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Geneva Debacle: Forging a Way Forward

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By DHARSHAN WEERASEKERA

Attorney-at-Law

Alisdair Pal of Reuters says of the recent UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka, “the resolution allows the U.N. to “collect, consolidate, analyze and preserve information and evidence and develop possible strategies for future accountability….[it] is a “huge blow” to the Sri Lankan Government including President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.” (“What does the U.N. resolution mean for Sri Lanka, 24th March 2021, www.reuters.com)

To my knowledge, much of the commentary on the resolution follows a similar pattern, i.e. the focus is on what the resolution entails for Sri Lanka, but not the Council. It is vital to focus on this latter aspect in order to facilitate a future defence of Sri Lanka at the Council, and related international forums. In my opinion, the “Core Group” and the other nations that joined them in voting for the resolution, have destroyed the credibility of the UNHRC and thus the institution.

In this article, I focus on the “Core Group’ consisting of the U.K., Canada, Germany, North Macedonia and Montenegro that brought the resolution. I argue that the existence of such a group within the UNHRC makes a mockery of the principles and purposes behind the Council’s founding statutes, U.N. General Assembly resolution 60/251 and UNHRC resolution 5/1 (“Institution-building in the Human Rights Council”).

The UNHRC and the “Core Group”

The U.N. General Assembly created the Human Rights Council in March 2006 as a replacement for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights that had been functioning since 1993. Many people accused the Commission of having become too politicised and biased. Therefore, the “Charter” of the Council was formulated to ensure that the new institution would not follow its predecessor. Paragraph 4 of UNGA res. 60/251 states inter alia:

“The work of the Council shall be guided by the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity, constructive international dialogue and cooperation.”

Meanwhile, para 5 (e) states:

“[The Council shall] undertake a universal periodic review, based on objective and reliable information, of the fulfillment by each State of its human rights obligations and commitments in a manner which ensures universality of coverage and equal treatment with respect to all States; the review shall be a cooperative mechanism.”

To my knowledge, there is no other mention of a specific mechanism through which the Council should carry out its work. Therefore, it is reasonable to suppose that the framers envisioned that the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) was the best means through which the institution could carry out its work while conforming to the principles enunciated in para 4.

To turn to the Council’s other founding statute—UNHRC resolution 5/1 of June 2007—Annex 1 of the resolution sets out detailed instructions in regard to the Universal Periodic Review. Para 1 of the annex states that the basis of the review shall be: a) the U.N. Charter, b) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, c) Human Rights instruments to which a State is a party and d) voluntary pledges and commitments by States.

Meanwhile, Para 2 states: “In addition to the above and given the complementary and mutually interrelated nature of human rights law and international humanitarian law, the review shall take into account applicable international humanitarian law.”

The fact that the instructions for the UPR include a mandate to look into humanitarian law issues, means that the framers envisioned that if a particular country is accused of violating humanitarian law, such matters could also be reviewed through the UPR mechanism. Therefore, the following question arises: If, as alleged by Sri Lanka’s critics there are rampant human rights abuses going on in this country or humanitarian law issues that remain unaddressed, then why could not these issues be taken up through the UPR process rather than through country-specific resolutions?

Neither UNGA res. 60/251 nor UNHRC res. 1/5 prohibit the Council from resorting to country-specific resolutions. However, reason and common sense suggest that where recourse to a country-specific resolution is made, it should be for an occasion or crisis of a magnitude or urgency that cannot normally be dealt with under the UPR. Otherwise, it makes no sense to have the UPR.

It necessarily follows that, if the Council determines that a crisis of a magnitude or urgency that cannot be addressed through the UPR exists in a particular country, such determination must also be made through an open, objective and impartial process of assessing and evaluating the relevant evidence, including by giving the accused country adequate time and opportunity to speak in its defence.

Now, let us turn to the “Core Group.” In this regard, one must consider three points. First, the “Core Group” is a self-appointed group and does not have a mandate either from the Government of Sri Lanka or any U.N. organ, including the UNHRC, to monitor the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.

Second, some members of the group, notably the U.K. and Canada, have domestic political reasons to involve themselves in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. In regard to this, the following matters are relevant. First, there is a 2009 Wikileaks cable by an American diplomat to his bosses in Washington, detailing his conversations with the head of the Sri Lanka Desk at the British Foreign Office. He says inter alia:

“Waite said that much of HMG and ministerial attention to Sri Lanka is due to the “very vocal” Tamil Diaspora in the U.K., numbering over 300,000 … .He said that with elections in the horizon the Government is paying particular attention to Sri Lanka with [David] Miliband recently remarking to Waite that he was spending 60 percent of his time on at the moment on Sri Lanka.” (“Wikileaks: David Miliband championed aid to Sri Lanka to win votes of Tamils in U.K.” The Telegraph, 22nd January 2012)

Some people might object that the above happened when the Labour Party was in power, and now that the Conservatives have taken over things are different. However, the Conservatives are under just as much pressure to win Tamil votes, and this is proved among other things by the conduct of former PM David Cameron on his visit to Sri Lanka in November 2013 for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. No sooner had he landed, he gave a speech scolding then President Mahinda Rajapaksa for his treatment of the Tamils and was whisked off to Jaffna to commiserate with the folks there. This behaviour shocked even some English people. The well-known columnist Rod Liddel wrote derisively:

“Normally, when one is a guest in someone else’s country, it is incumbent to be polite, even deferential. But the prime minister is aware that this does not apply to Sri Lanka …. So, it is to David Cameron’s immense credit that he struck the right tone when addressing his Ceylonese jonny. It is the tone of a member of the Eton upper sixth addressing some errant fag who has failed to buff his shoes to the correct level of shine, through either incompetence or negligence.” Rod Liddel, “That is the President of Sri Lanka, PM, not one of your fags,” Times of London, 17-11-2013, www.thetimes.co.uk)

Meanwhile, in the recent past, the Conservative Party in its manifesto for the 2019 Parliamentary elections, had a clause calling for a “two-State solution” in Sri Lanka, and that clause was corrected only after stringent protest from the Sri Lankan Government. To repeat, the Conservative Party has just as much reason as Labour to court the Tamil vote, and it is reasonable to suppose that with the present action at the UNHRC, PM Boris Johnson and his cohorts have achieved a veritable “coup” in that regard.

To turn to Canada, Martin Collacott, a former Canadian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, writing in The National Post in 2005, says, “LTTE-friendly community leaders are willing to ensure that liberal candidates win votes in Tamil-heavy urban constituencies provided the Federal Government turns a blind eye to fundraising” (Martin Collacott, “Canada’s role in Tamil terror,” The National Post, 26-1-2005). In sum, the U.K and Canada have ulterior motives to be interested in Sri Lanka, and this makes the motives of the Core Group as such suspect.

Finally, to my knowledge, the “Core Group” has not submitted to the Council any report explaining that the purported human rights problems they see in Sri Lanka cannot be pursued through the Universal Periodic Review, and must instead be addressed through country-specific resolutions.

Conclusion

To accept what the Core Group has done is to accept that rich and powerful nations joined by poorer nations that they can coerce, cajole or influence, can decide by themselves that a particular country has a human rights “problem”, and proceed to take action against such nation at the UNHRC, without ever establishing before the Council that the “problem” of which they complain actually exists, and all the while violating the purposes and principles of the Council as well as the right to a fair hearing of the targeted nation. Sri Lankans must do everything in their power to hold the Core Group accountable for their actions.



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Opinion

Geographical Information Maps for Covid-19 control

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Around six months ago, the issue about lack of spatial information about the whereabouts of Covid-19 patients, came up, but, unfortunately, it has not been resolved yet. At that time the GMOA gave an ultimatum to the Ministry of Health that it will withdraw from the Technical Committee for Covid-19 control, if analyzed Geographical Information System (GIS) maps of Covid-19 patient-locations will not be made available. Although most don’t agree with the GMOA with some of their actions, on this matter I was more than 100% with them. The GMOA is an organization, which has many knowledgeable specialists in the areas of epidemiology, disease control and Information Technology, and I believe their knowledge, attitude and valuable inputs made it easy for the control teams to prevent the escalation of this epidemic.

The geographical maps are valuable tools to the MOHs, PHIs for their control work, and also to the general public to know of the locations of the patients, at least at the street level, so that they can avoid such areas. I think the Presidential Task Force also should be shown these maps, if they have not seen it yet, to make informed decisions. This week again, the President of the GMOA stated, over a private TV channel, that they, in fact, put up a GIS room next to the Director General of Health Services’ room, and that is a right move. He vented his frustrations when he came out with the difficulty in getting the maps done through the Epidemiology Unit to get this genre going. To fight a war there should be a central command and control room, and maps are a very important tool. Even 30 years ago, the officers in the field sent in the data about the spread of diseases, or they took samples, such as of stools of cholera patients, but they never got the analyzed reports, as someone was keeping them in the centre to write a paper to a journal.

Twenty years ago, when I was the Chief Medical Officer of Health of the CMC, realizing the value of GIS maps, I used them for dengue control in Colombo; and it provided great information to plan and implement control measures. We could see clusters of patients, and the gradual movement of the cluster into newer areas with time. My maps were used by at least the Peradeniya University to train Medical Officers in Health Mapping. I was also invited as the keynote speaker, by the Geographical Information Society. Many came to me from the Ministry of Health, KDU and other institutions to learn what we had done. Since then, the Ministry has trained some doctors who are now experts in GIS mapping, and they could be used to map the patient locations, show high, medium and low risk areas and also put in other information. The Public Health Department of CMC gave Geographical Position System-GPS training to Public Health Inspectors those days, to send in the information from the patient’s location to the GIS centre at the Town Hall, where all such information was collated. We then prepared the maps and sent them out to the MOHs and also discussed the situation at meetings.

I hope they have continued that work and, if so, they also should put out the maps of present patient locations in the CMC website, so that the people in Colombo will also know which areas in the city they should avoid. Colombo city was the centre of transmission of Covid-19 in the country a few months ago as nothing materialised. It is a pity that I can’t even get any information about Covid-19 patients in the CMC area, although I am the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Health and Sanitation at the CMC. The system I built up has come to a standstill, and sometimes even after eight months, I can’t get any answers to my questions given at Council meetings. Frustrated, I even wrote to the Epidemiology Unit asking for information about patient locations to better plan our prevention programmes, at least to prevent patients dying at home. But after listening to the GMOA President, yesterday, I now know it is a futile exercise. Information is power, but why not give it at a time of national crisis for the greater good of the people?

Technology should be used in disease prevention as much as possible, especially in this case, but the people in top positions are scared to use newer technology mostly because they don’t know about such technologies, or do not know how to use them. When PCR testing was started, a few leading private firms wanted to donate the latest automated PCR machine, but it was turned down by the people who were to use it, as they wanted a machine that could be used manually. That was my personal experience. There are other interests involved, too. Now I believe only the Sri Jayewardenepura University has an Automated machine which is 4-5 times faster in giving results.

Similarly, through GIS mapping we can put together a lot of information in a short time, and the analyzed information can be made available to the people who make decisions, and those in the field. Seeing the ground situation with one’s own eyes, is better than seeing some numbers. I hope the President, the Ministers and the Presidential Task Force will seriously take note of this, as this is very valuable public information that can be used to control this epidemic, at this critical juncture. For example, the information through maps could be used at least to know whether we should lock down a city or a district, or a province, or a few of them, etc., to prevent further escalation of this Covid-19 epidemic. There could be even a working sub-committee set up to do this work. Please do not put away this information in cold storage as someone’s private property. Let saner counsel prevail.

 

Dr. PRADEEP KARIYAWASAM

Former CMOH/CMC,

Chairman, Standing Committee on Health/CMC

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Minister Gamini Lokuge’s damage to people’s health

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Two consecutive editorials, published in The Island on the 7 and 8 May, lambasted the despicable intervention of the Minister of Transport, Gamini Lokuge, for being instrumental in lifting the lockdown, in Piliyandala, against the advice of the health authorities.

A team of health officials, led by the MOH Piliyandala, backed by PHIs, and the DGHS, based on the recommendations of his officers, decided to lock down the Piliyandala town, as it had taken a turn for the worse, due to the rapid spread of the epidemic.

Minister Lokuge is reported to have admitted, at an interview with Hiru News, that he influenced the lifting of the lockdown in Piliyandala, and The Island, of May 10, highlighted the circumstances that led him to influence the lifting of the lockdown. The Minister accepted that he influenced the lifting of the lockdown for the sake of the daily wage earners, a claim which has to be taken with a pinch of salt.

Close on the heels of the Minister’s arrogant countermand, a cluster of 138 patients was detected from the Piliyandala market.

A vendor collapsed in the market itself and his post-mortem proved that he was afflicted with the coronavirus.

The female MOH, who deserves to be praised for the adroit manner in which she has been performing duties in Piliyandala, said over the television that the cluster could have been averted, if the lockdown had not been lifted.

Hence, the Minister’s overzealous attempt to look after the livelihood of the daily wage earner, is certainly humbug, which cannot be condoned under any circumstances.

Readers would remember that the High Courts of Madras and Calcutta lambasted the Election Commission of India for their failure to ensure the recommended protocol meant for Covid-19, and openly said the ECI should be put on murder charges.

Could we reasonably expect that the authorities institute murder charges against the Minister, in the resplendent island, so that legislators, with bloated egos, could be reined in this hour of calamity.

Undoubtedly, idiotic action on the part of the Minister has endangered the precious lives of the people living in the Piliyandala area.

The childish manner in which the Minister responded to the questions, as reported by The Island correspondent, raises a number of issues. The foremost issue is whether he, as a senior Minister of the government, is capable of running an important Ministry, as he has messed up a vital epidemic issue, involving his own constituents.

Secondly, he has caused much embarrassment to the Commander of the Army and Head of the Presidential Task Force who has undertaking an arduous operation.

His argument that if the lifting of the lockdown was wrong then it should have been imposed again, is ridiculous.

All in all, what I could say is that the Minister’s high-handed intervention has left a bad taste in many a mouth, and it has caused an irrparable damage to the government at a time when its popularity is plummeting at a rapid pace.

 

RANASINGHE

Septuagenarian, Piliyandala

 

 

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Opinion

Glyphosate Reality:

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Non-science used as science

I have read with interest the article on “Science, Non-science and Nonsense” written by Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva in “The Island” of 11.3.2021. In this article “Dr. Sarath Gamini”, as he is popularly known in the medical circles, refers to me (without mentioning my name) and my research and a lecture given by me to the Sri Lanka Medical Association. This is my response to him, particularly, on the issue of glyphosate pesticide.

I take strong issue with Dr. Sarath Gamini’s erroneous characterisation of my research, related to glyphosates, and the categorization of the government decisions and policies related to the glyphosate pesticide. For clarity, let me reproduce the paragraph on glyphosate in toto from Dr. Sarath Gamini’s article, highlighting the area where he refers to me and my research:

“The campaign conducted blaming the weed killer glyphosate as a cause of the epidemic of chronic kidney disease of unknown origin in the farming areas, mainly in the North Central province, was one burning issue then. There was no scientific evidence to prove this, despite the efforts of some professors in the medical field to find some. However, the importation of the chemical was banned mostly due to political expediency. One is not aware of any other country in the world doing so. When a visiting Sri Lankan expatriate doctor claiming to be a researcher in the field was asked, he could name only a small country, still contemplating doing so. He was lost for words to answer probing questions on the matter. His research has since been discredited in the USA. How the ban adversely affected the productivity in the agricultural sector in Sri Lanka has never been assessed or discussed.”

I am an American Board-Certified Occupational Medicine physician, and I have worked as a tenured full professor for over 34 years in the California State University, Long Beach, which is one of the largest and most respected university systems in the United States. Second, I have published more than a dozen peer reviewed scientific articles, and have given over 50 public lectures in relation to the toxic effects of glyphosate pesticide. Except for an unsigned petition sent by some disgruntled supporters of pesticides (the contents of which were found to be completely false) my research has never been discredited in the United States, or anywhere else. In fact, I won several awards for my research, including the Research Accomplishment of the Year award from my university, the prestigious “International Award” from the Occupational Health and Safety Section of the American Public Health Association, and the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility (SFR) Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (an award that I shared with Prof. Channa Jayasumana). By the same token. As far as I know, Dr. Sarath Gamini does not have a single publication related to the toxicity of glyphosate pesticide. I raise this issue because one of the conditions that Dr. Sarath Gamini has stipulated, throughout his article, is that one has to be knowledgeable and competent in order to be able to make comments on any issue, within medicine or any other scientific field. Does that apply to Dr. Sarath Gamini, on the issue of Glyphosate as well?

Now, to get on to the content, throughout the paragraph on glyphosate, Dr. Sarath Gamini makes an assertion that the ban on glyphosate pesticide was made without any scientific evidence and “mostly due to political expediency” and he says, “One is not aware of any other country in the world doing so (the ban)”. These statements clearly demonstrate Dr. Sarath Gamin’s ignorance on the subject. Let me state the following facts for his knowledge, as well as that of the general public.

Hundreds of scientific research studies have linked glyphosate not only to Chronic Kidney Disease but also to many other health conditions, including autism, birth defects, inflammatory bowel syndrome and liver diseases. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer reviewed the scientific evidence in a 2015 report and classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Glyphosate – brand name Roundup – is primarily associated with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL), a cancer in the immune system. Following this determination, in October 2015, the first Roundup (Glyphosate) product liability lawsuit was filed against Monsanto in San Francisco District courts. In August 2018, a jury awarded $289 million in damages to the plaintiff – Dewayne Johnson – who is a former school groundskeeper for a California county school system when he developed NHL after spraying glyphosate regularly for several years. This amount was later reduced, during the appeals process. During this trial, evidence released by lawyers for the plaintiff tells an alarming story of ghostwriting, scientific manipulation, collusion with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and previously undisclosed information about how the human body absorbs glyphosate. These documents provide a deeper understanding of the serious public health consequences of glyphosate, and the false advertising related to Monsanto’s conduct in marketing glyphosate.

In a second case, the jury awarded a staggering $2 billion in damages to a couple – Alva and Alberta Pilliod. In court proceedings, the Pilliods testified to using Roundup regularly, starting in 1982. The couple used the consumer version of the weedkiller, whose label lacked any warnings about covering skin or wearing protective masks. Following these successes in courts, more than 18000 cases have been filed by people who developed cancer after regularly spraying glyphosate. According to some legal reports, Bayer – the German company that bought Monsanto in 2016 – has formally submitted a $8 billion for a global settlement. In March 2020, Monsanto also agreed to pay $39.5 million as a settlement for falsely advertising Roundup is “safe” for people and pets. The settlement, which was filed in federal court in Kansas City, Missouri, resolves allegations brought by several plaintiffs who claimed Monsanto failed to warn consumers about the health risks of glyphosate.

Following the lawsuits and the expert epidemiological evidence that was presented in courts, more than 20 countries have now banned, or restricted, the use of glyphosate. Although Monsanto’s new owner, Bayer, is fighting hard to limit these restrictions, the list is growing day by day. Some of these countries include Belgium, Denmark, France, Thailand, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, and Mexico. There are many cities and institutions in the U.S., including, New York, Key West, Los Angeles, the Universities of California and Miami who have now regulations to restrict the use of Glyphosate-based pesticides. (For a complete list of these restrictions please see Where is Glyphosate Banned? | Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman (baumhedlundlaw.com)

In his article, Dr. Sarath Gamini describes the revocation of the ban on glyphosate for the use in tea and coconut cultivation as a “fortunate” one. In my mind, this was one of the most “unfortunate” Cabinet decisions for several reasons: First, this policy decision was taken without much scientific advice. There was an Expert Committee that was appointed to provide advice on this matter. I was invited as an expert to testify. However, two weeks before the hearings were scheduled, the Cabinet paper was approved hastily. The main argument put forward was that there was not enough of a labour force for the removal of weeds, manually. However, many weeds have now developed resistance to glyphosate, so that one has to use manual labour to complete the process of weed removal. Second, there is no tracking and post-marketing monitoring process available in Sri Lanka to ensure that this toxic pesticide does not end up in the hands of fruit and vegetable growers and in our food. Third, the regulatory costs of protective equipment, biomonitoring and the certification of the tea and coconut products to ensure that their glyphosate levels are within acceptable limits is costly – a cost that outweighs the benefits. By now it should be clear to the reader that I have a completely opposing view on glyphosate to that of Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva.

Furthermore, in this article Dr. Sarath Gamini describes how, over the past few years, we have seen many untruths, hypocrisy and myths being propagated by professionals misleading the ignorant public and creating social unrest and even violence. As examples, the author describes, among others, several recent incidents, including the alleged sterilization of women without consent in Kurunegala, the propagation of a questionable local medicine that was touted as a cure for Covid-19, and the issue of compulsory cremation of deaths due to Covid. I will not comment on any of these issues for two reasons: First, I was not present in the country when most of these incidents took place; Second, I have not studied the social and political dynamics, surrounding these incidents, and the policies.

Therefore, in conclusion, I would like to say this to Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva: Now that you have talked about glyphosate, please “walk the walk” and demonstrate that you have the expertise on the subject and that you know what the “established knowledge” is. Dr. Sarath Gemini’s view of the established knowledge on glyphosate is completely antithetical to that of mine. Therefore, I would like to invite Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva to a public debate about the toxicity of glyphosate and the appropriateness of using the pesticide in Sri Lanka agriculture.

Dr. SARATH GUNATILAKE

Professor, California State University, Long Beach, California

Diplomate, American Board of Occupational Medicine

Email – sarath.gunatilake@csulb.edu )

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