“Diplomacy is to do and say the nastiest things in the nicest way” – Isaac Goldberg,
American Critic (1887 –1938)
A lot had been said on Sri Lanka as the country came under the microscope at the 46th United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session that kicked off with virtual contributions last week.
The latest report on Sri Lanka by United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet drew both favourable and critical remarks by Foreign Ministers and envoys of about 30 countries and 10 Non-Governmental Organizations that took part in the debate.
Deciphering the messages behind the decorated and guarded diplomatic language of those speakers would help identify their real intentions and foretell the fate of the country in the face of another Western bloc-sponsored Resolution at the Geneva-based Council.
UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet, opening the interactive dialogue on Sri Lanka, reiterated her position that domestic initiatives have repeatedly failed to ensure justice for victims and promote reconciliation.
“For these reasons, I call on the Council to explore new ways to advance various types of accountability at the international level, for all parties, and seek redress for victims,… as well as to support relevant judicial proceedings in Member States,” she noted.
Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, in the five minutes allotted to him, took great pains to enlighten the Member and Observer States on the Council’s discriminatory approach toward Sri Lanka and invited them to see the big picture before coming to conclusions.
“Sri Lanka rejects the High Commissioner’s Report which has unjustifiably broadened its scope and mandate further, incorporating many issues of governance and matters that are essentially domestic for any self-respecting, sovereign country.
“Sri Lanka calls upon the members of this Council that any resolution which is based on this Report, be rejected by the Council and be brought to a closure. We remain open to engaging constructively with the UN, including this Council, and the international community in mutually agreed areas, in conformity with the Constitution and in keeping with domestic priorities and policies,” he remarked.
According to the analysts who closely followed the debate, about 21 countries commented in favour of Sri Lanka including about a dozen Member States which are entitled to vote at the Council. During the interactive dialogue last Wednesday, Sri Lanka received the full backing of Russia, China and Pakistan, and no doubt the Government looks to these countries to whip up support at the 47-Member UN Inter-Governmental body to defend the country’s position.
The Chinese envoy in Geneva told the Council that the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) should “respect the sovereignty and political independence of all nations,” adding that, “It is the consistent stand of China to oppose politicization and double standards on human rights, as well as using human rights as an excuse in interfering in other countries’ internal affairs.”
Bolstering this stance, the Russian representative stressed that Sri Lanka must itself without external pressure determine the priorities for action and the areas which require international assistance. These words of solidarity by the world powers of the Eastern bloc came at a time the Government was very much in need of solidarity.
Pakistan, in the spirit of renewed cordialities and mutual bond following Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s two-day visit in Colombo that coincided the UNHRC forum, also stood by the side of Sri Lanka.
At the same time, Pakistan did not forget to call for an immediate policy change of the Sri Lankan Government to allow burial of those who die of COVID-19, an issue that had been dragging on for months earning the ire of not only the Muslim brethren in the country but also the entire Muslim population around the globe.
Ending the impasse, the Government last Thursday gazetted the revised Regulations to the Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Ordinance to allow cremation or burial of those who succumb to COVID-19. The health guidelines and suitable dry and isolated lands for the purpose are expected to be announced shortly.
Core Group’s Resolution
Needlessly to say, many international actors were keenly waiting for India’s position on Sri Lanka, its immediate neighbour, to take a clue on how to react at the Council. Interestingly, India remained more or less neutral in its stance, but used the forum as an opportunity to call for the full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave birth to the Provincial Councils as a result of the Indo-Sri Lanka Accord in 1987.
As expected, a number of influential countries in the Western bloc spoke for the OHCHR report on Sri Lanka while complaining of “the reversed progress” on the fronts of justice and accountability for the alleged past human rights violations and “the risk of their recurrence” in the country. Not all of them are Member States of the UNHRC, but global powers such as the US can make an impact on the voting through its proxy States.
In the meantime, the zero draft of the Resolution by the Core Group on Sri Lanka, which consists of the United Kingdom, Germany, Canada, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Malawi, has now been uploaded to the UNHRC web portal.
Discussions on this draft are now on and it is expected to be put to a vote on March 22. The content and wording of the draft Resolution may be subject to changes over the next couple of weeks. Foreign policy analysts observe that the proposed Resolution, in its current shape, poses a challenge to the sovereignty and independence of the country.
It also shatters hopes of any closure to the 12-year-long scrutiny of Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights body. The available copy of the draft Resolution requests the OHCHR to present a written update to the Council at its 49th session (March next year), and a comprehensive report at its 51st session (September 2022) on the country’s situation.
Easter Sunday report
While the Government was focused on the UNHRC, the political pot was boiling at home over the recently released report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into the Easter Sunday attacks.
The PCoI report was tabled in Parliament last week and the copies of the PCoI report were handed over to the Ven. Mahanayake Theras and Archbishop of Colombo His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith on Monday.
The outspoken Cardinal questioned the rationale of appointing a ministerial committee comprising political members to study the report. His irritation was palpable when he openly complained on the qualifications of some Committee Members appointed to study a hefty report produced by an erudite team of Justices.
However, the Government responded that the Committee Members were appointed based on their experience. The Government will determine the future course of action with regard to the PCoI report following the submission of Committee’s observations which are due by March 15.
Former President Maithripala Sirisena was in trouble following the release of the PCoI report, as it has recommended instituting criminal charges against him. He has now turned to legal advisers to decide how best to defend himself. At the same time, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) came forward to defend its Leader and collectively decided to repudiate the report.
Some SLFP Members commented that the PCoI report was an attempt by the ruling party to push the SLFP to the wall. The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) frontline members were quick to point out that the SLFP’s argument did not hold water as the Commission and all its Members were appointed by the former President himself. In a twist of fate, the Commission has boomeranged on former President Sirisena after about 18 months.
Observing that only the first Volume of the report was available for perusal, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa demanded that all six Volumes of the report be presented in Parliament. The United National Party (UNP) was at ease that the PCoI has not recommended legal action against its Leader former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe but has only censured his lax attitude towards extremism.
However, all parties across the political divide were in agreement that the report was inconclusive and that it does neither reveal the masterminds behind the attacks or their real motives. They complained that the Commission had failed to meet the expectations of the public and the report that runs to 472 pages had only repeated what is already visible. They pointed out that questions such as whether there was a foreign hand behind the attacks and whether there was a tier above ring-leader Zahran Hashim from whom he received instructions have been left unanswered by the report.
Having said that, it is imprudent to belittle the report’s findings. Independent analysts opine that it will be wise to give the Attorney General a free hand to extract whatever evidence is needed from the report and proceed onto legal action. In the meantime, the investigative bodies will have to dig deeper to ascertain the truth behind the Easter Sunday carnage that shook the nation on April 21, 2019.