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Who Goes to Geneva and Why

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Photo courtesy of Ada Derana

The 51st session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is currently reviewing a new draft resolution on Sri Lanka. The core group invited the Sri Lankan government, other governments and civil society to participate in consultations on the draft resolution.

Who

Sandya Ekneligoda, wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, recalled her travels to Geneva in search of justice for more than 10 years and asked the governments how many more years they were expecting her and others like her to come to Geneva. Sandya was among the earliest families of disappeared from Sri Lanka to start travelling to Geneva but since then many others have started taking their grievances and demands there.

Tamil families of disappeared who have been engaged in the aragala for more than 2,000 days, Dr. Manoharan whose son was killed on Trincomalee beach in 2006, community leaders who have been struggling to reclaim land from military occupation and activists subjected to frequent surveillance, harassments, assaults and unjust arrests have been to Geneva in search of justice. Opposition MPs have also been going with former president and prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his ally former minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara being two of the earliest opposition MPs to go to Geneva to speak about human rights violations in the early 1990s.

Among those who went to Geneva for the first time last week was Shehan Malaka, a prominent Catholic youth activist advocating truth and justice for easter Sunday attacks and who had been subjected to various reprisals including being arrested. Another first timer was Nuwan Bopage, a human rights lawyer who while being part of the aragalaya, had provided pro bono legal assistance to many arrested and summoned for questioning in relation to the aragalaya. Nuwan had been beaten and arrested when he tried to defend another person during the attack on the peaceful protest site in July.

Religious leaders, including at least one Buddhist monk and Christian clergy, have also been to Geneva. The most prominent religious leader to go to Geneva was Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith. The Cardinal met the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva in March this year and also addressed the UNHRC asking it to support the continuation of evidence gathering initiated by the council last year and to devise a means to ensure an impartial investigation to unravel the truth behind the Easter Sunday massacre. Ten years before, in 2012, when a Tamil Catholic bishop and clergy had written to UNHRC member states and demanded international investigations into war time atrocities, this same Cardinal accused Western countries of meddling in Sri Lanka’s sovereignty by planning to table a resolution at the UNHRC and said this was “an insult to the intelligence” of Sri Lankans.

Why

The people who have gone to Geneva have invested time, energy and money in domestic processes such as ad hoc Commissions of Inquiry, Office on Missing Persons, the Human Rights Commission, police and the judiciary. They have also engaged with local media, politicians and state officials to seek truth and justice. The Cardinal may have had a conversion in his heart about requesting international help as he realized in two years after Easter attacks the difficulties in seeking truth and justice through purely domestic mechanisms. This is a truth that Tamil Catholic clergy, families of disappeared such as Sandya and Tamils who been protesting for more than 2,000 days had realized many years before. Essentially, it is the inability to get truth and justice despite many efforts and their subsequent loss of confidence and hope in domestic processes that drives many people to Geneva.

What does Geneva offer?

While their disappointment, anger, lack of hope and confidence in domestic processes and reasons for going to Geneva and international engagement is understandable, what is less clear is what they have gained from time, energy and money invested in UN processes such as the UNHRC.

I have been associated with many efforts in Geneva and over the years I realized that they all yearn to be heard. That is why it is important for survivors of rights violations, a family of a victim and person from a war affected community to have the chance to speak at the UN – formally at UNHRC as Cardinal did in March and Nuwan Bopage did last week but also informally as Sandya did last week and many have done by speaking to diplomats and UN officials and at other events in Geneva. Sandya’s heartfelt comments at the tail end of the first consultation would have left a mark on diplomats in the room including the Sri Lankans.

Despite the international politics that inevitably will prevail in inter-governmental organizations such as the UN, sentiments, grievances and demands of Sandya and others like her are reflected in reports of OHCHR (and previous bodies like the panel of experts of the UN Secretary General in 2010-2011) and to a lesser extent in UNHRC resolutions. They present a narrative to the world that closely reflects experiences and feelings of survivors, victim’s families and affected communities and is very different to the narrative of the government.

For example, there was no clear references related to Easter Sunday attacks in OHCHR’s written update in March 2020 and comprehensive report in March 2021 despite the attacks being the largest post war massacre and allegations of this being a “grand political plot”. After some intensive lobbying by Catholic clergy and lay activists, there was a small reference to it in OHCHR’s oral update in September 2021 and a more detailed reference in written update in the March 2022 report. In the September 2022 comprehensive report of OHCHR, a much stronger reference was included, including calls for the “full volumes of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to be made publicly available” and “for a follow up independent and transparent investigation with international assistance to pursue further lines of inquiry, with the full participation of victims and their representatives”. Disappointingly, there is no reference to lack of truth and justice into Easter Sunday attacks in the draft resolution being negotiated currently but this is also why those committed to advancing full truth and justice for the attacks continue to be engaged with UNHRC.

To take another example, the draft resolution validated recent protects that overthrew the corrupt, racist and authoritarian Rajapaksa family by emphasizing that “peaceful protests can make a positive contribution to the development, strengthening and effectiveness of democratic systems and to democratic processes, as well as to the rule of law” and that “participation in peaceful protests can be an important form of exercising the rights to freedoms of peaceful assembly, of expression, and of association and to participation in the conduct of public affairs”. The draft resolution has also acknowledged that “the importance of addressing underlying governance factors and root causes which have contributed to this (present) crisis, including deepening militarization, lack of accountability in governance and impunity for serious human rights violations and abuses”.

UN resolutions and reports may also have contributed to setting up some domestic institutions such as the Office on Missing Persons, releasing some military occupied lands, few cases filed against military, police and prison officials for enforced disappearances and killings and some other positive developments inside towards reconciliation and accountability. I think the many interventions at the UNHRC and internationally may have contributed to my relatively quick release when I was arrested in Kilinochchi in March 2014 under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) while UNHRC sessions were going on in Geneva.

Although farfetched and ambitious, the evidence gathering mechanism set up in 2021 may contribute towards freezing and recovery of stolen assets and prosecutions of public officials, politicians and military personnel for war time atrocities, the Easter Sunday attacks, economic crimes and corruption.

Are those going to Geneva traitors?

Those going to Geneva, including myself, have been called as traitors. When I was arrested by the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID), I was questioned extensively about my visits to Geneva and one of the three reasons given in the official arrest receipt was “sending information abroad”. When Sandya Ekneligoda was giving testimony in a court in relation her husband’s disappearance, she was harshly questioned about her visits to Geneva. Since her visits to Geneva were after the disappearance and had no connection to the disappearance, the line of questioning was an attempt at discrediting and harassing her for telling her story to the UNHRC and seeking international help for truth and justice.

Rather than demonize Sri Lankans going to Geneva seeking truth and justice, politicians, media, religious leaders, professionals and artists should empathize with their grievances and extend solidarity towards their aspirations and struggles on the streets, courts and media as well as in international spaces such as in Geneva.

UN human rights resolutions and reports are critical of human rights violations and impunity but they fall short of expectations of survivors, victims’ families and affected communities. Sri Lankans must challenge narratives that UN resolutions and reports are against the country, which is promoted by some politicians, media and religious leaders and think of them as being about rights, reconciliation and accountability for Sri Lankan people.

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