Sri Lanka: A pro-active role at the UNHRC | Daily News

Sri Lanka: A pro-active role at the UNHRC

UN General Assembly in session.
UN General Assembly in session.

In a low-key yet significant posturing, Sri Lanka has gone on to defend China, Venezuela, and Nicaragua at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which is in session at present. It comes at a time when the Council has specifically and continuously called upon Colombo to mend and/or explain what is seen as Sri Lanka’s habituated behaviour on the rights front since before the conclusion of the LTTE war in May 2009.

At the General Debate at the Council’s 48th session in Geneva, the Sri Lanka delegation said that the UNHRC and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) should not overstep the mandates laid out in Resolutions 60/251 and 48/141 of the UN General Assembly (UNGA), the parent organisation that has created them in the first place. This came after the HR High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, ticked off Sri Lanka again through her ‘Oral Statement’ at the commencement of the session.

“We hold that the UNGA never authorised the UNHRC to assign to any party, or the OHCHR to carry out tasks such as the collection of criminal evidence for use in judicial proceedings,” the Sri Lankan statement said. It noted that the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of Sovereign States is the very bedrock on which the international order is founded.

As such, Sri Lanka said that external forces should not seek to interfere in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, which are integral parts of the People’s Republic China (PRC). In the same vein, the statement noted with alarm that the unilateral coercive measures imposed on Venezuela continues to cause death, pain, and suffering to the Venezuelan people. “We deplore the fact that supplies of food and essential medicines, have been blocked even during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the freezing of Venezuelan assets abroad. We call for the lifting of such restrictions on Venezuela,” the statement read.

Sri Lanka is of the view that any action aimed at the protection and promotion of human rights in a country must have the consent of the country concerned. In this context, Colombo also called upon the Council to recognise the action taken by Nicaragua to respect and promote human rights over the years, and to engage in a positive dialogue with the government of Nicaragua.

Expanding the reach

Independent of pronouncements of the kind at Geneva, Sri Lanka has simultaneously begun expanding the political reach of the ‘UNHRC discourse’ to other international forums, even those unconnected to the UN system. In a virtual meeting with Patricia Scotland, Commonwealth Secretary-General, Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris reiterated that the ‘ad hoc process’ followed by the OHCHR to get foreign authorities to take over or replace local institutions under the guise of ethnic reconciliation was contrary to the UN Charter.

UN Human Rights Chief
Michelle Bachelet
Foreign Minister
Prof. G. L. Peiris

Prof. Peiris recalled how Sri Lanka was a founding-member of the Commonwealth and reaffirmed the nation’s active commitment to dialogue and engagement with the organisation of former British colonies in multiple sectors. He also elaborated the action taken by local institutions toward reconciliation, noting that this is a continual process in which the country requires adequate space for local institutions to carry out their missions.

Days earlier in his initial response to High Commissioner Bachelet’s observations, Minister Peiris rejected ‘any external initiatives’ established by UN mechanisms, claiming that they would ‘polarise our society’. Aligning with past posturing, Peiris added that domestic processes were ‘vigorously addressing’ questions of accountability and justice lingering from the civil war years.

In her customary ‘oral statement’ at the inauguration of the ongoing 48th session, High Commissioner Bachelet had side-stepped her core ‘negative’ observations and referred to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s June remarks that his Government was ‘committed to work with the UN to ensure accountability’. The reiteration of the Government’s position thrice in two weeks now should set at rest speculation of the Bachelet kind, if any clarification was needed.

In a way, the current Sri Lankan position is only in continuation of what then Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena had announced in February 2020, about the Nation’s withdrawal from Resolution 40/1, co-sponsored by the previous Government (2015-19). Yet, the UN Rights Chief looked forward for ‘concrete actions’ from the Sri Lankan Government on its past commitments (under the Co-Sponsored Resolutions), and urged Council Members to continue paying ‘close attention’ to the nation’s record in the matter, which to her was not encouraging as on previous occasions too.

Core principles

The UNGA created the UNHRC as recently as 2006 to replace the UN Commission on Human Rights. Though all five Veto-powers that included China and Russia voted for the creation of UNHRC at the UNGA, they too have felt ‘victimised’ by the system from time-to-time.

There have since been arguments that the West created the UNHRC only to avoid the Veto-vote at the UN Security Council (UNSC) and has partially succeeded in it. Others argue how at the end of it all, UNHRC’s decisions and OHCHR’s budgets for individual investigations too have to go back to the UNGA/UNSC.

With the permanent British Chair of the Commonwealth heading the ‘Core Group’ of Nations targeting Sri Lanka now at the UNHRC, it is anybody’s guess what Colombo now intends achieving by flagging its Geneva concerns with Secretary-General Patricia Scotland. It leads to the natural question if by taking up the issue to the Commonwealth, Sri Lanka hopes to stalemate the UK on its home turf, by pushing for a headcount at some point.

By expanding the scope of the UNHRC discourse to include other nations ‘victimised’ by the system, and also taking it up in another forum whose members are also present in the parent UNGA, the Sri Lankan leadership seems wanting to take on the West, not on facts and details, as listed out by the OHCHR but on ‘core principles’. The idea, it seems, is to trigger internal debates, if possible, in such other non-UN regional/ethnic groupings, too, wherein a substantial number of member states may feel similarly ‘victimised’ by the UN/UNHRC system.

In such debates, and also in the UNHRC and UNGA, Sri Lanka has counted on China’s politico-economic reach, worldwide, particularly amongst poorer nations. In the past, when the West wanted to haul up Colombo before the UNSC, post-war, 2009, beginning with informal consultations, China and Russia stood their ground.

With the result, the US-led grouping turned its glare towards Geneva, where they had had their way. It required much persuasion of a majority of 47 voting Members at the UNHRC at the time. That was only after India, China and Pakistan, amongst others, had joined hands to defeat an anti-Colombo Resolution of the European Union (EU) at the UNHRC only 10 days after the conclusion of the war in May 2009, and getting a Sri Lanka-friendly Resolution passed instead.

The UNHRC passed Resolution 46/1 in March this year, to expand the scope of OHCHR investigations beyond the original ‘war crimes’ and other ‘accountability issues’ of the time, to include current and continuing events and developments, almost on a day-to-day basis. It had only 22 of 47 affirmative votes. Half that number, including Pakistan, China and Russia, voted against the resolution while 14 others, including the closest Indian neighbour, abstained.

- Observer Research Foundation

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