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Promoting Human Rights, Peace And Development

  • Geneva is the place for issues related to Human rights
  • The OHCHR supports the work of the UN human rights mechanisms
  • Diaspora Tamils, talk about holding a referendum

by S. V. Kirupaharan, General Secretary,
Tamil Centre for Human Rights

UN General Assembly

The general understanding is that the term, “diaspora” comes from Greek, meaning “Scatter or scattered.” In some situations, it refers to “scattered from their homeland.” Therefore, the Tamils from the Tamil homeland – the North and East of the island of Sri Lanka, in any foreign country are qualified to be identified as “diaspora”.

Now let me look at the theme of ‘Role of the UN and other International organisation in promoting human rights, peace and development in Ilankai.’ Since 1990, my work as the General Secretary of the Tamil Centre for Human Rights with United Nations Human Rights Forums in Geneva, as well as with the European Union and European parliament in Brussels, permits me to look into this subject from a pragmatic viewpoint.

Anyone who has good knowledge of the United Nations – UN, will understand that Geneva is the place for issues related to Human rights, Refugees and also Humanitarian activities; and that New York is the place for any political activities. In other words, the UN organs which can make political decisions, the UN General Assembly – UNGA and the UN Security Council – UNSC are in New York.

Therefore, I take this opportunity to explain as much as I can, about our activities in Geneva. Here we should categorise  our Tamil issues into two main features – Human Rights / humanitarian and Political Rights. That is to say, in modern terms – Accountability and Reconciliation. Of course, accountability is a vanguard to reconciliation. But, the question is whether we are going to put the horse before the cart or vice- versa!

Because access in Geneva is easy, some of our emotional politicians and political activists who have talk-shows  on the right to self-determination of Tamils, waste time in Geneva, putting the cart before the horse.

If we seriously consider today’s UN Human rights functions in Geneva, the right to self-determination has no place whatsoever in the UN Human Rights Council – HRC. Unlike with the former UN Commission on Human Rights – CHR, there is no mention of right to self-determination in the HRC. As a desperate approach, some make use of the HRC agenda item, ‘Right to development,’ to speak about right to self-determination. Without knowing this fact, some are having side-events on the right to self-determination which is a waste of time, proving that the Government agenda is keeping them busy for nothing.

 

Human Rights front

When we consider UN activities in Geneva, there are many Special procedures and Treaty-bodies which we Tamils can make use of, to achieve accountability and justice for victims.

The ongoing UN human rights activities in Geneva are taking place at two different levels. One is the present HRC, which replaced the earlier CHR. It is an inter-governmental body consisting of 47 UN member states. The other one is the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Both their activities are not like flesh and bone. They appear to have a good relationship, but the HRC is a politicised body and the OHCHR functions under a High Commissioner – HCHR.

Even though the HRC is a politicised body, countries which respect human rights, use the reports, statements and the press releases of the HCHR, to scrutinise any violating state. If a wrong signal comes from the HCHR, then the decision of the member states also ends up in a disaster. Therefore, one cannot underestimate the task of the OHCHR.

 

Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)

The OHCHR supports the work of the UN human rights mechanisms – Treaty bodies established to monitor State Parties and Special Procedures of the HRC. There are independent human rights experts mandated by the HRC to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective. OHCHR have four different units to serve this purpose. RRDD – Research and Right to Development Division is responsible for thematic research and policy development. HRTD – is the Human Rights Treaties Division, responsible for supporting the work of 10 human rights treaty bodies.

FOTCD – is the Field Operations and Technical Cooperation Division supporting the work of human rights field presences in some countries.

HRCSPD is the Human Rights Council and Special Procedures Division providing organisational support to the Human Rights Council, including the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism.

 

The Human Rights Council  

The HRC is a Charter-based body responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe. It includes member states, observer states, inter-governmental institutions, national human rights institutions and non-governmental organisations as participants. Of course researchers and journalists are allowed in this august forum. Before the birth of the HRC, the CHR was assisted by the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, which was replaced by the Advisory Committee in August 2008. It provides expertise to the HRC.

Universal Periodic Review – is one of the main features of the HRC, which insists on States meeting their responsibilities and obligations to respect and implement human rights and fundamental freedoms. Periodically, it examines the human rights achievements of all UN member states.

Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council – comprise independent human rights experts who give advice on human rights (civil, political – economic, social and cultural). Presently there are 43 thematic Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups, and 14 country-specific rapporteurs. The Working Groups on Arbitrary detention; Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances; Discrimination against women in law and in practice – are well known working groups.

The Special Rapporteurs on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; Violence against women, Right to freedom of opinion and expression; The situation of human rights defenders; The human rights of internally displaced persons; The independence of judges and lawyers; Freedom of religion or belief; Minority issues; Contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance; Cultural rights; Right to education; Right to food; The sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography; The promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism; Trafficking in persons, especially women and children; The promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence (Transitional justice); are all very useful to our work in Geneva.

Out of 43 thematic Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups, we TCHR have worked with many of them in the past and still work with some. Our tasks on Sri Lanka are reflected well in their reports.

For these Special procedures complaints can be sent by victims of human rights violations or their kith and kin and non-governmental organisations.

 

Political / reconciliation front

Even though our political demands existed in the island before independence in 1948, nothing has ever been officially endorsed in the UNGA or the UNSC, except on 5th October 1978, when a short speech was made by UK-based Lawyer the late  Krishna Vaikunthavasan and India’s interventions in the UNGA in October 1983 and September 1984.

I presume that most of you are aware how the speech was made by Vaikunthavasan. He impersonated then Sri Lankan Foreign Minister A.C.S. Hameed and addressed the UNGA. His speech is given below.

It is to be noted that during that period, the present Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe was the deputy Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka.

The speech made by Krishna Vaikunthavasan in the UNGA is a good example for diaspora intellectuals, academics and professionals to realise what an asset they could be to their destroyed nation. They should voluntarily and full-heartedly come forward with dedication to save their people and their land. However, I am not advising or motivating anyone to impersonate Mangala Samaraweera and make speeches in the HRC. But they could find ways to do constructive work to safeguard their homeland, if they commit time and energy to it. Our youth have a crucial role to play in the UN. Before they start to act in the UN, they should master the UN mechanisms.

Unfortunately, there are serious short-comings regarding the above-mentioned diaspora contribution, permitting emotional activism to fill the gap with clumsy and ridiculous work in Geneva. The Sri Lankan government which is seriously working on colonisation, sinhalasation, buddisisation and militarisation in the North and East has virtually won. Today, the North and East have been shrunk into North, the North has become only Jaffna and the Tamils students in Jaffna are beaten-up by Sinhala students. Will these realities be taken seriously by every member of the Tamil diaspora?

There are a few individuals who mark their presence in Geneva, purely to gain mileage for their political ambitions. This helps neither accountability nor reconciliation for the Tamils.

To match any government career diplomat, personalities with equal capabilities among the Tamil diaspora should come forward. This is one of the reasons that I gave up a well-salaried job in computing and in the early 90s started to educate myself in the field of human rights and international diplomacy. The failures of the Palestinian struggle and the Eelam struggle are based on having more emotional activism rather than a smart high-profile lobby and political approach.

I personally do not agree with the explanation that, as long as Russia and China are in the Security Council, nothing is possible concerning Sri Lanka! On a global level, China and Russia have kept silent when there were resolutions passed on their friendly countries. A good example is that Sudan was referred to the International Criminal Court – ICC. On top of this, we can’t ignore the fact that it was USSR; present Russia which used its Veto power three times against then Ceylon becoming a member of the UN in 1948 and 1949. (Security council official records – 351st meeting, 18 August 1948 and 384th meeting, 15 December 1948 and 442nd and 443rd meetings, 13 September 1949.) Therefore, due to our failure in making any constructive efforts and attempts along the right path, the Tamil cause has not moved even an inch in the UN political front.

Today many are going to Geneva because a good foundation had been laid since long ago. We are   thankful to those pioneers who entered then CHR, soon after the July 1983 pogrom against the Tamils. With our ardent task we made UN forums aware of not only Tamil victims, even Sinhala and Muslim victims of government violations. It is all in the records of the UN.

However the political aspirations of Tamils shifted from the mandate given by the people of the North and East in the general election of 1977. This is one of the achievements of different Sri Lankan governments and their lobbyists. Now our political demand has gone out of shape with pleading for nothing. There are Tamils, especially diaspora Tamils, talking about holding a referendum supported by the International community to find a durable solution. When one talks about the international community here, obviously they are referring to the UNSC and UNGA. A referendum within any UN member state can be decided only by these two bodies, unless the government itself decides. Here, one should ask whether we Tamils have reached that stage in the UN? When war intensified in 2006, there were only a few informal discussions in the UNSC, that’s all! Whether it’s Eritrea, East Timor, South Sudan or Kosovo, these nations spent months and years in New York, doing their high profile lobby with UNSC and UNGA and they achieved their goal. I strongly believe that the referendum is just an emotional talk-show, rather than a meaningful idea for constructive action.

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