By Raja Ram
The resolution on reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka adopted at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on March 22 by a vote of 24 to 15 is a legitimate exercise by the international community and not an act of unwarranted external interference in Sri Lanka’s internal Affairs, says Sri Lanka’s Friday Forum in a recent public statement.
Demonstrations of public sentiment decrying the UNHRC resolution and the premises on which it is based were widespread in Sri Lanka before and after the resolution was adopted. Threats were uttered against those who did not oppose the resolution.
The Friday Forum is “an informal gathering of public spirited persons who are dedicated to promoting peace and development in Sri Lanka within a framework of democracy, social justice and pluralism,” says a member, Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala, former UN Under Secretary General for Disarmament and currently president of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. Members of the Forum work together to shed light on public issues when heat and sound dominate, says an observer.
Other members of the Forum include Rt Revd Duleep de Chickera, Anglican Bishop Emeritus of Colombo, Prof of Law, Dr. Savitri Goonesekere, Educationist Dr. Devan Nasiah, and well-known scholar and author Dr. Ranjini Obeyesekere.
The Forum points out in its recent statement that “raising issues concerning the situation on human rights in the UNHRC is legitimate because Sri Lanka is a member of the international community and a State bound by the UN Charter and international treaties ratified over a period of time.”
By joining the UN and endorsing a number of international conventions, Sri Lanka has made itself accountable for its human rights record. Scrutiny by the UN and members of the UN family of organisations cannot be avoided and cannot be shrugged off as unwarranted interference.
The text of the Friday Forum statement follows:
The Resolution No 19/2 on Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka that was adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva on 22nd March 2012 calls upon the government of Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) that was appointed by the President. The adoption of the Resolution has created an environment in which deeply divided and sometimes misleading views are being expressed in regard to the content of the Resolution, what happened in Geneva, and the way forward. The Friday Forum therefore wishes to place before the public some important facts, and raise some issues which must concern all Sri Lankans at this time.
It is important to recall that the Cabinet appointed an Inter-Agency Advisory Committee (IAAC) to implement the interim recommendations made by the LLRC before it concluded its work. The IAAC produced a ‘progress report’ that did not indicate any concrete action taken in regard to the specific interim recommendations. In November 2011, the LLRC presented its final report to the President. The report did not meet all our expectations but it has an analysis and recommendations which can assist the government to address the challenging task of building national reconciliation with respect for the rule of law in accordance with norms of democratic governance. Its recommendations on the need for effective law enforcement that prevents serious human rights violations such as abductions and extra judicial killings require a response from the government.
In his Independence Day message to the nation the President confirmed that steps had already been taken to begin implementing the recommendations of the LLRC sometime later. There were various diplomatic initiatives concerning the LLRC report and eventually the U.S. presented a Resolution on its implementation at the 19th regular sessions of the UNHRC in Geneva in March 2012. The government delegation resisted this initiative, emphasising in various fora that the process of implementation had already begun and it needed more time to demonstrate progress. The U.S. resolution was however adopted at the conclusion of the Sessions by 24 votes to 15 with 8 abstaining.
It is being said that though the vote on the Resolution was carried by 24 in favour to 15 against, the 8 countries abstaining were in fact voting against the resolution. This statement is misleading the public since by any norms of voting, people or countries abstain because they do not wish to vote either for or against a particular motion. Consequently the effective vote reflects a majority of 24 for and 15 against the resolution.
It is unfortunate that the public is constantly being told that the resolution represents an unwarranted external interference by the international community in the affairs of the country. The international community is therefore presented as a distinct entity which is alien to Sri Lanka. The Friday Forum wishes to point out that raising issues concerning the situation on human rights in the UNHRC is legitimate because Sri Lanka is a member of the international community and a State bound by the UN Charter and international treaties ratified over a period of time.
The UN Charter and these treaties bind all States that are parties to these documents. The idea of State sovereignty cannot therefore be misrepresented to suggest that there can be no scrutiny of events in Sri Lanka. By accepting the UN Charter and these treaties Sri Lanka has voluntarily made itself accountable to a progress review on implementation of the human rights standards set by them and this process of scrutiny cannot be avoided. None of this is seen as interference in our internal affairs or a violation of our sovereignty.
It is also important that all Sri Lankans form their views on what happened in Geneva and its aftermath on the basis of an accurate reading of the text of the resolution rather than the misinformation that is being placed in the public domain. What it requires is that the LLRC Report should be implemented through a clear action plan and additional steps should be taken by the government to fulfil Sri Lanka’s “relevant legal obligations and commitments to initiate credible and independent actions to ensure justice, equity, accountability and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans.”
The resolution, either in its initial drafts or as adopted, did not contemplate the UNHRC forcing Sri Lanka to obtain advice and technical expertise from the international human rights mechanisms. The office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights and Special Procedure mandate holders can only come to a country at the invitation of its government. (In fact the Special Procedure mandate holder on torture visited this country at the invitation of the government).
This was implicit in the original resolution but was stated clearly in the amendment introduced by India which now reads: “Encourages the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and relevant special procedures mandate holders to provide, in consultation with, and with the concurrence of, the Government of Sir Lanka, advice and technical assistance on implementation the above-mentioned steps; and requests the Office of the High Commissioner to present a report on the provision of such assistance to the Human Rights Council at its twenty-second session.”
The Friday Forum has already pointed out that it is now necessary for the Government to keep to the promises made in Geneva and to the public and draw up and present an action plan or road map for the implementation of the LLRC recommendations. Several Ministers have made contradictory public statements in regard to the implementation of the LLRC report. Some have suggested that Sri Lanka is not bound to implement the report at all, and others have said that only some recommendations will be implemented. Ministers as well as critics of the resolution have accused countries supporting it of hypocrisy and double standards. Yet when government spokespersons backtrack on assurance they made in Geneva on measures taken to implement the LLRC report, this only serves to undermine the credibility of the government and the President in the eyes of the international community and the public of Sri Lanka.
All of us as citizens should be concerned regarding the extreme intolerance for differing views that has emerged in the aftermath of the resolution. Any expressions of views that do not support the government position have been highlighted in vicious and intemperate language in the State media as acts of treason. The right to hold and express different views without incitement to violence is guaranteed by our Constitution as a fundamental right which both the State and citizens are required to respect and protect. Under the international treaties ratified by Sri Lanka and our own International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act (2007) enacted by this government, “every citizen has the right and opportunity to take part in the conduct of public affairs.”
The participation of civil society and citizens is expected when matters concerning a country are raised before international bodies. In fact His Excellency the President Mahinda Rajapakse as a Member of Parliament in the Opposition presented information on the violation of human rights in Sri Lanka to an international body and was reportedly assisted by our current Ambassador and Permanent Representative in Geneva at the time. The failure to understand this has put at risk those citizens of Sri Lanka who legitimately travelled to Geneva to express a different point of view and support the resolution. It has also endangered others who did not do so and did not even articulate views but who have nevertheless been targeted by the government media agencies.
Some media agencies have also reported that Minister Mervin Silva at a public meeting called those persons who went to Geneva in support of the resolution as traitors and threatened to break their limbs in public. If he did so, this threat of criminal conduct is a matter to be investigated by the Police, and cannot be ignored by the government. We as citizens have a right to demand an official response from the government which makes the Minister also accountable for violating his oath of office, and the Constitution of Sri Lanka which he undertook to uphold. We call upon His Excellency the President to prevent personal attacks on citizens in the State media, in complete disregard of professional ethics and the laws and standards regulating the press.
Much of the aggressiveness that we have seen in relation to the events of the past few weeks indicates that despite the end of the armed conflict there is a constant obsession with achieving victory and a dominant concern with not being defeated. This is manifested in many of the statements even in the media on the adoption of the resolution, such as “we have achieved victory in defeat” and “we have only lost the resolution by one vote.” This is hardly the path to achieving peace and reconciliation. The words of the Dhammapada that “victory breeds hatred, the defeated live in pain, happily the wise live giving up the idea of victory and defeat” have special relevance for all Sri Lankans at this time.