21 May, 2024


Reporting On UNHRC Matters: An Open Letter To Sinha Ratnatunga Editor Of The Sunday Times

By C.A. Chandraprema

C.A. Chandraprema

Dear Sinha,

The 57th session of the Human Rights Council is to be held from 9 September 2024 to 9 October 2024. Under the provisions of resolution 51/1 which was passed against Sri Lanka in October 2022, the UN Human Rights Commissioner is due to present a written update on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka and a comprehensive report ‘that includes further options for advancing accountability’ and both are to be discussed in an interactive dialogue at the 57th session of the UNHRC. The 57th session will coincide with the Presidential election which under the provisions of Article 31(3) of Sri Lanka’s Constitution, has to be held between the 17th September and 17th October 2024. Hence we are faced with a situation where the President and the government in power in Sri Lanka when the 57th session of the UNHRC begins, may no longer be in power by the time the session ends.

Since Sri Lanka should not be facing a process in the UNHRC in the midst of a crucial election, the correct thing for the government to do would be to arrange for a postponement in taking up Sri Lanka in the UNHRC as was done in 2015 after the Yahapalana government came into power. In that instance, the Sri Lankan issue was put off from the March session in 2015 to the September/October session the same year. The government should perhaps make arrangements to have this matter taken up at the organizational meeting which will be held before the 57th session of the UNHRC later this year. After the presidential and parliamentary polls which are likely to be held in quick succession later this year and early next year, the next big issue for Sri Lanka will be the process in the UNHRC.

In 2021 and 2022, I made note of certain reports and opinions expressed by your political editor on matters relating to the UN Human Rights Council which I wish to bring to your attention because the English language print media in particular has a special responsibility to be accurate in reporting and to refrain from confusing or misleading the public. The issues I highlight will be of relevance to upcoming the 57th session of the UNHRC as well. The 12 June 2022 column written by the Sunday Times political editor had the following paragraph:

“In February 2020 Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of US-backed resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council on Sri Lanka Resolution 40/1.  In March, the same year, the Council adopted a resolution successfully with wording that Sri Lanka could not control or negotiate on the matter. Since then, approaches to UNHRC sessions have been ad hoc and have led to a litany of blunders. A retired foreign service career officer said the attempt to withdraw from the resolution was a ‘grave mistake.’ That saw the birth of resolution (41/6) which, he claimed was “intrusive, damaging to the country and even the military.” This included provisions for countries to use universal jurisdiction to deal with human rights violators. Otherwise, he argued, there was still room to negotiate on the words in Resolution 40/6.”

Before going on to weightier matters, I should point out that that there are some errors in the numeronyms of the resolutions and the dates mentioned in this paragraph. As your political editor states, Sri Lanka did indeed withdraw from co-sponsorship of resolution 40/1 in February 2020 during the tenure of Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena. (The substantive resolution that Sri Lanka withdrew from was actually resolution 30/1 of 2015. Resolutions 34/1 of 2017 and 40/1 of 2019 were only resolutions brought to extend resolution 30/1.) To say that Sri Lanka withdrew from resolution 40/1 in February 2020 and that the UNHRC adopted another resolution in March ‘the same year’ is not accurate. The next resolution against Sri Lanka (resolution 46/1) was adopted only in March 2021 after resolution 40/1 of 2019 had run its course.

In the final sentences of the paragraph from the 12 June 2022 article quoted above, your political editor refers to a resolution 41/6 when he should have been referring to resolution 46/1. The former is a resolution on eliminating discrimination against women and girls passed in July 2019 and the latter is the resolution passed against Sri Lanka in March 2021. At the end of the paragraph he refers to a resolution 40/6 which is a resolution on cultural diversity passed in March 2019 whereas what he may have been referring to was resolution 40/1. (If one speaks of negotiating the wording of the resolution, what matters is the substantive resolution 30/1 and not resolutions 34/1 and 40/1 which only extended the application of resolution 30/1.)

This is not ‘trivia’ pertaining to Geneva. One has to be very familiar with what is what before writing about these matters, because you could easily end up confusing the public who rely on the print media to obtain information and to form their own opinions. Due to his own obvious lack of familiarity with the subject, your political editor has ended up misinforming the public on much more substantive matters. In the paragraph quoted above, he opines that Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from resolution 30/1 led to the adoption of another resolution the wording of which Sri Lanka could not control or negotiate on. On what grounds can anyone assume that Sri Lanka could ‘control’ or ‘negotiate’ on the wording of resolution 30/1 of 2015? The Yahapalana government co-sponsored resolution 30/1 in 2015 and it was extended in 2017 and 2019 but during that entire period there were no negotiations on the wording of resolution 30/1.

If there was even a remote possibility of negotiating on the wording of resolution 30/1, the Yahapalana government would have done that behind the scenes and those changes would have been incorporated in resolution 34/1 or resolution 40/1 which were passed in 2017 and 2019 respectively. The Yahapalana government was taking a beating domestically on account of having co-sponsored resolution 30/1 and they had every incentive to re-negotiate its wording if that was possible. When the last Yahapalana foreign minister Tilak Marapana addressed the UNHRC in Geneva in March 2019, he highlighted among many other things, why it is legally impossible to establish special courts to try war crimes with the participation of foreign judges and prosecutors etc. – a provision that was central to resolution 30/1.

The reason why the last Yahapalana foreign minister had to go to Geneva and speak at cross-purposes with resolution 30/1 which his own government had co-sponsored a few years earlier, was because no such room for negotiation existed. Once a resolution is passed with the co-sponsorship of the country concerned, that places a logical block on further negotiation. The wording in resolutions have to be negotiated on before it is passed, not afterwards. The tenor of Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana’s speech of March 2019 differs very little in substance from those made by his successors up to now. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena’s withdrawal from resolution 30/1 in February 2020 was a natural follow up to the speech made by his predecessor Minister Marapana in March 2019.

According to the paragraph quoted above, an unnamed ‘retired foreign service career officer’ is supposed to have told your political editor that withdrawing from resolution 30/1 was a ‘grave mistake’ and that such withdrawal led to the birth of resolution (46/1) which was ‘intrusive, damaging to the country and even the military’ and that resolution 46/1 included provisions for countries to use universal jurisdiction to deal with human rights violators. Your political editor has been able to write such nonsense and get away with it because only a very few people in Sri Lanka are really familiar with what is going on in the UNHRC. Fewer still have actually read the resolutions and related documents.

Undoubtedly, resolution 46/1 which was passed in March 2021 replacing resolution 30/1, was intrusive, damaging to the country and the military which is why Sri Lanka refused to accept it. However resolution 30/1 was far more intrusive, and far more damaging to the country and the military than resolution 46/1. I cannot go into the demerits of resolution 30/1 here because that would require another article of this length. However for the time being, suffice it to say that it was not resolution 46/1 that introduced provisions for countries to use universal jurisdiction to deal with alleged human rights violations in Sri Lanka as your political editor misleadingly states in the paragraph quoted above.

That universal jurisdiction be used against alleged violators of human rights in Sri Lanka was one of the recommendations in the report of the UN Human Rights High Commissioner (the OISL Report) of 26 September 2015. The Yahapalana government accepted the OISL report when they co-sponsored resolution 30/1 through operative paragraph 1 of that resolution. Thus you will see that your political editor has been conveying misinformation to the public.

I also wish to draw your attention to the political column in the Sunday Times on 7 March 2021 under the banner headline “UNHRC sessions: Govt.’s diplomatic blunders galore without proper strategy”. It also had a subheading stating “Ambassador Chandraprema involved in procedural errors; thrice overruled by core-group envoys”. The passages in that article regarding the procedural errors I am supposed to have made were as follows:

“…Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations in Geneva. Not quite well versed in the intricacies of diplomatic conduct, including in seeking the negotiations of the current text, he did cause some procedural errors…

“When general observations and comments ended, with remarks for and against Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Robert Last, declared that the session now reviews line by line the draft resolution. Envoy Chandraprema intervened and declared that the operative paragraphs (OP) 6 and 7 should be first taken up. Deputy Ambassador Last turned down the request pointing out that it is customary to review line by line in order of the paragraphs.

“Of course, China’s delegate to the UN in Geneva stood up for Ambassador Chandraprema. He said the operative paragraphs 6 and 7 be considered by the chair first. Also joining in was the Pakistani delegate, who suggested that they move to Operative Paragraphs 6 and 7. It was of no avail.

“At this stage of the informal discussion, Deputy Ambassador Last gave the chair to Rita French, the Human Rights Counsellor of the UK Permanent Mission in Geneva. She resumed the line-by-line discussion when Ambassador Chandraprema insisted once more in first dealing with OP 6 and 7. She said they would discuss the two paragraphs when it came to that part of the resolution. The Sri Lankan envoy’s pleas were rejected, twice by the Deputy Ambassador and once by the Human Rights Counsellor for the UK mission. Does this not reflect badly on Sri Lanka, a country which in the past has not been short of diplomatic skills?

Once again, your political editor has got basic facts mixed up. In the passages above, he refers to Rita French as the Human Rights Counsellor of the UK Permanent Mission in Geneva and to Robert Last as the United Kingdom’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva. Rita French was actually the UK’s Global Human Rights Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative in Geneva and Robert Last was the Human Rights Counsellor of the UK Permanent Mission in Geneva.

Be that as it may, according to what your political editor wrote on 7 March 2021 the ‘procedural error’ that the SL Ambassador is supposed to have made is in requesting that operative paragraphs 6 and 7 be considered first when the draft resolution against Sri Lanka was taken up for discussion at the informal meetings. Resolutions are put up for discussion by its penholders at informal meetings. These are as the name indicates, ‘informal meetings’ and not official sessions of the UNHRC. There is no ‘procedural error’ if the country concerned requests that certain paragraphs be taken up first. If I had made a ‘procedural error’ as your political editor alleges, that request would not have been fully supported by some of the most important players in the UNHRC as your columnist himself has indicated in the passages quoted above. Your political editor further states the following in his article of 7 March 2021:

“In a statement to the Interactive Dialogue on UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michele Bachelet’s Report on Sri Lanka, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena declared on February 24 (2020) that “Sri Lanka rejects” her report.  He said it had “unjustifiably broadened its scope and mandate further, incorporating many issues of governance and matters that are essentially domestic for any self-respecting, sovereign country.” He called on the UN Human Rights Council to reject the new “resolution which is based on this Report,” and the issue “be brought to a close.

“A rather strange participant at the informal dialogue on Monday over its contents was C.A. Chandraprema, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations in Geneva…

“…the important question that begs answer is why Ambassador Chandraprema had to participate, that too at such high level. The event was not for envoys but at a lower level. Was it a change of mind by the Government or did he believe his intervention would make a difference? If that be the case, why did the Government tell the Sri Lankan people that both the Report and the Resolution had been rejected?

“…If the intention was to pressure the Human Rights Council to back out from some provisions in the Resolution, why then should it have been rejected?..”

The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government rejected and withdrew from only from UNHRC resolution 30/1. They did not disengage completely from the processes in the UN Human Rights Council as that would have left the field open for detractors to say whatever they like and do whatever they like without the wider community of nations having the benefit of hearing Sri Lanka’s side of the story – which would be highly inimical to a small nation like Sri Lanka. As far as draft resolution 46/1 of March 2021 was concerned, the government policy was to remain engaged and negotiate until all avenues for negotiation were exhausted. Hence I, as the then Ambassador to the UN in Geneva, participated personally at all the informals on draft resolution 46/1 held on the 1st , 2nd, 8th and 10th March 2021.

In the passages quoted above, your political editor has expressed the opinion that Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the UN should not have been present at the informals and that Sri Lanka should have been represented by a junior diplomat. Countries that are at the receiving end in the UNHRC react differently to the informals on resolutions brought against them. Some countries ignore the informals totally basically telling the penholders to do as they please and even telling friendly countries not to attend the informals or speak on their behalf. Other countries send junior diplomats to the informals and take a lukewarm attitude to the proceedings choosing to contest the resolution only during the vote. Some countries remain fully engaged, in the informals as Sri Lanka was in 2021 and 2022. Everything depends on the decision made by the respective government.

When Sri Lanka is faced with an issue of the magnitude of a UNHRC resolution, the negotiations in that regard should be carried out by the Ambassador himself instead of by a junior diplomat. Even though your political editor has criticized the Sri Lankan Ambassador’s participation at the informals on resolution 46/1 in March 2021, that engagement was received very well by many countries during the informals and also during ‘the explanation of the vote after the vote’ at the end of the 46th session of the UNHRC. Some of the comments made about Sri Lanka’s participation and engagement on the 1st March 2021 at the first informal were as follows (taken verbatim from the recording):

Uruguay – “We welcome the presence of the Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka in this informal consultation which is in itself is a very good sign and I look forward to hearing the comments of the country concerned”.

Ireland – “It is very positive to see the Ambassador of Sri Lanka participating in today’s informal negotiations. We are looking forward to hearing from the country concerned and engaging in constructive dialogue”.

Finland – “I would like to thank the Sri Lankan permanent representative for being with us today and engaging in the dialogue”.

New Zealand – “We also welcome the participation of the permanent representative of Sri Lanka as the country concerned and Sri Lanka’s engagement with the core group”.

Brazil – “We congratulate the Sri Lankan Ambassador for being here and conveying the points of view of the govt. which we have been taking note of”.

Indonesia – “I very much appreciate the presence of the ambassador of Sri Lanka and his thoughts”.

Mexico – “We welcome the participation of the mission of Sri Lanka at this meeting. It is much better to have their presence here and their own perspective than being absent and us not being able to hear from them, so I really appreciate that and it’s going to enrich our discussion”.

Sweden – “We appreciate the participation of Sri Lanka in today’s informal and urge Sri Lanka to consider a consensual approach”.

International Commission of Jurists – “I recognize the presence of the mission of Sri Lanka and their engagement in this dialogue”.

Over three weeks after the first informal meeting, on the final day of the 46th Session after resolution 46/1 on Sri Lanka was voted on, many countries mentioned Sri Lanka’s participation at the informals in a positive light even in the written explanation of their vote as follows:

United Kingdom – “We regret that agreement could not be reached with Sri Lanka during the four informal meetings but we thank the distinguished Ambassador of Sri Lanka for his participation”.

Philippines – “We note that Sri Lanka engaged in the informals in good faith even after the failure of the OHCHR to adhere to high standards of transparency, objectivity and fairness in reporting”.

Pakistan – “We appreciate Sri Lanka’s constructive engagement throughout the informal consultations”.

Brazil – “We commend the participation of the Sri Lankan Ambassador during the informal consultations as proof of goodwill which certainly contributed to a more open and balanced approach during the discussions”.

Indonesia – “We appreciate the continued and active engagement of the Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka during the informal negotiations. Such engagement shows the willingness and the determination of the government of Sri Lanka to provide comments explanations and amendments to the draft as well as advancing dialogue with the core group. Indonesia values such engagement”.

These comments indicate that the government’s decision to remain fully engaged in the process met its diplomatic objective. This active engagement with the wider community of nations was why only 20 of the 47 member states of the UNHRC voted in favour of the current resolution against Sri Lanka (resolution 51/1) which was passed in October 2022. This engagement was also the reason why 38 speakers representing 43 nations spoke in support of Sri Lanka at the interactive dialogue on Sri Lanka held during the 51st session in September 2022. (Saudi Arabia spoke on behalf of all six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council.)

Your political editor has queried in the paragraph above “…If the intention was to pressure the Human Rights Council to back out from some provisions in the Resolution, why then should it have been rejected?..” Firstly, it is not the UN Human Rights Council itself that brings resolutions against countries but groups of penholders. It is the penholders who can include or drop provisions from draft resolutions. Most importantly, if the country concerned is not in agreement with the draft resolution, it has to indicate that disagreement at the informals and contest the resolution when it is taken up for voting in the Council. The country concerned cannot accept a resolution and subsequently seek to amend its wording after it is passed as your political editor seems to suggest.

I bring these matters to your attention well in advance of the 57th session of the UNHRC so that you can instruct your political editor to refrain from confusing or misleading the public with garbled facts and ill-informed opinions. Screenshots of the two articles by your political editor referred to in this letter are attached hereto.

Yours sincerely,

C.A. Chandraprema

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Latest comments

  • 7

    “Hence we are faced with a situation where the President and the government in power in Sri Lanka when the 57th session of the UNHRC begins, may no longer be in power by the time the session ends.”

    A very interesting statement from this author.

  • 4

    It makes no difference which government is in power in this country at any given time. No government will take responsibility for anything or be accountable for anything where the UNHRC is concerned. Whatever government comes to power, the Council will find that dealing with it will be very much like interacting with a dementia patient.

  • 1

    UN has credibility? They can barely agree on the language for asking Israel to agree to a ceasefire. Anyway, they will be busy with Israel for the next decade, as it attacks all its neighbors and initiates a war with Iran. Sri Lanka should ignore all “recommendations” from these people.

    • 3

      Hello Lester,
      You asked “UN has credibility?” If they have no credibility then Netanyahu would not be terrified of an ICC Arrest Warrant. I have heard of Countries “Punching above their weight” but “Sri Lanka should ignore all “recommendations” from these people” will have consequences, maybe not in the short term as everyone is concerned with Israel/Gaza and Ukraine/Russia, but in the long term the “dementia patient” will be given some medicine, with or without consent.
      Best regards

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