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Back Off Sri Lanka Inquiry, U.N. Chief Told

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, May 27 2010 (IPS) - Sri Lanka’s newly-appointed Foreign Minister Gamini Lakshman Peiris arrived in New York last week carrying a tough message for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: keep your hands off Sri Lanka.

The secretary-general’s plans to appoint a panel of U.N. experts to advise him on human rights violations in post-conflict Sri Lanka are “unprecedented”, Peiris declared.

And more so, he said, because the panel is to be appointed without the blessings of the Security Council, the General Assembly or the Human Rights Council.

“This is politically unacceptable to Sri Lanka,” Peiris told IPS.

A Rhodes scholar who was a classmate of former U.S. President Bill Clinton at Oxford University during 1968-71, Peiris met with several senior U.N. officials Monday before he left for Washington where he was scheduled to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

A former law professor and a vice chancellor of the University of Colombo, he has been mandated to strengthen Sri Lanka’s frayed political relations both with the United Nations and the United States.

Peiris said Sri Lanka has already appointed its own Commission of Inquiry to investigate charges made against the military following its victory last May over a ruthless separatist movement fighting for a separate Tamil nation state.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which led that separatist war, was banned in several countries, including the United States.

“The appointment of a panel by the secretary-general at this stage would be premature,” he said.

The commission appointed by the government should be given space to perform its task, Peiris told Ban at a meeting Monday.

But several human rights groups and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group, have been pushing the secretary-general to name the U.N. panel as soon as possible, although he has been dragging his feet over the last three months.

Asked about the demands, Peiris said these groups don’t constitute the “international community”, and “hence don’t have the moral authority to tell us what to do.”

“Everybody talks of the international community. What is the international community? A couple of NGOs do not constitute the international community,” he argued.

There are 192 countries in the United Nations and these matters have been taken up in appropriate fora in the United Nations, Peiris told IPS, adding that the Human Rights Council in Geneva had already debated the matter for three days.

“There were representatives from all six continents and 29 people thought there was no need to take any action, 11 people thought otherwise, with six abstentions,” he said.

The secretary-general takes the position he has the right to appoint the U.N. panel of inquiry.

Peiris said he was “prepared to take these matters” in the Security Council, the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council. “But other avenues, no”.

U.N. spokesperson Martin Nesirky told reporters last month that Ban will announce the appointment of the panel as soon as the terms of reference are finalised and members selected.

When the Goldstone Commission was appointed to investigate war crimes during the Israeli military attacks on Gaza last year, the Commission was authorised by the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The secretary-general also appointed an International Commission of Inquiry to probe charges of war crimes against the government of Guinea Bissau last year.

But both the European Union (EU) and the Economic Commission of West African States (ECOWAS) subsequently “welcomed” the decision to establish that Commission of Inquiry into the events of Sep. 28, 2009 in Conakry and underlined the personal responsibility of the perpetrators for the killings, sexual violence and human rights violations.

Last week, the International Crisis Group not only faulted the United Nations for delaying the appointment of the panel but also called for an investigation of the U.N.’s own role in possible war crimes in Sri Lanka, including pulling out of its staff prematurely, not pushing for a ceasefire and encouraging surrenders that may have led to summary executions.

Asked about these charges, Ban told reporters early this week: “I totally reject all that kind of allegations.”

He said the delay was not because of “pressure from Sri Lanka”.

“I am still working on the establishment of a group of experts who will advise me based on international standards and experiences on implementation of the commitment the government made in the area of human rights accountability,” he added.

At his meeting with Peiris, Ban urged Sri Lanka to do three things:

First, continue to improve the conditions of the internally displaced persons, expedite relocation and reintegration of these people. “On that, I think they have made some progress,” Ban said.

Second, promote national reconciliation, and third, “the accountability process as I have been discussing with Sri Lankan President [Mahinda] Rajapaksa, as soon as possible”.

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