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The UNP Gets Geneva Wrong

| by Dr Dayan Jayatilleka

( February 13, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) I write to contradict the assertions of Mr Lakshman Kiriella, Senior Vice President of the UNP, as reported in the lead story of The Island of Tuesday Feb 11th 2014, with regard to the UNHRC special session of May 2009 in Geneva and the needless yet impending catastrophe we face there today.

Mr. Kiriella is quoted as saying that "A series of blunders has led to the country being crucified at international forums. It all began shortly after the war with the LTTE ended on May 19, 2009. Our representative at the UN gave an undertaking that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution would be implemented in full. Subsequently, President Mahinda Rajapaksa went a step further and assured India that 13A Plus would be granted to the North and East. Thereafter the government entered into an MoU with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon undertaking to conduct an independent and credible domestic inquiry into the allegations of war crimes against the security forces and the LTTE, he noted.” (‘Kiriella Challenges GL, MS to Debate on Foreign Policy’, Zacky Jabbar, The Island, page1, Feb 11th 2014).

As our representative at the UNHRC in May 2009, I write to refute this statement which falsifies the dates, sequence and significance of Sri Lanka’s victory in the UNHRC five years ago and thereby prevents a proper understanding of the real blunders made by the managers of this regime’s foreign policy and the resultant crisis of Sri Lanka’s external relations.

Tracing how “it all began” Mr Kiriella says “Our representative at the UN gave an undertaking that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution would be implemented in full. Subsequently, President Mahinda Rajapaksa went a step further and assured India that 13A Plus would be granted to the North and East.” Now this is not merely illogical, it is untrue.

Firstly, the undertaking given in Geneva to implement the 13th amendment in full could not have been “how it all began” because that undertaking had been given in Colombo, not Geneva, on May 21st and May 23rd 2009, while the Special Session of the UNHRC in Geneva was on May 26-27th 2009. The commitment to implement 13A was made in Colombo, not Geneva and reached Geneva from Colombo.

Secondly, the President could not have “subsequently” gone a step further because those undertaking were prior to the Geneva resolution and not subsequent to it (May 21 and 23 being prior to May 26-27).

Thirdly, the President gave no explicit or formal undertaking in these documents that “13A Plus would be granted”, though he did undertake to implement 13A.

Fourthly, neither the President nor the government ever “entered into an MoU with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon undertaking to conduct an independent and credible domestic inquiry into the allegations of war crimes against the security forces and the LTTE”. Instead they undertook to “address the grievances” which Mr. Ban Ki Moon “underlined” as “important” with regard to accountability and allegations of human rights violations.

It is little wonder that Mr Kiriella engages in such falsification, wittingly or unwittingly, as he represents a party which wrecked Sri Lanka’s foreign policy to such an unprecedented degree that we had Indian warplanes intruding into our airspace, followed by 70, 000 foreign troops on our soil, all without a single vocal criticism by any state in the international system. Bad as this government’s foreign policy has been, we have not yet reached the degree of utter isolation that Sri Lanka experienced in the 1980s under the UNP.

The text of the Press Statement issued on May 21st 2009 after the top-level meeting with the Indian team and posted on the GoSL website reads, inter alia, as follows:

“Mr. M.K. Narayanan, National Security Advisor and Mr. S. Menon, Foreign Secretary of India visited Sri Lanka on 20 and 21 May. They called on His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of Sri Lanka and met with senior officials, including Hon. Basil Rajapaksa, MP, Mr. Lalith Weeratunga, Secretary to the President and Defence Secretary, Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa. They also interacted with a number of political parties in Sri Lanka...Both sides also emphasized the urgent necessity of arriving at a lasting political settlement in Sri Lanka. To this, the Government of Sri Lanka indicated that it will proceed with implementation of the 13th Amendment. Further, the Government of Sri Lanka also intends to begin a broader dialogue with all parties, including the Tamil parties, in the new circumstances, for further enhancement of political arrangements to bring about lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka”. (21 May 2009)

The text of the joint statement issued on 23rd May 2009 with the UN Secretary-General reads as follows:

“Following is the joint statement by the Government of Sri Lanka and the United Nations at the conclusion of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to Sri Lanka on 23 May: At the invitation of Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of Sri Lanka, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, paid a visit to Sri Lanka. During the course of his visit, he held talks with the President, Foreign Minister as well as other senior leaders of Sri Lanka...President Rajapaksa and the Secretary-General agreed that addressing the aspirations and grievances of all communities and working towards a lasting political solution was fundamental to ensuring long-term socio-economic development. The Secretary-General welcomed the assurance of the President of Sri Lanka contained in his statement in Parliament on 19 May 2009 that a national solution acceptable to all sections of people will be evolved. President Rajapaksa expressed his firm resolve to proceed with the implementation of the 13th Amendment, as well as to begin a broader dialogue with all parties, including the Tamil parties in the new circumstances, to further enhance this process and to bring about lasting peace and development in Sri Lanka...Sri Lanka reiterated its strongest commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights, in keeping with international human rights standards and Sri Lanka’s international obligations. The Secretary-General underlined the importance of an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. The Government will take measures to address those grievances.” (May 23, 2009)

The two documents were sent to us in Geneva and had of course reached all delegations through their respective missions in Colombo and their capitals, as we were drafting our text in Geneva with our allies. The “firm resolve” of the President to “proceed with the implementation of the 13th amendment” reached the level of the United Nations, not because of our Geneva representative or the UNHRC resolution, but precisely because it was in the official communiqué released in New York and Colombo after President Rajapaksa made the pledge to no less than the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon himself.

There was no question of non-inclusion of this commitment when Brazil, South Africa, India and Russia urged the mention in the text of the resolution of the two joint statements at the meetings of our ‘like-minded group’ (LMG) comprised of NAM plus BRICS, and did so with the fullest support of the Non Aligned Movement (with the Cuban Ambassador as Chair) and the complete concurrence of China.

If the UNP thinks that the President was wrong to declare his “firm resolve” to implement the 13th amendment even after the war had been won, it should come out and say so, instead of blaming the Geneva 2009 UN HRC resolution which accurately reflected the commitment made by the President to India and the UN only days before.

Unlike many critics of President Rajapaksa, local and foreign, I do not think he was either duplicitous or in error when he made that commitment. I believe the inordinate delays in implementation and today’s difficulties are of a piece with the ones that detained President Jayewardene who would have legislated provincial devolution any time between 1984 and 1987, thereby pre-empting the Indian intervention, but felt unable to do so because of the hawks in his ranks, most notably National Security Minister Athulathmudali, whose myopic aggressiveness and inability to calculate the balance of forces, almost cost us our sovereignty.

In a piece significantly entitled ‘Lessons to Learn from Geneva’ the international award-winning journalist and author Nirupama Subramanian made this observation in 2012 (when Sri Lanka was again the subject of a hostile resolution which was carried successfully at the UNHRC): "As Sri Lanka mulls over last month’s United Nations Human Rights Council resolution, it may look back with nostalgia at its 2009 triumph at Geneva. Then, barely a week after its victory over the LTTE, a group of western countries wanted a resolution passed against Sri Lanka for the civilian deaths and other alleged rights violations by the army during the last stages of the operation. With the blood on the battlefield not still dry, Sri Lanka managed to snatch victory from the jaws of diplomatic defeat, with a resolution that praised the government for its humane handling of civilians and asserted faith in its abilities to bring about reconciliation." (The Hindu, April 7th 2012)

Nirupama Subramanian’s article is preceded with the summary that “Had Sri Lanka taken steps to implement the 13th amendment, India may never have associated itself with the UNHRC resolution.” Which is true. India’s diplomatic support, then and now, is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of Sri Lanka’s diplomatic success and indeed safety. In and of itself it is insufficient, as votes on Myanmar in 2009 demonstrated. Despite the support of Russia, China and India, Myanmar lost those votes. Thus even in May 2009, securing India’s support would not have done the job for us, but as the votes of March 2012 and 2013 show, without India, the job cannot be done either. As Mervyn de Silva cautioned in a lecture at Marga Institute on ‘External Aspects of The Ethnic Issue’ three decades ago, in 1985, two years before the airdrop, the Accord, the IPKF and 13A, “Sri Lankan foreign policy must be centered on a non-hostile relationship with India”.