Friday, April 22, 2011

Sri Lanka: Government adopts time-tested strategy to thwart UN report

By Amantha Perera | Inter Press Service

These are trying times for the Mahinda Rajapaksa government here. Faced with renewed international scrutiny over alleged abuses during the last phase of the island’s bloody civil war, the government has once again readied itself to face off global giants, yet another test of will and skill on the global stage.

The impending release of a report by the advisory panel set up by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Sri Lanka has set off an international firestorm. Part of the report that was handed over by the secretary-general’s office to Sri Lanka during the third week of April has already leaked to the press. The full executive summary appeared in a local English newspaper ‘The Island’ over the weekend - detailing recommendations for an international probe into the last stages of the war that ended in May 2009.

The report is expected to be made public this week by the Secretary General’s office.

The report, its contents and recommendations are not new. Rights groups made similar charges even before the war ended. The only difference this time is that it has at least the stamp of the U.N. Secretary General’s office on it.

The Rajapaksa government too is not in unchartered waters, on the contrary, it is very much used to facing off international scrutiny, both nimbly and not so subtly.

The government is once again lobbying friendly nations like India, China and Russia to counter balance pressure brought in international fora from western powers like the U.S. and European Union members.

Russia has already indicated that it was backing the Sri Lankan government. On Apr. 19, Russia objected to any discussions on the report at the Security Council. The report had been listed as a topic of discussion before the Russian opposition was indicated.

A day later, the Russian ambassador in Sri Lanka criticised the report, the first time such a reaction has come from a high profile diplomat. "We speak not about a ‘U.N. report’, since it was prepared neither by a U.N. body or nor even by its request. It was just a personal initiative of the U.N. Secretary General," Ambassador Valdimir Mikhaylov said, following a meeting with Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the defence ministry.

The Russian diplomat also hinted that the report and its contents could be disruptive to reconciliation efforts after decades of war. "When Sri Lanka [is] healing its wounds after [a] long armed conflict, the U.N. may render its assistance, if needed, and not complicate the process of reconciliation," Mikhaylov said.

Observers here say that the government was expected to lobby hard for support from other nations like China, neighbour India and members of the non-aligned group. Foreign Minister G. L. Peiris had lined up series of meetings with Colombo based diplomats to detail the government’s reaction as the release of the report was imminent this week.

"This policy [of lobbying friendly nations] is something that has worked for them in the past. They are pretty confident that it will work this time as well," retired Additional Foreign Secretary Nanda Godage told IPS.

Russia and China have consistently blocked any resolution against Sri Lanka at the U.N. Security Council. In May 2009 as the war was heading for a decisive victory for the government, Russia, India and China were pivotal when an EU sponsored resolution to investigate rights violations here was defeated at the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council.

Godage is also of the view that internal U.N. politics may have played a part in the report. "It is a name and shame report. It looks as if it was done with the re-election of the Secretary General very much in mind," he said, describing the report as an effort to please three permanent members of the U.N. Security Council critical of Sri Lanka - U.S., UK and France.

The Sri Lankan government is very likely to thwart any new efforts to bring a resolution to the Security Council based on the new report. But one observer here cautioned that the report could be a long-term headache for the government.

"It can be stalled at the Security Council, but then there is nothing stopping it from being on the agenda of the next Human Rights Council sessions," said Jehan Perera, the executive director of the National Peace Council, a national advocacy body. "How long can the stalling go on, and what happens if one of the big guns supporting Sri Lanka changes its stance."

Godage told IPS that Sri Lanka made a terrible mistake in initially refusing to recognise the panel’s legitimacy, but then changing track with officials meeting panel members. "The government should have kept up its aggressive stance."

He believes that the government now has to come up with its own credible report on the conduct of the war. "Not a report that is just from the ministry of defence or the ministry of foreign affairs, but a national report using expertise of those with international recognition."

Perera also agreed that if the government wanted to make a clean break, a credible internal mechanism was a must.

A national commission appointed by President Rajapaksa to look into the conduct of the war is expected to hand in its report by May 15, but has been criticised by international rights bodies as falling short of international standards.


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