Editorial/Opinion

Political bunkum and UNHRC bogey

The 40th United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions concluded on Friday, 22 March with Sri Lanka being given two more years to honour its original commitments to the Council as per Resolution 30/1 of 2015.
Although UNHRC Chief Michele Bachelet presented a critical report faulting Sri Lanka for its lack of progress on many counts, the final draft Resolution 40/1 of 2019 in fact acknowledged the progress that had been made while extending the time period granted to comply with the original resolution.
The run up to the sessions were as eventful as the session itself with the President deciding to send a delegation of his own in addition to the official government delegation led by Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana.
If the President had his way, the country would have faced a threat of its standing before the international community being undermined. Eventually, Marapana’s delegation headed out to Geneva with MP Dr. Sarath Amunugama and Northern Province Governor Suren Raghavan.
The final resolution that was adopted requires the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to review Sri Lanka’s progress at the end of two years and provide the Council with an update at its 43rd session while a comprehensive report is to be submitted at its 46th session.
The Government has managed to clear the first hurdle of securing time but measures must now be introduced to ensure proper mechanisms are put in place for complying with Resolution 30/1. Primary among these is the setting up of special courts, but Foreign Minister Marapana echoed the sentiments expressed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that there was no constitutional provision to set up such courts in the country.
Marapana pointed out that judicial independence had now been restored and Sri Lanka had faith in its homegrown system. However, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), probably in an attempt to appease its more radical supporters, has taken up the stance that it will not budge from its demand to set up special courts with foreign judges to hear war time human rights cases.
TNA MP M.A. Sumanthiran went a step further and threatened to call for the setting of an international tribunal if the Government failed to agree to setting up such courts. He pointed out that by cosponsoring the latest resolution, the Government had in fact committed to setting up special courts.
Be that as it may, the Government delegation has made it clear that Sri Lanka will not agree to setting up an international judicial mechanism to probe alleged human rights violations. It has also rejected High Commissioner Bachelet’s proposal to set up a permanent Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Sri Lanka.
These radical measures were first proposed in 2015 when the independence of the judiciary was in question. In the pre-2015 era, it was an open secret that the Chief Justice himself was a regular visitor at Temple Trees and his predecessor was removed under questionable circumstances for not obliging the powers that be. It is this background that precipitated the call for independent foreign judges.
However, in the past four years, judicial independence has been restored to a large extent through the establishment of the independent commissions and the manner in which the judiciary acted during the 52-day political saga last year has put paid to any doubts about its integrity.
President Sirisena has been lamenting that he is unable to even appoint a judge to the superior courts as all his nominees have been rejected by the Constitutional Council which is now the appointing authority.
Given these developments it seems the UNHRC may be out of touch with the ground reality and needs to be apprised of the fact that Sri Lanka now has an independent judiciary which even the likes of TNA’s Sumanthiran will grudgingly agree on.
As with any sovereign, democratic country, Sri Lanka should be entitled to solve its issues in its own way while respecting international concerns. The fact that the Resolution cosponsored by Sri Lanka was adopted without a vote being taken points to the realisation of this fundamental fact.
One must also bear in mind that UN involvement in Sri Lanka’s post conflict scenario was brought about by a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the UN Secretary General in the immediate aftermath of the war back in 2009.
It is this MOU that led to Sri Lanka being held to an international accountability process which will continue to drag on for another six years until the final report is submitted to the UNHRC as resolved last week in Geneva.
The process itself is not without merit as it ensures redress for thousands of war victims whose cry for justice may not have otherwise been heard. The UN Resolution adopted last week aims to promote reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka while fully recognising the country’s sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity.
The Resolution also notes the “strong role played by democratic institutions in Sri Lanka in the peaceful resolution of the political crisis last year,” indicating that the UN body has duly noted the independent role played by the judiciary in resolving the issue.
It also commends the setting up of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) last year and the return of private lands held by the security forces while welcoming the establishment of the Office of Reparations, steps taken to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and replacing the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with new legislation. It finally calls for a time bound implementation strategy with regard to the proposed measures.
As is to be expected, politicians of all hues are now falling over each other with their own interpretations of the sessions in Geneva. Although there is no longer any talk of electric chairs, there are the prophets of doom predicting dire consequences for the country as a result of it cosponsoring the latest resolution. Going by the actual contents of the Resolution, it is clear that political bunkum on the UNHRC bogey is the order of the day.