(Excerpts from the “Sunday Times”Political Column of August 1st 2021)
The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is set to crack the whip on Sri Lanka at its 48th sessions just six weeks ahead.
It is not only on issues arising from the March sessions of the damning Resolution on Sri Lanka caused by dismal diplomatic failures and a confrontational posture, particularly with western nations. Added to it is a part of the Resolution which empowered the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to “consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence.” This is for “future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial proceedings in Member States with competent jurisdiction.”
Ruling alliance leaders had believed that a new mechanism for “future accountability mechanisms” would not materialise in the light of budget cuts. In fact, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, told the Sunday Times that the budget for Human Rights Council has been pruned down by fifty percent. This was reported in our front-page lead story of June 5. He said the Council’s move to set up a separate secretariat to enforce matters relating to the resolution it passed on Sri Lanka in March this year had suffered a setback. He said, he was awaiting a full report from the Sri Lanka Permanent Mission in New York. There have been no comments from Minister Gunawardena thereafter whether a fund cut has in fact taken place.
However, the Sunday Times has learnt that the Human Rights Council has won approval for its additional requirements for 2021 and 2022. The US$ 2.8 million as originally requested has been phased out as $ 0.737 million for 2021 and $ 2.1 million for 2022. A diplomatic source said that the Administrative and Budget Committee (Fifth Committee) of the UN General Assembly has approved the funds for the period concerned for the setting up of a Special Secretariat of 13 members. It is not immediately clear of the status of the funding for the remaining years.
The Office of the High Commissioner has already set in motion procedures for staffing the new Secretariat. The top-most position is expected to be given to a Senior Legal Advisor with experience in international criminal justice and/or criminal investigations and prosecutions to coordinate the team and oversee an information and evidence collection strategy. A central repository will consolidate, preserve, and analyse information with national authorities for universal jurisdiction and extra-terrestrial jurisdiction cases and other accountability purposes in line with relevant United Nations guidelines. There will be one senior Legal Advisor and two Legal Advisors.
If in fact the additional budget for the setting up of the separate Secretariat has seen its way through in its entirety through the Fifth Committee, it regrettably demonstrates the failure on the part of the Sri Lanka Permanent Mission in New York and the Foreign Ministry to pursue a strategy opposing the envisaged finances. This complacency may have culminated from some ill-informed thinking that this Secretariat’s personnel will not be permitted to visit Sri Lanka thereby hampering the work of the mechanism. Whilst such action would further isolate Sri Lanka internationally, it should not be forgotten that the Human Rights Commissioner’s office claims it already has trophy evidence which would be utilised. This could also lead to bilateral censuring of Sri Lanka by some countries. It is time for sanity to prevail over misplaced ego to ensure that Sri Lanka’s economy is not pushed into the quagmire further.
Recent consultations by the core group headed by the United Kingdom makes clear that there has been no official shift in its position since the last Resolution was adopted in Geneva on March 23. Among the areas where the core group is expressing serious concern is the so-called harassment of civil society activists and those in opposition parties. Another is its alleged concern over the deterioration of law and order with murder victims being pardoned and the workings of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP). There is consensus among them to raise issue over these matters.
The United Kingdom, which is playing a key role since the United States was then not a member of the UN Human Rights Council, has widened its efforts as leader of the core group. Last week, the UK government invited proposals for projects promoting human rights and democratic values in Sri Lanka. The purpose, it said, is to alert potential civil society implementing partners to an opportunity to bid for grant funding to deliver project activity promoting human rights and democratic values in Sri Lanka.