Foreign Funds, Friends & Foes: Problems with the Office of the UNHCHR

By Prof Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Jun 30 2020

By Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

I should perhaps draw a schedule of the instruments in Geneva that I have been describing, which we need to understand and deal with effectively if we are not to suffer the humiliations of the last decade.

They are:

a) The Human Rights Council

b) The High Commissioner for Human Rights

c) The staff of the office of the High Commissioner

d) Holders of Special Procedures mandates

I have discussed all these instruments, though the second and third only briefly. But that is where the greatest damage to us can happen, for reasons I have touched upon, namely the desire of several of those in these categories to serve their paymasters rather than the UN system.

I have no doubt that our suffering with regard to these instruments was inflicted largely because of our greatest detractor during the war period and afterwards, an Australian called Rory Mungoven who was head of the Asia and Pacific Region in the High Commissioner’s Office and had previously served as the Senior Adviser on Human Rights in Colombo. He was keen on a proconsular role for his successor, through establishing an Office of the High Commissioner in Colombo, something we did well to resist. He pushed the idea insidiously, by trying to persuade me when he visited with Louise Arbour in 2007, that the SLMM was useless and the UN would do a better job – ironically what Gareth Evans, another patronising busybody, was also trying to do, offering the outfits he headed to take over the work of the SLMM.

Matters with Rory came to a head in 2012 when Tamara Kunanayakam then our Permanent Representative in Geneva wrote to Navi Pillay about an email Rory had sent out soon after the adoption of the US-led resolution against Sri Lanka in the recent Human Rights Council session. This was in essence a note of triumph, to which Tamara responded forcefully when it came to her notice – 

I am writing to you in connection with an email communication dated 22 March 2012 addressed to the staff of your Office by Mr. Rory Mungoven, Head of the Asia-Pacific Division of OHCHR, triumphantly announcing the adoption that morning of the resolution on Sri Lanka by the Human Rights Council, describing it as “the culmination of the sustained and determined work by many in the team and other parts of the house over the past few years.”

I am attaching a copy of the email for ease of reference.

In his communication, Mr. Mungoven pays special tribute to:

a) Cynthia Veliko, the OHCHR representative in Colombo, and her team “who have had a difficult task of working through all of this on the ground;”

b)  “Richard and the colleagues” who supported the Secretary-General’s Advisory Panel on Sri Lanka “without which this would not have been possible,” thus establishing a link between the adoption of the resolution and the report of the Panel, despite the Council’s rejection of official status to the report at its 18th Session;

c)  the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, and staff of the Special Procedures Branch “who added a powerful dimension to our advocacy; and,

d) Others involved in your Office’s “own internal documentation exercise.”

In paying tribute to his colleagues, Mr. Mungoven says that the adoption of such a resolution “seemed unthinkable” in the “the dark days of the conflict or the special session in May 2009.” On your own role and the role of your Office, Mr. Mungoven boasts that it makes him “very proud of the special role this Office can play in not giving up on impunity issues and the strong, personal leadership of the High Commissioner.”

The email further reveals that your staff is now being mobilised, in the same spirit, for the coming months. Mr. Mungoven calls on your staff to prepare “a good follow up on strategy” to make most of the “new opportunities “opened by the resolution, “and “to pursue this agenda further.” According to the email, your office will also be participating in the implementation of the recommendation made by the Secretary-General’s Advisory Panel on Sri Lanka to conduct “a comprehensive review of actions by the UN system during the war in Sri Lanka and the aftermath, regarding the implementation of its humanitarian and protection mandates.”

It appears from the communication that your Office played a significant role in triggering the adoption of the resolution on Sri Lanka, contrary to the mandate granted to the High Commissioner and the Office by the General Assembly in its resolution 48/141. It also appears that your Office, instead of implementing the resolution adopted by the Human Rights Council at its Special Session on Sri Lanka in 2009, was playing the political agenda of the USA and other Western powers.

The communication raises serious doubts about the impartiality, objectivity, and non-selectivity of the work conducted by the staff of OHCHR and their respect for decisions of the Human Rights Council. As members of the United Nations Secretariat, the staff of your office is bound by the Charter requirement to refrain from any action which might reflect on their position as international officials responsible only to the organisation.

They are also bound to uphold the highest standards of efficiency, competence and integrity, which includes probity, impartiality, fairness, honesty and truthfulness in all matters affecting their work and status; Mr. Mungoven does not have the right to cast aspersions or make negative remarks or draw negative implications from decisions taken by the United Nations organs or bodies.

I wish therefore to seek clarification on the developments that appear to be contrary to the mandate granted to the High Commissioner and her Office by General Assembly resolution 48/141.

I will reiterate that we are deeply attached to the independent, non-partisan and multilateral character of your Office, which is crucial not only for its own credibility, but also for the credibility of the Human Rights Council and the decisions that it adopts.”

But this forceful approach, which it seems the present Government has adopted through the strong complaint General Sallay has lodged with the UN, was then crushed by our own officials. Her letter to the High Commissioner was countermanded in two ways. First, the Ministry of External Affairs let her down badly. The Secretary to the Ministry was quoted as saying that ‘the ministry was verifying the authenticity and implications of the email communication sent by the staffer at the Office of the High Commissioner and would then decide on the proper course of action to be taken’. That was procrastination rather than a letdown, but typically of the way the Ministry behaved in those dark days, the verification it pretended to be engaged in came to nothing.

More serious was what was described as a ‘senior ministry source ’ which claimed, when the Ministry was asked ‘to explain on record whether the charges levelled against the UN High Commissioner were sanctioned by the Government’ that ‘the Government had no intention whatsoever of levelling charges against the UN High Commissioner based on an internal communication within her office’. 

These two very different responses encapsulate the different approaches of the Ministry, both of them disastrous. Secretary Amunugama was basically a decent man, who wanted to do his best for his country, but he did not want to rock the boat and his claim that he was studying the situation was what he used to avoid any action. 

He was morbidly diffident, but I felt sorry for him because he suffered from the fact that the President had little confidence in him. I knew this because I had been asked by the President to go to Geneva at the commencement of the March 2012 session, but could not oblige since the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats which I then chaired was meeting in Colombo. I suggested that there were good people at the Ministry who could represent us well, and mentioned Mr Amunugama, but the President’s response was that he could not function effectively in English. 

This was odd coming from the President for though like him Amunugama had not been educated in English or spoken it at home, he was perfectly competent and had functioned effectively in English at the Ministry for several decades. The conclusion was inescapable that the President had been fed nonsense by those at the Ministry from English speaking backgrounds.

It was from such a source I believe that the put down of Tamara originated, the idea that the Ministry would not act with regard to what was an ‘internal communication’. This was a ridiculous position, since the communication had been made, in violation of UN norms as Tamara’s letter pointed out, by a senior official in his official position, making it clear that UN staff had been engaged in promoting action against a member state.  

Instead of Tamara being supported, she was crucified. We were told that the West were really our friends, ignoring the fact that, for internal political considerations, Western Governments paid more attention to LTTE propaganda than to our interests. So instead of firmness against our foes, the journalist with the special Ministry source was told there was a specific directive from the Ministry to each of Sri Lanka’s overseas missions ‘instructing officers at those missions to refrain from taking up antagonistic and offensive positions against Western Governments and the UN and its officials in the run up to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR)’

By Prof Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Jun 30 2020

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