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Counselling the Human Rights Council: A perspective by the Pathfinder Foundation

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As the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) looms large in about a month’s time, the debate on its controversial Resolution 30/1 of 2015, which the ‘Yahapalana Government’ co-owned in an unprecedented and unwise move, has resumed with renewed vigour.

This is because the Res. 30/1 adopted in 2015 ‘runs out’ this year and the HRC, egged on by the so called ‘core group’ of Western countries – the pilots of 30/1- will feel obliged to take stock of the situation and see where they want to go from here.

That Resolution 30/1 is in a class by itself in both form and content would be obvious to any reasonably literate person, including its most ardent supporters.

Even the harshest critic of Res. 30/1 and its spin-offs must concede that it was a bold move about a seemingly intractable situation. However, it is also probably the first instance in the history of the HRC, that a supposedly sovereign and independent country co-authored a UN Resolution containing an array of highly intrusive, unconstitutional and unimplementable demands directed at itself.

It probably scores another first in that the self-authored Resolution touches upon a range of governance matters, which are generally considered the exclusive preserve of the domestic jurisdiction of the authoring Member state itself viz, Sri Lanka. There does not appear to be any precedent of such self-inflicted State action in UN records.

In advance of the 34th Session, way back in 2017, the Pathfinder Foundation urged the then government to undertake renegotiation of the HRC resolution, based on ground realities in Sri Lanka, rather than seeking a postponement of consideration of the situation in the country.

It may be unique as well, for the reason that in no other democratic country a HRC resolution had been so instrumental in delivering so massive an electoral defeat to the incumbent government that cosponsored the resolution.

The HRC and the fellow internationals that generally get busy exploring how to ‘helpfully intervene’ in Sri Lanka about this time every year, must understand the reality that it is a function of the free franchise in one of the two oldest democracies in South Asia.

There was a groundswell of opinion in this country against the resolution, which was initiated by a group of countries, who had only a limited understanding of Sri Lanka. It was seen as a blatant interference in a small sovereign nation by virtually forcing it to ‘outsource’ the oversight of and judgment on many governance matters to a secretariat in distant Geneva.

Even those in Sri Lanka and abroad, who believed that successive regimes in Sri Lanka have accumulated quite an inventory of post conflict challenges to address, felt that Resolution 30/1 was a ‘bad template’ for HRC to promote international cooperation on human rights. This was because some provisions of that resolution had failed elsewhere (the so-called Hybrid Courts in Cambodia); some were unconstitutional/unimplementable (foreign judges): a watching brief on governance matters was conferred on a Secretariat based in Geneva and a dedicated UN office in Colombo was proposed for the oversight of these activities. That all these were at variance with the UN Charter, was of no concern to the ill-advised Core- Group on Sri Lanka.

This kind of ham-handed innovations to existing international law and institutions that can even contribute to regime change is not a good model to propound, if the HRC is serious about encouraging and persuading countries, particularly those of the developing world, to work in cooperation with the Council.

Instead, the Council would have been well-advised to develop and propose robust and independent domestic accountability processes, supported where necessary, by international cooperation in technical assistance, advisory services, best practices etc.

Pathfinder believes such an approach, which is advisory, rather than retributive in nature will:

work within normal national and international legal norms;

serve as a model for other countries needing such services, to cooperate with the UN; and

not function as a disincentive for countries that are willing to voluntarily cooperate.

So, it was no surprise that the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister was obliged, consequent to the electoral mandate the newly elected government had received, to announce the government’s withdrawal of co-sponsorship of Res. 30/1 at the 45th session of the HRC.

So, what next?

Has Sri Lanka’s inventory of accountability and reconciliation issues become non-existent? Obviously not.

Has HRC enhanced its credibility for promoting templates to encourage countries with difficult and complex issues in this field to cooperate with the Council? Obviously not.

Will countries with a good track record of voluntary cooperation, continue to do so in the face of such new, intrusive and unconstitutional modalities? Obviously not.

The current context and a way forward

On the High Commissioner for Human Rights (HCHR) side, the Secretariat has felt obliged to issue yet another heavily front–loaded report this year with even more intrusive recommendations. Some of them sound bizarre to say the least, as they refer to now familiar western parlance of ‘targeted measures, assets freeze’ and so on. Even if one sets aside the rather offensive and unrealistic nature of such utterances against a sovereign country, which had consistently and continuously cooperated with the HRC, it must be clear to anyone that these ‘innovations’ are counterproductive as far as addressing the real issues of cooperation were concerned, for no country will accept such invasive measures.

Such actions will face hugely divided votes in the UN General Assembly and definite vetoes in the Security Council. Apart from the feel-good factor for the enthusiastic sponsors, they have little or no practical value for addressing the real issue at the ground level.

On the GOSL side, even as it pulled out of the co sponsorship of 30/1 owing to electoral compulsions, Colombo has made it clear (at the HRC itself) that the withdrawal of co-sponsorship does not mean a withdrawal of Sri Lanka’s responsibilities concerning reconciliation and accountability. President Rajapaksa himself, while emphasizing that the country will not rule out the possibility of walking out of any entity that will not respect the accepted principles of sovereignty and independence of countries, did affirm that his government is fully committed to international cooperation including with the UN on SDGs, which of course include human rights, peace and justice related matters.

It is also a fact that Sri Lanka has continued to work effectively with various Special Procedure Mandates or Rapporteurs of HRC. If these Rapporteurs were unable to visit the country in the recent past, that was not due to change of policy by the government. As we all know, 2020 was an extraordinary year with COVID 19 taking its toll worldwide.

There are openings one can make use of and elements one can build upon, if we are serious about encouraging international cooperation among sovereign countries rather than unacceptable unilateral coercion.

If this is not done, and common ground is not created, Pathfinder is of the view that there are two options available to the sponsors of the initiative and to Sri Lanka at the forthcoming HRC session:

(a) Acknowledge the need to continue to address and resolve issues of accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka by preserving and building upon progress made so far (e. g. Office of Missing Persons, Compensation, Rehabilitation, Socio-economic upliftment etc.) and in that regard, offer and receive international cooperation where necessary, including with the UN, for technical assistance and advisory services.

OR

(b) If, however, the sponsors continue to insist on undeliverable and unconstitutional solutions (eg. as in Res 30/1 and 40/1), Sri Lanka to completely withdraw from the HRC process and work towards a domestic consensus on the matter.

During the nearly 30 years of an injurious conflict, Sri Lanka remained a good example of cooperation with external entities including the UN on human rights and humanitarian matters, despite many complex countervailing factors (security, political, diplomatic and economic). The UN Secretary General’s Special Representative Olara Otunnu, who visited Sri Lanka in 1998 said so in reference to Govt’s continued supply of food, medicine, health, education and other essential services to the LTTE ‘controlled’ areas. It would therefore be a pity, if such willing Member States are dissuaded from continuing such policy by HRC pitching their prescription bars at an undeliverable and un-constitutional height.

In such an eventuality, Sri Lanka and like-minded Member States will be obliged to press such resolutions to a highly divisive vote in the Council. Even if the resolution is adopted by a slim majority, Sri Lanka is most likely to ignore it and pitch her bilateral ‘economic tents’ with countries that vote in its favour. Such a resolution will not therefore help the cause of accountability and reconciliation one bit and will simply add to the considerable number other resolutions already ignored by countries like China, Cuba, India, Israel, the U.S., and so on. Even if it is elevated to the UNGA, it will suffer a highly divided vote and a definite veto in UN Security Council.

Pathfinder believes that only a negotiated consensual way forward, rather than unilateral actions either by Sri Lanka or the initiators of any resolution, will advance the cause of human rights in Sri Lanka at this difficult juncture. Adding to the paperwork at the HRC with no prospect of implementation at the ground level will not enhance the utility or credibility of HRC’s tool kit for international cooperation in human Rights. Of course, such a resolution will help increase the ‘feel good factor’ on the part of the Core-Group on Sri Lanka.

In conclusion, the Pathfinder Foundation would like to ask as to whether the Core-Group on Sri Lanka expects to get its job done by resorting to confrontation and browbeating of a member state, instead of cooperating and engage in consultation? If the answer is yes, then those countries representing the South in the HRC will think deeply before they cast their vote in support of another meaningless and intrusive resolution.

This is the PATHFINDER VIEW POINT of Counselling the Human Rights Council issued by the Pathfinder Foundation. Readers’ comments via email to pm@pathfinderfoundation.org are welcome.



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Features

Strong on vocals

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The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.

 

 

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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year

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Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.

 

 

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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations

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Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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