Curtains up on UNHRC 34th session in Geneva

Monday, 27 February 2017 00:52 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • Foreign Minister leads Govt. delegation to Geneva
  • Reporting on Sri Lanka’s implementation of 2015 HRC resolution expected in this session
  • Jayampathy, Mano Tittawella join Govt. delegation to Geneva
  • Mangala’s speech expected to appeal for more time to implement promises on reconciliation and justice
  • New resolution on Lanka expected to be short, led by US and usual cosponsors
  • Heavy lobbying by rights activists, Diaspora groups for UNHRC to push Govt. on accountability


By Dharisha Bastians reporting from Geneva

As the 34th Session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) kicks off in Geneva today the international spotlight falls on Sri Lanka’s human rights record again, forcing the country to reckon with the lingering legacy of its 26-year civil war which came to a brutal close in 2009. 

An eight-member Sri Lankan Government delegation led by Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera arrived in the Swiss canton of Geneva last afternoon to attend the UNHRC session that begins today at the Palais des Nations.

Minister Samaraweera will address the high level segment of the UNHRC session tomorrow (28). The speech is likely to outline Sri Lanka’s progress on reconciliation and accountability since the country co-sponsored a UNHRC resolution in October 2015. The Foreign Minister is also likely to appeal for more time and patience from the international community to implement the resolution.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein will present his report to the Council during this session, assessing Sri Lanka’s implementation of the 2015 resolution. An interactive dialogue on the High Commissioner’s report on Sri Lanka has been scheduled for 22 March.

The Government will push for a “technical rollover” of the 2015 resolution – a procedural extension of Resolution 30/1 of 2015 that will provide Sri Lanka more time to implement its commitments on reconciliation and setting up a judicial mechanism to prosecute alleged war crimes.

Earlier this month, the United Kingdom’s diplomatic mission to Geneva announced in a tweet that its focus would be accountability issues in Sri Lanka, Syria, Burma and South Sudan during the 34th UNHRC session.

Speaking on behalf of the co-sponsors of the Sri Lanka resolution at an organisational meeting ahead of the UNHRC meeting earlier this month, the British delegation announced that a resolution on Sri Lanka would be moved during the 34th Session.

Last Thursday (23), Sri Lankan civil society activists briefed the representatives of 24 country delegations in Geneva on the Government’s reconciliation and accountability efforts, and outlined outstanding issues. The meeting was hosted by the Swiss delegation and included representatives from the US, UK, India and other Western European nations.

The Sri Lanka resolution at this session of the 47-member council is likely to be led by the United States and its traditional cosponsors including Britain and the EU bloc, Daily FT learns from authoritative sources. 

The 2017 draft resolution is expected to refer to resolution 30/1 and will likely to welcome progress made by Sri Lanka in the past 18 months, take note of the High Commissioner’s report on Sri Lanka and urge the Government to fulfill its outstanding promises on justice and reconciliation, highly placed sourced sources told Daily FT in Geneva this week, adding that the draft would probably be confined to a single page or less. The resolution is unlikely to be contested by Sri Lanka, allowing its adoption by consensus. It is unclear if Sri Lanka will cosponsor the 2017 resolution.

Sri Lanka is not a member country of the UNHRC, but its allies in the council have contested US-sponsored resolutions in previous years, resulting in high-drama votes at the council.

The cosponsors of the resolution will encounter heavy lobbying from human rights activists, NGOs and Tamil Diaspora groups seeking to strengthen the language of the Sri Lanka resolution and call for swifter progress on the Government’s reconciliation commitments at this UNHRC session. Over a dozen events on Sri Lanka, featuring human rights activists from the island, have already been scheduled on the sidelines of the February-March council meeting in Geneva.

The resolution drafted for adoption in the March 2017 UNHRC session should urge the Government of Sri Lanka to develop a timetable for implementing the recommendations in the 2015 resolution, Human Rights Watch told Permanent Representatives of Member and Observer States of the UN Human Rights Council in a letter.  

The resolution should take into account “the need for an integrated approach to reforms and transitional justice, rather than prioritising one part of the process over others,” HRW letter to ambassadors said. The international human rights watchdog also called for continued reporting on Sri Lanka by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and further Human Rights Council engagement with the country.

The October 2015 UNHRC resolution called on Sri Lanka to meet its transitional justice commitments, undertake political and security reforms and set up a judicial mechanism comprising foreign judges, lawyers and investigators to address alleged war crimes committed by Government troops and the LTTE during the conflict.

The Government delegation to the UNHRC this week includes senior constitutional lawyer and Parliamentarian Dr. Jayampathy Wickremaratne. Dr. Wickremaratne, who is a key member of the committee drafting the new constitution, is expected to brief officials here about the process that will hopefully address the root causes of the ethnic conflict and prevent a recurrence of violence.

Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms Mano Tittawella and National Peace Council Executive Director Dr. Jehan Perera are also members of the Government delegation to Geneva.

Resolutions on promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka were adopted by votes led by the US at the Human Rights Council in Geneva from 2012-2014, when former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who oversaw the brutal end of the war held office.  The adoption of the UNHRC resolutions coincided with worsening bilateral diplomatic ties between Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka and New Delhi and Washington.

In 2014, amid chaotic scenes in Room XX of the Palais, the council adopted a resolution setting up an investigation into allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka by the OHCHR.

Following Rajapaksa’s defeat in 2015, the new Government engaged in heavy diplomatic lobbying of countries that strongly backed resolutions on Sri Lanka at the Council, promising to deal with the country’s war legacy domestically. At the 30th Session of the UNHRC in September 2015, Foreign Minister Samaraweera pitched the Government’s proposals for reconciliation and justice, pledging to establish a permanent Office of Missing Persons, a truth commission along the lines of the South Africa’s post-Apartheid model, and a special court and prosecutor to deal with allegations of war crimes.

The Sri Lankan Government cosponsored Resolution 30/1 at the council in October 2015, allowing its adoption by consensus. The co-sponsorship, which gives Sri Lanka ownership of the resolution, has been criticised by some sections of the Government and the opposition, but hailed by others as a sign of the country’s new, post-Rajapaksa approach to international engagement on its human rights record.