Daggers drawn at UNHRC as SL leans on China bloc
- 10 out of 47 voting members strongly back SL
- India signals neutrality in address to Council
- SL vigorously opposes UN interference
- SLFP rallies around Sirisena after Easter report
Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is currently facing a litmus test like never before with pressure intensifying before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) at its 46th Session with High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet standing steadfast on what she calls the need for a proper mechanism to ensure accountability in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s neighbour and long-standing ally, India, is, meanwhile, for the first time, adopting an icily neutral position on the island.
The Sri Lankan Government finally decided not to present a homegrown resolution to the Council, as earlier indicated, and decided to lobby among member states for support against the High Commissioner’s report and the resolution presented on Sri Lanka by the Core Group.
The Sri Lankan Government officially sought the support of India last week at the ongoing UNHRC sessions, but India it is learnt, had not officially responded to the request.
Foreign Ministry Secretary Prof. Jayanath Colombage had earlier stated that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had sent written requests to multiple heads of states, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to obtain their support to vote against the resolution.
So far, the UK, Norway, Canada, the US, Germany, and the European Union (EU) have spoken in support of the concerns raised by the UNHRC High Commissioner in her report on Sri Lanka.
India and Japan seem to have taken a neutral position while Australia has signalled a moderate tone.
It seems like 21 countries have spoken in support of the Sri Lankan Government’s position, of whom 10 are voting member states of the UNHRC.
These countries are Russia, China, Pakistan, Iran, Vietnam, the Maldives, Cuba, Nicaragua, Eritrea, Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, Azerbaijan, Vietnam, Belarus, North Korea, Gabon, the Philippines, Syria, and Egypt.
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the Council on Monday (22) that the UK will present a new resolution on Sri Lanka to maintain the focus on reconciliation and accountability.
“Madam President, we want to see an effective international human rights system that holds to account those who systematically violate human rights. The Human Rights Council must be ready to play its role in full, or I fear we will see its reputation sorely damaged,” the Foreign Secretary said in his speech.
He said the UK wants the Council to succeed and so it will work with its international partners and continue to speak up in the Council for what is right.
UK’s Minister for the UNHRC Lord Tariq Ahmad had said the UNHRC must continue to consider the situation in Sri Lanka and press for progress on justice, reconciliation, and accountability, and improved respect for human rights.
Delivering a statement during the Interactive Dialogue with the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Sri Lanka, the Minister said the UK welcomes the High Commissioner’s detailed and most comprehensive report on Sri Lanka.
“We share the concerns regarding the reversal of progress on issues of accountability, and also the current human rights situation, and the risk and recurrence of past violations.
“We are also concerned at the increase in surveillance and indeed harassment of civil society actors, the militarisation of these civilian governmental functions, and the impact of the Government’s forced cremation policy on different communities in Sri Lanka, particularly the Muslim community, who continue to face persecution.
“We also regret the Government of Sri Lanka’s decision to withdraw support for Resolution 30/1, and note that previous domestic initiatives have all failed regrettably to deliver meaningful accountability.
“The appointment of senior military officials allegedly implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity also calls into question Sri Lanka’s commitment to accountability and justice.
“Therefore, the Human Rights Council must continue to consider the situation in Sri Lanka and press for progress on justice, reconciliation, and accountability, and improved respect for human rights.
“Enhanced monitoring by the Office of the High Commissioner is critical to support this.
“Together with our Core Group partners, we will present a new resolution to continue the Council’s engagement on these important issues, and have indicated our desire to work with the Government of Sri Lanka in support of accountability and lasting reconciliation for all communities,” he said.
Meanwhile, another member of Sri Lanka’s Core Group, Canada, stated that the recent report of the UN Human Rights High Commissioner highlighted the need for the UNHRC to ensure accountability for crimes committed in Sri Lanka.
Speaking at the ongoing Council session, Canadian Foreign Minister Marc Garneau said Canada is deeply concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka.
“Threats to human rights defenders and civil society organisations, suppression of memorialisation, forced cremations of religious minorities, and the deterioration of the rule of law continue in Sri Lanka,” Garneau said.
He said Canada will continue to support measures that will support accountability, reconciliation, and peace in Sri Lanka.
Also addressing the Council, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken last week backed the resolution on Sri Lanka due to lack of accountability for past atrocities in the country.
In his remarks, Blinken said: “We encourage the Council to support resolutions at this session, addressing issues of concern around the world, including ongoing human rights violations in Syria and North Korea, the lack of accountability for past atrocities in Sri Lanka, and the need for further investigation into the situation in South Sudan.”
India pushes 13A
One of the much-looked-forward-to speeches was delivered by the Indian Envoy in Geneva. India last week told the UNHRC that Sri Lanka must respect the rights of the Tamils.
Ambassador Indra Mani Pandey, the Permanent Representative of India to Geneva, addressing the 46th Session said that India has taken note of the High Commissioner’s report on Sri Lanka and her oral remarks.
Pandey noted that the Council has adopted seven resolutions on the question of human rights in Sri Lanka since May 2009, when the three-decade-old conflict ended.
“India has been an active participant in the discussions on these resolutions and has remained engaged with Sri Lanka as its close friend and immediate neighbour,” he said.
The Ambassador said that India’s consistent position rests on two pillars. One is to support Sri Lanka’s unity and territorial integrity, and the other is the abiding commitment to the aspirations of the Tamils of Sri Lanka for equality, justice, peace, and dignity.
“These are not either-or choices. We believe that respecting the rights of the Tamil community, including through meaningful devolution, contributes directly to the unity and integrity of Sri Lanka. Therefore, we advocate that delivering on the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil community is in the best interests of Sri Lanka,” the Ambassador said.
India called on Sri Lanka to take necessary steps to address such aspirations, including through the process of reconciliation and full implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka.
The Ambassador said that the assessment of the High Commissioner regarding developments nearly 12 years from the end of the conflict, raises important concerns.
Pandey also said the Sri Lankan Government has articulated its position on these issues as well.
UNHRC High Commissioner Bachelet on Wednesday (24) said the Government of Sri Lanka has largely closed the door on the possibility of genuine progress to end impunity through a national process by repeatedly failing to advance accountability for past human rights violations committed, and by withdrawing its support for the Council’s Resolution 30/1 and related measures.
In a statement made to the 46th Council session on the Report of OHCHR on promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka, Bachelet said domestic initiatives have repeatedly failed to ensure justice for victims and promote reconciliation nearly 12 years after the end of the armed conflict.
She said despite the commitments made in 2015, the current Government, like its predecessor, has failed to pursue genuine truth-seeking or accountability processes.
“The impact on thousands of survivors, from all communities, is devastating. Moreover, the systems, structures, policies, and personnel that gave rise to such grave violations in the past remain – and have recently been reinforced.
“Addressing grievances and redressing past violations are critical prevention tools at the core of the Council’s work. Our report highlights disturbing trends over the past year, which warn of a serious deterioration in key areas.
“The space for civil society and independent media, which had grown significantly, is now rapidly shrinking.
“The independence of the judiciary, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, the National Police Commission, and other key bodies have been deeply eroded by the recently adopted 20th Constitutional Amendment.
“The growing militarisation of key civilian functions is encroaching on democratic governance. The continued failure to implement comprehensive reforms – or to vet personnel – leaves in place security and military officers who have been implicated in alleged grave crimes and violations.
“Tamil and Muslim minorities are being excluded by divisive and discriminatory rhetoric including from the highest state officials.
“The policy of forced cremation of Covid-19 victims has caused pain and distress to the minority Muslim and Christian communities.
“In other words, long-standing structural and systemic issues persist in Sri Lanka, and now there are clear warning signs that past patterns of violations could be repeated.
“Successive government commissions have failed to credibly establish truth and ensure accountability. Indeed, the Government has obstructed investigations and judicial proceedings into emblematic human rights cases.
“The latest commission of inquiry, appointed in January 2021 to review the findings of previous commissions, promises to repeat this cycle without meaningful result.
“By repeatedly failing to advance accountability for past human rights violations committed, and by withdrawing its support for the Council’s Resolution 30/1 and related measures, the Government has largely closed the door on the possibility of genuine progress to end impunity through a national process.
“For these reasons, I call on the Council to explore new ways to advance various types of accountability at the international level, for all parties, and seek redress for victims, including by supporting a dedicated capacity to collect and preserve evidence and information for future accountability processes, as well as to support relevant judicial proceedings in member states.
“My office stands ready to continue monitoring the human rights situation, including progress towards accountability and reconciliation,” Bachelet said.
In response to the OHCHR report which was presented at the UNHRC, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena said Sri Lanka regretted the disproportionate attention drawn to the country by the Council, driven by political motivations.
“Sri Lanka calls upon the members of this Council that any resolution which is based on this report, be rejected by the Council and be brought to a closure. We remain open to engaging constructively with the UN, including this Council, and the international community in mutually agreed areas, in conformity with the Constitution and in keeping with domestic priorities and policies,” the Foreign Minister said.
Speaking under the agenda item 2: Interactive Dialogue on the OHCHR report “promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka”, Minister Gunawardena reiterated that Sri Lanka rejects the High Commissioner’s report.
“This report has unjustifiably broadened its scope and mandate further, incorporating many issues of governance and matters that are essentially domestic for any self-respecting, sovereign country. This is in complete violation of Article 2 (7) of the Charter of the UN that states: “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorise the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state…”
“The trajectory that has emerged with regard to the recommendations and conclusions reflects the preconceived, politicised, and prejudicial agenda which certain elements have relentlessly pursued against Sri Lanka. These recommendations are based on ill-founded allegations.
“Sri Lanka categorically rejects the conclusions and recommendations in the High Commissioner’s report.
“The call for asset freezes, travel bans, references to the ICC (International Criminal Court), and the exercise of universal jurisdiction by individual states, based on evidence that up to date has been denied access to and retained by the High Commissioner’s Office with some of it unreleased for 30 years, particularly in relation to a country like Sri Lanka which has consistently and constructively engaged with the UN and its mechanisms, points to a distinct and eminent (sic) danger which the international community as a whole need to take note of. Such unilateral actions by certain countries are unacceptable and a violation of the principles of natural justice.
“In addition to the progress made since last March, Sri Lanka has provided written comments on instances of erroneous information, misconceived and arbitrary assessments in the report. It is regrettable that the High Commissioner’s Office published its report, accompanied by an unprecedented propaganda campaign on it and refused to publish our comments on the report as an addendum. This has deprived Sri Lanka and members of equal visibility of Sri Lanka’s views on the report.
“Sri Lanka refutes the allegations that have been reproduced in the High Commissioner’s report, from the highly contentious report of the Panel of Experts (PoE) on Accountability and the report of the High Commissioner’s Office Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL), which have been rejected by Sri Lanka for reasons explained to this Council before.
“The contents of the report which have been drawn from the said disputed reports are rife with factual inaccuracies that appear to equate atrocities committed by the LTTE, a terrorist organisation proscribed internationally, with legitimate action taken by the Government to safeguard the territorial integrity of the country and the right to life of our people.
“Insistence on ever-expanding externally driven prescriptions, notwithstanding our continuous co-operation and engagement with this Council and all UN bodies, can pose numerous challenges and such processes could set a dangerous precedent affecting all member states of the UN,” the Foreign Minister said.
Turning to China
Foreign Minister Gunawardena last Wednesday had a telephone conversation with State Councillor and Foreign Minister of China Wang Yi.
Both Ministers discussed at length matters relevant to the development partnership and co-operation in international fora.
Also, Yi had said China was ready to enhance anti-pandemic co-operation with Sri Lanka and continue to provide vaccine assistance to the country, CGTN said on Thursday (25).
During the phone conversation, Yi had said China is also ready to take concrete actions to help Sri Lanka defeat the pandemic at an early date.
Yi had called on the two sides to make solid progress in co-operation within the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), turning the Colombo Port City and the Hambantota Port into two major engines to boost Sri Lanka’s economic development, pushing for Sri Lanka’s industrialisation, and enhancing the country’s capacity for independent development.
Khan’s Chinese push
However, one of the key points witnessed during Khan’s visit was his promotion of China’s BTI.
During his address to the media after meeting with Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa on Tuesday, Khan said that he was looking forward to enhancing trade ties with Sri Lanka through China’s BRI and invited Sri Lanka also to utilise the benefits of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The CPEC, which connects Gwadar Port in Balochistan with China’s Xinjiang Province, is the flagship project of the Chinese Government in its BRI.
Khan on Wednesday called on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the two leaders had discussed bilateral ties and common areas of interest, which included trade and tourism, that could benefit both countries.
“Had a productive discussion with #Pakistani PM @ImranKhanPTI this morning. The discussions were mainly focused on common interests such as trade, tourism, and adoption of technology in agriculture which both countries could positively leverage on,” President Rajapaksa tweeted after the meeting.
The discussion between Rajapaksa and Khan has been reported as a very positive dialogue by Khan.
The two leaders had also discussed how to exchange technical knowledge to promote agriculture in the two countries.
They have shared similar sentiments on uplifting the agrarian economy in a manner that would provide higher incomes to farmers and subsidised prices to consumers.
During the discussion with Khan, the President has also noted that despite efforts by him and his brother Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa during his presidency to work together with the Muslim political leaders in Sri Lanka, they have always worked against the respective Rajapaksa administrationsa.
The President had explained that Prime Minister Rajapaksa, during both his presidential terms, had accommodated all Muslim political leaders in his Cabinets, but the Muslim community had not extended their support to him at neither the 2005 nor the 2010 presidential elections.
Rajapaksa had also noted that even he did not receive the support of the Muslim leaders during the 2019 presidential election.
However, the President had said he wanted to engage in sincere reconciliation with minority communities and move forward.
After listening to the President, Khan had said that he was unaware of this fact and that he would discuss the matter with the Muslim political leaders.
It is learnt that the Pakistani Prime Minister had raised this issue with the 15 Muslim MPs who met him later that day.
While Khan was in Sri Lanka, the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) expressed concerns over Sri Lanka’s mandatory cremation of Covid-19 dead at the UNHRC.
OIC Secretary General Yousef Al-Othaimeen raised the issue of mandatory cremation of Covid-19 victims in Sri Lanka in his speech at the Council on Wednesday.
In his speech during the High-Level Segment of the ongoing session, the OIC Secretary General said their organisation is keen to monitor the situation of Muslim communities in non-OIC members.
“In this regard, the OIC is concerned with the situation of the Muslims of Sri Lanka, as they are denied the right to bury the bodies of the Covid victims following the Islamic rule, while adhering to the guidelines of the WHO (World Health Organisation). The OIC urges the Government of Sri Lanka to take swift action to guarantee and respect the right of burial of the Muslim community,” he said.
The Sri Lankan Government, after months of resistance, last Thursday night issued the Gazette Notification permitting the burial of Covid-19 dead.
However, on the eve of Khan’s visit to Sri Lanka, India announced that it has allowed Pakistan Prime Minister Khan’s aircraft to use Indian airspace to travel to Sri Lanka, according to informed sources, Hindustan Times reported on Tuesday (23).
In 2019, Pakistan had denied opening its airspace for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s flights to the US and Saudi Arabia, citing alleged human rights violations in Kashmir.
India took up the denial of permission for the VVIP flight with the International Civil Aviation Organisation.
Under normal circumstances, VVIP aircraft are granted permission by countries. However, Pakistan’s denial of permission for VVIP aircraft was an aberration.
However, Khan’s return to Pakistan from Sri Lanka had been carried out through a different flight path.
Neighbouring India it now seems hold a strong gaze on Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan Government’s actions.
Asserting that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a “personal relationship” with Tamil Nadu, Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh last Sunday (21) had said that the Indian Government is committed to ensuring that Tamil refugees in Sri Lanka live with peace, equality, and dignity, ANI had reported.
According to the report, ahead of the assembly polls in Tamil Nadu, Singh had addressed the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM) convention in Salem and said that he is proud to be in the land of great warriors like Rajaraja Chola and Rajendra Chola, who were known for making an exemplary contribution in strengthening India’s military and naval capabilities.
“Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee made Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam the President…was that not respect of Tamil Nadu? In 1974, when then Congress Government left Katchatheevu island for Sri Lanka, Vajpayee condemned the decision to cede the island and spoke for moving to Supreme Court against it,” he had said.
“BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) can never forget that it was Tamil Nadu’s daughter Puruchi Thalaivi Jaya Amma who wholeheartedly supported the first government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee,” he had added.
Singh had said that similar to Vajpayee, Prime Minister Modi also has a “personal relationship” with Tamil Nadu and it is reflected in his work.
“PM Modi has continuously tried for the empowerment of Tamil refugees in Sri Lanka. When Modi visited Sri Lanka after becoming Prime Minister in 2015, he also visited the Jaffna area and became the first Prime Minister of India to do so. New houses were given to about 27,000 Tamil brothers and sisters who had become ‘homeless’ due to the civil war there,” he had said.
“1,600 fishermen have been released from the Sri Lankan Government’s custody by the PM,” he had added.
Meanwhile, India last week also signed a $ 50 million defence Line of Credit agreement with the Maldives to facilitate capability building in the maritime domain.
Reaffirming India’s ties with the island nation, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar had said India will always be a reliable security partner for the Maldives.
Jaishankar held discussions with Maldivian Defence Minister Mariya Didi.
“Cordial meeting with Defence Minister @MariyaDidi. Useful exchange on our defence co-operation. India will always be a reliable security partner for the Maldives,” he tweeted.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, Indian MP Anbumani Ramadoss had written to the UNHRC, urging the member states to pass a strong resolution affirming an international commitment to protect human rights and justice in Sri Lanka.
He had requested the member states to take measures to protect the Tamil population of Sri Lanka against human rights violations.
In particular, he had requested for the creation mechanisms to find a lasting political solution under the arbitration of the international community in a way that fulfils the long-standing legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people.
He had requested that their physical security and political authority be granted to decide their own political, cultural, economic, and social affairs.
In order to further this, he requested that OHCHR field officers be placed in the Northern and Eastern Provinces to monitor and report ongoing violations.
Ramadoss had commended the resolution to be brought against Sri Lanka at the 46th UNHRC Session.
He had urged that the UNHRC vote for a resolution which implements the process of bringing accountability and justice for the victims of alleged crimes (war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide) in Sri Lanka by referring the case or creating an appropriate international criminal justice mechanism.
He had also recommended the establishment of an international independent investigative mechanism to assist in the investigation and prosecution of persons responsible for atrocities.
He had also called on member states, as requested by the High Commissioner, to support relevant proceedings.
Easter attacks saga
Apart from the challenges posed in the international arena, the Government is now embroiled in untangling the political mess created by the report of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) on the Easter Sunday attacks.
The report was presented to Cabinet on Monday (22) and the President instructed for it to be sent to Parliament the following day, Tuesday.
Cabinet Spokesman Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said the Committee on Parliamentary Business will decide on the day the report would be tabled in Parliament.
On Tuesday, Presidential Secretariat Director General (Legal) Hariguptha Rohanadheera, on the President’s directive, handed over the PCoI report on the Easter Sunday attacks to Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena.
When questioned, the Speaker said the report was handed over to the parliament library, resulting in Opposition MPs sitting in the library taking copies of the recommendations and making them public via social media.
The report was tabled in Parliament on Thursday.
The publicising of the report was following Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith lashing out at the move by the Government to appoint a ministerial committee to study the commission report along with the Sectoral Oversight Committee report submitted to Parliament on 2019 with recommendations to address the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks.
The Cardinal also refused a request for a meeting by Catholic ministers and parliamentarians representing the Government.
A spokesperson for the Archbishop’s House told The Morning that no meeting would take place on 2 March as requested by the government delegation.
“Until the PCoI report on the Easter Sunday attacks is in the hands of His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, he would not be meeting with any politicians,” the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson further confirmed that the Archbishop is yet to receive any official communication from the Government regarding the report, despite a written request to see it at the beginning of February.
State Minister of Coconut, Kithul, and Palmyrah Cultivation Promotion and Related Industrial Product Manufacturing, and Export Diversification Arundika Fernando said earlier that the Catholic MPs, both in the Government and Opposition, were planning to meet the Archbishop on 2 March.
“We will request His Eminence the Cardinal to keep faith in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as the President will certainly do justice to the victims of the Easter attacks,” he said.
However, when contacted, Fernando told The Morning that the meeting had been cancelled.
“The cancellation of the meeting was informed by Minister of Highways Johnston Fernando, and he hasn’t specified any reasons for it,” Fernando added.
SLFP turns blue
However, the publicising of the PCoI report has opened up a Pandora’s Box for the main constituent partner of the Government – the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
The main respondent in the Easter Sunday attacks probe by the PCoI is SLFP Leader, former President Maithripala Sirisena. The report has recommended criminal charges to be levelled against Sirisena.
The SLFP Central Committee that met on Wednesday after deliberating the report’s recommendation decided to prepare its observations and forward it to the party’s Executive Committee.
Accordingly, the Executive Committee was summoned the following day, Thursday.
The Central Committee observations were to be drafted by party senior, Nimal Siripala de Silva.
The Central Committee deliberated that the findings of the PCoI were inconclusive since the masterminds that had supported the attacks and those who assisted have not been identified.
The next issue was to discuss how the party should deal with the Government while addressing the complications for the party due to the PCoI report. Some members opined that the SLFP should align itself with the progressive forces in the Government and stand by the masses. Another school of thought was that the party should not engage in a direct confrontation with the Government at this juncture.
However, the final decision was that the PCoI report was a political manoeuvre to deal a blow to the SLFP and that it should be rejected.
The Executive Committee decided to reject the report of the PCoI into the Easter Sunday attacks, State Minister Dayasiri Jayasekara said.
He said that future action to be taken in this regard would be decided later. “The masterminds behind the attacks should be revealed,” he said.
The SLFP said that no attention has been given by the PCoI on the Easter attacks to Sara Jasmine (Pulasthi Mahendiran) leaving to India.
The SLFP said an official from the National Intelligence Unit had revealed in July 2020 that Sara Jasmine, an associate of the Easter Sunday terror attacks ring leader Zahran Hashim’s terrorist group, had tipped off the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) of India on the attacks.
“Pulasthi Mahendiran aka Sara Jasmine is assumed to have fled to India after escaping the explosion that occurred in Sainthamaruthu when attempts were made to arrest a group of persons who were involved in the Easter attacks,” it said.
The SLFP stated that the President should pay considerable attention to the matter.
However, it is learnt that when the issue of the PCoI report’s recommendations on legal action against Sirisena was taken up by Sirisena during a discussion with President Rajapaksa, the latter had highlighted the fact that the Commission was in fact appointed by Sirisena.
The President had explained that he had nothing to do with the Commission or its outcome since its members were appointed by Sirisena.
Meanwhile, the SLFP Executive Committee also decided to re-appoint former President Maithripala Sirisena as the Leader of the party and re-appoint Jayasekara as the SLFP General Secretary, Duminda Dissanayake as the National Organiser, and Lasantha Alagiyawanna as the Treasurer.