Editorial/Opinion

Govt. yet undecided on consensual resolution at UNHRC

  • Govt. sends 20-page response to UNHR HC’s observations 
  • UK and US to closely review UNHRC report on Sri Lanka 
  • Ready to visit some provisions of PTA, Sri Lanka tells EU 
  • Moragoda’s nomination as SL Envoy to India still stands

Sri Lanka’s political arena these days is dominated by two topics – the impending United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions and the controversy over the proposed joint venture with India on developing the East Container Terminal (ECT) at the Colombo Port. 

Both issues have put to the test Sri Lanka’s prowess in diplomacy as well as relations with the country’s neighbour, India. 

With bits and pieces of the advanced copy of the UNHRC High Commissioner’s final draft on Sri Lanka being publicised in certain sections of the media, the UNHRC last week decided to publicise the report, claiming it has already been leaked in Sri Lanka. 

The Government of Sri Lanka on Wednesday (27) sent its response to the High Commissioner’s observations. The near 20-page response, it is learnt, has been accepted by the High Commissioner’s Office. 

The Government has explicitly responded to the concerns raised in the High Commissioner’s observations and has noted that the report was full of bias without correct information and matters available not being taken into consideration, it is learnt. 

It is also learnt that the Government of Sri Lanka has pointed out the actions it has taken thus far jointly with the UN bodies and individually as a sovereign state to address the concerns raised by the rights body. 

The Core Group on Sri Lanka led by the UK is moving ahead in preparing the resolution to be presented to the UNHRC on Sri Lanka since the Government is yet to respond on whether it agrees to a consensual resolution or not.  

It is in this backdrop that Foreign Secretary Prof. Jayanath Colombage had stated earlier last week that the Government believed the High Commissioner had both factual inconsistencies and conceptual misinterpretations in her report.

“We also feel the UNHRC has not been very fair with Sri Lanka because we are a sovereign, independent, democratic country, and the current Government has been mandated by the people of this country through the democratic vote,” the Foreign Secretary told The Sunday Morning

As for the options the Government is considering, now that the co-sponsorship has been withdrawn, Colombage had said that Sri Lanka is looking at different options.  

The core group – UK, Canada, Germany, Montenegro, and North Macedonia – are talking about a consensual resolution. In this, the draft text must be designed, developed, and finalised by the Core Group and the Government of Sri Lanka. “We are now discussing with the core group in Colombo and Geneva, and we are trying to see if we can find a way out.

“The core group has given us certain texts and we are currently preparing our responsive texts to that. Basically, it is not as harsh as 30/1 or the rollover resolution. What we really want is to reflect the actual situation in Sri Lanka – not assumptions or inaccuracies – and recognise what this Government has done. As soon as we can, we will sit down, talk, and finalise the details, although we are handicapped by the pandemic at the moment,” Colombage had further noted. 

However, it is reliably learnt that the Sri Lankan Government is considering a counter resolution at the Council in response to the resolution to be submitted by the Core Group led by the UK. 

Sri Lanka is now trying to muster the support of friendly states – China, Russia, and India. “They have said that they will stand by us and now, it is the time for them to do so. We haven’t started these discussions yet. We are going to talk to and seek the support of like-minded leaders soon. It will be a consensual resolution only if it has and represents our voice, together with them. If it is only their voice, it is politically challenging for us.” 

Referring to one of the issues raised in the High Commissioner’s report, the pardon of Sergeant (Sunil) Ratnayake, the Foreign Secretary had said: “Look at the US – how many people did President (Donald) Trump pardon? That is the prerogative of the president. The presidential pardon of Sergeant Ratnayake was only one such case. (Former) President Maithri(pala) Sirisena pardoned an LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) cadre who was trained to kill him, and that’s good. 12,500 LTTE combatants were rehabilitated and were put back to society. The good news is that none of them went back to violence. 

“The 20th Amendment, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), and senior military offices in key positions were all mentioned in the report. We believe that the argument of militarisation is not right. In many countries, retired generals serve the government – what is wrong with that? The government has invested in their training, exposure, and experience, so the government may as well use them when they are retired. The previous Government discussed a counterterrorism act, but their own Parliamentary Select Committee, after four years of discussion, said it was not good and it never saw the light of the day. Imagine the situation if we had repealed the PTA prior to Easter Sunday. It is a living document and some aspects of it may have to be revisited,” Colombage had added.  

Watchful eyes 

Meanwhile, though the US is no longer a member of the UNHRC, it is interested in the commitment Sri Lanka has made to the Council and has urged the Government to come up with a meaningful plan at the upcoming UNHRC Session. 

US Ambassador Aliana B. Teplitz

In response to a question raised during a virtual conversation held with a group of journalists last week, US Ambassador Aliana B. Teplitz said it was pleasing to hear last year from Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena that there will be a comprehensive reconciliation strategy through a domestic process. 

“I would like to see progress on that. We simply urge the Government to carry forward the promises that it has already made and come up with a meaningful plan at this upcoming UNHRC session. There is a degree of concern that we have not seen meaningful progress everyone had hoped for, perhaps a year ago when these pledges were made,” she said. 

The US Envoy said this was the reason the US and other countries have offered to help Sri Lanka. “It is not about hectoring Sri Lanka or bullying. It’s about helping Sri Lanka realise the pledges that it itself as a country has made to its own people. In that sense, the US would continue on that path. Democracy is needed to respect the rights of all citizens and have robust dialogue about what has gone wrong. Certainly for us, we know more than anyone in this past year how challenging it can be when people’s rights are not fully realised,” Ambassador Teplitz noted. 

Meanwhile, commenting on the Commission of Inquiry appointed by the President to probe human rights concerns, Teplitz said she hoped the commission will be quite open, transparent, and self-reflective about where the opportunities lie to move ahead. 

“We hope the Government will bravely take up those opportunities and will also challenge the narrative of Sri Lanka as a victim. I think Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans are in control of their own destiny,” she noted. 

It is in this backdrop that US State Department’s Spokesperson Edward Price said last week that the US was carefully reviewing the “significant” report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on human rights in Sri Lanka. 

He said Sri Lanka’s future depends on respecting rights today and taking meaningful steps to deal with the past. 

“We are carefully reviewing the significant report from @UNHumanRights on human rights in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s future depends on respecting rights today and taking meaningful steps to deal with the past,” he tweeted. 

Meanwhile, the UK said it will continue to support human rights and accountability in Sri Lanka at the upcoming session of the UNHRC. 

UK’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva Julian Braithwaite said that the UK will be considering the new UN human rights report on Sri Lanka as well. 

Building support 

The other issue faced by the Government – the controversy over the ECT – is also building up to become a diplomatic concern. 

The US last week weighed in on the issue saying it believed that India should have a stake in the Colombo Port’s ECT. 

“Obviously, with India being the beneficiary of Sri Lanka’s port facilities through all transhipment activities that take place, along with the unloading and shipments to smaller Indian ports, having an Indian company with a stake here, I would think, is essential to Sri Lanka’s maritime future,” Ambassador Teplitz told reporters. 

Much controversy has arisen over the ECT with the trade unions attached to the Colombo Port opposing the Government’s decision to assign a 49% stake of it to parties outside of Sri Lanka. The Government is looking at a joint venture with India along with a partnership with Japan. 

Ambassador Teplitz added that Sri Lanka should be looking for the best value in its economic arrangements and that in this regard, having private sector involvement was “very good”. 

“Looking at the business arrangements, and finding something that is sustainable and beneficial and gives your key business partner a stake, is a no-brainer in terms of a deal for this country,” she added.  US and India enjoy a strong relationship, with the former viewing the latter as its greatest ally in Asia, especially in the Indian Ocean region as well as a counterforce to its main rival China’s dominance in the region. 

The relationship between the US and India is expected to further strengthen under new US President Joe Biden. 

Therefore, balancing good relations with India and US will play a key role when Sri Lanka gears to face the UNHRC sessions come February where the Government’s diplomatic skills and commitment to the human rights agenda will be put to the test. 

Reviewing PTA 

It is in this backdrop that the Government has assured the European Union (EU) of its intention to revisit and review the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) with a view to make appropriate amendments. The Government has made this observation during the 23rd meeting of the EU-Sri Lanka Joint Commission held last week. 

A joint statement issued by the Foreign Ministry had stated that the 23rd meeting of the Joint Commission between Sri Lanka and the EU was held via video conference and that during the meeting, Sri Lanka had reaffirmed its commitments made to effectively implement the 27 international conventions covered by the GSP+ scheme on human and labour rights, environment, and good governance. 

In this context, the EU had reiterated the need for Sri Lanka to amend the PTA and bring it in line with international standards. 

The EU had also stated that it regretted Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from its co-sponsorship of the UNHRC Resolution 30/1 and subsequent resolutions that incorporated and built on it.

Sri Lanka had explained how it would advance national reconciliation and action taken in accordance with its Constitution and laws while pointing out the appointment of a commission of inquiry to investigate alleged human rights violations. 

The EU had reiterated the importance of fostering reconciliation, justice, accountability, and peaceful co-existence among Sri Lanka’s diverse communities, and underlined the important role of the independent institutions established in recent years, notably the Office on Missing Persons, the Office for Reparations, and the Human Rights Commission. 

“The EU stressed the value of a fully empowered and resilient civil society, in all its diversity for any democracy. The EU expressed its continued readiness to support Sri Lanka in these efforts,” the statement had noted. 

Spotlight on burial issue 

The issue of mandatory burials of Covid-19 dead has come into focus and the emphasis on the issue by the UNHRC would undoubtedly weigh on the Muslim countries that are currently sitting members of the Council. 

A group of UN human rights experts last week urged the Sri Lankan Government to end its policy of forced cremation of the Covid-19 deceased, saying it ran contrary to the beliefs of Muslims and other minorities in the country, and could foment existing prejudices, intolerance, and violence. 

According to a statement issued by the UN, the experts have said the imposition of cremation as the only option for handling the bodies confirmed or suspected of Covid-19 amounts to a human rights violation. 

“There has been no established medical or scientific evidence in Sri Lanka or other countries that burial of dead bodies leads to increased risk of spreading communicable diseases such as Covid-19,” said the experts. 

As of 21 January 2021, 274 Covid-19-related deaths have been reported in Sri Lanka, with a significant number of the deaths belonging to Muslim minorities, it said. 

The statement had noted that all of the bodies were cremated according to the Fourth Amendment of the Provisional Clinical Practice Guidelines on Covid-19-suspected and confirmed patients issued on 31 March 2020. 

The decision to make cremation mandatory followed alleged expert advice, including by the Chief Epidemiologist who claimed that burials could contaminate ground drinking water. 

However, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has reiterated there is no evidence to suggest that cremation prevents the spread of the disease, while the College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka and the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) issued statements recently clarifying that there has been no proof that burial of the Covid-19 dead bodies constitutes a public health hazard. 

“While we must be alert to the serious public health challenges posed by the pandemic, Covid-19 measures must respect and protect the dignity of the dead, their cultural and religious traditions or beliefs, and their families throughout,” the experts said. 

“We deplore the implementation of such public health decisions based on discrimination, aggressive nationalism, and ethnocentrism amounting to persecution of Muslims and other minorities in the country,” added the experts. 

“Such hostility against the minorities exacerbates existing prejudices, inter-communal tensions, and religious intolerance, sowing fear and distrust while inciting further hatred and violence. 

“We are equally concerned that such a policy deters the poor and the most vulnerable from accessing public healthcare over fears of discrimination,” the experts said, adding this would further negatively impact the public health measures to contain the pandemic. 

Information received by the experts indicates that cremation often takes place immediately upon the notification of the test results without granting family members reasonable time or the opportunity to cross check or receive the final test results. 

There have been several cases of cremations based on erroneous information about Covid-19 test results, the experts said. 

The experts noted that the President and Prime Minister had instructed the health authorities to explore options for burials in Sri Lanka. 

“However, we are concerned to learn that the recommendation to include both cremation and burial options for the disposal of bodies of Covid-19 victims by a panel of experts appointed by the State Minister for Primary Healthcare, Pandemics, and Covid-19 Prevention was reportedly disregarded by the Government,” they said. 

“We hope that the report of local burial options by the main committee referred to by the Health Minister will be available soon and that the authorities will stop pursuing a burial solution in a foreign country.

“We strongly urge the Government of Sri Lanka to stop the forced cremation of Covid-19 bodies, to take all necessary measures to combat disinformation, hate speech, and stigmatisation of the Muslims and other minorities as a vector of the pandemic; and to provide remedy and ensure accountability for cremations that were carried out by error,” they said. 

Meanwhile, British High Commissioner in Sri Lanka Sarah Hulton, referring to the experts’ statement, tweeted: “A clear message from UN experts. Families should be able to bury their loved ones, in line with international health guidelines and their religious practices.” 

However, Foreign Secretary Colombage opined that the (Covid-19) burial issue was mentioned in Bachelet’s report and that the report is assuming that there’s a dangerous trend in Sri Lanka from last year, which means they are targeting the tenure of the incumbent President. “The power is vested with the Director General of Health (DGH). Health authorities have to decide on this based on scientific evidence and World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. So far, the DGH says only cremation is allowed,” he had said. 

Moragoda to India 

On the diplomatic front, several diplomatic appointments proposed by the Government have been met with resistance in some instances while in another, negotiations continue on the appointment. 

The main diplomatic appointments under focus are that of Milinda Moragoda as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to India and former Air Force Chief, Air Chief Marshal Sumangala Dias as the High Commissioner to Canada. 

The appointment of the latter to the proposed office has come to a standstill with the Canadian Government rejecting the Sri Lankan Government’s appointment. 

It is learnt that the Canadian Government had announced its rejection of Dias’ appointment to the Sri Lankan High Commission in Canada within one month of receiving Sri Lanka’s official communication on the matter. 

With regard to Sri Lanka’s nomination to the High Commission in India, contrary to media reports to the effect that Moragoda’s nomination has been turned down by the Indian Government, it is learnt that there has been no such rejection of Moragoda’s appointment. 

A senior government minister said that there has been no change to Moragoda’s appointment as Sri Lanka’s Envoy in India. 

However, it is learnt that negotiations are currently ongoing on whether Sri Lanka should appoint a high commissioner of cabinet rank or if the appointment should be that of a normal high commissioner. 

Tamil parties 

The Tamil political parties representing the Northern and Eastern Provinces, excluding those allied with the Government, have decided to support a black flag protest to be carried out this week. 

Families of the forcibly disappeared have called out to name this week a “black week” to mark those who have disappeared as well as the failure to ensure justice for them and their families. 

The black week will also coincide with Independence Day, which falls on Thursday (4 February). 

SJB office bearers 

The Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB), led by Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, last week appointed new office bearers to the party for the year 2021 along with the Working Committee (WC). 

Premadasa remains the Leader of the party, while MP Ranjith Madduma Bandara retained his position as the General Secretary of the SJB. 

Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka was appointed as the Chairman of SJB while MPs S.M. Marikkar and Manusha Nanayakkara were appointed as the new Spokesmen for the party. 

MP Harin Fernando was appointed as the Vice Chairman and Head of Operations for the SJB. 

Given the United National Party’s history of having a senior representative from a minority community among its key office bearers, the SJB was expected to follow the tradition, given its wider electoral appeal. 

Accordingly, SJB’s senior most MP, Imthiaz Bakeer Markar, was earlier expected to be appointed as the SJB Chairman. 

The appointments were approved during the Central Committee meeting of the SJB. 

Speaking during the meeting, Premadasa had announced that MP Patali Champika Ranawaka had officially joined the SJB and that Ranawaka will receive a senior position in the party soon. 

List of office bearers for 2021: 

  • Leader: Sajith Premadasa 
  • General Secretary: Ranjith Madduma Bandara 
  • Chairman: Sarath Fonseka 
  • Treasurer: Dr. Harsha de Silva 
  • National Organiser: Tissa Attanayake 
  • Senior Vice Chairmen: Dr. Rajitha Senaratne, Kumara Welgama, Kabir Hashim, Lakshman Kiriella, Imthiaz Bakeer Markar, and Ravi Samaraweera 
  • Vice Chairmen: Harin Fernando, Thalatha Athukorala, Gayantha Karunathilake, P. Harrison, Sujeewa Senasinghe, Chandrani Bandara, Dilip Wedaarachchi, and A.H.M. Haleem 
  • Head of Operations: Harin Fernando 
  • Chief Executive: Ajith P. Perera 
  • Deputy General Secretaries: Nalin Bandara, Ashoka Abeysinghe, and Rohini Wijeratne 
  • Deputy National Organisers: J.C. Alawathuwala and Buddhika Pathirana 
  • Spokesmen: S.M. Marikkar and Manusha Nanayakkara 

Meanwhile, Ranawaka last week stated that there were several false reports being circulated on social media about his role in the SJB and the non-allocation of a position for him among the SJB office bearers. 

Ranawaka had stated on his FB page that both Premadasa and Madduma Bandara had invited him to attend the SJB’s WC meeting. 

“I attended the SJB WC meeting along with a group of my political colleagues. When the Committee asked me if I would join them and engage in political work with the SJB, I agreed. Accordingly, the WC informed me that it would discuss the role I should play in the SJB at its next committee meeting and would inform me of the decision,” Ranawaka had stated. 

He had further noted that the SJB officials, through their actions, would show that various reports of him (Ranawaka) being sidelined in the SJB are false. 

“The people who voted for me at the last general election subscribe to the ideologies of the SJB. I would therefore like to state that I will stand for this mandate and work towards building a free and democratic Sri Lanka together with the SJB leadership as well as my fellow members,” Ranawaka had added.