Geneva debacle: The realities behind the diplomatic rhetoric

If the debacle at Geneva last week was bad enough for President Mahinda Rajapaksa, some of the things some of his Ministers are saying in public are making matters worse for him.

Public Relations Minister Mervyn Silva had already dropped a bombshell by making a public confession that he was responsible for breaking the legs of a media activist who had to leave the country thereafter. The Police said they would inquire. The problem being that these inquiries never end. President Rajapaksa was fuming at the Minister’s utterance. What he told some friends this week that he would do to Mervyn Silva is unprintable.

Then, Education Minister Bandula Gunawardene had his own version of new maths calculating how a family of three could easily live on Rs. 7,500 a month. He was basing his arithmetic on a hostel where students spent only Rs. 2,500 a month on their food. The political cartoonists had a field day lampooning the minister, one of them even indicating from where he was talking.

President Rajapaksa had asked him how he came to these figures. The Minister had said this was what he found out from those students, and that he was only referring to their food bill for the month; to which the President asked the most obvious questions; "who paid for the upkeep of the hostel?" and "who pays for the "gas", to which the Minister had said "the government".

His Livestock Development Minister Arumugam Thondaman had sent President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga a text message saying that he "wants to resign" because the government had reinstated the MILCO Marketing Manager who was facing charges of corruption. The Marketing Manager is reported to have approached MP Sajin Vaas Gunawardene among others to get reinstated.

The President had not wanted Weeratunga or anyone in government to react to Thondaman’s latest threat to quit. The only comment came from the President’s Press Secretary Bandula Jayasekera who said sarcastically "this is not the first time he has resigned". In fact, officials at the President’s office recalled how on a previous occasion Thondaman had arrived none the worse for liquor at the Bandaranaike International Airport and threatened to quit the government because officials at the airport had ignored him. As expected Thondaman met President Rajapaksa, remains well entrenched in the cabinet and flew to his home away from home, India the next day.

And then came a statement in and outside Parliament by External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris. The whole week he has been trotting excuse after excuse for the defeat of Sri Lanka in Geneva. He was referring to a statement by the Chairperson of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congresswoman Ileana Ros Lehtinen where she called the UNHRC (United Nations Human Rights Council) a "rogue’s gallery".
"Instead of running for re-election to the council, the US should finally leave that rogue’s gallery and seek credible alternative forums to advance human rights", she had said in the immediate aftermath of the UNHRC adopting five resolutions condemning Israeli settlements.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa feeling the heat at Expo 2012 held at the BMICH. Pic by Susantha LiyanawattePresident Mahinda Rajapaksa feeling the heat at Expo 2012 held at the BMICH. Pic by Susantha Liyanawatte

Peiris said that the comments exposed the double standards that some countries are adopting when dealing with countries and resolutions were based on political likes and dislikes. Peiris was stating the obvious, but Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen is not the voice of America. She is a Republican in the first place, therefore an opposition Congresswoman, of Cuban origin, whose family were influential members of the local Jewish community, lives in Florida, was famously quoted in a BBC interview for saying that Cuban leader Fidel Castro should be shot, and is in the Israeli lobby in the US.

As a matter of fact Ros-Lehtinen always projects a pro-military stance as she did with President George W. Bush’s surge policy in Iraq. She might well have supported the Sri Lankan military campaign against the LTTE had she been properly lobbied by Sri Lanka.

Peiris is clutching at straws to explain Sri Lanka’s inability to muster sufficient votes to have defeated the US sponsored resolution in Geneva last week, when several times before Sri Lanka has succeeded in fending anti Sri Lanka resolutions in Geneva during the entirety of the 30 year northern secessionist insurgency.

Peiris’ visit to the US is now scheduled for some time in May. An April date given by the US has been put off as Peiris will be visiting South Korea with President Rajapaksa at the time. His US counterpart, Hillary Clinton had invited him to meet with her before the UNHRC resolution, but Peiris had shied away from the encounter. This week he trotted the official excuse for not going. He said that by his going he did not want to give the impression that Sri Lanka was acquiescing in bringing forth the resolution. "If I visited the US before it brought in the resolution, the impression would have been created that it was a collaborative and consensual resolution between Sri Lanka and the US… there could have been a huge misunderstanding", he said.

One might have thought that Peiris ought to have been confident enough to have dispelled that notion and succeeded in fending off the resolution in the first place. After all, it was he who told his cabinet colleagues that the US was only using the resolution as a "pressure tactic" and that they would not introduce it anyway.

His visit to the US in May will be a much looked forward to event because of the repercussions it will have on Sri Lanka, now in the grips of an economic price hike owing to severe balance of payments issues and a massive shortfall of US dollars.

It is in this background that we carry a special analysis of the just concluded UNHRC sessions by Ameen Izzadeen, our International Affairs Editor who was in Geneva last week to witness what went on. This is his report:

The absence of an inscription or some form of display at the United Nations’ Geneva headquarters that houses the Human Rights Council, defining human rights is probably an admission that there is no clear definition of human rights. The abstract art works that adorn the interior of the building perhaps are symbolic of diverse interpretations of human rights.

Yet one hears the cry that human rights are universal and they need to be upheld at whatever cost. On the other extreme of the spectrum is the slogan that human rights are an impediment to development or should be suppressed for the greater good of all. In between, there are people who say human rights are subject to cultural realities. Amidst these cries the reality appears to be that human rights are as contextual as they are a political weapon and perhaps a business.

Nowhere is this reality more visible than in the corridors, the main hall and side-event conference halls of the Palais des Nations where on March 22 the United States and 40 countries sponsored a resolution on Sri Lanka and got it passed by a 24-15 vote in the 47 member assembly. If one were to dig deeper into the graveyards of the sponsoring countries and those who voted for the resolution, none will qualify to cast the biblical first stone.

What can one say about the human rights record of the main sponsor — the United States? What about the record of sponsors such as Israel, Britain, France, Somalia, the Netherlands, Australia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Canada and Cameroon?

Israel, a sponsor of the resolution, on Thursday severed ties with the UNHRC. Its Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman called a series of anti-Israel resolutions that were adopted during the just-ended 19th sessions as an act of "diplomatic terror" at the council.

Israel’s dissatisfaction with and the criticism of the council is no secret. Yet, it had no qualms in supporting the US resolution.

The council was created with the intention of promoting human rights. But, sadly, it is increasingly becoming a political tool in the hands of the powerful – a situation that warrants either its dissolution or more reforms.

The council owes its birth to similar criticism that was levelled at its predecessor — the Human Rights Commission. The commission was dissolved after it became a bad joke with the worst human rights violators such as Sudan and Zimbabwe becoming its members. Kofi Annan, the then UN Secretary General described the commission as "a shadow on the reputation of the UN system as whole".
It was more than an embarrassment for the United Nations to hit out at countries that violated human rights while having them as members in the Human Rights Commission.

Thus the Commission was dissolved and the Council instituted in 2006. The irony is that the United States, which manipulates the council to its own advantage voted against the creation of the council, saying that countries with the worst human rights records would still be able to get elected.

Well in a way, the US was right. The country that has killed more than 1.4 million Iraqis during an illegal and illegitimate invasion is a member of the council. This country uses remote-controlled drones to kill civilians in Pakistan. This country maintains illegal detention centres at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan and the Guantanamo Bay base in Cuba; has approved rendition flights and allows torture methods such as water-boarding. This country’s soldiers have little respect for other people’s culture. They burn the Quran and flush them down toilets. They urinate on bodies of Afghans killed in fighting or in the crossfire. They even cut off the fingers of dead militants or civilians to keep them as war trophies.
Such horrendous human rights record notwithstanding, the sole superpower had no hesitation to project itself as the greatest champion of human rights and bring a resolution on Sri Lanka. The question is not whether Sri Lanka is violating human rights, but it is whether the United States is morally qualified to point fingers at others.

The United States which manipulated and utilized the council to shame Sri Lanka is the first to criticize the council. When the council was formed in 2006, the US did not contest for a seat, fearing defeat in view of its horrifying track record in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, it made an entry through the back door in 2009 when New Zealand withdrew its bid for a seat in the group known as WEOG — Western European and Others.

The United States’ term ends this year and the Barack Obama administration is making an all-out effort to run for a second term despite heavy criticism from Republicans at home that the council is largely being used by Islamic and developing countries to tarnish the image of Israel.

Last week, the council under Item 7 – Sri Lanka’s case came under Item 2 — passed a motion supporting the Palestinian right to self-determination with 46 of the 47 members voting for it. The only country that did not uphold the Palestinian’s right to statehood was the United States.

Israel and the United States have often blamed the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) of controlling the council. At elections to the council, at least 12 nations from the 56 OIC countries get elected from the Africa and the Asia groups and they form a powerful lobby within the council. OIC diplomats say they have no say in the UN Security Council where the US uses its veto power to quash resolutions condemning Israel. So they say they make use of the council to the maximum to censure Israel.

Sri Lanka cleverly and skillfully used its diplomacy with the OIC nations and succeeded in getting them to oppose the resolution or abstain from voting.

Perhaps in anticipation of their support or perhaps due to Sri Lanka’s traditional stand as a friend of Palestine, the government made a powerful statement on March 19 at the council in support of the Palestinian people’s rights when the human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories was taken up under Agenda Item 7.

Here are excerpts from a statement made by Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative Tamara Kunanayakam:

"Sri Lanka has continued to express its profound disappointment that the Palestinian people have not as yet been able to realize their right to a State of their own, despite the repeated pledges of support by many member States. It is time for decisive action to end the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian and other occupied Arab territories, and the establishment of a sovereign, independent and viable State of Palestine. The realization of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people, including their right to self-determination, will be in the interest of the security and wellbeing of all the peoples of the Middle East.
"Sri Lanka condemns the settlement campaign in the West Bank, blockade of the Gaza Strip, detention and imprisonment of thousands of Palestinian people, and other measures of collective punishment against the Palestinian people, constituting serious breaches of international humanitarian law and violations of human rights law and UN resolutions.

"Sri Lanka firmly believes that the people of Palestine should be given a just and durable solution to their longstanding demand, which in turn, could influence the rest of the world. As such, it is the whole world that will stand to benefit. Sri Lanka therefore remains constant in its support for the State of Palestine and its people. It is our earnest hope and wish to see the dawn of a Palestinian State flourishing in peace, harmony and prosperity, in the near future."

The statement helped Sri Lanka in a big way to win the support of many OIC countries, some of whom are staunch US allies. Even Djibouti, an OIC member which houses a US airforce base and whose economy is heavily dependent on US aid, abstained from voting. Only Libya and Nigeria from the OIC bloc voted for the US-sponsored resolution, though the former in private and the latter in a council statement affirmed their solidarity with Sri Lanka.

The Nigerian representative told the council just before the vote that his country shared with Sri Lanka several important commonalities and had just taken a decision to open a diplomatic mission in Colombo as concrete proof of Nigeria’s desire to strengthen bilateral relations.

"Our decision to vote for this draft resolution promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka, therefore, does not detract from this sense of solidarity and empathy with Sri Lanka. We are voting in favour of the draft resolution not to censure Sri Lanka or to call her to order, but solely to encourage the process of reconciliation in that country which deserves to be accelerated and intensified," he said.
The drama at the council over the Sri Lanka resolution offers a lesson in diplomacy and international politics. Sri Lanka should realize that countries make decisions in the furtherance or protection of their national interest – not on ideological grounds or superficial solidarity. Sri Lanka being a non-aligned nation was not a factor that made Non-Aligned Nations to vote for or against the resolution.

In the final analysis, council members took a decision by weighing the consequences. Some took the decision based on their relations vis-à-vis Sri Lanka and the United States. Some opposed the resolution because it was country-specific and unprecedented under Agenda Item 2 – which warrants a submission of an annual report by the Office of the Human Rights Commissioner – and it may come to haunt them some day. For India, a country which opposes country-specific resolutions as a policy, it was domestic political issues that compelled it to vote for the resolution despite New Delhi being a staunch supporter of the Mahinda Rajapaksa government.

The second lesson the council drama offers is akin to what Nicolai Machiavelli learnt in the court of Louis the XII. In the game of politics, he learned, it was not enough to be clever and cultured, one had to be a force to be reckoned with in international politics and act dynamically.

Of course, Sri Lanka tried to act dynamically despite its drawbacks such as its international standing vis-à-vis the US and democracy deficiency back home. The large Sri Lankan delegation numbering more than 50 people did its best though its task was herculean. The delegation included seven ministers, two deputy ministers, two parliamentarians, External Affairs Ministry and Attorney General’s Department officials, diplomats serving in Sri Lanka’s Geneva mission, members of the private bar, senior media personnel, and pro-government civil society members.

The seven ministers were: G.L. Peiris, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Rauff Hakeem, Rishard Bathiudeen, Nimal Siripala de Silva, Anura Priyadarshana Yapa and Douglas Devananda, whose paramilitary unit the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission wanted dissolved.

They were supported by two deputy ministers Neomal Fernando and Faiszer Musthapha and parliamentarians and presidential advisors Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha and Sajin Vaas Gunawardene.
To use cricketing parlance, they were batting on a bowler-friendly or tough wicket. They went on the backfoot, offered forward defence, let the ball go to the wicket keeper and at times tried to hit out. In the end, they lost the game, but not before they made some stroke play that won Sri Lanka 15 votes and eight abstentions – a total of 23 — as against the 24 votes for the US-backed resolution.

Also batting for Sri Lanka – although behind-the-scene — were Cuba, China and India. Cuba came out strongly in opposing the resolution in the council, while China used its diplomatic influence to coax the developing countries to support Sri Lanka — and India, which voted for the resolution, succeeded in making last-minute changes to dilute the draft.

In the final analysis, it is not the human rights record of a country under scrutiny or a country that sponsors a resolution that matters. It is the power one wields at the international arena that decides moves in international politics.

NGO games, side events and special effects

The power of the nations that had ganged up against Sri Lanka was evident in a number of NGO-sponsored side events that took place at the United Nations’ Geneva headquarters. The speed with which the NGO community acted in censuring Sri Lanka ahead of the vote made even an obstinate cynic suspect the existence of a nexus between the NGOs and the main sponsors of the resolution.
For instance, the California-based NGO – Humanitarian Law Project – made use of the time given to it to make a scathing attack on Sri Lanka under agenda Item 9 — Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance, follow-up and implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action.

The statement made by this NGO, whose main focus was on international educational development, in the council was akin to the popular joke on ‘Mekka’ or ticks that live on animals. An abridged version of the joke goes like this: when the boy who studied only about ticks for a Russian language oratory test, was asked to speak on lion by the examiners. After a general description of lion, the boy says the animal has hair on which live ticks. And he then carries on speaking on ticks. An examiner stops him and asks him to talk about cow. The boy resorts to the same trick and says the cow has hair on which live ticks. And he goes on to talk about ticks. The highly annoyed examiner stops him and asks him to talk about fish, a creature that has no hair. The boy as usual starts with a general description and says, "if only fish had hair, it will surely have ticks on its body…" and goes on to speak about ticks.

The Humanitarian Law Project, instead of talking about educational rights, slammed Sri Lanka during the two-minute speech. It said:

"Former Secretary General Kofi Annan stated that whenever there is an ethnic conflict, the issue of genocide arises. Protocol Additional 1 to the Geneva Conventions applies to conflicts against ‘racist regimes’. Using Sri Lanka as an example, we propose some: 1. Acts of violence by the majority group against the minority group over time, as has occurred in Sri Lanka against the Tamil people; 2. Concerted efforts by a majority population to undermine the social, cultural and religious rights of a minority population, as has occurred against the Tamil people since 1949; 3. International demonization of a minority population using terms such as ‘terrorist’ as has occurred in the course of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka deflecting attention from the rules of humanitarian laws and providing the government with a seemingly free pass for violations against Tamil civilians…"

The NGO statement also said that failure to establish clear indicators for ‘racist regimes’ severely hampered the R2P process. Using again the situation of Sri Lanka, the statement noted that the international community had failed to protect the Tamil civilian population as mentioned in the report of the Experts Panel of the UN Secretary General.

Earlier, the Amnesty International in a council statement said Sri Lanka was playing victim after committing serious crimes and its position was akin to a child who kills his parents and claims protection saying he is now an orphan.

Coinciding with such NGO attacks in the council were statements released by Amnesty International, the International Crisis Group and the Tamil National Alliance and the release of the second Channel 4 video. These developments made the Sri Lankan delegation’s task tougher and tougher in Geneva. Its task became multi-pronged. It had to defend not only the conduct of the government and the security forces during the last stages of the war but also counter new allegations pertaining to the post-conflict era.
The allegations varied from militarization of civilian areas in the north to rape, abductions and disappearances.

Weapons supplied by Sri Lanka

In this concerted attack on Sri Lanka, the weapons for the enemy were supplied by Sri Lanka itself. One such weapon was an attack on Colombo-based human rights activists in the state-run media. A paper-cutting of an article in a state-run daily which vilified the human rights activists as traitors was produced as proof that a culture of impunity still prevailed in Sri Lanka though the war had ended three years ago. The alleged threat to human rights activists found mention in statements made by Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay, the Belgian representative during Thursday’s council debate on Sri Lanka and during many side events where Sri Lanka’s human rights record came under fire.

The NGO community exploited this threat and made announcements replete with special effects that appealed to the emotions of the participants. The side events on Sri Lanka began with the chair appealing, "Please don’t take photographs of the panelists as they face threats in Sri Lanka."

Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu (Centre for Policy Alternatives), Sunila Abeysekera (the Global Campaign for Women’s Human Rights), Nimalka Fernando (President of the International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism), Farah Mihlar (Minority Rights Group) and Sandya Ekneligoda (wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda) felt their lives were under threat because they came to Geneva to highlight Sri Lanka’s human rights situation and canvass support, directly or indirectly, for the resolution.

However, some of the speakers at side events where the Sri Lankan government was taken to task appeared as though they had been coached. Or, perhaps, they overdid it to please the donors on whom they depend for their survival. But whatever it was, their speeches had the desired effect or were full of special effects to quench the thirst of the international human rights community.

Isolated incidents were blown up or generalized to give the impression that in Sri Lanka rape, extrajudicial killings, disappearances and threat to journalists and human rights activists were the order of the day.
One cannot blame the international human rights community or their Sri Lankan counterparts for slating Sri Lanka. They have a role to play in promoting human rights even if they are paid for it in dollars by their foreign donors, some of whom are linked to their governments or intelligence services of their countries. A world without the human rights community would certainly be worse than the one we live in. They play a supportive role in strengthening democracy, which is theoretically the policy of any government elected to office through democratic means.

But the blame should fall on the government for giving the human rights activists the weapons to fire at or tarnish the image of Sri Lanka, Asia’s oldest democracy. One could make a long list of the weapons which the government gave its critics in the post-conflict era. Here are some issues which the human rights community in Geneva highlighted.

  • The non-implementation of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.

  • Not taking serious and speedy measures to address the ethnic question.

  • Abductions and involuntary disappearances – the cases being mentioned are the abduction of Ramakrishnan Prabhakaran from Wellawatte, the abduction of Velayutham Mathias Chandrapala at the Hulftsdorp court premises and the disappearances of Kumar Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganathan, two human rights activists, in the north.

  • A high number of rape and sexual harassment cases involving security forces personnel.

  • The rape of a 13-year-old girl allegedly by an EPDP politico in the EPDP stronghold of Delft and the police failure to entertain the complaint. The alleged incident took place while the Sri Lankan delegation was fighting its battle against the world’s mightiest nation to defeat the UNHRC draft resolution.

  • Militarisation of civilian areas in the north, depriving the traditional-minded Tamil people the right to privacy.

  • Sinhalisation of Tamil road names in the north and east and destruction of Hindu shrines and replacing them with Buddha statues.

Though some of the allegations were overstated, they put the Sri Lankan delegation on the defensive, making it necessary for Sri Lanka to organize counter side-events at the UN premises. The Council for Liberal Democracy headed by Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha organized two side events where the professor-turned-parliamentarian was joined by Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies President Jeevan Thiyagarajah and former ambassador Javid Yusuf. They took pains to explain to the human rights community and the Tamil Diaspora members the progress the government was making in its reconciliation efforts and pleaded that the government be given time and space to implement the LLRC recommendations and develop the war-ravaged areas.

They said the government had already taken some positive steps and the military and the Attorney General’s Department had taken initiatives to address the accountability issues raised in the LLRC report.

However much they tried, they failed to persuade the human rights zealots, especially those who were dancing to the US tune.

The allegations against the government made a huge echo in the corridors of the UN building in Geneva. The maverick and loquacious minister, Mervyn Silva, is not taken seriously by Sri Lankans who are sick of his antics and the government leadership’s failure to subdue him. But his utterance that it was he who assaulted journalist Poddala Jayantha and chased him out of the country and that he would break the limbs of human rights activists – remarks he made barely 24 hours after the vote on Sri Lanka was adopted by the UNHRC — made so big an impact in Geneva that the human rights community there felt vindicated.

Cheering on the human rights community and feeding them with anti-Sri Lanka material were the members of the Tamil diaspora – also Tamils for Obama — who were seen in large numbers in the UN corridors and at the side events. They clapped, cheered and joined the human rights community in celebration when on Thursday the council adopted the resolution on Sri Lanka.

Now that the resolution has been adopted the question is what’s next. Is this the first step towards taking Sri Lankan leaders to the war crimes tribunal, even though Sri Lanka has not signed or ratified the Rome Statute that established the international criminal court?

Sri Lanka cannot take lightly the resolution even though it is non-binding. But failure to implement the recommendations of the LLRC, provide a political solution to the ethnic issue through the Parliamentary Select Committee or through other means, and promote the human rights situation in the country would make Sri Lanka’s defence a tougher task in March next year.

Sri Lanka which underwent untold misery for well-nigh three decades and finally triumphed over Tiger terror should not be threatened with international blackmail. True, allegations need to be probed, but it is essentially a matter for Sri Lanka to decide. But the government’s failure to pre-empt by implementing LLRC recommendations has given the Western powers an opening to intervene.

Although human rights issues are used as a political weapon by some powerful nations, activists who are apparently in cahoots with their donors defend and promote human rights on the premise that they are universal. The claim human rights are universal finds its place in the western liberal ideology which gives pride of place to individual liberty. This ideology is in constant conflict with cultural relativists who believe that community rights take precedent over individual rights.

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