The Sunday Leader

Playing Hot And Cold With The UN

By N Sathiya Moorthy

For a Head of Government – and Head of State, to boot – addressing the annual UN General Assembly (UNGA), President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been more critical of the UN scheme than any other, possibly at any time. And at the same time, he has also invited UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to visit Sri Lanka again, to study the ground situation again, after the latter’s post-war visit in 2009.

Calling for “de-politicisation of the UN systems and mechanisms” and making them “hostage to different forms of funding” President Rajapaksa told the UNGA decried that human rights was being “used as a tool to implement motivated agendas with no understanding or appreciation of the complexity of issues in the countries concerned”.

Without naming any nation or group – at least at this stage — President Rajapaksa said that post-conflict Sri Lanka has become an unfortunate victim of ill-conceived agendas of some in the Human Rights Council, who paid scant regard to the substantial progress achieved by Sri Lanka, in reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation within a short span of five years since the end of the decades-old ethnic war.

In this context, President Rajapaksa said: “Human rights should be recognised by all as a moral and ethical concept rather than as a political tool. External intervention without adequate consideration of the structures in a society and cultural traditions of the countries where such intervention takes place, inevitably results in destabilisation, which is very much in evidence today, in most parts of the world.”

Clearly, President Rajapaksa was referring to the existing global template models for addressing HR issues, as viewed and pre-determined, applied and decided upon by the developed West. Their civilisational and cultural history has less of variety and antiquity than those of most Third World nations, whether or not they are nominal or notional democracies.

It’s more so when those cultural faiths belong to the South Asian stock, of which Sri Lanka was one. At the UNGA, President Rajapaksa referred to Lord Buddha, and stopped there. But other religious preachers and cultural practices in South Asia follow the same normative code.

In his UNGA speech, President Rajapaksa seemed to imply all this and more. On earlier occasions, during the war years, Sri Lanka had expressed reservations about the non-suitability of western-style conflict-resolution models and theories to real-life situations in countries of the kind.

On the latter, Sri Lanka was proved right. On the former President Rajapaksa seems wanting to drive home the same point. The message was clear. While the West, given its cultural and civilisational beliefs looked (out) for ‘closure’ on the accountability front as the only way to reconciliation, in the ‘ancient world’, it’s all about ‘forgive and forget’, now as then.

It was also the case at the end of the war.  Until the West intervened, there was general acceptance among the stake-holder communities in Sri Lanka that both sides had committed a lot of mistakes in the past, and that the end of the war provided the nation with a golden opportunity to resolve the internal conflict, internally.

It was the belief with which the Government and the TNA revived the ethnic discourse that had broken down after the LTTE revived war and war-mongering in 2006. The LTTE’s ways and waywardness of the time ended the four-year ceasefire agreement (CFA), brokered by Norway.

Global Exclusive Club     

Sri Lanka is not the first nation to demand structural changes in the UN, nor is it the only one to reorganise the funding scheme at the UN and its affiliates, including the UNHRC, or for Brentwoods institutions like the IMF and World Bank. Since inception the dictum has remained, “He who pays the piper calls the tunes”. When others are around to share the burden, they are kept at the doorstep.

The Indian neighbour of Sri Lanka is only one of them. There are others, in Asia and Europe, Africa and the Americas, who want to end this western monopoly of the world bodies. When it was sought to be achieved through a demand for increasing the number of ‘veto powers’ in the UN Security Council (UNSC), a new classification of non-veto UNSC member was put on the discussion table to deflect attention, demands on expanding the base and source of UN funding have been stone-walled.

Deflecting demands and stone-walling decision-making are both are western SOP to address inconvenient issues and concerns, nearer home and in international bodies. In context, if nations like Sri Lanka that feel ‘aggrieved’ and unjustifiably targeted by the UN and its affiliates, are consistent and get together, the chances are that they could get the UNGA to veto UNSC’s veto-power, or end its current status of the global ‘exclusive club’.

On a visit to India, for instance, in 2013, US President Barack Obama declared that his country would not come in the way of India getting its due place at the global head-table. This year after the new government came to power in India, visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke likewise. Neither mentioned a seat in the UNSC as the right place for India, but implied as much.

Away from the UNGA glare, President Rajapaksa met with UN chief Ban and invited him to visit the country, for a self-assessment of the updated situation on the ground. Obviously, the Sri Lankan Government is counting on massive development works and restoration of democracy to the Northern Provincial Council elections as a marker.

The Government obviously wants the UN and the UNHRC in Geneva to forget the ‘accountability issues’ flowing from the conclusive ‘Eelam War IV’ (2006-09). But the new UNHRC chief, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein of Jordan, is as tough, if not tougher than predecessor Navi Pillay, in carrying out the Commission’s mandate, obtained from a US-sponsored resolution.  Like Pillay, he wants the OHCHR probe to continue, and also expects Sri Lanka to cooperate with the same – something that is not going to happen, anyway.


‘Sovereignty’ And More

The last time UNHRC voted on Sri Lanka, the powerful Indian neighbour stayed away. It was over the ‘sovereignty’ issue. More recently in Colombo, Chinese President Xi Jinping said as much. Even without it, nations like China and Russia, both veto-powers at the UNSC, has openly backed Sri Lanka.

The story does not end there, but should end there, all the same. If nothing else, any action based on any finding of the UNHRC would still have to go back to the UN.

It is not without reason, it would seem, that President Rajapaksa has invited Ban again to Sri Lanka. The UNHRC/OHCHR probe was initiated at the instance of the UN chief, after he had forwarded the otherwise unofficial and unsubstantiated Darusman Report to Geneva. The Colombo Government seems to think that it’s likewise for him to have the probe withdrawn or stalled. If his seeing things for himself would help Ban decide that way, the Government would not be found wanting in the department.

It’s not about ‘accountability issues’. It’s more about using the global muscle and monetary power to pass value judgments against nations and their leaders, and get it through by way of votes that they can muster. It’s the cutting-edge.

If he who pays the piper calls the tunes, then he who has deeper pockets than the rest would do so, now or later. He can afford to wait, and take his time and call. No marks for guessing, though!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation, the multi-disciplinary Indian public-policy think-tank, headquartered in New Delhi. Email: (


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