Prof. G.L. Peiris Interviewed by Dianne Silva
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton shakes hands with Sri Lanka Minister of External Affairs G.L. Peiris after a bilateral meeting and a joint press availability in the Treaty Room at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on May 28, 2010.-US State Dept. Photo
Question: Why was Sri Lanka unable to obtain enough support to defeat the United States sponsored resolution?
I think the public should know that one matter that the international community and the delegation were distressed about was the manner in which the UNHRC is functioning today.
The Council was set up by the General Assembly because its predecessor the Human Rights Commission had become excessively politicized. Therefore the Council was expected to be a mechanism that would consider every case on its merits—that is the opposite of what is happening today.
Today what is happening is that the voting pattern in the UNHRC is determined by a series of strategic political alliances, rather than an evaluation of the issues relating to a particular matter. There are 11 countries from Western Europe in the Council, out of 47; we had the strange and interesting experience in Geneva that some of these members told me and the delegation that they do not agree with what is being done—they believed that it is important that Sri Lanka be given the time and space to implement the recommendations of the LLRC report.
However they stated that despite their personal disagreement, they would nevertheless vote for the resolution because each individual country does not have a say in how they vote, that decision is taken by Brussels. These countries told us that “we don’t break ranks, except on Palestine, we vote as a bloc”. Therefore all 11 votes go together conscience has no role to play, whatever their feelings may be they have to vote in a particular manner—this contravenes the very purpose of the Council.
We find that to be deeply disturbing; it is like playing a cricket match with one side starting at a 100 runs and the other starting at zero. Out of 47 people 11 have already made up their minds; you can talk to them and convince them of your position but it will make no difference to the manner in which they vote. Then there are eight countries from Latin America and besides Ecuador and Cuba the others vote with the US. This is a serious problem because the Council is now voting in blocs.
If you take the Sri Lankan situation there were 15 who voted with us and eight who abstained, despite all the pressure they were under—24 voted for and 23 did not support the resolution; you cannot call that a convincing majority.
Q: What do you think your meetings in Africa achieved?
If you take the African countries the US has resident missions in all those countries and towards the end pressure was being applied on these countries on a daily basis, there were delegations sent to those countries from the EU and US. Despite the pressure, three of those countries voted for us Mauritania, Congo, and Uganda. I personally travelled to those countries and they gave me personal assurances that regardless of the pressure, they would vote in our favour. Five other African countries withstood all the pressure and abstained from voting—I went to some of those countries and my colleagues also visited those countries. If we had not gone to those African countries all those votes would have gone the other way. We can be very proud that we achieved this result in the African countries.
Then the Arab countries Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, these countries were visited by the members of the government and four of them voted against the resolution and Jordan abstained due to immense pressure.
We are also very proud that Asia stood together, with the exception of India. Malaysia abstained from voting because of a large Diaspora there and the Malaysian elections are due shortly. There was extreme pressure on the Asian countries but they stood firmly with Sri Lanka. These are very substantial achievements and they would not have been possible if we had not gone to the capitals.
Q: What are the consequences of the passing of this resolution?
There is a great deal of alarm in this country about the resolution, but there is absolutely nothing to worry about. This is not like the passing of a resolution in the Security Council, which are self-executing resolutions. However the resolutions at the UNHRC are non binding, they have been passing resolutions against Cuba and Israel for a long time. Some are trying to create a picture of trade sanctions etc. but these are totally unfounded there are no such consequences that flow from a UNHRC resolution.
Q: If so then why did Sri Lanka try so hard to stop this resolution from being passed?
Because the aim of this resolution was to put Sri Lanka on the agenda of the UNHRC which means the Sri Lankan situation can be visited from time to time.
SL Engagement with UNHRC
Q: How will Sri Lanka engage with the UNHRC in the future, now that this resolution has been passed and we are expected to present to them progress by the 22nd Session?
There will be no issues with engaging with them in the future, because, as they acknowledged we have participated in the UNHRC and the side events at therefore there will be no difference. Therefore for us it will be a case of continuing our engagement not about starting something new.
Q: Will Sri Lanka present something at the 22nd Session, has the government thought about the next step now that this resolution has been passed?
We will move forward at our own pace and our policy will be determined by the interests of people in this country. The LLRC is our own commission so to implement the LLRC recommendations we don’t need any external pressure we will do it anyway—and of course we will keep the international community informed. There is no question of responding to pressure.
Q: In that case you are saying the government will keep the international community informed, but at the pace of the government and not necessarily within the timeframe given by the resolution and therefore at the 22nd session?
There is no reason why Sri Lanka should not keep the UNHRC informed at the 22nd Session.
Q: Some report will be presented then?
Yes, but not only at the 22nd session but the ones before that as well. Also at the Universal Periodic Review, as we have consistently said even before the resolution was passed.
US SL Relations
Q: The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton extended an invitation to you, to come to travel to the US and engage with Washington. Why did you not go and could Sri Lanka not have guaranteed a different result if we had engaged with the US?
I received a letter dated the 25th of January, and she makes it very clear that the decision to bring the resolution had already been made in Washington. there are two sentences in the letter to me which make the American position very clear—they are inviting me to come to Washington but they tell me that there is no misunderstanding that the decision has been made. One paragraph in that letter states begins with “while the decision has been made”, therefore there is no flexibility in that statement. The US is telling me; “we want you to come, we want to talk to you—but don’t come expecting us to change our minds”.
That being the case we made the decision that we would go to the US but the timing would be considered, I am going in May. We have a bilateral relationship with the US therefore we never refused to go. Had I gone at that time, the optics of the situation would have been that this was a collaborated resolution—many people had this impression, but this was not the case. Therefore in Geneva we had to make it very clear to all the delegations that this was not a consultative and collaborated resolution brought by Sri Lanka and the US. We had to make it clear that we opposed this move, however had I gone in January it would have seemed like I was travelling there to agree upon the text of the resolution—that would have been detrimental to the position of Sri Lanka.
There are many matters to discuss with the US and the right time to go is after the vote, to go at that time would not have been in the national interest of Sri Lanka.
Q: Hillary Clinton stated right after the vote that she wished to engage with Sri Lanka. What is the government’s plan with regards to engagement with the US? What impact will the resolution have for the bilateral relationship?
We will continue our engagement as before. Certainly the US is a country with which we have bilateral relations and we will continue to talk to them. When I meet her I will indicate to her, what we have done and what we plan to do in the near future as well as the constraints that we face—we will engage in a candid discussion which will contain all these matters. There is certainly no hesitation on our part to engage with the US. We resisted the passing of this resolution, but that does not mean that we are not prepared to talk to them and that is what we plan to do in the new situation that has arisen.
India – Sri Lanka relationship
Q: What will be the consequences for the Sri Lanka-India relationship, considering the fact that India did not support Sri Lanka at the vote?
One has to face the reality of it; India not supporting Sri Lanka did considerable damage to the Sri Lankan position. Before the vote was taken on Thursday, the Indian Prime Minister made the statement in Parliament on Monday that India would vote for the US resolution, and thereby against Sri Lanka.
We came to the conclusion after consultation with countries that were working very closely us that before this announcement was made Sri Lanka had a slight edge, two votes or one vote. However the statement on Monday made a very considerable difference, because every ten minutes after this statement was made delegations were phoning us to ask about the Indian stand. It made it difficult for many countries who were going to vote in our favour to take that stand because of this very high profile development.
It resulted in a situation where some countries that were going to vote with Sri Lanka, decided that the most they could do was to abstain from voting and some countries that were going to vote against the resolution voted in favour of it, after the Indian intervention. Therefore the Indian move did considerable damage.
Having said that I want to say that our relations with India is one that has stood the test of time, it has had its ups and downs and had to face strains more significant than the present situation. We will continue our relationship with India and engage with them.
We do need to say that it was not just the case of losing one vote, it had a more significant impact of the situation and not just that but the whole atmosphere.
Can Sri Lanka ever depend on India? Party politics in India, when it comes to Sri Lanka will always play a role.
One has to be pragmatic in these matters; survival of a government is a factor that has to be given primacy. The government of India succumbed to the pressure domestically. As far as the future is concerned there is no rupture of the Indo-Lanka relationship. However we will recognize the fact that the Indian intervention, merely three days before, had severe consequences for the vote. Courtesy: Daily Mirror