(Excerpts from the Political Column By the Political Editor in the “Sunday Times” of January 31st 2021)
A head-on confrontation between the Government and the UN system has become inevitable, judging from the latest report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The UNHRC Report calls upon member states to refer the situation in Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court (ICC), resort to; “actively pursue extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction” and “prosecute “international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka”. It has also called for “targeted sanctions, such as asset freezes and travel ban against State officials and other actors credibly alleged to have committed or be responsible for grave human rights violations or abuses.”
Hard on the heels of the Report on Sri Lanka, making matters worse for the Government, is that the UN High Commissioner’s Office has resorted to sensitising the world (on the Report) through a video campaign. It seems to be a new manner in publicising a country situation report. It is based on visuals of the separatist war, highlights the “suffering” of civilians and calls for support to enforce human rights. Does one need to say anything more that the odds are being stacked against Sri Lanka?
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was angered by the UNHRC Report. His advisors had told him that the tenor and content of the UNHRC report, compared to any country in the past, was “unprecedented” and “unconventional.” He summoned a meeting at his Secretariat last Monday to obtain the views of the participants for a strong response. Those taking part – a cross section of those in the present government – seemed politically significant because of the different schools of thought they came from. They not only represent the constituent parties of the Government but also members of President Rajapaksa’s “Viyath Maga.”
Those taking part in the conference were Prof. G.L. Peiris, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Sarath Weerasekera, Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Nalaka Godahewa, Prof. Channa Jayasumana, Jayanath Colombage and P.B. Jayasundera. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, and his deputy Tharaka Balasuriya took part via Zoom since both were undergoing quarantine. This was after the detection of a positive Covid-19 victim at their office.
Consensus was reached that a reply should be sent since some of the contents of the report were “not based on facts” and were “totally misleading.” It was agreed that the salient issues would be addressed.
The same group met the next day (Tuesday) for more than two hours at the Foreign Ministry where the formulation of the response took shape. Absent at this meeting were Wimal Weerawansa and Nalaka Godahewa. Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage gave a presentation of the current situation vis-à-vis the dialogue with the UNHRC. In essence, the reply from the Government is to declare that the report is “selective on Sri Lanka, subjective and biased” to mislead the international community. The reply was sent to the UNHRC in Geneva on Wednesday through the Permanent Representative, C.A. Chandraprema.
The Government has also defended the appointment of military officers to key positions saying it was a general practice followed in other countries too. Moreover, these military personnel, the Government has claimed, were experts in the field in positions they have been appointed to. It has added that accountability issues were being addressed on a ‘factual approach.’
Another course of action President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will follow is speak to as many leaders as possible of the 47 member states of the UNHRC. Besides this, Foreign Minister Gunawardena, who is taking a low-key approach to these issues shying away from the media at this crucial moment, will meet heads of missions of the member countries that have diplomatic representation in Colombo. Sri Lankan envoys overseas are to be tasked to brief the others.
At the UNHRC in Geneva, a new resolution is now taking shape. The precursor to this was Resolution 30/1 and the subsequent 34/1 and 40/1 as related rollovers to mark time for Sri Lanka to deliver on its undertakings. Though the Government was earlier in favour of a ‘consensus’ resolution, it has now taken a step back from the move. There has also been a suggestion for the Government to seek the help of friendly nations to move a resolution of its own. The new resolution could be expected to be contested and the question remains on of how many countries will back Sri Lanka, how many will abstain and how many will vote against.
According to a Framework Document for a draft resolution, it covers significant elements of the latest UNHRC report. In general terms, it will “remind Sri Lanka of the state’s responsibility to comply with their obligations” and make positive reference to OHCHR so far. Among the highlights of the operative paragraph are:
• Express concerns over current and developing situation in Sri Lanka based on the UNHRC report.
• Express the importance of a comprehensive accountability process for all violations and abuses committed during the war.
• Express the need for an achievable time-bound plan of implementation.
• Highlight the inability so far to achieve any meaningful domestic mechanism to achieve accountability.
• Hint at possibilities of individual countries devising their own mechanisms to deal with the perpetrators of these alleged crimes
• Encourage the Government of Sri Lanka to implement as many recommendations as possible from the previous resolutions and from the UNHRC report.
• Encourage cooperation with OHCHR and to allow field presence.
• Encourage cooperation with special procedure mandate holders.
• Request new reporting by OHCHR on progress and on national reconciliation and accountability mechanisms – update in March 2022 and full report in September 2022.
It is most likely that Foreign Minister, Dinesh Gunawardena will address the “high level” segment of the Human Rights Council sessions from Colombo through a video link. Already, a team of officials have travelled to Geneva to assist the permanent mission there in work related to the UNHRC sessions.