‘Is Sri Lanka fighting a lost battle in Geneva?’ was the heading of the article by this writer in these columns a fortnight ago. The answer became known conclusively as events unfolded at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on 23 March.
In spite of Sri Lanka’s strong opposition, the resolution titled ‘Promotion of Reconciliation Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka’ was adopted by the UN Human Rights Council at its 46th session held in Geneva. Twenty-two member states out of 47 voted in favour of resolution; 11 voted against the resolution while 14 abstained from voting.
Sri Lanka’s Foreign Relations Minister Dinesh Gunawardena had a “novel” take on the final result. He combined the votes of those who abstained (14) with those who voted against (11) and claimed Sri Lanka had “won” because 25 countries had not supported the resolution as opposed to 22 voting for it. By doing so Minister Gunawardena added an interesting twist to what Jesus Christ reportedly stated. The Gospel according to Mathew (12.30) quotes Jesus as having said, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.”
The scion of Boralugoda’s leonine dynasty however has been inclusive in his approach by accommodating the abstainers in his own camp. The only hitch is that the proponents of the resolution too may adopt the same yardstick and make a similar claim in their favour.
Despite denials by those in the upper echelons of power, the “historic” UNHRC resolution will have far reaching consequences for Sri Lanka. The fact that Sri Lanka has been the target of an adverse resolution has saddened many Sri Lankans who truly love their land of birth. Some however console themselves by viewing the resolution as being an indictment of the Rajapaksa regime and not the country. Some optimists feel the situation could be remedied if the Gotabaya Government responds positively and acts responsibly. The self-declared ultra-nationalist patriots are angry and see conspiracies everywhere. They also “pooh-pooh” the resolution as being of no importance.
Intensive Lobbying and Extensive Canvassing
There had been intensive lobbying and extensive canvassing for and against the resolution before the vote. The previous two articles by this writer in these columns strove to outline some of the tactics deployed by both the proponents and opponents of the resolution. In that context this third article would seek to recount in detail some of the hectic happenings relating to the passage of the resolution on Sri Lanka.
Even though the voting pattern suggests that the final outcome was a cakewalk all the way for the ultimate victors, in actual terms it was not so. Despite the overwhelming odds against it, the Sri Lankan Government headed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa did not give in easily and fought on gamely to bring about the defeat of the resolution. Sri Lanka was backed by her friends and allies in this exercise.
At one point of time, it appeared that it was “match over” for Sri Lanka. The resolution – according to an assessment by some Non-Governmental Organisations – was on the verge of being passed with a 24 plus absolute majority. Yet, an unprecedented counteractive lobbying campaign spearheaded by President Rajapaksa himself turned things around a few days before the vote. So much so that human rights activists concerned about the resolution were fretting that the final result could go either way by a single vote. This however did not happen and the resolution was adopted comfortably.
The UNHRC’s 46th session was inaugurated on 22 February under the presidency of Ambassador Nazhat Shameem Khan of Fiji. A draft resolution was tabled on 22 February at the commencement by the UK along with five other countries known collectively as the “core group” on Sri Lanka. The following weeks saw much activity in the form of lobbying among countries of the UNHRC for and against the resolution on Sri Lanka.
In addition to four rounds of informal discussions being conducted openly, there were many other – behind the scenes – bilateral, trilateral and multi-lateral talks among UNHRC member states on the text of the resolution pertaining to Sri Lanka. The original version underwent three major revisions and several minor amendments in the process. The final version was tabled on 16 March. The four-page resolution that was taken up for voting on 23 March at the UNHRC exceeded 1,700 words.
On Tuesday 23 March the Resolution A/HRC/46/L.1 was presented to the Council by Julian Braithwaite, the UK representative to Geneva, on behalf of the Core Group of countries co-sponsoring the resolution on Sri Lanka. These countries comprised the United Kingdom (UK), Canada, Germany, Montenegro, Malawi and North Macedonia.
Apart from the core group of co-sponsors the resolution was also supported – as additional co-sponsors – by several other member states of the UN. Altogether 41 countries co-sponsored the resolution. These consisted of 29 countries who were ineligible to vote and 12 who were entitled to vote.at the UNHRC. Three of the core group of Countries – Canada, Montenegro and North Macedonia – were not eligible to vote.
The 12 co-sponsoring countries eligible to vote were Austria, Bulgaria, Czechia, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Malawi, Marshall Islands, Netherlands, Poland and the United Kingdom (of Great Britain and Northern Ireland).
The 29 co-sponsoring countries who were not eligible to vote were Albania, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Montenegro, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Norway, Portugal, Romania, San Marino, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United States of America.
It could be seen therefore that apart from Malawi and Marshall Islands, all the other 39 co-sponsors of the resolution were from Europe and other Western nations. This indicated a political divide on the Sri Lankan resolution between the well-developed nations of what is termed as the Global North and those of the less developed nations termed as the Global South. This divide however was not reflected effectively in the resolution vote.
D-day March 23
Earlier the resolution on Sri Lanka was scheduled for voting on 22 March. It was postponed by a day. When D-day dawned on 23 March, the Sri Lanka resolution was taken up first. The conclave that should have begun as 10:30 a.m. was delayed by an hour. It was believed that frantic “last minute” lobbying was on. Fiji’s Nazhat Shameem Khan who chaired the session explained the procedures and outlined the rules involved. The vote was going to be taken online through Zoom as all 47 members of Council could not attend in person due to the coronavirus pandemic.
According to UN news reports, Julian Braithwaite, the UK envoy to Geneva, spoke first as the resolution proposer. In his introductory comments, Braithwaite, warned of trends which “threaten to reverse the limited gains made in recent years and risked the recurrence of policies and practices that gave rise to the grave violations of the past”.
He was followed by Austria’s Elisabeth Tichy-Fisslberger who spoke on behalf of the European Union and referred to early “warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka”. Tichy-Fisslberger further highlighted the “accelerating militarisation of civilian government functions, “the erosion of the independence of the Judiciary,” and “increased marginalisation” of Tamil and Muslim minorities, which has been “exacerbated” by the island’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the reported prevention of Muslims, and members of other religions, from practicing their own religious burial rites.
Speaking out against the resolution, the Representative for the Philippines, Evan P. Garcia, said the text was “driven by simplistic generalisations of complex conditions on the ground”. He was followed by Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, C.A. Chandraprema. The Lankan envoy according to the UN News report rejected the text of the resolution as “unhelpful and divisive”. Chandraprema argued it would “polarise Sri Lankan society and adversely affect economic development, peace and harmony”.
Thereafter Member States were allowed to make short explanatory statements about how they were going to vote and outlining their reasons for it. Among the countries making statements were China, Russia, Japan, Cuba, Brazil, Bolivia, Venezuela, Pakistan and India. Six countries, namely China, Russia, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Pakistan, stated they were going to vote against. Brazil said it was supporting the resolution. Japan said it was going to abstain. The Indian representative reiterated the country’s “non-committal” position on the resolution. No indication was given as to how India would vote.
The Resolution Vote
The vote on the resolution was called for by China and Pakistan. Twenty-two out of 47 Member States voted in favour of resolution; eleven voted against the resolution while 14 abstained from voting.
The 22 countries that voted in favour of the resolution were Argentina, Armenia, Austria, Bahamas, Brazil, Bulgaria, Cote D’Ivoire(Ivory Coast), Czech Republic (Czechia), Denmark, Fiji, France, Germany, Italy, Malawi, Marshall Islands, Mexico, Netherlands, Poland, Republic of Korea (South Korea),Ukraine, United Kingdom and Uruguay.
The 11 countries which voted against the resolution were Bangladesh (Plurinational State of) Bolivia, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Pakistan, Philippines, Russian Federation, Somalia, Uzbekistan and (Bolivarian Republic of) Venezuela.
The 14 countries which abstained from voting were Bahrain, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Gabon, India, Indonesia, Japan, Libya, Mauritania, Namibia, Nepal, Senegal, Sudan and Togo.
The United Nations Human Rights Council comprises 47 member states elected by the UN General Assembly. They are elected from time to time for specific terms. Extra care is taken to ensure that the membership equitably represents the geographical regions of the world. There are five groupings namely African States, Latin American and Caribbean States, Asia-Pacific States, Western Europe and Other States and Eastern European States.
A. There are 13 African Member States, namely Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Libya, Malawi, Mauritania, Namibia, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan and Togo.
B. The eight Latin American and Caribbean Member States are Argentina, Bahamas, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, Uruguay and Venezuela.
C. The Asia-Pacific Region has 13 member states. They are Bahrain, Bangladesh, China, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Japan, Marshall Islands, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Republic of Korea and Uzbekistan.
D. The Western Europe and Other States Category has seven member states. They are Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and the United Kingdom (UK).
E. There are six Member States in the Eastern European States category. They are Armenia, Bulgaria, Czechia, Poland, Russian Federation and Ukraine.
Both the proponents and opponents of the resolution took into account the above mentioned assorted groupings in the composition of the UNHRC while devising their campaign strategies. Both the pro- and anti- resolution lobbies adopted the method of trying to attract votes in favour on the one hand while persuading potential voters of the other side to refrain from doing so on the other.
The Resolution proponents were basically Western nations like the UK, Canada, Germany and the USA. Most European nations too were supportive. Sri Lanka was backed by countries like China, Russia, Cuba, Pakistan and Iran. Sri Lanka relied very greatly on China which reportedly could influence eight to 13 member states of the UNHRC. It also had much subterranean support among developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Against this backdrop it seemed that Sri Lanka had nothing to worry about.
So confident was Sri Lanka that it spurned offers to negotiate for a consensual resolution in the initial stages. Sri Lanka rejected both the 2021 report by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michele Bachelet as well as the draft resolution.
Subsequently it revised its stance and opted to engage in informal discussions to alter and amend the text of the resolution. The tactic was to get the text modified and diluted as much as possible and then reject it outright and go for the vote.
This stratagem however did not work. The resolution proponents were wary and refused to yield. Although the Core group was initially doubtful about their chances of success, the attitude changed with the entry of the USA and the overt backing of US secretary of State Antony Blinken. Since the British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab was also taking an active interest, the pro-resolution constituency was bolstered with tremendous hope. Instead of toning down the text to make it widely acceptable, the resolution was strengthened and tightened further. There were no compromises.
Twists and Turns
The run up to the final vote had many interesting twists and turns. In the first week of March a prima facie survey of the battle-lines drawn revealed that the core group was sure of only 17 out of 47 member state support for the resolution currently. According to informed diplomatic sources, the anti-resolution camp was sure of 13. Based on these estimates it appeared in early March that the votes of 17 countries were up for grabs.
However by mid-March the proponents of the resolution were quite confident that the resolution would be easily passed. A well-informed Western diplomat stated that the resolution would be carried with an absolute majority. The diplomat was confident of 25 to 28 votes. Earlier there was an idea of getting the US and UK Foreign Secretaries to issue a joint appeal but this was shelved. The US and UK began to shower greater attention to the issues of the Myanmar military coup and China’s oppression of the Uighur Muslims.
Meanwhile, realising the situation was bleak, Colombo got its act in order in what appeared to be a last-ditch effort. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa got personally involved in the lobbying. Both the President and Premier contacted several leaders and influential personalities. Some details of the “contacts” were publicised in the media but not all.
Among the initiatives taken by the President was a telephone conversation with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He also engaged with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. The Prime Minister despite his health issues personally attended the Bangladesh Independence Golden jubilee celebrations. The PM also spoke with the rulers of Bahrain. Lankan Foreign Secretary Jayanath Colombage and Ambassador C.A. Chandraprema also went the extra mile in lobbying intensely in Colombo and Geneva respectively.
Things changed dramatically due to this joint Sri Lankan lobbying exercise. Human rights activists who were confident of a 24 plus vote earlier were in a state of worry. Thanks to the Rajapaksa-led counteractive lobbying campaign, the balance seemed to have tilted in an uncertain manner. Apparently several Islam-majority countries were going to vote against. Also some African states were perceived as wild cards now.
According to the human rights activists, both sides were now evenly matched and would not get more than 20 each with a handful of countries abstaining. The situation was fluid where either side could win with just a single vote lead. Moreover India did not figure in these calculations. What could happen if New Delhi intervened was another unknown.
Shifting the Balance
The weekend before the vote saw a lot of behind the scenes lobbying and counter lobbying. The resolution proponents were able to shift the balance favourably. They got unexpected help from Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekara who went public with the news that the Government was going to ban the wearing of the burqa and shut over 1,000 Madrassas or Islamic schools. With this announcement many Islam majority countries decided to abstain. Frantic last minute lobbying helped sway Mexico, Brazil, Ivory Coast and surprisingly South Korea in support of the resolution. The situation had transformed again.
A knowledgeable lawyer working in tandem with the pro-resolution lobby predicted that the resolution would get 18 to 22 votes. He ruled out an absolute majority saying 24 votes was impossible. Ultimately he was proved correct.
Of the 22 countries voting in favour of the resolution, Mexico, Uruguay, Bahamas, Argentina and Brazil are from the GRULAC or Group of Latin American and Caribbean countries; Ivory Coast and Malawi are from Africa. Fiji, Marshall Islands and South Korea are from the Asia-pacific region. Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands and the UK are from Western Europe; Armenia, Bulgaria, Czechia, Poland and Ukraine are from Eastern Europe.
Of the 11 countries which voted against the resolution Bangladesh, China, Pakistan. Philippines and Uzbekistan are from the Asia Pacific region; Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela are from Latin America; Eritrea and Somalia are from Africa. Russia is from Eastern Europe.
Of the 14 countries which abstained from voting, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Gabon, Libya, Mauritania, Namibia, Senegal, Sudan and Togo are from Africa. Bahrain, India, Indonesia, Japan and Nepal are from the Asia-Pacific region.
It could be seen therefore that nine of 13 African countries had abstained while two each had voted for and against the resolution respectively. Five of Eight GRULAC countries had voted for the resolution while three had voted against. Of the 13 Asia Pacific countries five had voted against the resolution while three voted for it. Five abstained. All seven Western European countries voted for the resolution. Of the six Eastern European countries, five voted for and one against the resolution. On another level, seven of the 11 Islam majority countries had abstained while four had voted against. Of the South Asian countries two had voted against while two abstained.
Battle was Lost
This then was how the voting went at the UNHRC in Geneva. Despite a determined last ditch effort by Sri Lanka, the battle was lost. Washington was the Victor in this tussle with Beijing. The UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka is now a reality that cannot be wished away. The impact of the resolution on Sri Lanka and its ramifications will be examined in a forthcoming article.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This Article written for the “Political Pulse” Column Appears in the “Daily Financial Times” ” of April 1st 2021. It can be accessed here: