Human Rights and Political Agendas in Geneva - 28th September 2007

Reflections on the 6th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council which concluded in Geneva, Switzerland on September 28th 2007  (2007) 
by Rajiva Wijesinha

The Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the UN Office at Geneva & the Consulate General of Sri Lanka in Switzerland

The 6th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council concluded in Geneva on September 28th without any resolution on Sri Lanka. This seems to have come as a surprise to a few human rights activists, since for the last month or so some newspapers and websites have been full of the dire criticism that awaited Sri Lanka in Geneva.

The explanation now is that Sri Lanka was saved by ‘like minded banana republics and potty regimes’ to quote perhaps the least subtle of the critics of the government. Such a description of countries like China and India and Japan, who were enormously supportive of Sri Lanka, along with a plethora of nations from the Americas and the Middle East and Africa and Europe too, only emphasizes the myopic world in which some Sri Lankan critics of the government live.

I mentioned Europe last because, in the minds of both terrorists and morally if never financially bankrupt Sri Lanka politicians, it was Europe that was to lead the charge against Sri Lanka. There were confident assertions that the European Union would present a resolution against Sri Lanka. One paper claimed that there was a debate about Sri Lanka in the European Parliament, when what really happened was that one European MP invited Charu Hogg of Human Rights Watch to make a presentation which was duly attended by just one other MP.

The European Union did not present any resolution on Sri Lanka, and an earlier resolution lapsed. Nor did it propose a UN monitoring mission for Sri Lanka, as has been claimed by some media outlets, who had assumed that sovereign nations they thought of as their tame allies would simply parrot the demands of a few NGOs.

The European Union statement simple strongly encouraged Sri Lanka ‘to agree with the Office of High Commissioner on the establishment of an OHCHR monitoring field presence in Sri Lanka’. This it seems was as far as even the most critical of the Europeans was able to carry the rest, and obviously depends on either the High Commissioner or the Sri Lankan government initiating such a proposal. The emotive term ‘calls for’, which had been stressed earlier by the prophets of doom, was nowhere in evidence.

The phrase that was used however is ambiguous, and might lead to some assuming that the High Commissioner had already proposed the establishment of such a field presence. The Sri Lankan delegation clarified the position with the High Commissioner who was categorical in declaring that the issue had not been pre-judged. Of course there are doubtless those engaged in the industry who have assumed that the proposal has already been drafted, and hope perhaps to be recruited to appropriate positions in what they trust will be a grand office. Congruent aspirations are shared by dabblers in local politics, hopeful that such evidence of the international isolation of the democratically elected Sri Lankan government will contribute to regime change. But the short answer is that the Sri Lankan government, which has invited the High Commissioner, while looking forward to her suggestions to improve the situation, will not be stampeded into fulfilling the agenda of organizations and individuals reliant not on evidence but on prejudice.

That the NGOs who had been so confident earlier understood the hollowness of their claims was apparent from their absence from the discussions organized by the Sri Lankan Mission in Geneva. The International Commission of Jurists, still unable to acknowledge that their allegation that Sri Lankan officials tampered with evidence was wholly without foundation, did not attend any of these events. Their contribution to the debate on the subject in the plenary session lumped Sri Lanka together with Myanmar and the Sudan and the United States as examples of states where egregious violations of human rights took place. The impression was that, after the strenuous efforts of the past, they have now acknowledged that under their present leadership they can deal only in extravagant verbosity.

Human Rights Watch, in the plenary, concentrated on other nations and only made a passing reference to Sri Lanka together with Somalia. However one representative attended one of the discussions on Sri Lanka organized by the Mission, to affirm that HRW stood completely by its researcher Charu Hogg. She confirmed that this applied even to the illegal activities of Ms Hogg who had entered Sri Lanka on a tourist visa to engage in research for her professional work. The issue of child soldiers was also raised, and the position the Sri Lankan delegation took up was amply bolstered by the report of Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Rapporteur on the subject, who pointed out that the LTTE had not committed ‘to the full release of children under the age of 18 years in contravention to applicable national and international law’. This conclusively nailed the canard that had been floating around since the Ceasefire Agreement, that LTTE pronouncements had the status of law and could supersede national Sri Lankan law.

Amazingly, one international NGO that has been closely associated with the LTTE came into the open during the plenary debate on Ms Coomaraswamy’s statement and claimed that the ‘accepted international law age is 15’. This was followed a few days later by what seemed another front NGO complaining about racism in Sri Lanka, which allowed the Sri Lankan delegation to point out that the worst racism in the country was on the part of the LTTE, which had engaged in the only known instance of ethnic cleansing, in 1990, when it drove out Muslims from the north.

It was also noted that internecine racism, the murder of members of other Tamil organizations and of Tamils who worked for the state – most notably Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and Deputy Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat Kethesh Loganathan, after they had been described as collaborators in internet LTTE propaganda – was characteristic of the LTTE. Given that the LTTE and supportive NGOs had sought to present the problems in Sri Lanka as springing from a dichotomy between a Sinhala state and oppressed Tamils, the opportunity to illustrate the decimation of Tamils and other minorities by the LTTE helped to redress the balance. As a diplomat from a concerned country put it, for once the international community could hear the real story.

The most serious critique of Sri Lanka came from Amnesty International, which attended various discussions on Sri Lanka and took up the suggestion for detailed discussion. Though Sri Lanka had been disappointed previously in some aspects of the AI report, not only its ridiculous denigratory campaign during the Cricket World Cup, but also what seemed support for LTTE legislation in the approach of its former Secretary General Ian Martin during negotiations with the Tigers in 2003, the delegation welcomed the opportunity to discuss future action, based on the less emotive approach adopted by AI at an earlier meeting chaired by the Minister for Human Rights and Disaster Management in early September.

It did however suggest that AI could be more effective if it was more selective about the company it kept, and did not allow itself to be associated with organizations that clearly had a political agenda. AI was reminded of actions they had agreed to do after the earlier discussion which would facilitate changes to the 17th amendment to ensure the establishment of more clearly independent bodies. The Sri Lankan delegation agreed to answer any queries that remained following that comprehensive discussion, during which it transpired that many of the suggestions made by AI were already in process of implementation. It was pointed out therefore that AI’s suggestion of a UN field presence was inappropriate, and that better attention to the ground situation through regular contact should lead to more accurate reporting than was possible through involvement only with particular NGOs. While AI indicated that it would work together with others, it made it clear that it had not been associated with particular extravagant claims and agreed to keep in touch with appropriate state and government bodies.

The most intemperate public assaults however on the Sri Lankan government came understandably enough from Sri Lankan NGOs, who were able to stay for long periods in Geneva to vent their wrath. Representatives of some of them were reported as having previously been touring various European capitals to drum up support for their criticisms. Entertainingly enough the greatest attention to Sri Lanka was paid during the plenary by a couple of countries which were reported as having been principal ports of call in this royal tour. More entertainingly, newspaper reporting in Sri Lanka highlighted instead only the poor Canadian ambassador, Marcus Grinius, who was named as having ‘condemned Sri Lanka’s deteriorating HR situation including displacement of civilians’. The Sri Lankan delegation was assured by his deputy that nothing of the sort had happened, which was in line with the helpful discussion conducted with the Canadian mission earlier in September as well as the actual Canadian statement.

The clear conclusion then is that a politically motivated lobby, willing shamelessly to make up stories (such as the claim that Sri Lankan soldiers killed by terrorist action were amongst several hundreds who had disappeared), anticipated a grand attack on Sri Lanka, supported not only by the LTTE and its front organizations, not only by the current leadership of the UNP as it abandons federalism in its desperate search for allies to catapult it back to power, but also by the international community. Its hopes now shattered, this bizarre lobby, having only now discovered that the United Nations Human Rights Council is dominated by regimes of which it disapproves, trusts that the United Nations High Commissioner will produce a pre-written report on the lines critics of the Sri Lankan government have long been pushing. It believes that the entire European Union will return then to the attack, succumbing to the deathless prose of the United National Party, in its new statement that has now been sent to all permanent missions in New York.

And thus, it is hoped, Sri Lanka will be isolated, the economy will collapse, drums will roll and the prince of peace will return to the throne. And then the whirligig of destruction will start again, the decimation of non-LTTE Tamils, the stockpiling of weapons, the building of bunkers in cleared and uncleared areas will recommence, while the crocodile tears will dry and we will be back to the jolly camaraderie of 2002 / 2003 that the country has so conclusively rejected in two consecutive elections.

Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

Secretary General

Secretariat for Co-ordinating the Peace Process