An ignominious defeat Daily FT Editorial

An ignominious defeatSri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York Mohan Peiris suffered a humiliating defeat last week when he failed to secure a place at the international Law Commission (ILC). 

The ILC is a body of experts responsible for helping develop and codify international law. The Commission is composed of 34 individuals recognised for their expertise and qualifications in international law.

The election of new members of the ILC took place at the UN General Assembly last week. Eleven candidates, including Ambassador Pieris were vying for eight positions in the Asia Pacific region. In the final voting tally, the Sri Lankan Envoy was placed 10th, a notch above a much-criticised candidate from the Philippines. 

The resounding defeat is an indictment not only on Pieris’ candidacy but also on Sri Lanka’s fast-deteriorating standing on the world stage.

Ambassador Pieris’ abject defeat is also credited to a dynamic campaign against his candidacy by international human rights organisations, based on the Sri Lankan Envoy’s horrendous track record as Attorney General and his callous remarks regarding victims of enforced disappearances in the island. 

Undoubtedly, the Government will spin his defeat as a victory for the LTTE rump. But the truth is that many of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s diplomatic appointees are tainted by the Rajapaksa regime’s dismal human rights record from 2005-2014.

Sri Lanka’s last Envoy to the UN in New York, Dr. Rohan Perera, served as a member of the ILC. Though he is an illustrious legal scholar and a veteran legal adviser to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Perera was far less qualified on paper than Pieris, a former Attorney General and purported Chief Justice of Sri Lanka. But the fact that Pieris, a former AG of Sri Lanka, could not secure a position in the ILC speaks volumes.

It should have been evident to decision-makers putting his candidacy forward that Ambassador Pieris was manifestly unsuitable for election to the ILC. 

Pieris’ career as a public prosecutor has been marred by controversy and allegations of corruption. He made a most unceremonious entrance into the Supreme Court after the sham impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake by the Rajapaksa Government in 2013. In 2015, he made an equally unceremonious exit, after it was determined that Bandaranayake’s impeachment was null and no vacancy had ever existed for a successor. It remains unclear how one is to interpret his time on the bench and determinations he made, since Mohan Pieris, was in effect, Schrodinger’s Chief Justice of Sri Lanka.

Pieiris’ attitude to human rights issues is equally appalling. As AG, he informed the UN Committee Against Torture that disappeared journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda was comfortably and safely living in a certain country. When he was called upon by a court of law to disclose which country that was, Pieris replied that “only god knows”. One of the most egregious allegations against him however was that as purported Chief Justice, Pieris was at Temple Trees on the night of 8 January 2015 when President Mahinda Rajapaksa who had just lost the Presidential Elections had summoned the Attorney General, allegedly to explore the possibility of annulling the election result that brought him a clear defeat.

Be that as it may, Pieris’ defeat in the UNGA election for the International Law Commission is not merely a personal loss. It is a grave indictment on Sri Lanka’s diplomatic standing in the world. 

The General Assembly is the main representative body of the UN, comprising over 190 member states which have equal voting rights. Questions must be raised over who decided to field Pieris in the ILC election and caused this international embarrassment. It is learnt that Uzbekistan had withdrawn its candidacy for the Asia Pacific group of the ILC well ahead of the election. If such a course of action was taken by the Government of Sri Lanka, the humiliation might have been avoided.

The appointment of Pieris as an ambassador who serves at the pleasure of the President, since he purports to have held office as Chief Justice, is itself a serious breach of democratic practice. 

The Government should take a long hard look at what the defeat says about how the Sri Lankan State is perceived globally. In public service, individuals like Pieris have gone the extra mile to flaunt long-held democratic traditions including the separation of powers between Executive and Judiciary. While the Sri Lankan electorate has a short memory of such assaults on the fabric of democracy, these practices are frowned upon globally. 

Such persons cannot be entrusted to assist the ILC to establish new laws and regimes to ensure a rules-based international order.

Thank you

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