By Jehan Perera –
The significance of Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena’s speech at the ongoing UN Human Rights Commission session in Geneva must not be missed. There is a possibility it will be, in the greater attention given to the issue of Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. The government of that time co-sponsored the resolution, which set out in detail a process for reconciliation and justice in the country, in order to demonstrate its good faith to the international community. In the previous five years there had been several occasions on which Sri Lanka was subjected to strictures by the UNHRC acting collectively, and two occasions in which Sri Lanka lost in the voting despite its strenuous efforts to win. The willingness to comply with the UNHRC in 2015 permitted the government to gain both international goodwill and time, first two years, and then another two years, in which to implement its commitments.
Foreign Minister Gunawardena’s speech highlighted three important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, is that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. The Foreign Minister affirmed that within the new framework of national reconciliation it was proposing the government will continue to welcome the visits, advice and technical support from the UN system. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”
The second significant factor in the Foreign Minister’s speech was the need of the government to keep in mind the constituency back home in Sri Lanka who will be voting at next month’s general election. Given Sri Lanka’s long history of battling foreign invasions and resistance to colonial rule, those who are willing to speak against foreign domination with passion tend to generate political support from the general population as being leaders who love the country. This contrasts with liberal leaders who see the good and bad in both internal affairs and international affairs and therefore do not take too strong or passionate a stand on either side. The leaders of the former government were seen in this latter light, as too weak to counter the pressures from the international community.
In addition, in an increasingly inter-connected world, in which social media has got a grip over the imagination of people, the general population is well educated on issues of international double standards. They see unmanned drones sent to kill enemies of the states with dozens of civilians caught up in the collateral damage that results and invasions of other countries in which tens of thousands of innocents if not more perish. They question why the Sri Lankan state is targeted for different treatment. In this context, a government that pledges to protect its military and political leaders who won a war will assuredly be more popular with the electorate than those who are seen as yielding to international pressure. There could be a softening of the government’s stance on such controversial issues after the forthcoming general election when the pressure to obtain popular support is reduced.
In this context, the third significant element of the Foreign Minister’s speech was the affirmation of Sri Lanka as a multi ethnic and multi religious country. This may seem to be a truism to those who are objective and rational in their observations. Sri Lanka’s population consists of different ethnicities and religions and the minorities among them comprise around 30 percent of the population, which is a substantial amount. However, few Sri Lankan political leaders have been willing to publicly admit to this reality. They are aware that majorities in most countries see the polity as representing their culture and values predominantly. This is especially so at the present time when ethnic majority nationalism is on the rise in different parts of the world including both the developed and less developed countries. This is not only a specifically Sri Lankan problem but a global problem.
In an unprecedented manner in an international forum in which media attention was directed at Sri Lanka, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva said “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multicultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people. It is therefore our strong conviction that the aforementioned actions within the framework of Sri Lanka’s domestic priorities and policies, are not only realistic but also deliverable. We call upon all stakeholders, within and outside this august body, to cooperate with Sri Lanka in this endeavor.” This is a call that needs a positive response and engagement with.
The question is whether the withdrawal of Sri Lanka from co-sponsorship of the UNHRC resolution will change the nature of the government’s obligations to fulfill the commitments made in 2015 in term of the resolution. According to Foreign Minister Gunawardena, the government’s position is that it will fulfill these commitments to the extent they are within the political mandate given to the government by the people and also within the country’s constitution. This indicates that there is no possibility of the full implementation of the UNHRC resolution at this time as called for by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, which is according to international standards. She has objected to the government’s proposal to set up a Commission of Inquiry to look into previous reports regarding the issues of accountability and violations of human rights and to recommend follow up actions.
The challenge to the government will be to set up a framework for national reconciliation that will actually work out on the ground. The framework for national reconciliation contains many other aspects that could and need to be implemented immediately to improve the lives of the people. First and foremost would be to look after, and take some measure of responsibility of the lives of those who materially and emotionally have lost their most cherished possessions most of all their loved ones. Second, would be to institute reforms in the structures of governance that correspond to the requirements of a multi ethnic, multi lingual, multi cultural and multi religious country as affirmed by the Foreign Minister. Other issues may be need to be dealt with later. The most difficult of these would be the issues of war time accountability for human rights violations and for alleged war crimes for which there is no political will or popular support at the present time.
The issue of Sri Lanka’s compliance with UNHRC Resolution 30/1 will come up at next year’s session of the UNHRC in Geneva. Although the government has withdrawn its co-sponsorship, the implementation of commitments made in 2015 will figure on a scorecard. It will be important for the country’s international reputation that it will be able to demonstrate that it has implemented most of those commitments, especially those that directly impact on the people’s wellbeing and human rights, in a manner that has strengthened the national reconciliation process. The words of Foreign Minister Gunawardena rang loud at the UNHRC. They also need to ring true. “Notwithstanding withdrawing from co-sponsorship of this Resolution, Sri Lanka remains committed to achieving the goals set by the people of Sri Lanka on accountability and human rights, towards sustainable peace and reconciliation.” The member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions have taken forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.