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Colombo turned tables in Geneva but story won’t end there

Dayan Jayatilleke, Mahinda Samarasinghe and Ban Ki-Moon

Sri Lanka has registered a diplomatic victory at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) sessions held on May 26 and 27.

Faced with a resolution in Geneva criticising both the Government of Sri Lanka and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for the way in which the war was conducted Colombo has through remarkable diplomatic moves reversed the situation in its favour.

Rather than reacting to the move defensively by garnering support to defeat the resolution, Sri Lanka chose to strike back aggressively by presenting a counter-resolution and mobilising support for it.

Colombo enlisted support for its move by exploiting the inherent anti-colonial, anti-Western tendencies of the developing world who resent domination and interference of the so called “First” World.

The fact that the first resolution was backed mainly by Western nations particularly the EU member states was a factor utilised in favour of Colombo. There was also the backing of India which did not want Western intrusion into South Asian regional affairs.

Countries aiding Colombo’s war effort against the LTTE namely China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran also engaged in behind-the-scene efforts supportive of Colombo.

The original resolution criticising the human rights record of both sides was tabled by Switzerland. Sri Lanka presented its counter resolution.

It soon became clear via lobbying that Colombo had the upper hand. In a clever stratagem Colombo defused the opposition and enhanced further support by incorporating some of the provisions in the Swiss resolution into its own. The original 17 point document was amended and enhanced into a 29 point resolution and submitted for voting.

Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to UN in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleke described it as a fine synthesis of the sentiments of all the UNHCR members.

Germany then proposed a further nine amendments to the resolution saying it could be adopted unanimously if the additions were included. But Cuba acting at the behest of Sri Lanka shot the idea down on procedural grounds.

When voting took place in the 47 member UN Human Rights Council 29 voted in favour of the resolution proposed by Sri Lanka. Twelve voted against and six abstained.

While the voting pattern indicated a polarisation between the Western bloc and the Afro-Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern blocs, Colombo proudly claimed a diplomatic victory in Geneva.

But respected human rights watchdogs like the New York based Human Rights Watch (HRW) described it as a “deeply flawed resolution.”

The HRW also blamed UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for this state of affairs.

A press communiqué issued by HRW stated as follows:

The United Nations Human Rights Council on May 27 passed a deeply flawed resolution on Sri Lanka that ignores calls for an international investigation into alleged abuses during recent fighting and other pressing human rights concerns, Human Rights Watch said today. The council held a special session on May 26 and 27, 2009, on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, a week after the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) by government forces.

“The Human Rights Council did not even express its concern for the hundreds of thousands of people facing indefinite detention in government camps,” said Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The council ignored urgent needs and wasted an important chance to promote human rights.”

The resolution passed with 29 votes in favour, 12 against, and six abstentions. It largely commends the Sri Lankan government for its current policies and fails to address serious allegations of violation of human rights and humanitarian law by government forces, focusing only on the abuses committed by the LTTE.

“It is deeply disappointing that a majority of the Human Rights Council decided to focus on praising a government whose forces have been responsible for the repeated indiscriminate shelling of civilians,” said de Rivero. “These states blocked a message to the government that it needs to hear, to ensure access to displaced civilians and uphold human rights standards. They undermined the very purpose of the council.”

A majority of council members – including China, South Africa, and Uruguay – ignored the call for accountability and justice for victims by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. Instead, the resolution adopted reaffirms the principle of non-interference in the domestic jurisdiction of states, a step backward for the Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch said.

During the special session, Pillay called for an independent international investigation into violations of international human rights and humanitarian law during the recent fighting, including those specifically responsible. UN estimates say that more than 7,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting in Sri Lanka since late January 2009.

“The images of terrified and emaciated women, men, and children fleeing the battle zone ought to be etched in our collective memory,” Pillay said. “They must spur us into action.”

The rejected resolution deplored abuses by both government forces and the LTTE, urged the government to cooperate fully with humanitarian organizations and to provide protection to civilians and displaced persons, and made an appeal to the Sri Lankan government to respect media freedom and investigate attacks against journalists and human rights defenders. It also called on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to keep the council informed about the situation on the ground.


Human Rights Watch said that Brazil, Cuba, India, and Pakistan led efforts to prevent the passage of a stronger resolution that was put forward by the 17 members of the council that convened the special session: Argentina, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Mauritius, Mexico, The Netherlands, Slovenia, Slovakia, South Korea, Switzerland, Ukraine, Uruguay, and the United Kingdom.

Human Rights Watch in particular commended Argentina, Chile, the Czech Republic, Mauritius, Mexico, and Switzerland for their efforts on behalf of a stronger resolution.

“These nations negotiated hard to uphold the council’s mandate to respond effectively to human rights emergencies,” de Rivero said. “It is regrettable that they were not supported by the majority.”

Human Rights Watch said that Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon had regrettably undercut efforts to produce a strong resolution with his recent comments in Sri Lanka. Ban publicly praised the government for “doing its utmost” and for its “tremendous efforts,” while accepting government assurances, repeatedly broken in the past, that it would ensure humanitarian access to civilians in need.

Ban also distanced himself from strong language used in April by the UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, who warned that the fighting in Sri Lanka could result in a “bloodbath.” Unlike Pillay, Ban also failed to press for an international inquiry.

“Secretary General Ban shares the blame for the Human Rights Council’s poor showing on Sri Lanka,” de Rivero said. “This adds to a crisis in confidence in UN bodies to speak out clearly on pressing human rights issues.”

In a separate development UN Human Rights Commissioner Navaneetham Pillai called for an independent investigation into the conduct of war by both sides when the special emergency meeting on Sri Lanka commenced in Geneva on Tuesday.

When the Human Rights Council opened its 11th Special Session on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said that there were strong reasons to believe that both the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had grossly disregarded the fundamental principle of the inviolability of civilians.

In a video message, the High Commissioner said an independent and credible international investigation into recent events should be dispatched to ascertain the occurrence, nature and scale of violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law, as well as specific responsibilities. Victims and the survivors had a right to justice and remedies.

Pillay said she remained convinced that an Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights with a promotion and protection mandate in Sri Lanka could play an important role in supporting the government and in building the confidence of all stakeholders in Sri Lanka’s recovery. She urged the Human Rights Council to support the call for the international community’s help at such a critical juncture for Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, Mahinda Samarasinghe, speaking as the concerned country, said that over 250,000 persons who had been held hostage by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had been freed by the Sri Lankan forces and were now being looked after by the Sri Lankan government. “Sri Lanka was also giving access to some 50 international organisations and non-governmental organisations. Sri Lanka was committed to continue to ensure access to their international partners.

“The objective was to resettle all citizens in their homes but they had to ensure that an environment was created so that an informed choice could be taken by the people themselves. The government cared for all Sri Lankan citizens and would ensure that demining was carried out, that basic services were provided in the region and this information would be given to the people in order for them to make an informed decision on whether or not to return to their homes.” Samarasinghe said

The President of the Council, Ambassador Martin Ihoeghian Uhomoihi of Nigeria, hoped that in the next days and months, the important tasks of reconciliation, rehabilitation and reconstruction would begin and pave the way for sustainable peace and development in Sri Lanka. The Human Rights Council, convening this special session, joined in sending a message of readiness and willingness to work with the government and people of Sri Lanka to address the most urgent humanitarian and human rights challenges facing them.

A joint statement by the Special Procedures mandate-holders of the United Nations Human Rights Council said they reiterated their deep concern at the continuing humanitarian crisis and at the serious human rights situation in Sri Lanka, and were also concerned about the lack of transparency and accountability that accompanied this crisis.

Serious situation

A huge number of civilians had been displaced and many had been killed. The devastating situation of civilians in Sri Lanka trapped in the midst of fighting between the Sri Lankan army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam had resulted in over 300,000 displaced persons interned in government-run camps. Their situation must be immediately addressed.

The Special Procedures said it was clear that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam acted in flagrant violation of the applicable norms of international law by using civilians as human shields or in preventing them from leaving the conflict areas. As to the Government of Sri Lanka, citing security concerns, after three months it continued to detain in temporary camps the more than 300,000 men, women and children who escaped the fighting. This gave rise to concerns of arbitrary detention.

Today, a critical humanitarian situation existed with regard to essential needs such as food, water and sanitation, shelter, education and healthcare. The Special Procedures called upon the authorities to swiftly extend invitations to those mandate-holders who wished to conduct country visits to Sri Lanka.

Speakers in the general debate on May 26 were divided on the approach which should be taken by the council towards Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the conflict. A number of speakers questioned the convening of the special session, saying it was not clear what the special session aimed to achieve. Now that the armed conflict in Sri Lanka had been concluded, they affirmed the need to mobilise and intensify all efforts to assist civilians affected by the conflict for many decades.

They felt that at this juncture, the international community should be focused more on helping Sri Lanka to address its humanitarian challenges. With the regular session of the council only a few days away, the undue haste for calling this special session was not only inexplicable but a waste of time, effort and money.

Others said they were seriously concerned that the human rights situation in Sri Lanka had been backsliding in areas not directly related to the conflict. Media freedom had deteriorated significantly in 2008 and 2009 with several attacks on journalists and media premises. There had been little progress on bringing to justice the perpetrators of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka. Further, the country’s human rights protection mechanisms were inadequate, lacking both capacity and independence.

During the conflict, the use of force was often indiscriminate and often civilians were used as human shields. It was the primary responsibility for the Government of Sri Lanka to investigate violations of international human rights and international humanitarian law, as well as to oppose impunity. It was now necessary for the government to establish criminal liability for those who had violated international humanitarian law and international human rights law.

Speaking in the general debate on May 26 were the Czech Republic on behalf of the European Union, Cuba on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, Egypt on behalf of the African Group, Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, Germany, Canada, Qatar, China, India, Russian Federation, Egypt, Jordan, Switzerland, Chile, Cuba, Brazil, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, the Philippines, Argentina, Indonesia, Slovenia, Japan, France, Mexico, Ghana, Italy, Nicaragua, Saudi Arabia and South Africa.

The Human Rights Council on May 27 continued its 11th Special Session on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka, with speakers again expressing divergent views on the approach which should be taken towards Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the bloody conflict in the north of the country, which left tens of thousands dead and wounded, hundreds of thousands displaced and engendered a humanitarian emergency.

In the debate, many speakers supported the holding of the special session as a priority, given the seriousness of the situation, including the alleged violations of humanitarian and human rights law, which merited a strong response by the council. An independent investigation of the recent events would be an important prerequisite to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation.

It was noted that severe human rights violations had taken place in the so-called “no fire zone,” with both parties to the conflict ignoring international humanitarian law. Several speakers spoke of the situation of the media, human rights defenders and the judiciary, who were now under pressure, they said, and the democratic space was narrowing. Enforced disappearances and torture remained a problem.

The Sri Lankan Government was urged to accept the establishment of an Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which would contribute to the improvement of the human rights situation and to the reconciliation process. The culture of impunity also had to be ended if peace was to be won.

While the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s violent and terrorist methods, in particular its use of human shields and its forced recruitment of civilians, including children, were roundly condemned, the government was also held to bear responsibility for violations, including the use of excessive force in densely populated areas.

An equal number of speakers felt the convening of a special session had been unwarranted. It would have been better to have simply helped Sri Lanka in its reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts, they said. While it was regrettable that so many lives had been lost during the conflict, these speakers declared their support for the legitimate right of the Sri Lankan Government to fight against terrorism, as well as its endeavours to establish public order in the country, following the end of military operations.

Extending security to all areas of society was a very arduous task that was often impeded by outside conspiracies, a speaker noted, adding that, unfortunately, the situation on the ground often called for the taking of action that appeared harsh. It was felt that the liberation of the Tamil population from the traps of separatist terrorism aimed at protecting their honour and dignity had opened an unhindered path to lasting peace, stability, inclusive development and prosperity of the country within the democratic political structure.


These countries also welcomed the expression of Sri Lanka’s will for reconciliation with the Tamil population, and expressed satisfaction at the government’s cooperation with the international community, including during the recent visit of the United Nations Secretary General and the joint statement issued.

It was also felt that a recovery process led by indigenous actors and ingenuity would move faster and be more sustainable. These speakers concentrated on the provision of assistance to the government in dealing with the humanitarian catastrophe left in the wake of the conflict.

Speaking in the general debate were the Netherlands, Bangladesh, Mauritius, Angola, Republic of Korea, Bolivia, Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Zambia, Uruguay, Algeria, Norway, Singapore, Syria, Bhutan, Nepal, Israel, Cambodia, Sweden, Austria, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Ireland, Denmark, Maldives, Turkey, Liechtenstein, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Iran, Sudan, United States and Vietnam. The United Nations Refugee Agency and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta also took the floor.

Representatives of the following non-governmental organisations also spoke: Franciscans International, in a joint statement; Asian Legal Resource Centre; Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom; Fédération Internationale des Ligues des Droits des l’Homme, in a joint statement; Liberation Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada; International Educational Development; Pasumai Thayagam Foundation; Interfaith International; Cercle de Recherche sur les Droits et les Devoirs de la Personne Humaine; North South XXI; International Movement Against All Forces of Discrimination and Racism; and United Nations Watch.

Although the final outcome has been claimed as a “victory” by Sri Lanka the fact that such a special debate had been convened along with some sentiments expressed indicate that all is not well.







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