Games before UNHRC Resolution a last-minute bipartisan consensus



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by Rajeewa Jayaweera


Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana and members of his delegation deserve a big round of applause for their efforts during the recent 40th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva to undo some of the past mistakes of the Yahapalana government. It had unreservedly co-sponsoring the UN Human Rights Council Resolution (UNHRC) 30/1 inclusive of parts inimical to the nation’s sovereignty.


Unknown to many, this round of the Geneva project took off the ground during the visit to Sri Lanka by Mark Field MP, UK Minister for Asia & Pacific at the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office in October 2018. UK had taken over the lead role from the US in furthering the Geneva Resolution. Field informed the Wickremasinghe government, it should agree to a roll-over resolution without any opposition.


The matter took backstage during the 52 days when the country had two Prime Ministers. Meanwhile, a sort of change of guard took place at the Foreign Ministry. Prasad Kariyawasam, the pro-US Foreign Secretary was finally replaced by Ravinatha Aryasinha who was handling Economic Affairs after having returned from Geneva.


Next to visit Sri Lanka was Robert (Bob) Last, designated as the Deputy Head of the Political Team in the UK Mission in Geneva in December 2018. Last was the author of the Resolution document ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’ dated January 29, 2019, and was to chair the informal discussion on it in Geneva.


The usual practice with UNHRC is to make available such documents to the country’s Permanent Representative for onward transmission to the country’s capital. It is not clear if the document had been forwarded to the Foreign Ministry or directly to any other office. A reliable source, speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed, this document had not been shared with the Head of State.


A team of UN Human Rights officials visited Sri Lanka in February and once again discussed details of the report with some members of the government. This was confirmed by Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet herself in a media release a few days ago.


In early February, a meeting had been held at the Finance Ministry presided by Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera. Foreign Minister Marapana, Secretary General of Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanism (SCRM), Director General/UN of the Foreign Ministry, two High Commissioners and Deputy Chief of Mission of the cosponsor countries based in Sri Lanka attended.


The presence of foreign envoys at a meeting to discuss the contentious Geneva Resolution speaks volumes. It is also a clear indication of the influence wielded by western nations on the Wickremesinghe government’s policymaking.


Immediately after that, instructions had been sent to Ambassador ALA Azeez,Permanent Representative to UN Office in Geneva to co-sponsor the roll-over resolution with no amendments, not through the line ministry but the Prime Minister’s office.


Two days later, Ministers Samaraweera and Marapana, together with Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinha had met President Sirisena. While briefing him on several issues, the duo of Ministers had casually mentioned to President Sirisena of the measures being implemented related to the 30/1 and their intention to obtain a further extension.


The Head of State was not provided a copy or translation of the resolution which his Ambassador in Geneva had been instructed to cosponsor.


Minister Marapana, before his departure to Cyprus, had directed that Prime Minister Wickremesinghe be briefed on latest developments on the resolution. The briefing was carried out on February 25. Having taken all views into consideration, the Prime Minister requested his Secretary to direct SG SCRM to instruct Azeez to proceed with the earlier instructions issued to him with no amendments to the approved text of the resolution sent earlier and as a matter of urgency. The Prime Minister obviously had seen the resolution.


SG SCRM did not consider it necessary to keep President Sirisena, the Foreign Ministry and Foreign Secretary informed as confirmed by the President on March 27 while addressing a gathering in Kalutara.


It was also decided, Sri Lanka would not send a team from Colombo to the Geneva sessions but would be represented by the Permanent Representative.


Azeez signed the draft resolution on the same day along with UK, Canada, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Germany.


Signing the resolution two weeks before the deadline and thus depriving the state of negotiating down clauses inimical to the country’s interests may have had much to do with keeping the President in the dark and providing him with a fait accompli.


All hell broke loosein the first week of March when President Sirisena announced he would be sending a team comprising of Sarath Amunugama MP, Mahinda Samarasinghe MP and Suren Raghavan, Governor of the Northern Province with a mandate to look into the possibility of Sri Lanka withdrawing from the resolution.He had come to learn of the contents of the resolution signed up which sought "full implementation" of 30/1, which was compounded by the High Commissioner’s Report released on March 8 on the implementation of 30/1, which Sri Lanka was to "note with appreciation."


The President’s action would no doubt have sent shock waves to some in the Prime Minister’s Office, Finance Ministry, British and Canadian High Commissions and German Embassy in Colombo.


After that, as he has admitted repeatedly in public pronouncements, the President took control. It resulted in a hastily agreed arrangement to send a delegation led by Marapana along with Amunugama, Raghavan, Aryasinha and Deputy Solicitor General Nerin Pulle. Azeez and his Deputy in Geneva would join the delegation. Samarasinghewho was in Geneva in early March on a private visit and had been asked by the President to take stock of the situation as he had been involved in the consultations but did not join the delegation.


President Sirisena instructed Aryasinha to prepare the two draft speeches responding to the Resolution ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’ and the HR High Commissioner’s Report in consultation with other members of the delegation and relevant officials. Samarasinghe was to acknowledge this role in his intervention during the Foreign Ministry budget vote last Tuesday.


It was too late, and hence no effort was made to withdraw from co-sponsorshipor to amend the resolution, but it resulted in Foreign Minister Marapana articulating Sri Lanka’s standpoint on several contentious issues as never done before.


It may not be a push back as desired by some segments in society. But it was a measured and balanced response. Debunking inaccuracies in Bachelet’s report such as the extent of land released by the military in the North and future mass graves were indeed brilliant. It was asserted that there are no proven allegations against individuals on war crimes or crimes against humanity in the OISL report of 2015 or in any subsequent official document and that it is an injustice to deprive any serving or retired officer of the Sri Lankan security forces or the police of their rights. At long last, British Peer Lord Naseby’s painstaking work was acknowledged and used to challenge the trumped-up charge of 40,000 civilian deaths in the closing stages of the conflict even though for some inexplicable reason, Naseby’s name was not mentioned.


For the first time, the concept of a hybrid court was repudiated, and it was pointed out, bringing in non-citizens in the form of judges, prosecutors and lawyers were at variance with the country’s constitution, the amendment of which was virtually an impossible task.


It behooves Minister Samaraweera to enlighten us, citizens, why this piece of information was not conveyed to the UNHRC when he cosponsored UNHRC Resolution 30/1 in September 2015.


A regular contributor to The Island had written last week stating, ‘international participation is necessary where the state is part of the problem.’ I beg to differ. Bringing in international participants appointed by biased members of the international community with their ‘do as we say, not as we do’ mentality will solve nothing. Britain has refused to release confidential dispatches of their former Defense Attaché Lt. Colonel Anton Gash in an unredacted state for scrutiny. EU nations will not divulge identities of Tamil asylum seekers for verification if they are former LTTE terrorists and/or reported dead or missing. Bachelet’s report contained inaccurate figures. These are but a few examples of their extreme bias. Doing so, while Prime Minister May refuses to allow international scrutiny of the conduct of UK troops in Iraq is repulsive.


Amunugama, during his address in parliament after his return from Geneva, explained in no uncertain terms, reasons for UK, Canadian and German involvement in the resolutionto appease the Tamil diaspora vote banks.


From a news release issued by the OHCHR on March 27, it is now clear that similar to the resolution, the High Commissioner’s Report too had been prepared in consultation with sections of the government in Colombo.


The role played by President Sirisena in bringing about Sri Lanka’s response cannot be overstated. Considering the government’s abysmal handling of the Geneva Resolution since 2015, its performance in March 2019 is a welcome change.


President Sirisena might want to reflect, had he been more meaningfully involved with the resolution from the beginning instead of leaving matters in the hands of the pro-western elements in the government, Sri Lanka would have fared much better in facing the numerous challenges.


Many condemn President Sirisena because he dismissed Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and the cabinet on October 26, 2018. As matters have panned out commencing with Mark Field’s visit in October 2018, it is obvious the President has been consistently undermined, kept in the dark and decisions on national issues made without his involvement or consent. This has been the modus operandi throughout his Presidency. His solution to the problem cannot be faulted but his chosen method being unconstitutional brought about its own challenges.


In countries with the Executive Presidential form of government such as France, any official, Prime Minister or otherwise, making decisions on national issues and keeping the Executive President in the dark would result in charges of high treason being framed against such offenders. In this land like no other, it is has become standard operating procedure.


A news report published in The Island on March 29, quoting authoritative sources has reported SG SCRM had instructed Azeez of the government’s decision. It has been further stated, SCRM had followed proper procedures, and all relevant parties were aware of the decision to seek two more years to fulfill resolution 30/1 and a comprehensive statement from Minister Samaraweera would be issued soon.


However, the Head of State, during an address in Kalutara on March 27 insisted neither he, the Foreign Ministry or the Foreign Secretary had been kept informed of details nor did he agree to cosponsor the roll-over. One hopes, Minister Samaraweera, will also tell us citizens if President Sirisena was shown/consulted on the roll-over draft resolution and Bachelet’s report. If not, why?


In countries with the Executive Presidential form of government such as France, any official, Prime Minister or otherwise, making decisions on national issues and keeping the Executive President in the dark would result in charges of high treason being framed against such offenders. In this land like no other, it is has become standard operating procedure.


There was speculation if Minister Marapana would play the Ace or Joker in Geneva. In most card games, the cards line up is Ace, King, Queen……. etc. He may not have played an Ace, but he certainly did play a King card.


It is time, the Foreign Minister and his Foreign Secretary retakes the foreign affairs initiative.


The silver lining in the horizon is that Minister Marapana, a minister in the Wickremesinghe government and Sarath Amunugama, an MP from the Opposition who has the trust of President Sirisena, working together and assisted by capable and dedicated officials, produced the type of result we Sri Lankans have not seen in decades.


Indeed, a true victory of bipartisanship.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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