Today at the U.N. Human Rights Council informal consultations were held on the draft text for the special session on Sri Lanka to be held this Tuesday. The meeting was chaired by Muriel Berset of Switzerland, sponsor of the text, along with representatives of the European Union (the Czech Republic), Chile and Mexico. The group took pains to emphasize their “cooperative” and “consensus” approach, underscoring the special deference shown to Sri Lanka in contrast to the approach taken toward other countries that the council has censured — Israel, 26 times; Myanmar, 4 times; and North Korea, twice.
Whlie the purpose of the meeting was for the international community to work on the resolution to hold Sri Lanka accountable for its actions, Switzerland and its co-sponsors, evidently fearful of upsetting the alliance of repressive regimes that dominates the council, went so far as to grant the ambassador of Sri Lanka the right to participate in the meeting — and even to join the podium and speak first following their brief introduction.
This he did with much drama. Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka walked in late, delivered a 30-minute harangue against Western “colonizers,” and then walked out.
It being so rare for most of the UN’s 192 members to be censured, the Sri Lankan ambassador felt the need to show that his country enjoyed broad diplomatic support. He began by insisting that he considered the Western-led consultation on the draft resolution as one organized by “friends”, even if they some may be “misguided.” The “only enemy of Sri Lanka was the one within its borders,” now defeated.
Sri Lanka “put an end to that problem” after several attempts at negotiation failed and that all civilians caught in the conflict were hostages to the Tamil Tigers. The ambassador argued that it made no sense to hold a special session now that the 30-year war is over and “no one is dying,” and considering that the regular human rights council session is only a week away.
He complained that Tiger sympathizers are planning a demonstration on Monday, saying they should not be allowed to “hold the Human Rights Council hostage.”
Ambassador Jayatilleka used his remarks to rally the council’s majority of African and Asian states to his cause, attacking the sponsors of the special session as Western “colonizers” who refused to consult with the Asian bloc. How, he asked, could “distant” states know better than Sri Lanka’s neighboring states, who agreed with its positions?
He complained that states “in the region” were “bypassed,” “their advice and views completely ignored,” and not even sought. He decried the Swiss text, complaining that “those who are former colonizers somehow know more about how to handle Sri Lanka than our immediate neighborhood.” Sri Lanka can only take on the Swiss proposal if it is “de-mined and removed of booby traps,” something, he said, his country knew how to do very well militarily.
Adopting a pugilistic tone, the Sri Lankan envoy said he welcomed a diplomatic battle at the session, unafraid of a contested vote. He suggested that the Western-sponsored resolution was meant to force Sri Lanka to respond with a no-action motion — a procedure favored in the past by China, Zimbabwe and other repressive regimes in order to kill a censure resolution — so that Sri Lanka would be “trashed for the international media.” Nevertheless, he welcomed any such contest.
Ms. Berset of Switzerland thanked the Sri Lankan ambassador, who already got up and walked out, for his remarks and his “eloquence”, and said that her country sought “total openness, transparency, and inclusiveness.”
Next were a long list of speakers who opposed holding a special session, and who voiced their support for Sri Lanka’s outrageous competing resolution that is designed to praise itself and preempt any scrutiny: Egypt, Cuba, the Philippines, India, China, Malaysia, Syria, Thailand, Indonesia, and Lebanon.
Egypt took the floor first and spoke with a sense of anger. The only reason they attended this consultation was because they respect the positions of some of the session’s sponsors — those that had supported a special session to condemn Israel for its actions in Gaza. (He did not mention anything about Egypt’s public opposition to Hamas during that war.) There were “double standards” at the council, for addressing Sri Lanka this time instead of Palestine, Afghanistan, or Iraq.
Cuba agreed and protested that many countries were not consulted prior to the announcement of a special session. The only way to work in a cooperative manner was on the basis of Sri Lanka’s own text.
China echoed Cuba and said Sri Lanka should be commended for its “transparency” and “inclusiveness.”
Syria said that “the country concerned [Sri Lanka] has better knowledge of what needs to be done.”
Thailand said that it was against the convening of country-specific special sessions or resolutions in principle.
These interventions were followed by slightly more moderate approach shown by South Africa, Japan, and Senegal who stressed the need for “constructive engagement” and “cooperation” with Sri Lanka to bring about “consensus.” Japan also called for international assistance to Sri Lanka, noting its own provision of aid.
In response to the argument that there needs to be cooperation with Sri Lanka, Chile said that this approach was tried, but failed. It noted that Sri Lanka’s Ambassador even left the room now after giving his speech.
Chile also spoke about the rejection of the UN Human Rights Council president’s attempt to call for the softer measure of a “panel discussion” on Sri Lanka. This failure meant the only way to deal with the situation was to call for a full special session.
Chile also criticized Sri Lanka’s comment that it is inappropriate to call for the session now that the war is finished, given that it had argued against convening a session while the war was raging, saying that it could go in favor of the Tigers. It said the purpose of the session is not about the past, but about improving the situation for the future.
NGOs were also allowed to speak. A representative of the International Commission of Jurists said that Sri lanka’s position was “not only unfortunate,” but also “inhuman,” and he decried Sri Lanka’s “indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force.” He said that the Swiss-EU proposal was beneath the level of acceptability, but better than the Sri Lankan text, which he called a “joke.” He complained that neither text addresses the violation of international humanitarian law or “the gross and systemic violations of human rights.”
The Czech Republic said that the principle of universality of human rights means that every country in the world has a right to be concerned about human rights situations of any other country. It said many people in Sri Lanka continue to live in an urgent situation, including the many internally displaced persons.
The meeting revealed the disturbing dynamics that govern the council. The European and Latin American states clearly thought themselves courageous in daring to criticize a country that belongs to the bloc of Non-Aligned states, and a country that is not Israel, Myanmar, or North Korea. On the other hand, their apologetic tone, followed by the vehement push-back by Egypt and numerous other states, highlighted the extent to which Western democracies are intimidated from applying minimum scrutiny to the world’s worst abusers. Will U.S. membership, beginning late June, change the tide?