Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • June 2010
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The UN Panel, the lessons learned and a political solution

Posted by harimpeiris on June 24, 2010

UN General Secretary Ban Ki Moon has ended months of speculation and finalized the appointment of a Panel of Experts, headed by former Indonesian Attorney General Marzuki Darusman and comprising of a South African and a US national, both legal experts in the fields of human rights and international law respectively. Their rather broad and indeed somewhat vague mandate is to advise the UN General Secretary on the issues that arise from Sri Lanka’s concluded civil conflict.

The two Peiris’

This appointment comes despite intense lobbying from the government to differ and avoid the appointment of such a panel. The Peiris duo, Attorney General Mohan Peiris and Foreign Minister Professor GL Peiris, arguably among the more moderate faces and certainly it’s most persuasive internationally were dispatched on different occasions to meet and seek to dissuade the UN Secretary General from this course of action. As events have indicated it was to no avail. Interestingly the UN panel is headed by a former Indonesian Attorney General, coming from a country which also has had experience with terrorism, separatist campaigns and political violence, so he can be expected to be somewhat empathic to the Sri Lankan situation. Correspondingly our own lessons learned commission is also headed by former Attorney General CR De Silva. Certainly legal professional competence and technical expertise is certainly not is short supply in either the UN panel or our own counterpart.

With apologies for the pun, there are lessons to be learned from the appointment of the UN panel.

The UN panel is political

Firstly the appointment of the UN panel was a political and discretionary action by the UN Secretary General. Sri Lankan contentions that it was beyond his mandate to do so were brushed aside and after some delay, the appointment was finally made. As Sri Lanka correctly observed in making representations to the Secretary General, there was no UN Security Council resolution on the matters (it has not even made the agenda) nor was there a resolution from the UN Human Rights Council. Accordingly there was no legal or binding compulsion for the Secretary General’s office to act. Accordingly the action is a discretionary and to the extent that it is not legally obligatory, a political act. If it is international politics at play, it would be in Sri Lanka’s interests to identify and understand the dynamics that propelled the UN’s chief executive officer to act in the name of the world body. Knee jerk reactions to call him names and challenge his personal integrity might provide some temporary comfort to those aggrieved by his actions, but this significant step is certainly not a personal or individual decision of the Secretary General.

Sri Lanka is on the radar screen

The appointment of the UN panel is significant in Sri Lanka’s history and its relations with the UN and the global community of nations. Never in post independent Sri Lanka or since the UN was established in the post war period at approximately the same time, has Sri Lanka come under such a structured and public gaze of the world body as indicated by the panel of experts. The appointment also indicates that despite many different and arguably much worse conflicts raging the world over from Sudan to Afghanistan, the international community’s attention gaze on trouble spots continues to include Sri Lanka. A rather unusual factor given that we are actually in a post conflict stage. While Sri Lanka has continuously and vociferously argued for non interference as in claiming the UN Sec/Gen has no mandate, clearly a significant component of the global community seems to think otherwise. The rather technical reason for the current appointment can stem from the joint statement issued by President Rajapakse and the UN Secretary General in May last year that laid out the common understanding of Sri Lanka’s post war direction and reconciliation process. The wider rationale behind such thinking is the global nature of human rights where some fundamental rights, such as our right to life stem not from our citizenship in a nation state but from our essential humanity. It is such thinking that is contained in various international covenants and treaties on human rights to which Sri Lanka is a signatory and being a party to such global consensus is necessarily a part of being a respected member of the community of nations.

The timing is no coincidental

Some political analysts and Sri Lankan media commented on the fact that the appointment of the UN panel and indeed its announcement by UN Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe in Colombo on the eve of the one year anniversary celebrations of the war victory was singularly bad timing. While from a Sri Lankan perspective this is so, the timing is also no coincidence. Clearly the UN and the global community watched the progress of Sri Lanka’s post conflict reconciliation for one year after the war and the progress made was insufficient to stave off the appointment. Unarguably progress is being made. IDP’s are returning home, the President had an initial meeting with the TNA, a commission on lessons learned has been appointed and a few emergency regulations were relaxed. However for outside observers waiting to see if Sri Lanka’s post war peace would be a generous one like the Marshall Plan (post World War Two) or a punitive one like the Treaty of Versailles,  (post World War One), our one year progress seemed insufficiently like the Marshall Plan. The outstanding issues seem weighty and the direction and political will unclear to the independent foreign observer. The IDP’s seem to be more release and return rather than rebuild and resettle. The country is still governed under emergency regulations, Northern Provincial Council elections have not been held (despite holding the Presidential and parliamentary) and the Eastern Provincial Council, projected as the model for the North, is at logger heads with its Governor, who seem to find difficulty understanding that the Chief Minister and the Provincial Council is elected by the people, while he is appointed to what must be a largely ceremonial post, if the devolution under the 13th Amendment is meant to be meaningful. The essential political dialogue on reconciliation with the Tamil parties, notably the TNA, is a year on at the initial meeting stage, one year on.

As Sri Lanka enters the second year of its post conflict era, the message perhaps of the appointment of the UN panel would seemingly be, that while the world celebrates with us the war victory and has abundant good will towards Sri Lanka’s post war reconciliation and reconstruction, that we get a move on in the direction we have pledged to go without the delays that cast doubt about our intensions and stated commitments.

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