Foreign Funds, Friends & Foes: The Forces In Geneva

By Prof.Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Jun 23 2020
Columns Foreign Funds, Friends & Foes: The Forces In Geneva

By Prof.Rajiva Wijesinha

Before I conclude this series, I should record clearly the way the Human Rights mechanisms in Geneva work. This is the more vital because there seems to be some confusion about it, and resentment of everyone and everything after the unfair attacks on us.

But we must learn to distinguish, to work carefully, to affirm our own sovereignty while also making it clear that we subscribe to international laws and practices – not because we want to please others but because we need to ensure the freedom and rights as well as the security of our own people. 

For this purpose we need to be firm about protecting our own interests, but we must also engage with others and clarify doubts and deal with legitimate concerns. In this regard we must work together with likeminded groups and individuals. 

This is vital because Geneva is not only the seat of the Human Rights Council but also the place from which the various elements of the High Commissioner’s Office function. In this regard it is most unfortunate that we continue with a vacancy there with regard to the position of Permanent Representative.

During the war we dealt very effectively with the various instruments in Geneva relating to Human Rights. There are in effect four separate types of these, and it is important to distinguish between them, to work out what motivates them, and to deal accordingly. We need to distinguish between friends and foes, we need to deploy our friends to deal with threats, and we need to win over our foes or, where this is not possible, disarm them.

The most important of the instruments, in theory at any rate – and ultimately in practice – is the UN Human Rights Council. 

This consists of 47 members elected on a regional basis in New York. It had been set up a few years earlier, replacing the old Commission which had been thought unsatisfactory. The new Council was supposed to be more balanced, and better representative of the world at large, though there is still some imbalance in that Western Europe and Eastern Europe are selected separately. 

Since over half the countries still classified as Eastern European are members of or aspirants to the European Union, the Western bloc thus has a greater influence than used to be the case. This is exacerbated by the fact that the European Union functions as a bloc, and its Eastern European allies follow suit. 

But there are still enough members from the rest of the World – though obviously there are a few countries amongst them which are dependent on, or whole hearted supporters of, the West – to allow for generally balanced outcomes. 

We need to understand the dynamics of the Council and its member states if we are to achieve the sort of success we had, exemplified by the unprecedented majority secured for Sri Lanka when the West had precipitated a Special Session to hang us after our victory over terrorism. 

Though the Council is the main decision making body, there are other instruments in Geneva that exercise massive influence. These are all based in what is termed the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The High Commissioner is appointed by the UN Secretary General, and is meant to preside over the UN’s ongoing work in Human Rights. This continues throughout the year while the Council itself meets only three months a year, for a few weeks every three months, in March and June and September. 

In the days when I went regularly on our delegations to Geneva, the High Commissioner was Navanethem Pillay of South Africa. She was succeeded by Prince Zeid of Jordan, who has in turn been succeeded by Michele Bachelet, former President of Chile. For a few months after I took over as Head of the Peace Secretariat – in which role I would go to Geneva – the High Commissioner was Louise Arbour of Canada. 

Though Bachelet has to be respected for her response to the American backed regime in Chile after Salvador Allende was got rid of, we need to be careful about her too, as we were about Arbour and Pillay when I was active in Geneva. I did feel Pillay was better than Arbour in that she was not part of an international mafia, but now it would seem that she has got involved with the LTTE mafia, and I can only hope that our Foreign Ministry takes up formally with the UN Secretary General her unseemly behaviour in using her former position to make political points.

Arbour I was wary of since she seemed to be trying to exercise proconsular powers with regard to Sri Lanka, a position advocated by Gareth Evans who then headed the International Crisis Group, which had been set up by George Soros. Arbour succeeded him, and has now again got a position with the UN.

Pillay’s excesses with regard to Sri Lanka, though she should have refrained from them, were the result of a strong lobby against Sri Lanka within the High Commissioner’s Office, a lobby that tried too to pervert Arbour though we managed to stop their worst plot, when she was in Sri Lanka. 

But before I deal with that lobby, I should mention elements working from her office which are by and large objective in their approach. I refer to what are termed the holders of mandates with regard to particular areas on human rights. There are different types of these, Special Rapporteurs, Special Representatives and Working Groups.

During the war we would study all these and work out which were simply trying to do a good job. A few seemed prejudiced, but even with regard to the one most critical of us during the war period, Philip Alston the Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Killings; we should remember that he had been balanced initially and very critical of the LTTE. But he had been worried about the Trinco killings and thought he had an assurance that they would be dealt with. When that did not happen, he felt that the Sri Lankan Government could not be trusted and became hyper-critical.

But I was able to deal with him on most issues, and indeed he granted that I was difficult to contend with, which Gareth Evans also declared in explaining why he did not answer my letters. And Alston’s successor, Christoph Heyns, had told one of his Sri Lankan students that he would have chosen me as a lawyer if he ever had to face the courts. I assume he thought I was a lawyer, given how effectively I demolished the claims of both Channel 4 and the experts Alston had consulted, with regard to the video that did us so much damage. But by then I was not in a position to deal with attacks that I had parried so skilfully previously because those in charge in Government were nervous about me. 

GL of course was worried about what he saw as my capacity, but the others I think actually wanted Sri Lanka in the doghouse as their mentors demanded. 

Though we had to be careful of Alston, we engaged with others and invited them to visit. While I was in office we had two, Manfred Nowak the Special Rapporteur on Torture and Walter Kalin the Special Representative with regard to the Displaced. Both were very helpful and produced reports that made it clear the wild allegations made against us were nonsensical. Nowak had some strictures but recognised the difficulties we faced and offered financial support with regard to building a new prison since he recognised that our old prisons were not conducive to the protection of rights.

And Kalin was quite marvellous, advising on what was acceptable and generally making it clear he understood we were doing our best. He was quite firm with the younger members of the staff of the then representative here, Amin Awad of the High Commissioner for Refugees, who tried to keep him away from us. He made it clear instead that, as a UN official, his responsibilities were to the host Government, not to outsiders trying to run us.

But unfortunately after our victory in the war and in Geneva, the ostrich approach dominated in this country and so we had no visits from such mandate holders in the five years that followed. 

In addition to these special mandate holders, usually professionals from around the world who work from their own countries, there is a body of staff permanently in the Geneva office of the High Commissioner’s Office. This is what I refer to as the third instrument with regard to Human Rights that functions in Geneva. The problem with this body is that it is composed to a disproportionate extent of individuals funded on contract by rich countries, whose first allegiance is to those countries. Some of these are then taken onto its permanent staff by the Office, but their outlook continues to be based on paternalism, not the collegiality that is supposed to distinguish UN interventions. 

In the old days, UN staff worked for the UN. But the West then realised that open recruitment led to balance, whereas they wanted hatchet men. So the practice began of funding individuals on contract, the choice being made by the country paying for the contract, and usually involving nationals of that country. 

While I was in Geneva the Indians voiced objections to this, but of course he who pays the piper is allowed to call the tune. So nothing has changed.

By Prof.Rajiva Wijesinha | Published: 2:00 AM Jun 23 2020

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