Sri Lanka should not be used as a political football - Prof. G. L. Peiris | Sunday Observer
Serving extraneous interests at HRC

Sri Lanka should not be used as a political football - Prof. G. L. Peiris

13 March, 2022

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Observer, Foreign Affairs Minister Prof.G.L.Peiris said the UN Human Rights Council was treading the same path as its predecessor, Human Rights Commission,  meddling into matters which fall on domestic jurisdictions of countries.

He added, even a cursory glance shows that 85 percent of the issues raised in the High Commissioner›s report on Sri Lanka to the HRC interactive dialogue at the recent session, covered internal matters and it has nothing to do with the battle against terrorism or UNHRC›s mandate.

“The Commission too, during latter stages embarked on investigations of this nature and lost the faith and the confidence of the international community. That led to the demise of the Commission,” he said.

Excerpts of the interview

Q: Are you satisfied with the outcome at the UN Human Rights Council where Sri Lanka tried to convince the member states of the progress it has made during a global pandemic?

A: I am entirely satisfied with the outcome. I had the opportunity to address the council twice, once for seven minutes during the high level segment and then five minutes at the interactive dialogue. During that restricted time, I drew the attention of the members of the council to five specific issues. The first is the question of balance and proportion - with the current situation in the world, the raging war in Europe included, is it reasonable and can it be justified to devote this degree of time, attention and energy to Sri Lanka. We are a peaceful country. There is a clear lack of proportion between the situation in Sri Lanka and the focus that it is receiving. 

The second point is, the purpose of the interactive dialogue was to consider the report submitted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to the 49th session of the council. Even a cursory examination of the report indicates clearly that about 85 percent of it is on current issues.

It has nothing to do with the battle against terrorism, but speaks of matters which are clearly of internal nature. And these matters fall four-square within the responsibilities of Parliament and the Government of Sri Lanka. The matters such as constitutional reform, devolution of powers, propriety and impropriety of appointment in the administrative service and secretaries of ministries are matters of domestic jurisdiction and have nothing to do with functions and responsibilities of the Human Rights Council.

The HRC functions within certain designed parameters. Its responsibilities are defined by the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). In probing domestic affairs of Sri Lanka, it is clearly acting in excess of the authority conferred upon it by the UNGA.

The third point is, there is clearly a question of discrimination. I asked if the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Human Rights Council were to embark upon an investigation of this nature with regard to the domestic affairs of all 196 member states of the UN system, what would be the result. Is that acceptable?

In any case, the HRC would not for a moment contemplate that kind of investigation of other countries, why then single out Sri Lanka? That is selective treatment which runs counter to the founding principles of the UN system.

The pillars of the system are impartiality, integrity, and non selectivity. But, here is selectivity at its worst. The entire authority of the UN system is moral and ethical. It has no way of enforcing its decisions. It is not like a sovereign state which has a judicial system and the orders of the courts are enforceable. The UN does not have that kind of mechanism. 

The entire stature of the system depends upon the acceptance of the moral authority of that system by the international community at large. That is undermined by singling out particular countries. This will have a negative impact on the foundation of the system.

One needs to remember the Human Rights Commission which was the predecessor of the Human Rights Council. It, during latter stages, embarked on investigations of this nature and lost the faith and the confidence of the international community. That led to the demise of the Commission. It was replaced by the Council. 

The fourth point is the colossal expenditure incurred on the investigation on Sri Lanka. The world is now in a situation where one half of the world’s population is struggling for access to life saving vaccines. Lots of populations have not received even one vaccine. It is in that situation that the HRC is spending millions and millions of dollars on this inquiry, on the so-called evidence gathering mechanism. Huge salaries are paid to the officials who are being appointed and entrusted with these functions.

Is that at all justifiable as to reasonable use of limited resources that are available at present? Does that serve the interest of human kind in general?

The fifth and final point was, what is the outcome of this expenditure. Is it doing any good at all? On the contrary, it is doing a great deal of harm by dividing the international community. Every six months there is an oral update and a written report. All of this divides the international community because there are votes being taken on the report.

Q: The UNHRC says this process is anticipated by communities in Sri Lanka?

A: Within the country also polarisation takes place as a result of this process - rubbing salt on old wounds, creating resentment among communities. That is the opposite we want. Reconciliation means bringing people together. 

I made a plea to the international community not to continue along that path. This has been the path since 2012. It has yielded no positive results. It is not that Sri Lanka is adopting a defensive attitude. We have been members of the UN systems from its inception. We are eager to work with the UN system and with the office of the High Commissioner.

But we do not recognise adhoc mechanisms set up by the HCs office because of its selective and discriminatory nature. We request the international community to work together in a spirit of partnership.

It must not evolve situations in Geneva that are sought to be imposed on the rest of the world irrespective of cultural, social and other differences. Reconciliation is a sensitive matter. When solutions are to stand the test of time, it must be developed to suit domestic needs. There is no size that fits everybody. 

Q: Has the Government expressed that despite this stance it is eager to work with the UNHRC?

A: If we require technical assistance with regard to any matter, we will tell the UN system. And we have always been open and transparent. Officials of the UN system have visited Sri Lanka. They have been given access to all parts of the country without any restrictions. We have nothing to hide.

That is the spirit in with which we like to work. I like to appeal to the international community not to be judgemental. Not to pass resolution after resolution. It serves no purpose. These cannot be implemented against the will of the country in question. 

It is a matter for deep satisfaction that out of 45 member states that participated in the interactive dialogue, 31countries, expressed support for the position taken up by Sri Lanka.

Q: There was overwhelming support by the countries of the global south?

A: It covered pretty much a substantial swathe of the global south, as well as Africa, South East Asia and Central Asia. 

It was possible because of the spirit of unity, the collective effort that was made by all the members of the Sri Lanka delegation: our permanent representative in Geneva, C. A. Chandraprema and his staff and Sri Lanka›s High Commissioners and Ambassadors in countries. It was a joint effort which yielded a positive outcome. 

Q: Are you satisfied with the fund raising part of this evidence gathering mechanism of the HRC. There were concerns that it lacked transparency?

A: We are far from satisfied. That is the responsibility of the fifth committeein New York. The fifth committee has approved only a small portion of the financial resources that were requested by the HRC. Our position is that further expenditure on this mechanism is totally unjustified. Among other reasons, their entire approach  is contrary to basic rules of natural justice and fairness.

In an oral update in Geneva in September last year, Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said her office was in possession of 120,000 items of evidence expected to be used against Sri Lanka, in international tribunals and in Courts of different countries that are supporting the exercise of universal jurisdiction.

We don’t know what these 120,000 items are. We are in the dark about it. That is entirely contrary to the basic principles of fairness. If there is a charge, we must know who is making it and on what evidence the charge is based. But the charges against Sri Lanka come from anonymous persons. And the OHCHR elevates these allegations to the level of gospel truth.

We have no opportunity to examine the evidence, filtering it and testing it for reliability and accuracy. The allegations may be prejudiced, motivated by malice. They may serve extraneous purposes, but we have no means of ascertaining any of it because no information is given to us regarding the sources of this so-called evidence.

It is our position that the fifth committee which is a delegate of the General Assembly in New York, does not approve further funding for an investigative mechanism, that is setting upon its work a totally unacceptable manner in gross violation of principles of natural justice which are established in all civilised legal systems.

Q: Why hasn’t the Government been able to shake off this UNHRC scrutiny, even after a decade since the LTTE terrorism ended?

A: We have to accept the reality. These are not judicial proceedings. These are not based on right and wrong. These are attitudes and procedures which are political in nature and the dominance force is the diaspora in many of these countries.

That diaspora is well funded. They have intimate connections with governments. Their numbers in some countries are such that in a closely fought election, in certain constituencies they can tip the balance and secure a certain result. Apart from the numbers, they have organisational capability. That is a huge political asset. This process serves an agenda which is political in nature and is far removed from the wellbeing of Sri Lanka.

We cannot let Sri Lanka be used as a political football, to serve extraneous interests.

Q: There are concerns that we might face another resolution in September this year. Your comments?

A: We are doing everything possible, to work in good faith not only with the Council but with the drivers of these resolutions: the Core – Group, the US (which re-entered the HRC recently), UK, Canada, Germany, Macedonia, Montenegro and Malavi.

They must recognise the substantial progress made on the ground. There is an amendment to the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which will be debated in Parliament on Tuesday (22). On Friday (11) I presided over a meeting of the Sectoral Oversight Committee of the Foreign Affairs Ministry which consists of the Government as well as opposition Members of Parliament to discuss the amendment. It  will be vetted by members of the committee. They go through it clause by clause.

And thereafter with the benefit of the views of the members, the amendment will be debated in Parliament on March 22. These amendments to the PTA are first steps. These are urgent amendments. We have started work on a total overhaul of a law that is 42 years old, ‹the Prevention of Terrorism Special Provisions act of 1979›.

Preparation of comprehensive legislation is going to take some time. We have to consult other stakeholders -  the Justice Ministry, Defence Ministry, Attorney General’s Department and other organs of the state.

But the urgent amendments will not be postponed until the entire exercise is completed. Even the countries at the Core-Group conceded that this is a helpful start. They welcomed these amendments. But they said there is more to be done. That major step would be the comprehensive overhaul of the 1979 legislation. 

Moreover, the government has released 81 people held in custody under PTA for a long period. Under Section 13 of the PTA, the Government has appointed a committee consisting of a former Justice Asoka de Silva. The purpose is to identify people held for a long period, who could be released back to society after rehabilitation without any detriment to national security.

This committee has identified 81 such people. They have been sent back to their villages. That is a substantial achievement.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed a Commission of inquiry headed by a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, Justice A.H.M.D.Nawaz. The terms of reference of that commission was to examine the reports of the previous commissions and make recommendations about a way forward. He was to examine Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, Udalagama Commission and the Commission of Disappearances headed by Justice Maxwell Paranagama. Justice Nawaz presented his report to the President recently. The government is studying it closely and will decide on the implementation of those recommendations. 

There is also the overall exercise of Constitutional reforms. That is now at the stage of the Expert Committee headed by Romesh De Silva PC. This committee comprises nine Professors of Law and Leading President’s Counsel.

They are completing their work and will send their recommendations to the legal draftsman to put it into a format. Then, the proposed Constitutional reforms will be subject to a due parliamentary process. The Core-Group must consider all these initiatives which, in combination, represent substantial progress on the ground. Hence, they must not continue on a combative and highly intrusive approach consisting of resolution after resolution but work in a spirit of partnership.

We have done a great deal under difficult circumstances and amid a raging pandemic. We have managed to vaccinate an overwhelming majority of people, which enabled us to contain the pandemic. This amount of progress was made during an unusually demanding time.

Q: The trigger for WWI and WW II was very much similar to what we are witnessing in Ukraine now. What are the implications of this situation on Sri Lanka?

A: It will have implications not only on Sri Lanka but on the world at large. There will be a phenomenal rise in oil prices and other essential commodities such as gas and wheat flour. It is going to have a very wide impact. We do not believe that continuing violence is a solution to this problem. We support the talks which began in Belarus. Our position is that all stakeholders need to sit at the table and find a solution to this. We are concerned about Sri Lankans in Ukraine.

There were 81 Sri Lankans in Ukraine, 15 of whom were students. The students in Ukraine have all left the country now. Of the remaining 66 Lankans, 39 have left Ukraine and they have gone to other European countries such as Poland, Romania and Moldova. A large number went to Germany. Twenty seven Sri Lankans are remaining in Ukraine.

For the moment, they do not wish to leave. Some are married to locals and employed there. They have to make decisions as a family. I have been in touch with our Ambassador in Turkey Mohamed Rizvi Hassen who is concurrently accredited to Ukraine. The Sri Lankans who have remained will be extended any assistance if needed.

The number of Sri Lankans in Belarus is much larger, about 1,561. Belarus is looked after by our Embassy in Moscow. I have been in touch with Ambassador in Moscow Janitha Liyanage. Many Sri Lankans in Belarus are students. Some universities have agreed to give them one month leave and not to charge university fees during that period. Our Embassy in Moscow is providing facilities for students and other Sri Lankans in Belarus who wish to come to Russia to get visas.

A 24-hour hotline has been established at the Embassy and a diplomatic officer has been entrusted with full time responsibility to be in communication with the Sri Lankans in Belarus and to render any assistance required. At this moment, there is no risk to Sri Lankans in Belarus. But we are keeping the situation under constant review.

Q: Has there been any internal discussions within the top tiers of the Government whether the war in Ukraine will escalate into a third World War and how Sri Lanka should face such a devastating eventuality?

A: It is an unrealistic doomsday scenario, because all stakeholders are conscious of the dangers of a nuclear war. There is restraint on all sides and a desire to work things out without escalation. Any kind of planning for a situation of that nature is premature and is unnecessary.