Opinions

Govt. walks foreign policy tightrope amidst Geneva countdown 

  • Final text of Resolution on Sri Lanka in UNHRC this week 
  • MR and Modi to visit Dhaka; South Asian countries turn to India 
  • India still playing coy on Resolution amidst pressure to take stand 
  • GR, Modi discuss co-operation in multilateral forums in phone conversation
With the second amended draft of the Resolution presented by the Core Group on Sri Lanka before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) tabled in the Council, last week also saw more informal consultations on the Resolution.

The revised UN Core Group draft resolution on Sri Lanka was tabled at the UNHRC on Friday night (12) with more revisions including a latest paragraph calling for the implementation of the 13th Amendment (13A) to the Constitution.

The new paragraph on 13A also urged Sri Lanka to fulfil the commitment to devolve political power, including through the holding of elections for provincial councils and ensuring that all provincial councils, including the Northern and Eastern Provincial Councils, are able to operate effectively.

The Core Group seems to have included the implementation of 13A and the holding of PC polls to please India and to ensure its support for the Resolution.

While the Western Bloc, along with the Scandinavian region, have called for stronger wording of the Resolution, member states that back Sri Lanka at the Council have opposed such moves.

According to diplomatic sources, the key intention of the Core Group is to engage with Sri Lanka and make it honour pre-existing commitments to the Council, which is a key reason for continuous outreach to the Government of Sri Lanka to agree to the presentation of a consensual resolution before the UNHRC. However, the Government is steadfast in its decision of facing an “honourable” defeat at the Council when a vote is taken up on the Resolution.

Meanwhile, last week saw Sri Lanka’s Envoy in Geneva, C.A. Chandraprema addressing the Council on Monday (8) saying “an incorrect reference to a mandatory cremation policy for those deceased due to Covid-19 in Sri Lanka” was made by the delegation, clarifying that “Sri Lanka does not have a mandatory cremation policy”.

“Sri Lanka’s protocol for the disposal of human remains of victims of Covid-19 has always been based exclusively on scientific and public health grounds and not on the religious or ethnic basis, with the sole objective of eliminating all possibilities of transmission of the virus,” he had noted, adding that Sri Lanka had already commenced the burial of Covid-19 victims following a comprehensive study.

Chandraprema had further noted: “It is particularly unfortunate that such elaborate and such inaccurate claims continue to be made even after Sri Lanka had already shared with the delegations concerned, the factual situation in this regard.”

Sri Lanka, together with its allies in the Council, continues to lobby for support from member states.

India is one of the key countries that are currently being lobbied by both camps.

As of now, India is likely to abstain from voting when the Resolution is taken up for a vote. However, pressure is mounting on India to take a stand, as it is deemed crucial in ensuring that Sri Lanka steers the course.

Also, the heavy Chinese support relied upon by Sri Lanka along with the Chinese allies does not bode well when Sri Lanka is trying to woo India’s support.

India is undoubtedly weighing China’s influence over Sri Lanka and the outcome of the recent visit to the island by one of China’s greatest allies in the Indian Ocean region, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan. During his visit, Khan called on Sri Lanka to be active in China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Given the recent strain in relations between Sri Lanka and India over several diplomatic issues, India seems wary about trusting Sri Lanka due to the possibility of the island joining forces with China in forming the Islamabad-Colombo-Beijing axis, even after receiving India’s support at the Council.

The Black Box reliably learnt that Sri Lanka has been informed by both Nepal and Bangladesh that their final decision on whether or not to support Sri Lanka during the vote on the resolution will be made following consultations with India. The responses by Nepal and Bangladesh have caught the Government by surprise, it is learnt, but then again, a closer understanding of regional geopolitics would undoubtedly provide the responses to the many questions in Sri Lanka’s mind.

MR and Modi in Dhaka

It is in this backdrop that leaders of the South Asian region are to come together this week in Bangladesh, as the country celebrates its 50th Independence Day. While most leaders are to arrive in Bangladesh on Wednesday (17), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to arrive in Dhaka on 26 March. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa is to attend the anniversary celebrations in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dr. A.K. Abdul Momen told reporters last week that Maldives President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, President of Nepal Bidhya Devi Bhandari, Indian Prime Minister Modi, Bhutanese Prime Minister Lotay Tshering, and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Rajapaksa will join the celebrations.

He had told the media that Bangladesh will have stronger relations with the external world through celebrating the 50 years of independence amid the presence of global leaders – both in person and virtually, Dhaka Tribune reported.

A 10-day mega event has been planned from 17-26 March.

“We’ll have discussions on many issues. Agreements will be signed and bilateral issues will be discussed. But the main purpose is to build stronger bonding and friendship,” the Bangladesh Foreign Minister had said.

He had also stated that Chinese President Xi Jinping, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will send video messages marking the celebrations.

President of the Maldives Solih is to arrive on Wednesday on a two-day visit and attend the celebrations at the National Parade Grounds in Agargaon.

President of Nepal Bhandari and Prime Minister Rajapaksa are to arrive in Dhaka to join the celebrations.

Indian Prime Minister Modi is to arrive on 26 March and will visit places outside Dhaka, though the other three South Asian leaders will have engagements in Dhaka only.

Whether Rajapaksa would have the opportunity of meeting Modi on the sidelines of the celebrations is yet unknown.

However, the five leaders are likely to visit the National Mausoleum at Savar, Dhanmondi, and attend the main programme at the National Parade Grounds.

Meanwhile, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa yesterday (13) had a telephone conversation with Indian Premier Modi where the latter had reiterated the importance of Sri Lanka to India in its Neighbourhood First policy.The two leaders had reviewed topical developments and the ongoing co-operation between both countries in bilateral and multilateral forums. They had also agreed to maintain regular contact between relevant officials, including in the context of the continuing Covid-19 challenges.

Earlier yesterday, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, Quad in short, comprising the US, Japan, India, and Australia, discussed the Indo-Pacific region at the first multilateral summit hosted by US President Joe Biden. It was reported that the countries discussed working together to tackle the shared challenges faced and to secure a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

Pressure on India

With India likely deciding to abstain from voting on the Resolution on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC, pressure is mounting on Sri Lanka’s neighbour to take a stand to push Sri Lanka to honour its commitments on human rights.

The Global Tamil Forum (GTF), established in 2009 after the end of the 30-year armed conflict in the country, is a highly influential Tamil Diaspora organisation, and the GTF has been involved in lobbying efforts at the UNHRC, asking for a resolution that would provide accountability for alleged human rights violations in the country.

GTF Spokesperson Suren Surendiran had questioned: “War atrocities and post-war atrocities happened when the previous Rajapaksa Government was in power. Justice has not been served to the victims since or people who committed these heinous crimes have not been held accountable as yet. Why would views change in those circumstances?

“The GTF is proactively engaged in the process of drafting the Resolution. We are constantly lobbying member countries to vote in favour of the Resolution. GTF fully supports the report of the United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights on Sri Lanka. We would like if all of her recommendations are reflected in the Resolution that will be passed on 22 March 2021,” he had told The Morning.

Referring to India, Surendiran had said: “India cannot be a happy neighbour right now, as Sri Lanka keeps treating India very poorly. A vote in favour of the Resolution is not necessarily a vote against Sri Lanka. India, as the big brother of the region, may consider a vote in favour of the Resolution as correcting a mistaken younger sibling.”

Meanwhile, Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka Gopal Baglay last week embarked on a four-day tour of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. During the tour, the Indian High Commissioner met with a cross section of society in the two provinces including the Governor of the Northern Province and political leaders while also inspecting the projects funded by India which are in various stages of implementation.

The High Commissioner also visited several places of religious worship.

It was Baglay’s first visit to the two provinces following his appointment as Indian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka.

Diplomatic faux pas?

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s diplomatic relations took a beating last week after Foreign Affairs Minister Dinesh Gunawardena had sent a letter inviting Myanmar to attend the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Co-operation (BIMSTEC) summit.

Foreign Affairs Minister Dinesh Gunawardena

Sri Lanka is currently facing severe backlash on social media with #ProtestSriLanka trending.

Sri Lanka is being accused of being the only nation to extend any form of recognition to the military-appointed Foreign Minister in Myanmar, Wunna Muang Lwin.

In a letter addressed to Lwin, Gunawardena had reportedly invited the former to attend the ministerial meeting of BIMSTEC and a special senior officials’ meeting scheduled to be held in Colombo from 31 March-1 April.

Myanmar is currently facing a number of protests due to its recent military coup.

Social media platforms have gone viral with the letter while social media users in Myanmar have shown their displeasure with Sri Lanka over Foreign Minister Gunawardena’s letter.

However, the Foreign Ministry last Wednesday (10) responded to reports on social media with regard to an invitation extended to the Foreign Minister of Myanmar to attend the 17th BIMSTEC ministerial meeting hosted virtually on 1 April in Colombo. It said: “Sri Lanka, as the Chair of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Co-operation (BIMSTEC) and the host of the ministerial meeting, has invited all member states (Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Thailand) to participate in the discussions in order to finalise documents of the 5th BIMSTEC summit expected to be held later this year in Sri Lanka.”

Many people raised concerns over Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister extending an invitation to Myanmar’s military regime’s Foreign Minister.

Engaging Muslim nations

Amidst the many diplomatic battles, the Government is reaching out to Muslim countries to mend the soured relations after resolving the controversy over the mandatory cremation of Covid-19 dead.

Foreign Minister Gunawardena had informed the Muslim World League (MWL) that the Government had resolved the issue and had granted permission to bury the Covid-19 dead.

Arab News had reported that the news came by way of a phone call to MWL Secretary General Dr. Muhammed bin Abdulkarim Al-Issa, from Minister Gunawardena.

During the call, Gunawardena had reportedly told Al-Issa that the Sri Lankan Government had agreed to the MWL’s request.

Gunawardena had said that this served to strengthen the close relationship between the MWL, which is a global reference for Muslim nations, and the Sri Lankan Government.

Al-Issa had thanked Sri Lanka for approving the MWL’s request to stop the cremation of the bodies of Muslims and instead allow their burial.

The General Secretariat of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) had also welcomed the Sri Lankan Government’s decision.

The OIC had said that it had on several occasions, during the pandemic, called on Sri Lankan authorities to refrain from cremating Muslims and to give them an Islamic burial.

Labour pains in the UK

Meanwhile, the British Government has come under criticism from its main Opposition for failing to seek the UN rights body’s approval to refer Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court (ICC).

In a strongly worded letter to Minister of State for Asia Nigel Adams, the Labour Party had reportedly slammed the Resolution drafted by the Core Group of six nations led by the UK as “too vague and insufficiently robust, in terms of both its content and its tone”.

“It fails to reflect the extent of the devastating impact of the human rights abuses that have been perpetrated in Sri Lanka, and it also falls far short of what is required in terms of tangible action,” Shadow Minister for Asia and the Pacific Stephen Kinnock had stated.

Echoing the disappointment of war-affected Tamils in Sri Lanka and abroad, the Shadow Minister had highlighted the UK’s failure to refer Sri Lanka to the ICC.

“It fails to recommend that this matter should be referred to the International Criminal Court. We fully acknowledge that two of the Security Council’s permanent members would likely veto such a referral were it to be tabled, but this is not an acceptable argument against trying. The UK Government’s approach to the UN Security Council should not be determined simply by the veto-wielding intentions of two of its permanent members.”

Labour’s Shadow Foreign Minister had questioned the UK Government’s inaction in this regard when it has a global human rights sanctions regime (the so-called Magnitsky sanctions), which impose asset freezes and travel bans on those who are guilty of gross human rights violations.

“It is very difficult to understand why not a single senior Sri Lankan government minister, official, or military officer has been designated under this regime,” Kinnock had further been quoted as saying.

“This is a test of the moral authority and consistency, which you claim underpins the Government’s Global Britain strategy. The UK Government owes it to the victims and survivors of the atrocities that have taken place in Sri Lanka to ensure that it rises to the occasion and shows the moral courage and leadership that is so urgently needed,” he had concluded.

Meanwhile, the UK Parliament is to hold a general debate on a motion about the UK’s commitment to reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka. The House of Commons said the general debate will be held in the Chamber on Thursday (18).

EU envoys’ joint statement

Human rights ambassadors in Europe have called on the Government of Sri Lanka to respect human rights defenders.

Eight European human rights ambassadors issued a joint statement on what they called the unlawful detention of prominent Sri Lankan human rights activist and Attorney-at-Law Hejaaz Hizbullah, who has been committed to remand custody by the Colombo Magistrate’s Court. The ambassadors said they remain deeply concerned by the continued incarceration of Hizbullah since April 2020.

“We regret to note that after 10 months of detention, Hizbullah is now being accused of speech-related offences under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and other laws,” they said.

The eight ambassadors for human rights pointed out that Hizbullah is a leading advocate of the rights of people from minority communities, including Muslims in Sri Lanka, and a vocal critic of discriminatory policies.

It is observed that the role of human rights defenders is crucial to the protection and promotion of human rights in a country. Governments have a special responsibility to protect human rights defenders, and prevent their persecution, they said.

The European human rights ambassadors said they join with the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and special procedures mandate holders, in urging the Government of Sri Lanka to respect human rights defenders such as Hizbullah.

Hizbullah was arrested on charges of allegedly “aiding and abetting” one of the bombers involved in the 2019 Easter Sunday terror attacks. These charges have since been dropped and replaced with charges of teaching extremism to children. British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Sarah Hulton tweeted the joint statement by the ambassadors last Thursday (11).

Chinese support

Foreign Affairs Vice Minister of China Luo Zhaohui has assured China’s support to Sri Lanka at the UNHRC and its continued assistance, as Sri Lanka confronts a critical economic challenge, the Embassy of Sri Lanka in Beijing said last Tuesday (9).

The Vice Minister had expressed these views when Ambassador Palitha Kohona called on Vice Minister Zhaohui recently.

The long discussion that followed included co-operation and mutual support in international fora, in economic matters for post-Covid-19 recovery, effective management of the Covid-19 pandemic, and future high-level visits.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry had said that it will proactively support efforts to increase Chinese tourism to Sri Lanka and more businesses, including SOEs (state-owned enterprises), to invest in the Colombo Port City and the Hambantota Industrial Zone.

The Vice Minister acknowledged that it was time for these two Chinese-supported ventures to get off the ground.

Both parties agreed that the recommencement of negotiations on the bilateral free trade agreement with the view to concluding it soon would be advantageous to Sri Lanka.

Dr. Kohona also raised the issue of non-tariff barriers which are hindering access to the lucrative Chinese market for a range of natural, agricultural, and industrial products.

He commended China for successfully eliminating extreme poverty by 2020, consistent with a key SDG (Sustainable Development Goal), and congratulated the Communist Party of China, as it celebrated its 100th year anniversary.

Last week also saw China approving a $ 1.5 billion currency swap for Sri Lanka. The deal expected to provide some respite for Sri Lanka in facing the present financial difficulties experienced by the Government.

Sri Lanka has been raising fears of defaulting due to the dwindling foreign reserves, a tumbling currency, and rising debt levels.

SL Envoy on challenges

Sri Lanka remains concerned that the face of terrorism has now taken a different appearance, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN in New York Mohan Peiris said.

Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the UN in New York Mohan Peiris

Speaking during the Consultations on the Seventh Biennial Review of the United Nations Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy on Friday, Peiris said the basic principles of humanity are being exploited by terrorist groups, using ordinary people, to further their distorted ideologies.

“They have now evolved their outreach mechanisms to infiltrate our institutions using the very values that we hold sacred. We are all aware of this. We are all aware of the dangers that it poses. We implore our friends in the global community to unequivocally reject any type of aggression that leads to terror. A zero tolerance for any unlawful activity is required. Take every measure to neutralise any act of terror or any act that has the potential to support terror. Otherwise, it will only serve to deter us from our goal of eradicating this threat, and will destabilise the institutions that we have built on mutual trust and respect,” he said.

He further said: “As we gather here today in this assembly hall and deliberate on this most important subject, I was wondering how many amongst us would have personally experienced in some form or another, the real horrible effects of terrorism. Some of us may have experienced it more than others. For some of our fellow citizens back at home, at one point in time, it may have even become a way of life, as it might be the case even today for some of our member states. The fear of getting on public transport to get to work, the fear of sending your child to school, anxiously waiting for your loved ones to return home safely; the inability to go about your daily work without fear or anxiety is common in certain parts of our world, even as we speak.

“When your fellow citizens are unable to lead their lives without the guarantee of their most fundamental rights, what is a responsible government constitutionally mandated to do? How should it respond? This was the dilemma facing the Government of Sri Lanka. For nearly 30 years, we tried a cocktail of mechanisms from peace talks to ceasefires with the aid of our interlocutors, however the high price (sic), to bring the group of non-state actors responsible for their extremely brutal terror tactics to the table, into the democratic fold. Regrettably, all these efforts did not work. Innocent men, women, and children continued to be terrorised, lost their lives, and we witnessed the loss of public assets. Their distorted ideologies continued to incite hatred along ethnic lines even as I speak sitting in the comfort of jurisdictions outside. Finally, the Government had no choice but to carry out the humanitarian operation in 2009 that finally liberated the people of Sri Lanka from the clutches of that group of non-state actors.

“Sri Lanka has come a long way since those dark days. If you really think about it, it is somewhat surprising that for a country that had borne the brunt of nearly three decades of terrorism, we are where we are today. There is peace in the country. It is a success story. Ironically, there are amongst us those who find peace an inconvenient environment. Peace is anathema to their geopolitical aspirations which are played out through the pawns of terror, namely non-state actors. We see today that by far, more sophisticated machinations, terrorists have gained access to our governments, civil society organisations, private sector entities, religious organisations, the judiciary, and the entire canvas of human activity. However, democracy prevails. No doubt challenges remain. However, we remain confident that with the resilience of the Sri Lankan people and the strong leadership of the Government supported by the United Nations, we will continue to address these challenges, having due respect for the rule of law and human rights.

“These terror groups are so powerful today that they have the power to move the very international organisations we represent today, to use our own mechanisms, such as our human rights mechanisms, to neutralise our continued fight against terror. They know that we have humane hearts. But we cannot allow such humanity to be abused to create nurseries for terrorists and extremists. We cannot be seen to be hunting with the hound and running with the hare. Our message to terror must be loud and clear. The message must clearly be zero tolerance and that our commitment to human rights is not an opportunity to vindicate the programmes of terror structured conveniently on the basis of a political agenda,” he said.

He also said that Sri Lanka is committed to a counterterrorism strategy locally and globally, without losing control of constitutionalism.

Focus on Ahimsa’s letter

Last week, Ahimsa Wickrematunge, daughter of slain Founding Editor of The Sunday Leader Lasantha Wickrematunge, questioned the credibility of the National Police Commission (NPC).

In a letter to the Commission, Ahimsa had accused the Commission and the Attorney General (AG) of approving the Government’s decision to put the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in the hands of an officer who had allegedly tampered with a murder investigation.

Ahimsa had said that in a previous letter to the NPC, she had drawn attention to the fact that it had appointed Prasanna J. Alwis as CID Director despite the CID having previously caught him allegedly tampering with evidence in the investigation into her father’s murder.

“I asked the Commission to investigate how this happened. You confirm in your letter that evidence with regard to the death of Lasantha Wickrematunge had been suppressed by SSP (Senior Superintendent of Police) A.R.P.J. Alwis and that was reported to the Magistrate of Mt. Lavinia on 4 October 2019. You also state that extracts on destroying and suppression of evidence have been handed over to Hon. Attorney General under C.R.01 40/2020. This file was submitted to the Attorney General before Mr. Alwis was appointed to head the CID,” Ahimsa has said.

She further noted that she cannot believe that the Commission and AG blessed the regime’s decision to place the CID in the hands of an officer who had allegedly tampered with a murder investigation.

She had stated that throwing natural justice to the wind, Alwis was once again allowed to oversee her father’s case and so the Commission must answer for appointing an accused criminal to head the CID.

“Never in the 140-year history of the CID had it ever been headed by an officer with even the slightest disciplinary blemish. That 140-year streak was broken when the NPC appointed a CID Director reported to court for suppressing evidence of Sri Lanka’s most emblematic unsolved murder, in which the State stands accused of killing a journalist for exposing corruption,” she had further stated.

According to Ahimsa, by turning a blind eye to the State’s effort to subvert these investigations, the NPC has jeopardised the credibility of the Commission, the Police, the AG’s Department, and the entire Sri Lankan criminal justice system.

“The NPC may well go down in history as a complicit rubber stamp to an autocratic regime bent on covering up the atrocities of its leaders,” she had said.

Ahimsa had called on the NPC to interdict and discipline Alwis, order a full audit of records of her father’s murder investigation and other CID cases including those involving Keith Noyahr and Upali Tennakoon, reveal how the Commission was deceived into appointing an officer accused of hushing up a murder to run the CID, and re-examine the credentials and disciplinary records of all 100-plus officers who were brought into the CID since November 2019.