Success in Geneva

While much of the government and Sri Lankan society is increasingly focussing on our post-war future with its prospect for prosperity and stability, certain groups are focussed on what is going on in Geneva, Switzerland, where the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) currently sits in its 34th session. At this meeting last week, Sri Lanka successfully collaborated with its supporting countries to present the draft for a new resolution on the country that will provide for another two years to implement the country’s commitments to the revival of democracy and good governance.

On the fringes of the UN sessions a number of groups have been busy lobbying on various aspects of the commitment Sri Lanka has made to the UNHRC. These commitments basically cover requirements to redress wrongs of the past and, steps to ensure that these wrongs and similar lapses are avoided in the future. The substance of the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka is expressed in the following catch-all phrase in the resolution text: “… promotion and protection of human rights and truth, justice, reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka …”.

Those lobby groups in Geneva are a diverse mix of Sri Lankan and foreign groups, and include professional organizations working to protect various kinds of human rights or, to facilitate improved relations between once-hostile ethnic communities, or to help weaker or marginalized sections of society, such as, low castes or women or homosexuals or war-affected people. There are also groups of Sri Lankans and former Sri Lankans now domiciled overseas who are lobbying either on behalf of ethnic minorities for their rights or, for war victims or, most recently, for the interests of the members of the Sri Lankan armed forces.

One may wonder as to why anybody, other than the Government of Sri Lanka and the President, as the constitutional commander-in-chief of the armed forces, should attempt to represent the interests of the armed forces and intervene on their behalf.

After all, it is the President who, constitutionally, has full control of the nation’s military forces and, it is the Government who administers the forces using public resources. Since the Government delegation is officially attending the UNHRC session it has the responsibility to look after the interests of its public servants, including the armed services personnel.

The Government does not merely look after interests of forces’ personnel but, also, of the armed forces as institutions, indeed, vital institutions of state.

One may also similarly question as to why non-governmental groups both local and foreign are active in Geneva on behalf of different sections of the civilian citizenry, such as, ethnic minorities, women, etc. After all, does not the Government have the final say as regards its citizens too? And therefore, should not the Government delegation be adequate to represent the interests of diverse groups of the citizenry?

While the government does have the final responsibility to look after all its citizenry, it is the public servants who are directly its employees and, thus, need direct representation and protection of their interests. Thus, while the Government should and does fulfil its responsibilities vis-à-vis the armed forces, when non-governmental groups claim to “represent” the interests of ‘war heroes’ who can be none other than members of the armed forces, there is a dangerous confusion about national responsibility and a wedge is driven between the elected government and the security services it is supposed to directly administer. Such attempts by private citizens – whatever their professional past - to lobby on behalf of a most important arm of the state serves to confuse, both, the troops and the nation they are committed to protect.

It is inherently democratic for groups of private citizens to band together to look after their own interests or the interests of their fellow private citizens. In doing so they may be complementing the work of government agencies also looking after the interests of citizens. And if government agencies remain oblivious to the woes of ordinary citizens, such non-governmental rights groups should be there to take up such cases.

In Sri Lanka, despite the harassment (including murder) they have received at the hands of successive governments and their henchmen, such non-governmental organizations toil on. There are also groups of former Sri Lankans or foreign-domiciled Sri Lankans who are busy in Geneva to lobby purely on behalf of this or that ethnic community, irrespective of whether such lobbying for one community will harm the interests of another. Hence, there are some Sinhala groups crying out for the rights of the Sinhalese while there are Tamil and Muslim groups crying out for their community’s interests irrespective of whether there is a clash of interests.

Readers will understand the complexity of the issues being dealt with in Geneva. What is most important is that this time round these complexities are being addressed in full transparency and with safety assured to those non-governmental groups also active in Geneva. Gone are the days when even government Ministers could publicly (in front of TV cameras) threaten to “break the limbs” of activists lobbying in Geneva for the rights of all Sri Lankans, whatever their ethnic origin.

This transparency and freedom of expression is surely one of the reasons why Geneva is softer on the Sri Lankan government today, compared with that darker past. What is needed is the continued and rigorous fulfilment of those commitments so that the Geneva process ends once and for all. After all, such commitments to democracy and accountability will directly and immediately benefit us, Sri Lankans, not the diplomats of other countries in Geneva. 

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