26 September, 2023


Are Economic Crimes None Of The UNHRC’s Business? 

By Sanja de Silva Jayatilleka –

Sanja de Silva Jayatilleka

Foreign Minister Ali Sabry, addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva last week said in no uncertain terms that any reference to ‘economic crimes’ was beyond the Human Rights Council’s mandate:

“It is observed that the UN Acting High Commissioner for Human Rights has tabled a report on Sri Lanka that makes extensive reference to economic crimes. Apart from the ambiguity of the term, it is a matter of concern that such a reference exceeds the mandate of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).”

To be fair, it is probably the new Foreign Minister’s first time at the Council. The Council has thus far been primarily concerned with matters such as the conduct of the armed forces during the last stages of Sri Lanka’s war with the LTTE.

The term ‘Economic Crimes’ was included in relation to Sri Lanka at the Council for the first time, and introduced in the report of the High Commissioner on the Human Rights Situation in Sri Lanka on the first day of the ongoing sessions. It was an unfamiliar allegation, and rightly so, up until now. 

Equal Rights

The UNHRC Mandate which was challenged by Foreign Minister Sabry, was decided by the well-known United Nations General Assembly Resolution 60/251. 

The Preamble of the Resolution recalls in addition to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and other human rights instruments and reaffirms that all human rights are indivisible, interrelated, interdependent and mutually reinforcing.” It also states that they should be treated in an “equal manner”, “on the same footing” and “with the same emphasis”.

In the Operative paragraphs, UN Resolution 60/251 emphasizes the point further by stating that the Council is responsible for all human rights “without distinction of any kind”. 

It was clearly established at the very inception of the Council that Economic, Social and Cultural Rights were human rights and it had the responsibility to review any violations of those rights with equal concern as that of other human rights. 

Sri Lanka is a state party to the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights. The Covenant recognizes that:

“In accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his economic, social and cultural rights, as well as his civil and political rights…” 

I’d say the UNHRC and the OHCHR added 2 and 2 together and came up with an accurate 4, in deciding that economic rights are definitely within their purview and indeed that they were obliged to review any violations of the said rights. 

If it looks like a crime…

But has a violation of that right occurred? The bulk of the Sri Lankan public would give a resounding yes, never mind the technicalities. If things don’t improve, they are likely to do so louder and clearer in the form of an ‘Aragalaya’ before long. Regular repression and arrests of protesters have done little to discourage a people who have seen their livelihoods disappear together with their rice and vegetables due to government policies. No legalistic quibble will prevent a starving people from holding their leaders accountable for the povertization of the country (not to mention bankrupting its Central Bank) in the midst of regular warnings by economic experts.

The Sri Lankan state knew of its commitment internationally to ensure the welfare of the people and the upholding of all their human rights when it signed up to the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. 

 Article 11 of the Covenant starts with the recognition of the citizens’ economic rights, especially right to food:

“1. The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living for himself and his family, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. The States Parties will take appropriate steps to ensure the realization of this right, recognizing to this effect the essential importance of international co-operation based on free consent.

2. The States Parties to the present Covenant, recognizing the fundamental right of everyone to be free from hunger, shall take, individually and through international co-operation, the measures, including specific programmes, which are needed:

(a) To improve methods of production, conservation and distribution of food by making full use of technical and scientific knowledge, by disseminating knowledge of the principles of nutrition and by developing or reforming agrarian systems in such a way as to achieve the most efficient development and utilization of natural resources;

(b) Taking into account the problems of both food-importing and food-exporting countries, to ensure an equitable distribution of world food supplies in relation to need.”

However, under the Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidency, production methods were not improved but destroyed. An extremely consequential decision such as the overnight and complete banning of chemical fertilizer in a country that had farmed with chemical fertilizer for decades, whose farmers had been encouraged to do so by successive governments, whose soil was long oriented for farming in that manner, surely counts as an economic crime especially when the effects of this and other policy decisions have resulted in malnutrition among a large segment of the children of the country while a large percentage of the adult population are unable to afford three meals a day. 

Speaking to ABC Australia, a UNICEF representative had said of Sri Lanka that “7 out of 10 families are cutting down their food intake to mitigate the crisis… Accordingly, those who were having three meals had decreased to two, while those who were eating two meals had declined it to one. “

UNICEF had further stated that “1.7 million children in Sri Lanka…are at risk of dying from malnutrition-related causes…While Sri Lanka has the second-highest rate of acute malnutrition among children under 5 in South Asia, at least 17% of children are suffering from chronic wasting, a disease that carries the highest risk of death.”

There’s a hole in the Budget

This sudden plunge wasn’t due to a great flood, a drought, a war, or freak accident like a meteor hitting us dead centre. We were a middle-income country, until several policy decisions, now internationally described as economic crimes, were perpetrated on the people. This is certainly no international conspiracy to discredit Sri Lanka. If only the allegation had no basis in fact! All we would have had to do then, is summarily deal with the Office of the High Commissioner and the Council in the strongest terms and go back to our middle-income lives. 

Lived experience currently dictates otherwise. A once thriving country is now avowedly bankrupt. One has only to review the Auditor General’s report on Public Debt control 2018-2022 to confirm that the government was in dereliction of their financial responsibilities in addition to other misdeeds, such as corruption. 

For a while, the government didn’t even know how much they owed their international creditors, according to the international press. The Auditor General’s report tabulates several millions in hidden debts which were not properly recorded in the accounts of the Ministry of Finance. The Auditor General recommends that the “Central Bank of Sri Lanka should take steps to verify the accuracy of information on foreign debts other than international sovereign bonds contained in the reports obtained through the Commonwealth Debt Reporting and Management System …maintained by the Ministry of Finance.”

How big and deep is the hole we are in? Apparently, we have no way of knowing! 

The Auditor General felt the need to include the following in his recommendations:

“Borrowings should be made within the maximum borrowing limits set under the Appropriation Act and the Active Liability Act (Reference: Paragraph 2.2.3) …”

“Adequate and necessary disclosures should be made in compliance with the Accounting Standards so that an accurate understanding of the overall debt liability of the Government can be obtained through the use of Financial Statements of the Government.”

“In obtaining commercial loans at higher interest rates from the foreign financial institutions or market by the government or on government guarantees, limiting of taking those loans only to projects which will generate income in future by investing those funds and decide to take those loans after carrying out a formal cost benefit analysis.”

The general public would be under the impression that this sort of basic advice would have been given in 1949, when the Central Bank was first established, not in the 21st century to a middle-income country with no dearth of qualified accountants. 

Now in receipt of some assurance of IMF assistance, this system which operated in the dark, hurtling towards disaster, isn’t sure if it should reveal the details of its agreed programme for any kind of review. 

Throwing more light on the state of financial mismanagement, the Auditor General had recommended that action should be taken to include “all information that should be contained in the budget, the economy and the financial position report to be presented to Parliament in terms of the Fiscal Management (Responsibility) Act, No.3 of 2003”.

What does this mean? That Parliament, which ought to bear responsibility for financial decisions, had less than complete information when they voted for the various decisions.   

It also recommends to the Finance Ministry that it identifies “the significant variations in certain information in the annual report of the Ministry of Finance and the public financial information contained in the Financial statements of the Government” and to correct them accordingly. 

The primary Ministry responsible for handling the country’s finances had huge holes in its accounts but had no idea they were there, nor what they might be.

Wagging his finger right in its face, the Auditor General admonishes the Ministry of Finance that realism should play a role in its estimates of Revenue and also its expenditure. 

The Ministry seems to have bypassed parliament altogether when they realized their mistakes and made adjustments, without the approval of parliament, which was blissfully unaware that they would be held responsible for things they didn’t do. Thus perhaps, the recent chant of the people that all 225 should go! One hopes that the Auditor General’s recommendation that a mechanism be developed to obtain approval of Parliament when wrong figures previously presented are revised, has now been implemented.

Neither caring nor sharing

The OHCHR has naturally recommended that any international financial agreements should be evaluated for their impact on human rights. The IMF itself has insisted that corruption vulnerabilities should be minimized. Not a ringing endorsement of either the officials or the politicians involved. 

All in all, none of these paints a reassuring picture of a government which knows what it’s doing, or is apologetic for past mistakes. It just helped itself to a massive cabinet which is reportedly scheduled to expand amidst an unprecedented cash crunch. 

The people of this country, especially its youth who have most to lose, either ran for the door or toughed it out at the Aragalaya and threw an administration out, armed only with desperation. There’s evidently more suffering to come, and the new President is determined that people shouldn’t protest about it. He has dusted off legislation that the state promised the UN will be subject to a moratorium, and is busily arresting protesters under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. 

Armed with a majority in parliament, the government is unlikely to change course. The people will be grateful that in Geneva, the UNHRC seems to care enough to hold the government responsible.

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Latest comments

  • 11

    Economic crimes are another form of genocide of people. Ali Sabri is also a main part of the economic crimes. He was not only part of economic crimes but also part of Easter Bombing and oppression of Muslims as part of Rajapaksa regime.

    • 2

      Sanja: The US-backed and brokered Bondscam Ranil Rajapakse regime hates Economic Rights and Debt Justice! This is why the Aragalaya will be back this time without the CIA puppet-masters and Chaos strategists hopefully! Ranil is in London and Sri Lanka a UK-US colony with a holiday today!?!
      The Human Rights hypocrisy circus in Geneva called the UNHRC was staged to distract from the IMF, Colonial Club of Paris, and Washington Consensus attempt to take use ISB Debt Colonialism and Default for the west to re-colonize strategic Lanka is also back-firing.
      India, Iran and China and the other sovereign state creditors are set to tell the Paris Club and IMF and the Vulture Funds like BlackRock that they represent to take a hike! The Euro-American Empire is finished but they are trying every game in the book to re-boot Debt Colonialism!

      • 3

        Also IMF, OECD’s Colonial Club de Paris and ISBs are the biggest Economic Criminal network on the planet. They have looted and destroyed numerous countries in the Global South and have weaponized Diasproas and local elites as they did in Colonial times to loot their countries.
        US puppets and citizens, Ranil, Basil and Goat Jarapassa, all play the American game and bow to their White Western Masters.
        IMF is in Lanka to bail out the Vulture Funds, not the Lankan people who are so colonized like the Colombo USAID and Soros funded NGOs like, Law and Society Trust, which pretend to be seeking Debt Justice but actually promote disinformation blaming China for the Lankan Western Debt trap.
        Why did the Aragalaya , masterminded by the CIA, to push the Staged DEFAULT support the IMF (except for Anthare – IUSFA – the only genuine protestors), at the Galle Face post Covid-19 beach party Araglaya players and actors Inc ?!

    • 1

      None of the Srilankan problems are the problems of UNHCR. Please keep your mouth shut. If we need any money we will ask you.

    • 0

      The biggest criminal is US imperialism, supported by its allies, which imposes sanctions on Third World countries.
      It has denied food, fuel and medicine to countries.
      Of course, it is none of our business– except that some of us wish that the US does the same to the Sinhalese without hurting the Tamils.
      Muslims and Hill Country Tamils do not enter their sums.

  • 7

    Are Economic Crimes None Of The UNHRC’s Business?

    Whatever Sabry say UNHRC will not accept at one shout, Understanding is the first step to acceptance, and only with acceptance can there be recovery, we cannot the present bankruptcy it is proof for UNHRC to care enough to hold the government responsible. Last three months suffering of Sri lanka. IMF will have noticed all shortcoming to this ongoing international Legal Standards

    • 6

      “The people will be grateful that in Geneva, the UNHRC seems to care enough to hold the government responsible.”
      It seems Sanja advocates UNHRC intervention, whereas not long ago hubby DJ would, with much chest-thumping, tell us how he single-handed saved us from the UNHRC.

    • 2

      “Are Economic Crimes None Of The UNHRC’s Business?”
      So Why did Ali Sabry go to UNHRC at the expense of People Money. It is Ranil who co sponsored UNHRC resolution. He is now not the baby of Rajapaksa but the Ranil?

    • 0

      If any UN affiliated body is serious, the US would have been punished many times over.

  • 5

    From the first time Sri Lanka was taken before HRC has Sri Lanka ever delivered anything substantially similar to that it has promised? The answer is NO. It’s because SL Government thinks that the UN is like the politicians and voters in SL which could be cheated with rosy words but not with action. We have promised repeatedly that PTA will be changed, equal rights will be given, Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be established and those who committed war crimes will be punished .. but nothing happened. So this time UN should be given a timeline for each step it wants SL to deliver and if one such delivery is not done in time there should be penalties such as a travel ban, removal of GSP +, international criminal action, etc should be clearly spelled out.

    • 0

      “SL Government thinks that the UN is like the politicians and voters in SL.”
      Tell us what the UN is like?
      UNGA is at best all wind. The UNSc is selective in providing justice.
      Want more?

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