Minister of Plantation Industries Mahinda Samarasinghe may enjoy being tagged as the defender of Sri Lanka’s human rights record but unlike last year, the brief that was handed last week is an extremely challenging one, entrusted at very short notice.
It was only a few days ago that President Mahinda Rajapaksa summoned Samarasinghe and External Affairs minister G. L. Peiris and informed them that the former would be leading the Sri Lankan delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions now on in Geneva.
Prior to that, there was much hype about the government sending a low-profile delegation to the Geneva sessions led by Sri Lanka’s envoy Ravinatha Aryasinghe. That was based on the premise that the passage of another United States sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka was a certainty.
It will be recalled that in 2012, Sri Lanka fought extremely hard to stifle a United States sponsored resolution against it but failed with even India voting for that resolution. On that occasion too, Mahinda Samarasinghe led the Sri Lankan delegation.
" THEREFORE SAMARASINGHE’S “RE-APPOINTMENT’ AS THE LEADER OF THE DELEGATION TO GENEVA THIS YEAR AFTER THE DEBACLE IN 2012 COMES AS A SURPRISE. IT IS AN ASSIGNMENT THAT EVEN MINISTER PEIRIS WILL NOT ENVY. SRI LANKA’S HUMAN RIGHTS RECORD IS HARDER TO DEFEND THIS YEAR BUT THAT WILL BE SAMARASINGHE’S TASK "
Samarasinghe’s performance in Geneva in 2012 raised a few eyebrows. A few days prior to the vote, he raised a hornet’s nest by announcing that he was “confident” of India’s support. This set in motion a chain of protests in Tamil Nadu and this led to New Delhi voting against Colombo.
It was then suggested that Samarasinghe’s premature announcement about India was an attempt to steal the limelight away from External Affairs Minister G. L. Peiris. It is well known that Samarasinghe harbours ambitions of becoming the country’s next External Affairs minister.
Therefore Samarasinghe’s “re-appointment’ as the leader of the delegation to Geneva this year after the debacle in 2012 comes as a surprise. It is an assignment that even Minister Peiris will not envy. Sri Lanka’s human rights record is harder to defend this year but that will be Samarasinghe’s task.
Mahinda Buddhadasa Samarasinghe, 57, is no stranger to Geneva. He also has some experience in diplomacy. Having read for a degree in economics in Australia he then joined the Sri Lanka Overseas Service, being first posted again to Australia, to its capital, Canberra.
Before long Samarasinghe was in Geneva as a Counsellor for the Sri Lankan mission there, representing the country in various conferences that the city hosts as a hub for the United Nations. However, the lure of politics was too strong to resist and he returned to Sri Lanka.
Notwithstanding his credentials Samarasinghe began at the bottom rung of the ladder, entering the Western Provincial Council from the then powerful United National Party (UNP) in 1988 in the first elections held after the Indo-Lanka Accord which established these regional bodies.
Samarasinghe, hailing from the Kalutara district was a livewire for the UNP in the region but when he entered Parliament in 1994, the party had been defeated after seventeen long years and he had to sit in the opposition benches, nursing his constituency, Agalawatte.
When the UNP was returned to power in 2001, Samarasinghe was appointed Minister of Employment and Labour and his rise in the rank and file of the party was reflected in his appointment as Chief Government Whip.
" IT IS AN ASSIGNMENT THAT EVEN MINISTER PEIRIS WILL NOT ENVY. SRI LANKA’S HUMAN RIGHTS RECORD IS HARDER TO DEFEND THIS YEAR BUT THAT WILL BE SAMARASINGHE’S TASK "
The UNP was swept out of office after three brief years and Samarasinghe returned to the Opposition benches as the Chief Opposition Whip. Perhaps unhappy with the prospect of spending the best years of his political life in the opposition, he joined the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in 2006.
That was a time when President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in his bid to have a stranglehold in Parliament, was wooing UNPers with ministerial portfolios. Samarasinghe was rewarded with the cabinet portfolio of Disaster Management and Human Rights, which he held until the elections in 2010.
Samarasinghe earned praise for his role as Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights during that period as Sri Lanka engaged in the final Eelam war when human rights and the plight of refugees displaced due to the war became crucial issues for discussion in the international community.
With his past record of serving in the Sri Lanka Overseas Service it was well known that he aspired to be Sri Lanka’s next Foreign Minister after the general elections of 2010. The job however went to G. L. Peiris and a disappointed Samarasinghe was handed the Plantation Industries portfolio.
Samarasinghe continued to retain his interest in human rights, co-chairing the Permanent Standing Committee on Human Rights with Mangala Samaraweera, a former Foreign Minister and a die-hard SLFPer who has now crossed over to the UNP.
In Geneva this year, Samarasinghe will need to draw on all his experience both as a diplomat and a politician to champion Sri Lanka’s cause. Already, there have been developments which suggest that the outcome from the UNHRC sessions will not be favourable.
Reports from New Delhi quote Prime Minister Manmohan Singh telling a group of Indian parliamentarians that India will vote against Sri Lanka this year too in an ironic sequel to Samarasinghe’s announcement last year. This year however this came as no surprise.
Moreover, the Eelam lobby has ensured that photographs of terrorist leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s son have been released to coincide with the sessions. The accompanying allegation is that the Lankan troops shot the twelve year old boy dead, although the photos suggest no involvement of the military.
The European Union has signalled that they will vote for the resolution against Sri Lanka. That familiar Lanka-basher, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Tuesday made scathing comments against Sri Lanka saying it engaged in “massive’ human rights violations.
Confounding the issue are other factors such as the lack of progress in implementing proposals of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, the recent impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake and several incidents of alleged harassment of media personnel.
It is unlikely that Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, no matter what strategies he adopts, will be able to work miracles in Geneva and prevent the passage of the resolution against Sri Lanka. However, if he can at least salvage the country’s reputation to some extent, he would have done the country proud.