Geneva crisis - the way forward | Sunday Observer

Geneva crisis - the way forward

14 February, 2021

No permanent friends or enemies - only permanent interests’ – Henry Kissinger

The best place to witness this is in the Geneva arena where big and small players depend on allies for the interests of their countries. This is mostly so when there are country specific issues in UN sessions and countries jealously protect their interests during periodic reviews. Alliances of powerful states target one or more, especially, small member nations, with Sri Lanka being a classic example paying the price for winning the 30-year battle against terrorism.

The periodic review of the Geneva process on Sri Lanka will take place from February 22 to March 23 during the 47th session in Geneva deliberating the universal periodic review of Human Rights situations in selected countries of member states.

This is a unique process which involves allegations of violations of human rights in high-risk countries. The review is conducted by the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights appointed by the Human Rights Council (HRC) which consists of 47 members of member nations selected on rotation for a specific period with a specific mandate. Sri Lanka is obliged to abide by the requirements when it enters into agreements, conventions, or treatises.

Bound by obligations

Sri Lanka is a signatory to the UN Charter brought into force on October 24, 1945, and international covenants subsequently on Civil, Political, and Economic rights and is thereby bound by their requirements.

These are documents to be followed by all nations, the International Court of Justice being the world court on interpretation and implementation.

Article (1) of the U N Charter states the organisation is based on the principle of sovereign equality of all members with the exception in Article 2(7) which states nothing in the present Charter shall authorise the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require members to submit such matters to settlements under the present Charter, but the principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement under chapter Vii.

The Human Rights Council and the High Commissioner of Human Rights is constituted by a resolution of the General Assembly on 15/3/2006 with 47 member states from various parts of the globe selected on the basis and practice adopted by the General Assembly. No individual country has a right to intervene in international affairs (Art1) but making adverse statements on Human Rights situations is tolerated and collective actions by the UN as stated in Chapter V11, e.g. applied in matters relating to Iraq, and Libya are historical and controversial in UN history.

The issue that has escalated started in Sri Lanka in 2009 with the liberation of trapped civilians from the clutches of the LTTE using them as a human shield and the rescue operation was well documented in the media.

Then Secretary General Ban Ki Moon visited Sri Lanka after the victory and in 2010 the LLRC was set up, providing around 300 recommendations. At the resolution 19/2 HRC made recommendations during the period of Navi Pillai who was instrumental in resolutions 22/1 and 25/1.

The Geneva process involves foreign policy of member states interacting with member nations, the UN and subsidiary organisations. Foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy and the resolutions of the UN reflect the whims of the most influential states.


Member nations should be careful in entering into agreements whether through the UN or otherwise. The Indo Sri Lanka Accord (which is not registered in the UN), was made in a haphazard way with no proper preparation between the two neighbour states of unequal size with disputes still ongoing due to its complex nature.

The Indo Sri Lanka Accord of 1987 gave birth to the Provincial Councils established under the 13th Amendment to the Constitution against the wish of the majority. Sri Lanka has made similar mistakes in entering into agreements by leaders with no vision for the nation and the future generation is suffering as a result.

LLRC and their revaluations

At the resolution A/HRC/25/1 March 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council requested the UN High Commissioner for a comprehensive report regarding alleged violations in Sri Lanka by both sides during the period covered by LLRC to avoid impunity and ensuring accountability.

Accordingly, an oral update was given at the 27th sessions on investigations in Geneva. The period covered in the report is between 21/2/2003 to 15/11/2011. The non-state party mentioned is the LTTE and although non state parties are not eligible for participation, the opportunity was given to them because of their influential backing.

The non-state in this instance had the sympathy and the financial backing of the massive diaspora in Western countries, with effective influence of key electorates and media organisations. In 2014, the Human Rights Council appointed three advisers to advise the HRC and then Commissioner Zeid Raad Al Hussein.

Although the word ‘other party’ is mildly mentioned in passing, their serious atrocities in Sri Lanka are completely ignored, which is an unsatisfactory situation.

There are allegations from the UNHRC that no progress has been made on reconciliation, and other pledges made on improving human rights. The controversial joint resolutions of 30/1 and 40/1 were adopted as roll overs mainly due to the interest of a former Foreign Minister.

Whether covering approval was obtained or the resolutions were adopted without the permission of the government was discussed and remains unanswered. Some evidence for resolution 40/1 was the Channel 4 documentary and hearsay uncorroborated evidence randomly collected by NGOs with hidden agendas.

With the change of government the previous resolutions 30/1, 34/1 and 40/1 were withdrawn. The next HRC sessions will be on a virtual platform on February 22, 2021 in Geneva with the address of President Joe Biden although the US withdrew from the Council under its predecessor, calling it a ‘cesspool of political ‘bias’.

USA role

Apparently, this has now changed, and the new US administration may re-join the Human Rights Council with new changes.

The report on Sri Lanka in this session will take main stage with the address by the High Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, a former President of Chile who apparently has submitted a strong report based on non-implementation of previous supposed to be agreements on reconciliation, implementations and recommendations of the LLRC report. Minister of Foreign Affairs Dinesh Gunawardena will address the sessions virtually on zoom in response to the proposed recommendations for actions.

Human Rights Commission

The Human Rights Commission is a powerful statutory body consisting of a Chairman and five members well-funded and well equipped with staff. It is the main body to defend human rights in Sri Lanka and is competent to meet these challenges.

The current Chairman is an able former Minister and must meet the challenges to defend the country while countering the arguments of the High Commissioner. The Commission’s responsibility will be to demonstrate the steps that have been taken to address reconciliation issues and the progress made.

The rescue operation at the end of the battle against terrorism and the subsequent rehabilitation program stands as one of the greatest humanitarian operations in modern history.

The Commissioners can demonstrate Sri Lanka’s ability to protect human rights through domestic mechanisms. The presenting of a strong domestic framework can go a long way in invalidating the calls for international action. The Foreign Ministry and Government institutions will be able to assist the defenders to promote Sri Lankan interests at the highest level.

Allies worldwide

Defence is not easy but possible if properly engaged with the diplomatic community and allies worldwide with the help of the network of embassies, with their knowledge and goodwill maintained for years.

The direction and the vision of an active Human Rights Commission in Sri Lanka can also make a strong difference. The way forward is hard work. Engage with embassies and Ambassadors worldwide, rally the friends of Sri Lanka, work with the patriotic academics and professionals internationally and in Sri Lanka, give interviews, promote media campaigns local and international, learn from mistakes, and educate the community to act as one defending the nation.

We should learn from other examples such as Israel which faced 50 direct resolutions and 131 general resolutions and survived due to their strategy and power to defend based on the knowledge of international law and allies who lent support. We have our traditional friends such as Russia, China, Cuba and other countries.

To contribute towards this discussion, the Ambassadors’ Forum is publishing a book to address these issues and provide an independent analysis of Sri Lanka and on human rights to be used in Geneva as a hand book.

The book will consist of submissions by leading academics and professionals to counter misleading narratives and engage in independent academic discussions regarding the issues that Sri Lanka faces.

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The writer is a President’s Counsel, former Ambassador to UAE and Israel, and President of the Ambassadors’ Forum