Sri Lanka And The UN Human Rights Council – OpEd


The present UN Human Rights Council – UN HRC has been functioning since March 2006, replacing the UN Commission on Human Rights – UN CHR that functioned since 1946. It investigates and resolves issues related to human rights around the world. In other words, this is the UN’s main legislative body working to promote and protect human rights.

The last UN HRC 52nd session was held from February 27th to April 4, 2023. This year, Mr. Vaclav Balek, UN Geneva Representative of the Czech Republic is President of the UN HRC.

One of the differences between the HRC and CHR is that the CHR had 53 members, whereas the present HRC has 47 members. Regionally, these are – 13 for Africa, 13 for Asia, 8 for Latin America or South America, and 7 for Western Europe and America. There are also 6 countries from Eastern Europe.

The other major difference is that the CHR meets only once a year in March, but the HRC meets three times a year – in March, June and September. When necessary, the HRC can call for a Special Session to be held. In 2009 May, there was a Special Session on Sri Lanka. I will give more details below.

The CHR was operating under the Economic and Social Council. By contrast, the HRC operates under the supervision of the UN General Assembly.

In the 52nd session of the UN HRC Sri Lanka was not on the agenda, due to the resolution passed in the 51st session. However, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, Mr. Volga Therk who addressed the 52nd session, mentioned the situation in Sri Lanka. In addition, the co-group on Sri Lanka – Canada, Malawi, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Great Britain and the United States, said that Sri Lanka should implement the resolution passed in the 51st session on Sri Lanka.

In future sessions, the High Commissioner for Human Rights will report on the progress of the resolution on Sri Lanka adopted in the 51st session.

If the HRC is waiting to take any serious action on Sri Lanka, I mean by means of a stronger resolution, this would most likely take place only in the 57th session in September 2024. 

Compared to other massive violators, however, Sri Lanka is smart, and makes use of powerful countries to manage their difficult situation in the UN and elsewhere.

Old wine in a new bottle

One can already see that Ranil’s government is acting under the guise of co-operation but is actually deceiving the international community. There are many examples of this. Here I highlight two. One is the so-called reforming of the Prevention of Terrorism Act – PTA. Some experts say that the new one known as the Anti-Terrorism Act – ATA is worse than the PTA and others say that there are some positive elements in the ATA! If it is resumed, “it is an old wine in a new bottle”.

Secondly, once again Sri Lanka uses South Africa to cover their dirt in the name of ‘truth and reconciliation commission”. This is a local remedy for horrendous human right violations committed over many decades.  Our experience is that Sri Lanka always finds a way to buy time and space, with ulterior motives. South Africans have already burned their fingers during Rajapaksa’s period. I wrote an article on 22 July 2014 titled, “South Africa taken for a ride by President Rajapaksa”. South Africa has not learned anything from the past. Once again, Sri Lanka will take them for another jolly ride! Shame on South Africa.

Here I highlight the HRC agenda items seven (7), eight (8) and nine (9).

Seventh agenda item (7): the “Human Rights Situation in Palestine and Other Occupied Arab Territories”.

Eighth (8): the “Follow-up and Implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action”.

Ninth (9): the “Comprehensive Implementation of Racism, Racial Discrimination, Racism and Related Durban Declaration and Program of Action”.

Palestine & hypocrisy of SL

The seventh (7) agenda item concerns Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem, and the occupied Syrian Golan.

It is worth mentioning that the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an organization of fifty-seven (57) Islamic countries, were the ones responsible for developing such an agenda item in the UN CHR and now in the HRC. Israel does not like this agenda item.

During the last session of the UN HRC, Sri Lanka’s statement under this item was as follows:

Sri Lanka remains concerned at the worsening humanitarian situation in the occupied territories including the recent incidents of violence in Palestinian villages in the occupied West Bank.

The expansion of settlement activities has long-term adverse effects on the living conditions and enjoyment of universal human rights by the Palestinian people.

Sri Lanka remains committed to supporting a negotiated settlement in line with internationally agreed parameters of two states living side by side on the basis of the 1967 borders, which is key to achieving long term security, peace and prosperity”. (Excerpt)

The Sri Lankan statement in solidarity with Palestinians shows their hypocrisy and double standards concerning the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

Vienna Declaration

The eighth (8) agenda item of the HRC is the “Follow-up and Implementation of the Vienna Declaration and Program of Action”.

The second ‘World Human Rights Conference’ was held in Vienna, the capital of Austria, from 14th to 25th June 1993. The HRC examines progress and actions related to its Declaration.

We, the Tamil Centre for Human Rights (TCHR), participated in this conference and held an exhibition on human rights violations committed by the Sri Lankan security forces.

What is special about this is that international journalists who could not bear to see the photos displayed in this exhibition, persuaded Mr. John Amaratunga who participated in this conference as the Sri Lankan representative to visit our exhibition. He did come to see it, looked at the photographs that we exhibited, and had a conversation with us.

Durban Declaration

The ninth (9) agenda item of the HRC is the “Comprehensive Implementation of Racism…..” This Durban Declaration and Program of Action was the initiative of the UN World Conference against Racism that took place in Durban in South Africa in 2001.

TCHR participated in this conference and held an exhibition on human rights violations. Here, present Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella told me that he was working on a solution to the Tamil question. Now 23 years have passed. What has happened to that solution to the ethnic conflict?

The next session of the UN HRC, its 53rd, will begin in June.

Special Session

On 26th and 27th May 2009, there was a Special Session on Sri Lanka in the UN HRC. To request a Special Session at least sixteen members of the HRC must make an appeal to the President of the HRC. During the war, there were many attempts made by various countries to raise the issue in the UN Security Council as well as in the UN HRC. But due to Indian pressure and lobbying, none of them were successful!

Eventually seventeen members (Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Mauritius, Mexico, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Slovakia, South Korea, Switzerland, Ukraine, Uruguay, and the United Kingdom) requested the Special session. This was the 11th Special Session of the HRC.

However, while this Special Session on Sri Lanka was taking place between May 26 and 27, 2009, and while the seventeen member countries were getting ready to submit a resolution against Sri Lanka on various issues – Sri Lanka, with the help of India, Cuba, Pakistan and Brazil submitted a resolution in their own favour. This is known as – S-11/1 Assistance to Sri Lanka in the promotion and protection of human rights. Then Indian Ambassador Mr Gopinathan Achamkulangare wrote this draft resolution. 

During that time, Sri Lanka had the full support of India. This Special Session was manipulated by Sri Lanka to produce something in their own favour, with the support of the above countries.

This created turmoil in the Special Session as to which resolution was to be discussed. Eventually, after a vote, Sri Lanka’s resolution was given a chance. All this happened because of India. The result of the resolution is given below. 

In favour:         (29) Angola, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Djibouti, Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Madagascar, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Russian Federation, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Africa, Uruguay, Zambia.

Against:           (12) Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Abstaining:      (06) Argentina, Gabon, Japan, Mauritius, Republic of Korea (South Korea), Ukraine.

Not a victory for Sri Lanka

This is a typical example to show how countries in the world united to help Sri Lanka in the war. It happened in the UN Security Council, as well as during the UN HRC resolution process. 

During that time none of the Sinhala Buddhist extremists ever spoke about outside interference in their affairs – it is hypocrisy and opportunism.

Anyone with analytical skills can easily understand that this resolution was not a victory for Sri Lanka as Dayan Jayatilleka is boasting. Only twenty-nine countries voted in favour including South Africa, Uruguay, Zambia, Nigeria, Ghana, Angola, Cameroon and Brazil. India lobbied these countries very strongly, using the “Joint statement by UN Secretary-General, Government of Sri Lanka” of 26 May 2009. This underlined the importance of an accountability process, which has not taken place for the last thirteen years. The joint statement says:

“Sri Lanka reiterated its strongest commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights, in keeping with international human rights standards and Sri Lanka’s international obligations.  The Secretary-General underlined the importance of an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.  The Government will take measures to address those grievances”. (Excerpt)

During this period, there are other factors that should also be considered. The majority of Tamils all over the world were devastated. People in the North and East were undergoing severe hardship and suffering. Human bodies were scattered all over Mullivaghzhal. Thousands of cadres and hundreds of innocent people were under detention and needing treatment for their severe physical injuries. In such a situation, the diaspora was not in a situation to lobby member countries. This is how Sri Lanka managed the resolution in their favour in the UN HRC.

Cheque that bounced

During the two days Special Session many interventions were made by states and NGOs. Here follows two excerpts from the UN Press release:

VISUVALINGAM KIRUPAHARAN, of Interfaith International, observed that this Special Session had been called after the cold-blooded massacre of more than 20,000 civilians in several days. Today, where were those who had survived? They were in concentration camps, far away from their habitual residence, surrounded by razor barbed wire and without food, medicine or freedom of movement. It was now more than a week since those killings had taken place and international agencies and observers were still not permitted to enter that area. In fact, Sri Lanka was in the process of clearing away the evidence in the same way it had done before in various parts of the north and east, including when 600 Tamils had “disappeared” and had been killed by the Sri Lankan security forces in the area called Chemmani in Jaffa. The laws of right conduct in war had been flagrantly and consistently breached by Sri Lanka – the 1949 Geneva Conventions and its 1977 protocols, as well as the Hague Conventions. Sri Lanka’s war crimes and genocide against the Tamil people had been well documented for a very long time. (UN Press release)

DAYAN JAYATILLEKA (Sri Lanka), speaking as a concerned country, said Sri Lanka was saddened by the comments made by certain delegations as they did not reflect accurately the process that had taken place over several weeks. The Special Session had been canvassed for several weeks because they wanted to address the situation of civilians that had been trapped by terrorists. That situation had been transferred totally and radically. There were no longer any civilians trapped in the crossfire in a conflict zone. There was therefore no rationale for this Special Session with a regular session just a few days away.

What then was the rationale for the holding of the Special Session? It did not take much decoding with high officials making statements above the fray on the guilt of Sri Lanka, to Special Procedures who had clearly exceeded the Code of Conduct, to the cries of countries shouting war crimes!”, just one week after the war. And this from those who said that Iraq was harbouring weapons of mass destruction. These were people from whom Sri Lanka would not buy a used car. So much for inclusiveness that was supposed to be the hallmark of the new Council. Draft resolution L.1/Rev.2 was not a blank check for the Government of Sri Lanka; it comprehended the totality of the agreement with the Secretary-General. But it was not a punitive measure either. It was not a manifesto for a lynch mob. (UN Press releases cover only selected paragraphs)

The cheque that Dayan was referring to is a ‘cheque that bounced! In other words, Dayan is answerable regarding this forgery in UN HRC.

S.V. Kirubaharan

S.V. Kirubaharan is the Founder General Secretary of the Tamil Centre for Human Rights – TCHR.

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