The government has announced that it would withdraw the co-sponsorship of a UN Human Rights Council Resolution that it co-sponsored with the US in 2015 and two subsequent rollover resolutions.
Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardene who leads the Sri Lankan delegation to the 43rd UNHRC Sessions this week, would formerly inform the government’s decision to withdraw its ‘co-sponsorship’ of the Resolution 30/1 ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka” adopted on October 14, 2015 and subsequent follow up resolutions of 34/1 of March 2017 and 40/1 March 2019.
The Cabinet last week approved the decision to withdraw the co-sponsorship of the resolution. In the Cabinet paper the foreign minister observed : “ Resolution 30/1 conceded a false narrative of both the circumstances of the 30-year separatist conflict and also the number of causalities. This was done despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary contained in domestic reports such as the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) into complains of abductions and disappearances (Paranagama Commission) and those produced in the UK Parliament by Lord Naseby, reports of other States, the UN and other international agencies to continue to work with the UN and its agencies, including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms and seek as required, capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies. “It undermined national interest, compromised national security including weakening national intelligence operations and related safeguards, which may be deemed to have contributed to the lapses that resulted in the Easter Sunday attacks. It also placed Sri Lanka under a host of international obligations which could not be delivered on due to constitutional and institutional limitations. Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of Resolution 30/1 remains to date a blot on the sovereignty and dignity of the country.”
In view of the new mandate of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, he sought the approval of the Cabinet of Ministers to withdraw from the resolution. He alleged that the Resolution 30/1 cast ”severe impositions’ on Sri Lanka and particularly its security forces were vilified.” Then, he went on to assure that the government would continue to work with the UN and its agencies, including the regular human rights mandates and seek as required, capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.
UNHRC resolutions are not binding. It is the discretion of the member states to implement them or not. That the government withdraws from the co-sponsorship of Sri Lanka under its predecessor does not annul the resolution adopted in 2015. Nor is there a formal procedure in the UNHRC to withdraw a resolution that was already adopted ( again for the obvious reasons that they are non-binding). One possible way would be to pass a resolution withdrawing a previous resolution , which might provoke a counter resolution by other states. Withdrawing the Sri Lankan co-sponsorship is not particularly bad or good. However, the only tangible objective there seems to be disassociating from a decision of its predecessor. (The government argues that the resolution 30/1 was co-sponsored without the knowledge of the then president, Cabinet and Parliament.)
However, the danger is the return to the old habit of politicking on the foreign policy. Sri Lanka is one of the rare cases that has continuously hyped a marginal irritant at the UNHRC as an existential crisis of the state, which it was never the case. That began immediately after the end of the war as Sri Lanka got the member states to vote for a resolution congratulating it for defeating the LTTE, and effectively preempting a resolution campaigned by several EU states with sympathies to the LTTE. During the following years, there were two consecutive adverse resolutions sponsored by the US, and the then government of Mahinda Rajapaksa cyclically went on a frenzy castigating the dissenting voices as ‘traitors’ on the state TV, and fighting an imaginary enemy and an equally fictitious international conspiracy.
It is the commonsensical political logic that a perceived external threat is one of the most effective means of internal mobilization of a captive population. That was achieved in full measure, while the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa plotted for a presidency for life, removed term limits and dismantled independent institutions. His government locked up the defeated presidential contender Sarath Fonseka and then impeached the chief justice after she ruled against whims and fancies of the ruling coterie. If the conduct of the final phase of the war is contentious- which any war is, especially one that pitted against a ruthless terrorist group - increasing authoritarianism at home made it harder to defend the country Internationally.
The then regime effectively paid into the hands of the Tiger lobby.
The change of guard after the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015 provided an exit both for Sri Lanka and major states that wanted to patch up with the island nation due to the emerging geopolitics of the Indian Ocean, but did not want to associate with the then regime. The successors of the Rajapaksas, over enthusiastic to work with the US cosponsored the Resolution 30/1. It effectively granted time and space for Sri Lanka, though its record in delivering on its promises has not necessarily impressed both its fellow travellers and NGO captains.
However, that has not hurt the country much, except an occasional nuisance. Sri Lanka’s interests are better served in maintaining this status quo- and not by provoking additional international attention by trying to be too cocky to impress a domestic audience ahead of a general election. Withdrawing the co-sponsorship would not drastically alter the status quo. But, politicking on the UNHCR resolution would do. Sri Lanka’s post war transition is complex and daunting. Also, a good portion of the much hyped grievances are in fact exaggerated and not all who are routing for justice at the UNHRC are Sri Lanka’s friends.
There are sour grapes over the text book style annihilation of their favourite terrorist group and the urging to smear the country. Ruthlessness of the enemy in part correlated to the bloodier conclusion of the war.
Ten years on, the majority of Sri Lankans are willing to move on- though not necessarily the ’Mahaveerar’ families or some quarters of the diaspora Tamils who bankrolled terrorism. In some ways, the role of the UNHRC has complicated the process for vested interests associated with its stakeholders.
However there is also an unmistakable fact that Sri Lanka can not run away: a section of Sri Lankans, the families of the disappeared, the displaced and the refugees feel aggrieved and need a closure. Sustainable peace in Sri Lanka entails addressing their legitimate grievances and political aspirations.
The government should strive to give them a redress - with or without the UNHRC. Most importantly, it should eschew the temptation to fester the wounds of a conflict that ended 10 years ago. Whipping up pseudo patriotism might pay off in the general election and there after. But, doing so, the government would be letting down the country and its people - not just the folks in the North, but all of the Sri Lankan people.
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