After Geneva Resolution: What Next?
By Dr Laksiri Fernando
The adoption of the UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka is a setback not only to the government but also to the country and the people. It is however not the end of the world. The government as the elected authority by the people should now seriously think about the effectiveness of their foreign policies, foreign relations and perhaps personnel who are handling these crucial matters.
Defeating the resolution undoubtedly was a difficult task, among other factors, given the last government was completely following an opposite policy. Who was correct may be a debatable matter for some, but not for all or the majority. If Sri Lanka had a better profile among the OIC countries and a counter strategy for ‘reconciliation and accountability’ along with preventing terrorism, defeating the resolution could have been feasible.
The recent statement by Mangala Samaraweera that resolution 30/1 in 2015 was not only something co-sponsored by his government but in fact drafted by Ranil WickremEsinghe and a group is quite a revelation. Why did Samaraweera wait for such a long time to reveal the truth is the question?
Whatever the different nuances or tactics between governments, foreign policy should be a common endeavor that all governments should adhere to. National interest is the primary concern of any foreign policy, political, economic, or other. The ball is now with the present government to build that consensus with the main opposition, as Wickremesinghe and his UNP are now categorically defeated.
During the campaign for the resolution against Sri Lanka the last government’s position was a major trump card in the hands of the UK and the US to win over around 14 countries other than their own Western countries. It was primarily a campaign against the present government on political and on other grounds. As a report by the Universal Rights Group stated,i
“Two country situations in particular dominated the Council’s attention during its 46th session: Myanmar following February’s coup d’etat, and Sri Lanka following the return to power of the Rajapaksa family. At the end of the session resolutions on both situations (the former led by the EU and the latter by the UK) were adopted, by vote in the case of Sri Lanka (22-11-14) – the first time a vote has been called since 2014, and by consensus in the case of Myanmar (though many LMG States disassociated from the text).” (My emphasis).
The report was equating the election of Rajapaksa leadership to coup d’etat in Myanmar! It is very clear that motive behind the resolution was political, against an elected government whatever its main composition. This was also very clear from the High Commissioner’s report on Sri Lanka that paved the way for the resolution. They were angry with the government as it was not subservient to the international forces. One may agree or disagree with the government, but it was overwhelmingly elected by the people. It is still not known how far Ranil Wickramasinghe and his followers campaigned for the resolution. We may have to wait for Mangala to reveal it later! The politics of these people apparently are so treacherous to the country.
Legality of the Resolution?
There are people who wonder whether the recent UNHRC resolution is legally binding on the country or not? On this count, some have been even criticizing some Ministers on their statements. I have looked for authoritative statement from the OHCHR itself, but unfortunately clear procedures are not explained in their website for some (dubious!) reason. The best I could quote is from “The Human Rights Council: A Practical Guide” from the Swiss Mission in Geneva as follows under ‘HRC Resolutions.’ii
“HRC resolutions are the political expression of the views of its members, or a majority of its members, on specific human rights issues and problems that are of particular concern to the international community. They are sometimes also used to recognise the existence of certain ‘soft law’ principles (cf. e.g. Declaration on Human Rights Education and Training, annexed to res. A/HRC/RES/16/1). Regardless of their content, HRC resolutions are not legally binding.”
The emphasis in bold in the above paragraph is not mine. They were there in the Guide. According to this authoritative guide, (1) HRC resolutions are political expressions of member countries, of course on human rights issues, thematically or on country situations. Therefore, it is a political task for countries through diplomatic means to canvass and bring support for their positions. (2) Except in the case when the HRC approves UN General Assembly’s ‘soft laws,’ the HRC resolutions are not legally binding on member states or the target countries. However, the High Commissioner and the Office are legally binding in implementing them.
In May 2009, Sri Lanka successfully managed to obtain 29 out of 47 votes for its own resolution at the UNHRC when a UK lead group was planning to bring a resolution against the country. That was the success of diplomacy of the country that time. Of course, when such a resolution is proposed, the incumbent country has a duty to implement it. It is something that you do positively, and not negatively. Not as a tactic but as a commitment.
After that resolution, there were no resolutions on Sri Lanka until 2012. Thereafter it was a period of tumble down for the country particularly in diplomatic terms ending in Ranil and the group proposing something completely disastrous to the country. Under the circumstances, Sri Lanka’s defeat at the last occasion is not a surprise. Most of the independent countries were puzzled because of the zigzags of different governments.
It is doubtful whether the Ranil Resolution in 2015 was proposed with a genuine effort for reconciliation or accountability. It must have done as a tactic. This is also clear from Mangala Samaraweera’s statement. The purpose appeared to be to satisfy the Western countries (the US and UK) and not necessarily the Tamil community or the victims although the TNA also supported that effort.
Although Sri Lanka is not legally binding on the HRC resolution, there are political imperatives and customary practices that the country may have to follow. As the first struggle is over (with a setback of course), the country may have to use different tactics. More than being tactical, Sri Lanka can be straight forward and true to its beliefs. It should restart good relations with all countries irrespective of how they voted or behaved at the HRC, including the UK, USA, and the EU.
Although Sri Lanka is not legally binding on the HRC resolution, the High Commissioner and her Office are legally binding. Therefore, they may have to soon start fact finding and even visits to Sri Lanka. A Budget of $ 2.8million is indicated for this task. Although I said in my last article that Sri Lanka should not allow anyone from the Office to visit Sri Lanka that could be handled tactfully and cautiously.
The most important is to be true to Sri Lanka’s beliefs and interests. This is political realism. Although some foreign countries and Tamil diaspora believe that accountability is the priority matter, Sri Lanka believes reconciliation is the most important. Some are even asking for the ‘pound of flesh.’ This is all after supporting LTTE terrorism unashamedly. No sustainable accountability or reconciliation is possible without allowing the government of Sri Lanka to protect national security, prevent terrorism and develop the country. These should have been included in a true resolution in ‘promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights’ in the country.
On the question of accountability, there is another difference. Sri Lanka has shown that the country is ready to ‘forgive and forget’ most of the past atrocities of the LTTE for the sake of the future of all communities if the perpetrators genuinely repent. This may even apply to Adele Balasingham. At the same time, it is not ready to punish the military leaders who must have made mistakes in their judgements or directives. This has nothing to do with any actual or factual crimes committed by anyone in the field. The government should be ready or cannot prevent even today anyone filing such cases in the Supreme Court or before in the High Courts. Instead, going behind foreign jurisdictions cannot be acceptable for the great majority of the people.
Even at this stage of great controversy, there is a possibility of the government, preferably with the agreement of the opposition, making a statement to all member countries of the UN on something like “Prevention of Terrorism and Promotion of Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights.” It should be made clear to the international community that without measures for the prevention of terrorism through national security, sustainable reconciliation and accountability cannot be achieved. It should also be made clear that in Sri Lanka’s view human rights should go along with promoting human duties and responsibilities.
Daring siege of the Cultural Ministry
The University of Colombo, Sri Lanka was established in 1979 in accordance with the provisions of the Universities Act No. 18 of 1978. The university was given all the land from the road joining Bauddhaloka Mawatha and Reid Avenue (later named Prof. Stanley Wijesundera Mawatha) right up to the Thummulla junction.
There were the court premises set up to try the insurgents of 1971, the Curriculum Development Centre (CDC), the Queen’s Club, an unauthorized temple which had everything else like car wash, canteen, night life, etc, except what should be found in a temple.
Of these the university was able to get rid of the bogus temple. The request to get the CDC premises did not materialize as the then Secretary of Education turned it down. Later these buildings were taken over to house the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.
One day in the early 1990s just prior to closing time the Senior Assistant Registrar in charge of Student Affairs came into my office and told me that the Students Union is planning to take over the Buildings of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Their plan was to wait till dusk and get in surreptitiously two by two. I told the Senior Assistant Registrar not to divulge this to anybody else and to wait till the following morning to see the outcome.
When we reported for work the following morning, I asked the Senior Assistant Registrar as to what had happened. He said the mission had been successfully accomplished and now the students were occupying the buildings. It seemed that what the university had been trying to get for a long time, the students had successfully achieved in one night!
On the second day the students who were occupying the buildings were a little agitated, telephoned me and asked whether the Special Task Force (STF) was planning to surround the building with a view to oust them as the STF personnel were occupying vantage points on buildings in the vicinity . I telephoned and inquired from the OIC of Cinnamon Gardens Police station, and he told me that there was no such plan and that they were only watching the situation. I conveyed this to the students and allayed their fears.
A meeting was convened at the Ministry of Higher Education to see how the problem could be sorted out. At the meeting a student showed a copy of a Cabinet decision where agreement had been reached to hand over the CDC buildings to the University of Colombo. The Minister of Cultural Affairs at that time, Mr. Lakshman Jayakody, was surprised and asked the student as to how he got the copy of the decision as even he had not seen it. The student stated that he did not want to divulge the source.
The Minister stated that his immediate need was to get the pay sheet and cheque book as the employees had to be paid their salaries. The students were adamant not to surrender, and they stated that this was done as they needed hostels. Hence the decision to lay siege to the buildings. Mr. Jayakody agreed to vacate the buildings so that the university could make use of them.
That ended the saga of the famous siege of a Ministry building by a few daring undergraduates. The buildings were used to house the newly established Faculty of Management and Finance. The undergraduates were accommodated in other buildings in Muttiah Road and Thelawala, which were handed over to the university to be used as hostels.
HM NISSANKA WARAKAULLE
Professor Dayantha Wijeyesekera
Professor Dayantha Wijeyesekera who passed away a few days ago was a dynamic personality who headed not one but two national universities in Sri Lanka. It was as the Vice-Chancellor of the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) that I first encountered him, an encounter that highlighted Professor Wijeyesekera’s powers of perseverance and persuasion. During the late 1980s, I was happily ensconced at the University of Colombo when I started receiving messages from Professor Wijeyesekera to ask me to consider moving over to the OUSL. The proposition did not seem very viable to me at the time and I ignored his calls But for almost two years, he persisted until I finally gave in and shifted my academic career to Nawala- a move never regretted.
OUSL at that time was in the throes of changes and innovation, most of which were spearheaded by Professor Wijeyesekera who had taken over the leadership of OUSL in 1985 at a most controversial time. Perceptions of the OUSL were negative and the authorities were even considering closing it down. With his characteristic vigour, Dayantha Wijeyesekera set about putting things right bringing in changes, some of which were most controversial and even considered detrimental to OUSL.
In spite of opposition, he stuck to his vision and it is testimony to his persistence that a number of changes have lasted to this day – Faculties headed by Deans instead of Boards of Study headed by Directors, Departments of Study and not Units, a two-tier administrative system akin to the conventional university system of Council and Senate. To help support students who needed to come to Nawala for workshops and laboratory classes, he established student hostels-another move deemed by his critics as undermining the concept of Distance Education. The hostels still stand and have even been expanded.
Other changes were welcomed such as his indefatigable pursuit of state –of the art technology for OUSL. The OUSL’s centre for Educational Technology was a gift from Japan due to Professor Wijeyesekera’s efforts. And it was in his period of stewardship at OUSL that the first ever language laboratory to be established in a Sri Lankan university was set up in the Department of Language Studies – a gift from KOICA, the South Korean aid agency.
During Professor Wijeyesekera’s tenure as Vice Chancellor, the OUSL experienced growth and expansion in academic sectors too. During the 1980s, the university had only a handful of centres but under Dayantha Wijeyesekera the number rapidly grew- there were Regional Centres in major cities such as Colombo, Kandy and Jaffna. Study centres were set up in towns throughout the island and he was more than supportive when requested permission to establish teaching centres for English in smaller urban conglomerations such as Akkaraipattu .
Academic programmes blossomed. The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences for example had just one Bachelor’s degree, the LLB, during the 1980s. In Professor Wijeyesekera’s time this grew to include a Bachelor of Management Studies, a Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences and the first ever Bachelor’s degree in English and English Language Teaching. The first degree programme for nurses in Sri Lanka, the BSc. In Nursing, was established at the Faculty of Science with support from Athabasca University in Canada. In addition there also sprang up a whole cohort of Certificate and Diploma programmes catering to the diverse needs of professionals all over the island.
The growth of the university was reflected in the expansion of facilities. New buildings sprang up on reclaimed land bordering the Narahenpita-Nawala Road – a new Senate House which offered space to all the administrative sections and had a spacious facility for Council and Senate meetings. A three-storey building was provided for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and a new Library building took shape near the Media Centre.
In addition Professor Wijeyesekera reached out to international centres of Distance Education and Open Universities across the world. In the early 1990s, he hosted with aplomb the Conference of the Association of Asian Open Universities (AAOU) and OUSL became a respected member of the AAOU as well as of the Commonwealth of Learning.
Dayantha Wijeyesekera began his career at OUSL in 1985 when the fate of the OUSL hung in the balance. Under his stewardship, the university burgeoned into a national university, a leader in Distance Education which others sought to emulate.. When he joined the OU, the student enrolment stood at 8,000. When he left, nine years later, there 20,000 students registered at the university. It was his hard work, his dedication, his commitment to academic progress that helped transform the OUSL.
May his soul rest in peace.
Open University of Sri Lanka
X-Press Pearl disaster
It will be a crying shame if we fail to get the much wanted and much spoken about compensation due to us for the monumental maritime disaster caused in around our shores when the X-Press went down.
Our government and all those departments and ministries responsible had ample time to make a water tight claim to make the compensation 1claim to the right place. The best available brains and talent to deal with this complex problem involving a host of subjects including the ecology, marine biology, shipwrecks, the law of the sea, maritime laws and whatever else should have been organized to fight our case.
The moment the disaster occurred, all concerned should have acted with single minded dedication to make a strong claim for compensation. Much video and other evidence of the damage done is available. All of us are aware of the shoals of fish, turtles and other sea creatures that died and were washed ashore and the plastic and oil pollution of our beaches. Some of those creatures that died live for over 100 years.
What we saw on our shore post-disaster was a heartbreaking sight. I don’t think it’s possible to assess the ecological damage done in monetary terms. The plastic nurdles the ship has been washed as far as Matara and it is said the acid pollution caused will be with us for a century. Fishermen have suffered great hardship by the loss of catch.
The case filed is being heard in Singapore. I hope the verdict will temper justice with mercy. The damage and misery suffered through no fault of ours is untold.
Padmini Nanayakkara, Colombo-3.
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