ISSN 2330-717X

Sri Lanka Challenges UN Human Rights Council’s Impartiality

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By Kalinga Seneviratne

Sri Lanka’s Minister of Foreign Relations, Dinesh Gunawardena, has officially withdrawn from the co-sponsorship of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution on “Promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka”. His predecessor, Mangala Samaraweera, had co-sponsored it along with the U.S. and a number of European member countries, in October 2015.

Most Sri Lankans perceive the UNHRC as a ‘big bully’ who acts on behalf of major western nations to steer small nations to serving the geo-political interests of the West. The human rights body in their view is a hypocritical organisation, which accuses small nations like Sri Lanka and Myanmar of war crimes but ignores much bigger war crimes perpetuated by the U.S. and its NATO allies.

Gunawardena in his address to the UNHRC’s 43rd Session on February 26 said that the resolution signed by Samaraweera was against the wishes of the people of Sri Lanka, and that his government is committed to addressing these wishes. The prosperity of Sri Lanka is the Sri Lankan government’s priority to be achieved through security and development, and in the best interests of Sri Lankans.

Foreign Minister Gunawardena laid out a plethora of reasons as to why the Sri Lankan government had decided to withdraw from the co-sponsorship of the Resolution. He said that the Resolution infringed upon the sovereignty of the people of Sri Lanka as well as violated the basic structure of Sri Lanka’s Constitution.

“The previous Government had violated all democratic principles of governance as it declared support for the Resolution even before the draft text was presented, sought no Cabinet approval to bind the country to deliver on the dictates of an international body, had no reference to the Parliament processes, undertakings, and repercussions of such co-sponsorship, and included provisions which were undeliverable due to its inherent illegality, being in violation of the Constitution the supreme law of the country,” the Foreign Minister told the UNHRC.

Gunawardena added that the first Resolution 30/1 of October 2015, and the subsequent Resolution 34/1 of March 2017, have “eroded Sri Lankans’ trust in the international system and the credibility of Sri Lanka as a whole in the eyes of the international community”.

He added: “This irresponsible action also damaged long nurtured regional relationships and Non-Aligned as well as South Asian solidarity. The deliberate polarization it sought to cause through trade-offs that resulted in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy being reduced to a ‘zero-sum game’, made my country a ‘pawn’ on the chess board of global politics, and unnecessarily drew Sri Lanka away from its traditional neutrality.”

Furthermore, It weakened national security which had allowed the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings by alleged Islamic terrorists to take place in Colombo. It is widely believed in Sri Lanka that pressure from UNHRC through these resolutions helped to undermine the military and intelligence services, that have been demoralized.

At the time of the bombing, under intense pressure from Geneva, the Sri Lankan government was drafting a watered-down new anti-terror law, that was to replace the three decades old Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which the UNHRC resolutions asked Sri Lanka to dismantle.

In an interview with a popular current affairs program on Maharaja TV at the weekend, Sri Lanka’s former permanent representative to the UN in New York, Ambassador Dr Palitha Kohona, pointed out that the very countries that were asking for the PTA to be scrapped had much more draconian anti-terror laws to stem ‘Islamic terrorism’.

In response to Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from the sponsorship of the resolution, UNHRC chief Michelle Bachelet said that domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and she regretted the approach the new government (of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa) has taken (to focus on a home-grown remedy).

Commentaries in the local media in Colombo have widely welcomed the government’s move, except for a few Tamil politicians and western-funded NGO spokespeople, who want Sri Lanka to be taken up by the UN Security Council. That will be a no-go with China and Russia firmly backing the Rajapaksa government.

Malinda Seneviratne, writing in the Sunday Observer asked Bachelet to account for dubious reports they have been presenting for the past decade accusing Sri Lanka of war crimes at the end of the 30-year war with the terror group LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). Reports have been framed by their own outcome preferences, he claims.

“None of these ‘reports’ are substantiated. The “sources at best are unreliable”, argues Seneviratne. “We’ve had a lot of that in the past and that’s what went into the substance of the infamous Darusman Report (a report on Sri Lanka war crimes commissioned by former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, based on which the UNHRC needled Sri Lanka at every turn. Eventually, the movers and shakers, principally the USA — which called the UNHRC ‘a cesspool of bias” — (when they moved to investigate Israeli war crimes), got a pliant government to co-sponsor an anti-Sri Lanka resolution (30/1) in 2015.”

A figure of 40,000 missing persons has been quoted regularly by UN sources and the western media to accuse the Sri Lankan army of war crimes when they crushed the LTTE in 2009.

Dr Kohona pointed out in the TV interview that this figure has never been substantiated nor any names produced to support the claim. He said this figure includes the thousands who went missing during the Marxist JVP insurrection in the late 1980s (which were mostly Sinhalese) and those who left by boat to claim asylum in countries like Australia. Because they did not go through immigration procedures, they would be listed as missing. “Those who accuse Sri Lanka of war crimes have to come clean with facts (names) and figures,” said Dr Kohona.

Meanwhile, on March 2, Sri Lanka has rejected a ‘Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief’ tabled at the UNHRC by UN Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed, following his visit to Sri Lanka in August 2019.

Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Dayani Mendis said that claims in the report about Sri Lanka’s security forces colluding with mobs who attacked Muslims (following the Easter Sunday attacks) and not try to prevent such attacks, was inaccurate. She also criticized the report for inaccurately suggesting that there was inaction by authorities to stem such violence, and that criminal investigations into the Easter Sunday attacks by Muslim youth, were portrayed as violation of religious freedom and belief.

“Easter Sunday attacks reminded us that we are fighting a common adversary in terrorism, radicalization and extremism, which is a global threat,” Ambassador Mendis pointed out. “In this context, we consider it unfortunate that the SR’s (Special Rapporteur’s) report has, to a large extent, sought to judge the space for freedom of religion or belief in Sri Lanka through the few months that followed the Easter Sunday attacks,” she said.

“It is also regrettable that the report has sought to portray instances where criminal investigations have been conducted to prevent acts of terrorism in accordance with the law, as an endeavour to violate the freedom of religion or belief,” Mendis added.

She criticized the report for its failure to adequately discuss the drivers and root causes of radicalization of youth from one particular religious community (i.e. Muslims) and a lack of inputs from a broader spectrum of Sri Lankan society (i.e. Sinhalese).

“In describing attacks against and desecration of places of worship, the report has failed to refer to incidents of attacks on and vandalizing of Buddhist places of worship and instances of obstruction of Buddhist devotees in certain areas of the country,” Ambassador Mendis pointed out.

“Any discourse that can yield something positive cannot happen in an environment where outsiders demand that Sri Lankans inhabit their version of Sri Lanka’s reality. It has to happen the other way about. We create room for our story, with all its complexities, contradictions, trauma, despair and hope. That’s something that was ruled out by the Yahapalanists (previous government) and Resolution 30/1,” notes Malinda Seneviratne.


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