Geneva pilgrimage:Over-promising at UNHRC and under-achieving at home

by Rajan Philips

It is now nine years since Sri Lanka began its pilgrimage to Geneva to attend the annual sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). For the first six years, it was all confrontational with the Rajapaksa government taking aggressive positions against UNHRC resolutions and trying in vain to mobilize votes among the 47 members of the Council to oppose resolutions sponsored by western countries. It has been all conciliatory under the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe government that took office after the defeat of President Rajapaksa in the January 2015 presidential election. Rather than mobilizing opposition, the government co-sponsored a new resolution at the October 2015 UNHRC session. This week, in Geneva, Foreign Minister Mangala Samarweera asked for and is being generously given two more years – a ‘technical rollover’ – to fulfill Sri Lanka’s commitments under the 2015 resolution.

Mr. Samaraweera and his entourage have become familiar, even popular, figures at the UNHRC headquarters in Geneva, presenting themselves and their government as the forces of moderation in Sri Lanka trying to steer the country clear of the ‘extremists on both sides.’ Tamil detractors dismiss the government as hopeless – all talk and no action. Among the Sinhalese opponents, the 2015 resolution is viewed as nothing less than “treachery and betrayal”. How much a difference can distance make? In faraway Geneva, Minister Samaraweera and his team are on congenial terrain, oozing optimism and confidence that everything will be done in the next two years even though nothing much was done in the last two years.

“We will go the distance”, assured the Minister, in fulfilling the Sri Lankan government’s promises. Even remaking the constitution which is becoming a tough sell at home was made out to be all too easy by government spokesmen in Geneva. The remaking of the constitution was presented as an exercise that would “unite our people who have been divided far too long.” Quite different from the sense back home where the constitutional exercise does not appear to be uniting anybody. While it is not tearing up the country as the earlier constitutions did, the new initiative has formidable pockets of resistance. Most notably, there is no agreement at the summit – either in the cabinet or between the President and the Prime Minister – over what changes should be made, and whether they should be far reaching to necessitate a referendum. And of late, President Sirisena has been showing tendencies to publicly change his mind after making public statements on controversial matters. In Geneva, however, the government spokesmen are cocksure that they have the referendum campaign and victory in the bag. Brexit has no relevance and ‘Texit’ (Tamil-exit) will have no traction.

My criticism of the government is not so much about what it is trying to do, as it is about how it is trying to do it, and about its inability to articulate a clear and coherent position, at home and abroad, on its purposes and agendas. In the flush of victories in 2015 January and August, the government unleashed more than a handful of initiatives targeting constitutional reform and national reconciliation. Peripatetic public consultations were undertaken practically on every one of them and expectations were raised as high as possible rather than as modestly as achievable. As the results of consultations and committee work started coming home with conclusions and recommendations, government leaders started running for cover. But in Geneva, no one is looking for cover and every initiative and the results thereof are being proudly embraced. Take CTF, for example, the most unfortunate victim of government flip flop and doublespeak.


The CTF and the OMP


The Consultative Task Force (CTF) on Reconciliation Mechanisms was set up by the Prime Minister, no less, with much ado as usual. The Task Force members took their job seriously and passionately, travelled round the country to meet with and get input from representative stakeholders, Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils – from families of victims, to families of slain soldiers, and the soldiers who fought a war that they did not cause or create. The Task Force produced a comprehensive report and recommendations after much labour and effort. Then they found they had no delivery address. The Prime Minister and the President did not want to be seen with the CTF report. The Minister of Justice trashed it the moment he saw it. Another minister opined that it was only a ‘Tamil report’. And former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, now a patron for reconciliation, was co-opted at the last minute to ceremonially receive the report. A few weeks later, even she took the Task Force to task for recommending foreign judges or hybrid institutions. In Geneva, it is a different story. Government spokesmen have made it a point to assert that they “are studying the best practices around the world and the recommendations of the Consultative Task Force” to identify appropriate ‘accountability mechanisms.’


The Office of Missing Persons (OMP) legislation was enacted in August 2016, without a vote, with the Joint Opposition getting caught off-guard in parliamentary maneuvering. ‘Groundviews’ has provided an interesting timeline on the genealogy of Sri Lanka’s pre-occupation with missing persons – from the Mothers Front rally on February 19, 1989, to the passage of the OMP legislation on August 11, 2016. A prominent male participant in the 1989 rally was Mahinda Rajapaksa, and with him were Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mangala Samaraweera and Dinesh Gunawardena. Mahinda Rajapaksa was perhaps the first Sinhalese politician to go to Geneva to represent the cause of the missing persons in Sri Lanka. His political resume got a big boost when he was stopped and questioned at the Katunayake airport on his way to Geneva in September, 1990. “We have a right to tell this to the world”, he said at that time, and “we will do it today, tomorrow and always”. But not always; last year he called the passage of the OMP legislation “a betrayal of the armed forces.” And Dinesh Gunawardena would have the law repealed if and when he becomes a minister again.


Between 1989 and 2016, there have been concerns over involuntary disappearances, now missing persons, with estimates of tens of thousands of them at different stages, and multiple commissions set up by different presidents to investigate the missing. The latest government count of the missing stands at 65,000, and the Prime Minister has been candid enough to say that many of them are probably dead. Even so, there are about 200,000 people who have a stake, emotional and legal, in the status of the missing members of their families. Their biggest frustration is over the indecisive and drawn out manner in which past investigations have led them to nowhere but dead ends. It might have been less painful if various governments did nothing to investigate but just provided paper certificates attesting to the missing status of missing persons.


The drafting of the OMP legislation drew criticisms from all quarters despite the good intentions behind it. Sloppiness in drafting anything, be they bills, contracts or gazettes, is now a fact of Sri Lankan government life. Implementation is even worse. When the OMP bill was passed last August, the expectation was that the office and the ‘mechanisms’ for implementation would be up and running in six months. The Minister of Justice was apparently entrusted with the task overseeing implementation. For some mysterious reason the Minister of Justice is not included in the discussions and consultations over constitutional reform or reconciliation initiatives. May be, he is excluding himself from them in order to be able to critically dissociate himself from the results of these initiatives.


In any event, nothing much has happened about the OMP except the ‘rollover’ announcement now in Geneva that Rs. 14 billion has been allocated to operationalize the OMP and the office will get underway as soon as it is assigned to a ministry. Imagine that – money has been allocated, but there is no ministry to spend it. On another contentious issue, i.e. displaced landowners getting their property back from the army, there appears to be firm commitment by the President himself that either lands will be returned before 2018, or, alternative land and compensation will be offered where it is not possible to return specific land parcels.


Overall, the government’s difficulties in minimizing the gap between its promises in Geneva and the performance at home have two sources. One is the general breakdown of the government’s administrative machinery. This is further complicated by the absence of specific ministerial assignments for the files on the constitution and reconciliation. The President and the Prime Minister cannot be the ministers in charge of every subject, and the Foreign Ministry should not be tasked with implementing anything at home. The bigger problem is on the political front. The government is selectively overplaying and underestimating the forces of extremism and opposition in the country. In Geneva, the government spokesmen managed to do both –pleading that they are caught between extremists on both sides, and asserting that they can easily win a constitutional referendum. It is fair to say that the intensity of extremism has never been as low as it is today. But only a fool in Sri Lankan politics can take this for granted, or not be alert to the potential for extremism to flare up on a moment’s notice. In ethnic politics, the art of persuasion is as important as the art of the possible. Successful persuasion presupposes honesty and credibility. Bluntly put, a government that is not clean on bonds and contracts will have a difficult time selling its goods on the constitution and reconciliation.

Related posts