Sovereignty hysteria clouds UN official’s visit | Sunday Observer

Sovereignty hysteria clouds UN official’s visit

28 July, 2019

Visiting UN Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association Clément Nyaletsossi Voule fell victim to hysteria, manufactured by the main opposition and sections of the mainstream media, last week, about foreign challenges to Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.

The latest storm in a teacup was set off after the Joint Opposition led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa claimed that the UN was interfering with the judiciary, because the Special Rapporteur had reportedly requested a meeting with the Chief Justice and the judges of the High Court of Sri Lanka.

After the issue exploded in Parliament, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya was forced to intervene to stop the meeting since it would be inappropriate for visiting UN officials to meet with members of the judiciary in the course of their visits.

In a customary gross misrepresentation of facts, the JO narrative, readily picked up by sections of the mainstream media, was that the visiting UN official was “summoning” the Chief Justice and judges of the High Court to discuss three specific cases before the courts – namely, the Rathupaswela shootings that killed three civilians, the shooting of the Free Trade Zone worker Roshan Chanaka and the Welikada Prison killings in 2012.

The conspiracy theory then took another predictable turn. Former Foreign Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam, in the limelight for weeks now over misleading claims about his involvement in pushing through defence cooperation agreements with the US, was accused of leaking information about these cases to the UN during his tenure.

True to form, the news reports play fast and loose with facts.

Since 2015, the Government of Sri Lanka extended an open invitation to all thematic special procedure holders or UN rapporteurs. Sri Lanka joined 121 UN member states to announce that all special procedure mandate holders would be allowed to visit. The announcement was aimed at making a clean break from the Rajapaksa-era policy of engagement with the UN, which suffered during the last years of the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency. Back then, with the country’s human rights record worsening even after the war ended, UN high officials were repeatedly forced to call for unfettered access for UN rapporteurs visiting Sri Lanka on the rare occasions they were permitted to make visits to the island. The former Government’s policy was one of belligerence towards the UN, as the international body’s calls grew louder on human rights concerns under President Rajapaksa’s watch. That approach reaped swift international reprisals by way of consecutive UN Human Rights Council resolutions sponsored by the US calling for accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, and within two years of the first resolution being passed, and the GoSL’s continued refusal to engage on the issues with the UN and other international partners, a special UN investigation into alleged war crimes was established.

When the Rajapaksa regime fell in January 2015, Sri Lanka was well on its way to having its own Commission of Inquiry set up to investigate alleged war crimes committed in the last years of the war. Powerful international trading partners were also mulling crippling bilateral sanctions that would have devastated the country’s economy.

The election result on January 8, 2015 changed that trajectory. The new Government instantly made overtures to the UN and other international partners who had led the calls for accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka through the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Part of that re-engagement, as the Government fought to ward off a threat of sanctions and more intrusive war crimes investigations, was to acknowledge and reckon with a difficult past, and foster transparency and greater cooperation with the UN and other international partners, on human rights issues. The open invitation to UN special procedure mandate holders was part of that re-engagement, and an affirmation that Sri Lanka had nothing to hide, and was itself interested in promoting reconciliation and coming to terms with a violent past. In short, the new Government wanted to make it clear that the UN was no longer a sovereignty-stealing, public enemy of the Sri Lankan state. That was Rajapaksa Sri Lanka, and Rajapaksa was no longer in charge.

In an in-depth clarification of the issue in Parliament last week, Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana made it clear that Voule’s visit was not the first time UN special rapporteurs and working groups have requested meetings with members of the judiciary.

The Foreign Minister explained that during a preparatory meeting ahead of the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful association and assembly on July 5, convened by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, discussions were held about over 20 meetings that had been sought, including with the Chief Justice and Judges of the High Court of Colombo. The meeting included officials from the Police Department and the Attorney General’s Department, these officials highlighted key cases that could come up in the discussion with the UN Special Rapporteur Voule. The AG’s Department undertook to provide updates on the cases, all of which, on close inspection, relate to the issues of freedom of association and assembly, specifically Voule’s mandate.

Based on the outcome of the prep meeting, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs wrote to the Ministry of Justice and other related agencies, about the proposed visit by the UN Rapporteur. Given the mandate of the Special Rapporteur due to visit later in July, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs mentioned that the Rathupaswela incident, the Welikada prison killings and the murder of the FTZ worker could be matters of interest to come up during the meetings.

Marapana made it clear that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs never recommended that the Chief Justice grant a meeting to the visiting UN official. Instead, in its role as coordinator to the Ministry, had only conveyed Voule’s wishes to hold these meetings, including with the members of the judiciary. The request was accordingly sent on to the Judicial Services Commission and Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya had agreed to grant the appointment to meet with the Special Rapporteur, the Foreign Minister explained.

It was, in other words, well within the rights of the Chief Justice to refuse to meet the visiting UN official and even to prevent other judges from doing so, if he deemed the interactions inappropriate in any way.

Nor was Voule the only UN Special Rapporteur to seek and obtain meetings with members of the judiciary. At least three Special Rapporteurs and one Working Group held meetings with judges during their visits to Sri Lanka in 2017.

Two of those visits happened while Esala Weerakoon was Foreign Secretary, months before Kariyawasam took over the job. (See table for details) According to Minister Marapana, in every instance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has always followed the same procedure, to convey to various Government institutions the desire of UN officials to have appointments to meet key officials of the state.

During Ravi Karunanayake’s brief stint as Minister of Foreign Affairs, he presented an information note to the Cabinet of Ministers, setting out reasoning behind extending an open invitation to all UN special procedures mandate holders of the Human Rights Council and giving the rapporteurs unrestricted access to the places they wanted to visit and meet with anyone they wished to talk to. “This practice of open, inclusive and constructive dialogue with the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, adopted by the Government of Sri Lanka, and the cooperative and smooth manner in which their visits were organised, has earned Sri Lanka praise by the UN and the international community, and has contributed to Sri Lanka enhancing its profile in the international arena,” the note to Cabinet said. Minister Karunanayake’s note added that the “open and frank engagement” had contributed positively in the process of Sri Lanka’s application for GSP Plus facility and similar initiatives such as grant assistance under the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) of the USA, and support for Sri Lanka through the IMF and World Bank.

Four years after the Sri Lankan Government reimagined its engagement with the UN, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party believes its political fortunes are on the ascent. The Joint Opposition backed by a large section of the media, whose proprietors are open backers of the SLPP and the Rajapaksa family, is flexing its muscles.

The political crisis triggered in October 2018, when Mahinda Rajapaksa was controversially installed as prime minister, has had lasting effects on governance even after the status quo was restored 52 days later, and lines have blurred about which party is really running the country. The coalition that swept to power in January 2015 is all but shattered, and the cabinet of ministers often pull in different directions on policy issues, sending mixed messages to the bureaucracy and international partners.

With an election on the horizon, there is good reason for the pro-Rajapaksa faction to grow uneasy about the three cases the Ministry of Foreign Affairs speculated might come up in during Voule’s discussions with the members of the judiciary.

All three cases relate to excesses committed by the military intervening in protests and demonstrations. The Welikada Prison raid resulted in the death of 27 inmates, and indictments have just been filed by the Attorney General in that case.

All indications are that the 2019 presidential election will see alliances being forged along the same lines as the historic 2015 election, a Rajapaksa Vs. the Rest contest.

Under the circumstances, international impressions that reverberate back home about Rajapaksa-era brutality and excess, is the very last thing the Joint Opposition needs.