday – the government has declared itself willing and ready to cooperate.
Over the past five weeks, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Ravinatha Ariyasinghe has reportedly met with more than 50 of his counterparts from member or prospective member states of the Human Rights Council.
Sources in Geneva said that Sri Lankan diplomats have also engaged with “the more reputed” international non-governmental organizations involved in human rights.
Finally ready to talk
This is a marked departure from the ‘no deal, no compromise’ stance the government adopted during the sessions in March, when a US-led resolution on Sri Lanka was passed with 24 to 15 votes. But it should come as no surprise. The resolution was seen as a pressure tactic (as, indeed, it was) and therefore vehemently opposed by Colombo.
The country report reiterates that the resolution – and a previous, unsuccessful initiative in 2009 – were “unhelpful attempts to needlessly draw attention to the situation in Sri Lanka.” “These ill-conceived, unwarranted, unnecessary and intrusive attempts did not result in any tangible benefits for the Sri Lankan people over and above what the Government of Sri Lanka set out to do and has been able to achieve for them,” it states.
On the contrary, Sri Lanka has made it clear that it will cooperate in its Universal Period Review (UPR) in November. Sources say that Ariyasinghe has met both with countries that opposed the resolution in March as well as with those that “have problems” with Sri Lanka. He has provided them with perspective about developments here, updates on his discussions with Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for Human Rights, and how Sri Lanka sees the future trajectory. The same applies to his talks with INGOs.
It is unlikely that Sri Lanka thinks its notoriously acrimonious relations with these groups could be mended overnight. But the government is certainly denying them the excuse that it doesn’t engage – a complaint often made by Sri Lanka’s detractors, both state and non-state.
Saner foreign policy strategy
Whip-cracking nations, predominantly from the Western bloc, like to see this conspicuous change in Colombo’s foreign policy approach as “positive fallout” from the resolution. Colombo might have been dragged, kicking and screaming to the council in March, they smirk, but look at the outcome. Boisterous, vituperative, chest-beating has been replaced by a quieter, saner strategy with a distinct willingness to engage.
It is difficult to confirm this assumption, however, without being inside the heads of the small club that decides foreign policy here; or, at least, in their inner circles. On the face of it, it seems fair to assume that the passing of the resolution – with its deeply negative connotations – shook the government so much that it became “more cautious and less brash.”
“I do think the resolution made the government realize it is accountable, if not to its own people, to the international community,” said a diplomatic source, who wished to remain anonymous. “I think the government found that if it continues with confrontation, it places the country on an escalation ladder. Eventually, somebody has to stop the escalation and get down to the business of engaging. If you are in a hole, you have to stop digging.”
However, he did not characterize this as an “advantage.” “Sri Lanka should not have had the resolution in the first place,” he stressed. “Sri Lanka should have stayed out of the Human Rights Council’s radar screen. Only time will tell if the resolution had a positive impact in the sense of the government finally deciding to do something locally, for its own people. If that happens, the winds can be taken off the sails of these, sanctimonious, Western sorts who see nothing good in Sri Lanka, even when positive developments are taking place.”
The resolution called upon Sri Lanka to implement the LLRC recommendations. It urged the government to present, as expeditiously as possible, a comprehensive action plan detailing the steps it has taken to implement these recommendations, and to address alleged violations of international law.
It also encouraged Pillay’s office to provide (in consultation with, and with the concurrence of the Sri Lankan government) advice and technical assistance on implementing these steps. Pillay is required to present a progress report on this to the HRC in March 2013.
From the government’s perspective, it is deeply counterproductive for the resolution to be seen as having had a positive impact. For one thing, Western countries posit this argument to prove that selective, country-specific actions in the council (a strategy that includes naming and shaming) cause good things to happen in the “victim” nations.
States are targeted for such action on subjective, predominantly Western-oriented, preferences, priorities and criteria. Some countries are never given strictures, or forced to walk the plank. Sri Lanka has repeatedly protested that a continuation of this practice could change the entire dynamic of the HRC.
It is contended, too, that the resolution might have adversely affected any political resolution with the Tamil National Alliance. This is because the TNA are so dependent on diaspora funds and international relevance, both of which the resolution made more prominent.
Finally, official sources argue that it isn’t necessarily accurate to draw a connection between the passage of the resolution and Sri Lanka’s changed foreign policy strategy. They say, for instance, that an invitation for High Commissioner Pillay to visit Sri Lanka was extended more than a year ago. And a preliminary visit by officials is not unusual. (Pillay is likely to arrive after HRC sessions from September 10-28; dates for her officials’ visit are not finalized).
The National Action Plan on the Recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission would have come out anyway, the sources continued. But perhaps it came out just a little bit faster? The action plan is today one of the documents annexed to Sri Lanka’s national report presented to the council. And while the government may claim otherwise, civil society groups insist that international pressure played a significant role in moving things along more quickly on ground.
Whatever may have caused its change of heart, the Sri Lankan government is ready to participate in its UPR “very seriously.” The Universal Periodic Review is seen as one of the most objective processes in the council, notwithstanding continued attempts by various blocs to politicize it. Sri Lanka has consistently opposed these moves and highlighted the need to safeguard the independence of the UPR process.
Not another circus, please
The question now is what happens next. So far – for the past few weeks – the permanent representative’s office in Geneva has been allowed to conduct its diplomacy quietly, and in peace. Local headlines are not dominated by sensational stories of goings-on at the HRC in Geneva. And politicians here are not abusing the UPR process to divert public attention from irksome bread-and-butter issues.
The next sessions in September will see the Sri Lankan delegation make a two-minute speech in the council. If the president approves a minister to attend, Sri Lanka will get 10 minutes on the floor. Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe has consistently been the head of the country’s delegations to Geneva but has not been cleared for departure.
But come November, will there be a repeat of the “circus” that unfolded in March? Several eyewitnesses who were part of the country’s large delegation to Geneva in March said there was “tension” among several top level members of the Sri Lankan team. These unpleasant undercurrents ensured that the country did not stand united before its international detractors at a crucial time. In the final equation, Sri Lanka’s diplomatic machinery – all of it, including the political add-ons – collectively, miserably failed.
Diplomats emphasize that Sri Lanka must keep its team small and focused in December. Although the resolution and the UPR are two different processes, there is every possibility that they could converge on a common terminal in March. That is, if Sri Lanka is unable to conduct a successful UPR session, it might set the stage for another negative move within the council in 2013.
Also, things must start moving on the ground. There is plan upon plan on the table, but implementation is weak. If that continues to be the case, these diplomats warn, no amount of harrumphing on the international stage will help.
Sri Lanka’s National Report: Key Points
The UPR is a process by which the human rights records of all 192 UN member states are reviewed once every four years. Sri Lanka was last examined in 2008, under exceedingly different and sensitive circumstances. There is no vote at the end of a review. Each country is given the chance to declare what actions it has taken to improve its human rights situation and to fulfill its obligations.
Here are some points reproduced from Sri Lanka’s national report which is now with the Human Rights Council for consideration:
— Sri Lanka today is a stable, united and forward-looking country. The nation has achieved peace and social tranquility by the military defeat of one of the worst manifestations of terrorism the world has seen in recent times – the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
—Notwithstanding their military defeat and being proscribed in 32 countries, the LTTE’s international network and sympathizers continue to espouse the agenda of destabilization and separatism.
—The National Human Rights Action Plan has been submitted to the HRC, in keeping with the pledge Sri Lanka made at its previous UPR in 2008.
—The formulation and implementation of the NHRAP is an integral part of Sri Lanka’s national report, which, inter alia, sets out, in a time-bound manner, the measures being adopted in the protection and promotion of human rights, taking into consideration the recommendations of special procedures mechanisms, treaty bodies as well as national priorities.
— The GoSL acted with restraint to protect civilians throughout the Humanitarian Operation.
— The GoSL did not, at any stage, corral the civilian population in the Wanni. The forced movement and corralling of civilians was an act of the LTTE, which blatantly used civilians as a human shield.
— The conduct of military operations in a manner as to avoid civilian casualties in line with GoSL policy and to rescue as many civilians from a virtual hostage situation meant that the conflict continued for a longer duration than was necessary. The so-called “humanitarian catastrophe” or “bloodbath” that was predicted by those who had called a halt to the military operations never came to pass and nearly 300,000 persons were rescued.
— The conclusion of the humanitarian operation on May 19, 2009 gave rise to several post-conflict challenges which GoSL has been addressing.
—By the end of July 2012, just three years after the end of the conflict, the GoSL had successfully resettled more than 237,500 IDPs. A further 28,398 have chosen to live with host families in various parts of the country. It should be noted that 7,203 had left the camps on various grounds and did not return while a further 1,380 sought admission to hospitals. Eight hundred and two IDPs died due to natural causes during the time they were awaiting to be resettled. Only 1,597 families remain in the last functioning welfare village. The GoSL intends to complete the resettlement process by this year. While every effort is being made to resettle persons in their original habitat, in instances in which this is not possible, they will be given alternate land.
—Remarkable progress has been made with regard to the rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-combatants. It may be noted that from approximately 12,000 persons, at present 636 beneficiaries are undergoing rehabilitation, and 383 are under judicially mandated custody (remand). As at July 2012, 10,965 persons, which includes 594 LTTE child soldiers have been rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.
—Action was initiated to implement many LLRC recommendations prior to a formalized plan of implementation being devised. Some of the areas in which gains have been made include resettlement of IDPs; demining; rehabilitation of ex-combatants; implementation of the language policy; recruitment of Tamil speaking police officers; removal of the military from assisting in civil administration in the North, making available land previously used for security purposes for resettlement/return; and carrying out a comprehensive enumeration in the Northern Province.
—In July, a matrix containing the National Plan of Action to implement LLRC recommendations was developed by the Task Force, presented to Cabinet and approved. The main focus areas for implementation are International Humanitarian Law Issues, Human Rights, Land Return and Resettlement, Restitution/Compensatory Relief and Reconciliation. The Task Force has indentified a corresponding activity, an implementing agency, a key performance indicator and a time frame in respect of each recommendation.
—With regard to matters of accountability, inter alia, the cases relating to 17 aid workers and the five students who met with their deaths in Trincomalee were referred to the attorney-general to ascertain whether a prima facie case exists to launch prosecutions. The attorney-general has advised the inspector-general of police to conduct further investigations.
—Additionally, the Sri Lanka Army has commenced investigations, firstly, by appointing a Board of Inquiry to study the LLRC recommendations and formulate a viable action plan to implement the recommendations that are relevant to the Army and, secondly, a Court of Inquiry has been appointed to investigate allegations of civilian casualties and the Channel 4 story, irrespective of whether the video footage was genuine or not. The Sri Lanka Navy has also initiated similar measures. These boards have commenced work and several witnesses have testified.
—The civil administration system in the North and East is fully functional with Government officials at the District, Divisional and grassroots levels being appointed and discharging their functions.
—With the termination of military operations and the gradual restoration of normality, the strength of the military in the North has been reduced considerably. The present strength in the Jaffna Peninsula is approximately 15,000. Further rationalization of this presence would be considered in line with national security interests. It must be noted that the role of the military in the North today is confined solely to security related matters.
—The military is no longer involved in civil administration in the North and East and the Police Department now continues its responsibility of maintaining law and order. In this context, 11 new Police Stations have been established in the North since 2009. One thousand two hundred and sixteen Tamil officers have been recruited: 789 (2005 to 2011) and 427 (Jan 2012 to date).
—Due to GoSL efforts aimed at the revival of the provincial economy, a 22% growth has been recorded in the Northern Province, while Sri Lanka’s overall GDP recorded around 8% growth in 2011.
—Provincial-wide governance for the Northern Province poses its own unique challenges as the people in the Province have not experienced elected democratic provincial representation for several years. In the interim, the present administrative arrangement under the Governor has been restored and governance structures that transcend purely local government are being gradually strengthened.
—The inspector-general of police, in December 2011, issued strict instructions to all officers regarding the treatment of detainees arrested. Safeguards include measures for ensuring the physical safety and dignity of the arrested individual as well as reiterating internal controls with regard to handling of persons in custody. Directions have also been given enabling attorneys-at-law to visit their clients in custody as of right as opposed to with the leave and license of the Police. Criminal prosecutions have been streamlined by the establishment of Divi- sional Prosecution Units at the Provincial level which expedites the prosecution of terrorism offences.