In an unprecedented move, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has openly leaked a version of a scathing report by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights sent confidentially to the Government of Sri Lanka for comments ahead of its release just before the 46th Session of the Human Rights Council Session in Geneva, Switzerland.
Michelle Bachelet, the HCHR transferred her ‘draft’ report on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka to the government on 12 January 2021 for comments on any errors in fact or law.
The High Commissioner is mandated by a Human Rights Council Resolution in 2017 to report on the progress made by Sri Lanka on post war reconciliation efforts. Customarily, the High Commissioner schedules the release of country reports just ahead of the UNHRC Session. It is usual diplomatic practice and courtesy to send such draft reports to the country concerned to provide an opportunity for the concerned state to address and point out errors in facts or law. Never before has the confidential copy released to the Government of Sri Lanka been leaked to the media by a ruling administration. It was unheard of even during the tenure of President Mahinda Rajapaksa who had his own battles with the UNHRC and the High Commissioners for Human Rights, diplomatic sources who were part of the process during that time told Colombo Telegraph. The move could seriously jeopardise an already highly tenuous relationship between the Sri Lankan Government and the United Nations, the diplomats warned.
The contents and recommendations of the confidential version of the report appeared in a Sunday newspaper printed in Colombo on the 24th of January. Foreign Ministry sources confirmed that the Secretary to the Ministry Admiral Jayanath Colambage had decided to use the advance copy of the High Commissioner’s report to score points in the local press before Sri Lanka faces its challenges in Geneva in February-March. Colambage, a former commander of the Sri Lanka Navy has no previous experience with diplomacy and international relations but was appointed to lead the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after parliamentary elections in August 2020. “The objective is to try and minimize the political fallout of the damning report when its officially published later this month,” Ministry sources said. The decision to leak the report has dismayed professionals in the Ministry who realize the implications of the move.
The previous Yahapalana government cooperated with the UN human rights system and prevented an international investigation into the Sri Lankan military. By cooperating and co-sponsoring a resolution at the UNHRC in 2015 the then government was able to reverse the international processes that were already under way. In 2014 the Human Rights Council had for the first time mandated the High Commissioner to carry out an investigation into human rights and humanitarian law violations in Sri Lanka. The resulting report which was presented in October 2015 recommended stringent action against perpetrators.
But when the Sri Lankan Government decided to cooperate with the UN and set some processes in motion to bring perpetrators to justice and closure to the victims through a complicated transitional justice mechanism that adhered to international standards, the UN agreed to allow Sri Lanka to lead this process. The actions of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Government which has pulled out of its justice and reconciliation commitments in the HRC 30/1 resolution, coupled with the regime’s gross disregard for human rights and deliberate abolition of democratic and human rights processes and instruments in the state sector has virtually turned the clock back to 2014 in Geneva, diplomats and rights advocates explained.
“President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to withdraw from the co-sponsorship of HRC 30/1 was nothing but a political gimmick – but he was playing with fire because there is a way the international system works and how it kicks into gear when states get reckless about its commitments and couple that with more human rights violations and crackdowns on freedom” the international diplomats said.
“In fact Gota’s decision to withdraw from co-sponsorship made zero impact on the High Commissioner’s report due in February 2021 and when the resolution on Sri Lanka happens at this session, on the contents of that resolution” they added.
According to the leaked information by the Foreign Ministry, High Commissioner Bachelet’s report on Sri Lanka is scathing. It highlights the serious deterioration of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka since Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa assumed office in November 2019.
The High Commissioner for Human Rights warns the international community of an impending human rights disaster in Sri Lanka unless corrective measures are taken. Intimidation, arbitrary arrests, discrimination against minorities, the erosion of independence of the judiciary and the independent commissions through the 20th amendment are some of the points made in the report. More significantly the High Commissioner notes that there is simply no political will in the current administration to address the serious allegations of human rights and violations of humanitarian law during the ethnic conflict.
Therefore Bachelet is now formally recommending international action. For the first time in Sri Lanka’s history of engagement with the UN Human Rights Council and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, High Commissioner Blanchet is recommending Sri Lanka’s referral to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, the permanent tribunal tasked with dealing with grave international crimes such as war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The report also calls on countries to take targeted actions against individuals involved in serious human rights violations. These targeted sanctions can be in the form of travel bans, as already imposed on General Shavindra Silva or asset freezes.
In response to the incoming international storm, which could spell doom for members of the administration who have been identified as war criminals and human rights violators, Secretary Colambage has assembled his own “Core Group” of local experts.
Initially Colambage decided that Sri Lanka would not respond to High Commissioner Blanchet’s report, not realising its damning nature and the gravity of her recommendations. It was Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunewardane who intervened to instruct MFA officials to draft a reply. Despite Colambage’s attempts to put a positive spin on the issues facing Sri Lanka in Geneva next month through friendly journalists, it is reliably learnt that there was hardly any preparation for any response.
Foreign Ministry officials scrambled to draft a response together with Minister Dinesh Gunawardena’s ‘core group’ consisting of Mohan Pieris, disgraced former Chief Justice and current Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, the daughter of a former Chief Justice and personal lawyer to President Nadasena Rajapaksa who currently works at the Attorney Generals Department and Chamindry Saparamadu a lawyer known to Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. Colambage has sidelined several senior officials with intimate knowledge and experience on the workings of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Colombo Telegraph learns. A former deputy Permanent Representaitve to UN in Geneva with vast experience in handling the Human Rights Council was recently forced into early retirement after Colambage refused to grant her no pay leave.
Instead of experienced hands the ‘core group’ dealing with this vital issue are augmented by a few mid level officials from the Ministry of Defence, Kotelawala Defence University, the Attorney General’s Department and the Foreign Ministry. It is expected that the response will highlight many of the atrocities of the LTTE instead of answering the allegations against the Sri Lankan officials. Particular concern will be shown to cases which have a direct involvement with President Nandasena Rajapaksa such as the Lasantha Wickremetunge murder case and the abduction and murder of 11 Tamil men by the Sri Lanka Navy. The alarming militarisation of all spheres of administration is another element to be addressed in the response.
Colombo Telegraph has also confirmed that a key ‘advisor’ in this process is a former secretary to the Foreign Ministry who was also a Governor of a Province under the Yahapalana government and currently a member of the progressive group of academics and public servants the Friday Forum.
A very senior official with knowledge of Human Rights Council workings told the Colombo Telegraph that Admiral Colombage through his amateur approach to the UNHRC is going to jeopardise Sri Lanka, its military and political leaders. “Through such juvenile gimmicks like leaking a sensitive and confidential report just to get ahead in the media narrative, Colombage has destroyed any good will of the office of the High Commissioner. This time the Kegalle Vidayalaya alumni has bitten off more than he can chew,” said the disgruntled senior diplomat. (By Janakie Mediwake)