By Dharisha Bastians in Geneva
The final week of the UN Human Rights Council session got off to a dramatic start, after former UPFA Parliamentarian Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera made an appearance in Geneva and locked horns with Tamil hardline groups at a side event at the Palais des Nations on Monday (20).
The Rear Admiral made an intervention during the event, claiming that Sri Lankan troops had not committed war crimes and alleging that many LTTE perpetrators in crimes had also been acquitted in court.
Foreign experts had concluded that the war crimes allegations against the Sri Lankan armed forces were baseless, Weerasekera told participants at the well-attended side event.
The former military officer’s remarks angered P. Mannivannan of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam (TGTE), who called Weerasekera a “war criminal” and urged the Government of Switzerland to arrest the official.
Weerasekera sniped back, insisting on prolonging the argument amidst protest from the head table, with the moderator at the session, Abinaya Nathan, the editor of the Tamil Guardian, to bang her gavel on the table several times to end the back and forth.
Panellists noted that it was surreal to hear war crimes denials from a military officer seated in the UN building in Geneva.
A senior Navy officer and ex-Commander of the Civil Defence Force, Weerasekera was attending an event organised by the Pasumai Thaayagam Foundation in collaboration with Tamil Diaspora groups British Tamil Forum and People for Equality and Relief in Sri Lanka (PEARL) on the sidelines of the UNHRC’s 34th session currently winding down in the Swiss city.
At the event, panellists spoke about the need to implement operative paragraphs 6 and 8 of UNHRC Resolution 30/1 which calls for international participation in the Government’s proposed judicial mechanism to address war crimes.
A few hours later, Rear Admiral Weerasekera entered Room XX of the Palais des Nations to address the Human Rights Council. After long delays, Weerasekera finally read from a prepared 90-second speech,
“The Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka without the approval of the President and the Cabinet co-sponsored resolution 30/1 and accepted the OHCHR Investigation Report on Sri Lanka (OISL),” Weerasekera told the council using time granted to him by the International Buddhist Relief Organisation.
Weerasekera said he was calling on the UN General Assembly to appoint a special rapporteur to “investigate the matter and impose a moratorium on the UNHRC from pursuing the resolution any further until the matter is investigated. Levelling war crimes charges against the very troops that destroyed the LTTE that was using people as human shields and child soldiers was a typical example of the UNHRC’s double standards and hypocrisy,” he added, speaking during the general debate.
The Rear Admiral was also scheduled to speak at a side event organised by the International Buddhist Relief Organisation, but the meeting did not take place.
A reporter from a Sinhalese language newspaper who was accompanying Weerasekera was reported to UN security for taking pictures of Tamil reporters and human rights activists inside Room XX, shortly before the Rear Admiral was due to address the council. His phone was briefly confiscated for security officials to delete the photographs. Activists said the incident was eerily reminiscent of the Sri Lankan Government delegation’s behaviour at the UN building in March 2012, when journalists and officials who joined the state delegation threatened and intimidated activists at the council.
A staunch supporter of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his ex-Defence Secretary brother Gotabaya, Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera has earned a reputation as a Sinhalese hardliner. He was the only MP in Parliament in April 2015 to vote against the 19th Amendment to the Constitution which reduced the powers of the presidency and restored independent commissions.