Sri Lanka is taking a robust stance against allegations of human rights violations levelled against it at the on-going sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva and the man who has the unenviable task of leading that effort is External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris.
In the two preceeding years, the Lankan delegation to the UNHRC was led by Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe. In those two years, Sri Lanka had resolutions against it endorsed by the Council after the outcome hung in the balance for many weeks. This year the same outcome is a foregone conclusion.
The United States and the United Kingdom have spared no effort to ensure that the resolution against Sri Lanka has a safe passage through the UNHRC. Instead Sri Lanka is now in ‘damage control’ mode, desperately trying to stall calls for an international inquiry into alleged war crimes during the Eelam war.
Minister Peiris has already made a statement before the Council. He defended the country’s human rights record, outlining the progress achieved on related issues since the conclusion of the war in May 2009. He has also hit out at the Council, especially its High Commissioner, the much maligned Navanethem Pillay.
“Sri Lanka rejects the resolution in its entirety” Peiris said, as it is “fundamentally flawed” and accused Pillay of persisting “in an attitude which is clearly disproportionate to the circumstances” and trying “to inflict harm on the reconciliation process by bringing about a polarisation of Sri Lankan society”. Peiris, Professor of Law turned politician, is handling a difficult brief. Former Sri Lankan envoy Dayan Jayatilleke was scathing in his criticism of Peiris’ statement, calling it a “depressing disaster”, noting that he spoke from a prepared text, a practice the Minister had not resorted to for twenty five years.
“GL’s truculent address, demonstrating rejectionism and political immobility, slammed the door. It won’t bring Sri Lanka any votes and probably… increased the margin of our defeat and the magnitude of our dangerous international isolation” Jayatilleke observed.
Gamini Lakshman Peiris would take such criticism in his stride. He has been a much vilified character since he entered Parliament twenty years ago, hustled from the halls of academia into the hurly burly of politics by Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994 along with another legal eagle, Lakshman Kadirgamar.
He defended the country’s human rights record, outlining the progress achieved on related issues since the conclusion of the war in May 2009. He has also hit out at the Council, especially its High Commissioner, the much maligned Navanethem Pillay
At the time, Peiris was at the pinnacle of his academic career. An old Thomian, an alumnus of the Oxford University and a Rhodes scholar, Peiris had been Professor of Law, Dean of the Faculty of Law and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Colombo. He had also authored many books related to Sri Lankan Law. Being a distinguished academic, Peiris was accommodated on the National List and appointed Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs and Deputy Minister of Finance by President Kumaratunga. Later the portfolio of Ethnic Affairs and National Integration was added on.
Peiris won accolades for his work as Minister of Justice where he was instrumental in initiating a series of reforms that ensured that the country’s legal system was in keeping with the times. The Bill for the Permanent Commission for the Prevention of Bribery and Corruption was his brainchild.
Despite his many responsibilities, Peiris was not entirely happy with his lot and also had differences of opinion with President Chandrika Kumaratunga. In 2001, he was among those who defected from the ruling People's Alliance (PA), joining the opposition United National Party (UNP).
This triggered a collapse of the Kumaratunga government necessitating general elections in 2001 which the UNP won. Ranil Wickremesinghe was sworn in as Prime Minister in an uneasy period of co-habitation with Kumaratunga still the President.
Peiris was then appointed Minister of Enterprise Development, Industrial Policy and Investment Promotion but his more prominent role was as chief negotiator with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during peace talks with the Tigers which led to the ceasefire agreement (CFA). The Wickremesinghe government’s CFA with the LTTE, negotiated mostly by Peiris, cost them dearly when the Tigers began to violate the agreement with impunity. By the time it had helped to bring President Mahinda Rajapaksa into power in 2005, Peiris was supporting President Rajapaksa.
In President Rajapaksa’s first government, Peiris was Minister of Export Development and International Trade but was offered the coveted External Affairs portfolio during the President’s second term. His predecessors were Rohitha Bogollagama and Mangala Samaraweera.
With his loquacious style of public speaking and his frequent change of party loyalties Peiris has seen his standing as a politician plummet and he is not among the more popular ministers in the current Cabinet. His rivalry with Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe is an open secret.
Many blame Peiris for mismanaging Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, leading to its present predicament where it finds most of the western world arraigned against it. Peiris has also not protested about the increasing number of political appointees to the diplomatic corps, a factor hindering its status in foreign capitals.
Peiris was also known to have incurred the displeasure of the President over the impeachment of former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake. Bandaranayake, an academic at the Colombo University, was handpicked by Peiris and elevated to the Supreme Court and later recommended as Chief Justice.
It is also ironical that Peiris is tasked with defending Sri Lanka’s actions in the final war with the LTTE when it was he who was instrumental in negotiating a peace deal with the Tigers. However, it is the final conflict with the LTTE that has now come under intense scrutiny.
Last year, when the resolution against Sri Lanka was approved at the UNHRC, Peiris attempted to save face by saying that the total number of nations who abstained or voted against the resolution was more than those who voted for it. This year, he will argue that its content was ‘diluted’ and claim victory. In the chequered career of External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris, the ongoing sessions of the UNHRC in Geneva will be yet another critical event. However, Peiris will carry on instead of carrying the can - until next March when he will be called upon to play the same role again.