So far it appears that the implications of the resolution on Sri Lanka passed at the UN Human Rights Council last week against the Sri Lankan government’s objections have been taken with a pinch of salt. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena’s reaction to the passage of the resolution by a 22-11 margin was to take note that 14 countries had abstained and therefore a majority of countries had not given their support to the resolution. Two of the countries that abstained, India and Japan, are powerful and important ones to Sri Lanka, as indeed they are in the world, which makes them well suited to play a bridge-building role in the future within the UN Human Rights Council. The relative equanimity with which the passage of the resolution was received within the country as a whole would be on account of the upbeat assessment of the situation by the government. The majority of the population who voted the government into power continue to feel that it is looking after the national interest where this issue is concerned.
The draft resolution on Sri Lanka sponsored by a group of countries led by the United Kingdom is to be put to the vote in Geneva. Key members of the government have been working very hard to ensure that the majority of countries in the 47 member UN Human Rights Council in Geneva will give their support to Sri Lanka when the resolution comes to a vote. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa defied fears of the Covid pandemic to take the flight to Bangladesh. This despite the fact that Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan has tested positive showing the dangers of international travel. The prime minister would have felt impelled to make the journey to secure that country’s support at the forthcoming vote. In the meantime, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a telephone call to the Secretary General of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation who praised the president for his willingness to reach out to international organisations and permitting Muslims who die of Covid to be buried.
The country is facing difficult challenges due to internal and external pressures which is increasing the level of frustration within society. The Covid-generated economic downturn, fallout of the Easter bombing investigation, sugar tax scam and impending UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka need to be dealt with sagaciously. These challenges can best be met if the government is able to mobilise a consensus within the country that unites the people of all ethnic and religious communities in a common stance behind the government. While the government came to power during a time of high ethnic and religious polarization in which the further polarizing of the ethnic and religious communities took place, the need now is for unity and togetherness for the common purpose of upgrading the life of all sections of the people.
A book titled Geneva Crisis – The Way Forward compiled by the Ambassadors’ Forum of Sri Lanka was launched at the Foreign Ministry. The inspiration behind the book was Sarath Wijesinghe, PC and former Ambassador to Israel. The collection of articles, interviews and speeches represents a wide range of views, which gives a holistic view of the problem which is what Ambassador Wijesinghe sought to do. He said the book was conceptualised as a solution to the entire future of the Geneva issue, not as a temporary measure to address the upcoming UNHRC resolution. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and Foreign Secretary Admiral Professor Jayanath Colombage participated at this event. This suggests that within the government there is an appreciation of the importance of different perspectives as befits a plural, multi ethnic, multi religious and multilingual country.
Sri Lanka is currently being discussed at the level of the UN Human Rights Council along with notorious countries such as North Korea, South Sudan and now Myanmar after its military coup. There is no question that it is unfair by the Sri Lankan people and the Sri Lankan state to be bracketed with such countries. This has happened due to the failure of successive governments to deliver on pledges made to address the longstanding ethnic conflict and to repair the psychological and developmental damage caused by the three decades of terrorism and war. The present UNHRC resolution refers back to the pledges made by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2009 when UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon visited Sri Lanka at the end of the war.
There are two aspects to the process unfolding in the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva at the present time. The first is the outcome of the report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet which was released on January 27. The second will be resolution of the UN Human Rights Council itself which is in the process of being finalized, and of which a draft is available. It is this latter document that will be debated in the final days of the 46th session of the UNHRC later this month. This will be the document that sets out the expectation of the UNHRC in terms of implementation by Sri Lanka.
With the Zero Draft in circulation there is no longer any doubt that a resolution on Sri Lanka will be presented at the forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council later this month. This resolution will be presented by a core group of countries led by the United Kingdom and will be supported by the United States which, though not a current member of the UNHRC, has opted to return to it under the presidency of Joe Biden. This will be a powerful combination for a small country like Sri Lanka to challenge. It does not appear that Sri Lanka will present its own counter resolution. There was perhaps a miscalculation of the waning power of the western countries in the face of the rise of China. The western powers continue to dominate international institutions. The absence of a coherent foreign policy is reflective of the much greater power of the countries that Sri Lanka is having to contend with.
One of the issues that has created internal division in the country is the cremation of those who have succumbed to the Covid virus. This policy of enforced cremations has been most opposed by the Muslim community for whom burial of the dead is a part of their faith. It has also brought international disapproval to the country. The UN Human Rights Commissioner’s January report on Sri Lanka states that “The COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted on religious freedom and exacerbated the prevailing marginalisation and discrimination suffered by the Muslim community. The High Commissioner is concerned that the Government’s decision to mandate cremations for all those affected by COVID-19 has prevented Muslims from practicing their own burial religious rites, and has disproportionately affected religious minorities and exacerbated distress and tensions.”
The five day march from the eastern town of Pottuvil to the northern capital of Jaffna, given the name P2P-Pottuvil to Polikandi march, came to a peaceful end having made its point to the people of the north and east and to the international community. The culmination of the march in Jaffna saw large crowds participating. But the point was largely lost in the rest of the country where the focus of attention was on other matters such as Independence Day celebrations. The government needs to do the heeding. The marchers had slogans that, among others called for the need to ascertain the fate of missing persons, to permit events held in their memory and return of land taken over for security purposes during the war. There was also the issue of LTTE suspects who have been held for over a decade without being subjected to legal processes.
Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government that was elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.