News & Updates
Both news media and general public can find important information
about updates, alerts and events that impact human rights in Sri Lanka

How J.R.Jayewardene faced Geneva

2014 Feb 05

The main topic of conversation these days is not so much the forthcoming Western and Southern provincial elections but the upcoming meeting of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in March this year. The way people discuss the upcoming meeting of the UNHRC would lead one to imagine that this was the first time in Sri Lanka’s history that this country was facing adverse resolutions in the UNHRC. But there is nothing new in all this. From the very beginning of Tamil separatist terrorism in the 1980s, this country faced challenges from within the UN human rights system. Terrorism and the human rights challenge always went hand in hand.

 From the time terrorism began in earnest in 1983 following the anti-Tamil riots of July 1983, the UNP government of President J.R.Jayewardene faced challenges from the Tamil terrorist lobby and the Western powers within the UN system every year until he left office (It continued thereafter as well – but this article is only about the JR era.) The UN Human Rights Council was at that time called the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR). This institution had a subsidiary body called the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities which also held meetings every year and passed resolutions. Starting in 1983, Sri Lanka was a regular topic of discussion every year – 1984, 1985, 1986, 1987 and 1988 in both the Commission on Human Rights and its Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities until President J.R.Jayewardene left office in February 1989.

 Four separate resolutions were passed against Sri Lanka during this early period in either the Commission or the Sub-Commission. Even if a resolution was not under consideration, not a year went by without a hostile government or international NGO making lengthy representations against Sri Lanka in both these UN bodies under one topic or another. The way the UNP government handled these challenges emanating from Geneva in the early days would be a pointer to how the present government could handle the challenges confronting it.   

The first resolution against SL

 The first resolution against Sri Lanka in the UN system was brought in the wake of the July 1983 anti-Tamil riots. This was within the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities and nobody can say that the concern expressed by the international community was not justified given the enormity of what had happened. Resolution 1983/16 on Sri Lanka was passed within the Sub-Commission at its 36th Session from 15 August to 9 September 1983. The resolution titled "The question of communal violence in Sri Lanka" went as follows:

 "The Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, Deeply concerned about the recent communal violence in Sri Lanka, which cost severe loss of lives and property, Recalling that Sri Lanka has ratified both the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Recognizing that the Government of Sri Lanka has sought to reduce ethnic tension and to foster national harmony, Noting with concern that despite these efforts the relationship between the ethnic communities seems to have deteriorated, 1.Requests the Secretary-General to invite the Government of Sri Lanka to submit information on the recent communal violence in Sri Lanka, including its efforts to investigate the incidents and to promote national harmony, and to submit any information received from the Government of Sri Lanka to the Commission on Human Rights at its fortieth session; 2. Recommends to the Commission on Human Rights that it should examine the situation in Sri Lanka in the light of all available information."

 Needless to say, the passage of this resolution shook the JRJ government. While it was true that absolutely despicable acts of murder, robbery and looting had occurred during the ethnic riots leaving tens of thousands of people displaced, what this very first resolution against Sri Lanka made clear was that the international community was looking at only one aspect of the problem. There was no mention made in the Sub-Commission of the rising tide of Tamil terrorism which had directly provoked this outburst of communal rioting. The rattled government tried to downplay this setback and the passage of this first resolution was mentioned only on page eleven of the government owned Daily News on 7 September 1983 in a tiny news item titled "UN Sub-commission concludes session". Norway which had presented the original resolution to the sub-commission, had wanted the UN to appoint a Special Rapporteur to examine the relations between the ethnic communities in SL. Tissa Jayakody who was then SL’s representative in Geneva had made representations and the resolution was modified to request the UN Secretary General to submit information on the recent disturbances in Sri Lanka.

The Island reported this first resolution against SL on 7 September 1987, in a headline story titled "Committee wants UN Secy. Gen to report on Communal riots: Sri Lanka suffers severe diplomatic set back" According to The Island, those who voted against SL were Belgium, Greece, Norway, France, Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru, the USA, UK and surprisingly, Egypt. On SL’s side were: Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan, Syria, USSR, Yugoslavia, Ethiopia and Bangladesh. Among those who abstained were Zambia, Ghana, Argentina and India. Nigeria, Morocco, Romania and Panama were not present at voting time. India had been lobbying against SL but when SL threatened to take up matters in India like Assam, they had softened their stance and abstained from voting. (Note that Communist Russia was helping capitalist Sri Lanka even at that time.)

SL’s initial response

On the 3rd January 1984, the Sri Lankan government responded to this resolution by writing to the UN Secretary General explaining its position. This detailed and well written ‘note verbale’ stressed among other things, the following points.

 * The ethnic disturbances of July 1983 while deplorable and regrettable,

were an aberration from the well-established norms of conduct in Sri Lanka which has an enduring tradition of inter communal and inter-religious harmony.

* The Sub-Commission considered the disturbances of July 198? in isolation and failed to consider all the circumstances relating to the ethnic situation in Sri Lanka.

* The Eelamist separatist argument is that the Tamil community in Sri Lanka is being actively discriminated against in the fields of economic opportunities, employment, education, land settlement, religious freedom and language.

* However, the constitution itself provides for legal relief in respect of the infringement of fundamental rights by executive or administrative action.

* The Constitution provides that while the official language is Sinhala, both Sinhala and Tamil are national languages. The constitution, itself entitles a person to be educated in either of the national languages; Tamil is a language of administration in the northern and eastern provinces as well as the language of the courts in these provinces; all legislation is required to be published in both national languages.

* In 1981, a decentralization of the administration was effected by the establishment of District Development Councils.

* In recent years there has been agitation for a separate state called `Eelam’ and groups of extremists started their campaign of violence.

* A well orchestrated propaganda campaign was set in motion in many countries both to justify the terrorist activities in the north and to seek international support for the state of Eelam.

* In the sphere of employment, the Government is the largest employer, and members of the Tamil community continues to hold senior positions in the public service,  as Departmental Heads, Ambassadors and Administrators. There are three Tamil Cabinet Ministers and the Attorney-General, the Inspector-General of Police and several Deputy Inspectors-General of Police are from the Tamil community.

* The charge of discrimination in education is unwarranted. Tamils gaining admission to the universities has been in excess of the proportion of their numbers in the country;

There are fully fledged universities in Jaffna and in Batticaloa.

*  The support of the State is extended to all religions including Hinduism, the dominant religion of the Tamil community. A Division of Hindu Religious Affairs has been set up within the Ministry of Regional Development, whose Minister is a member of the Tamil community. The first World Hindu Conference was convened in Colombo in April 1982, at State expense.

 The government explained that the Prevention of Terrorism Act of 1979 was no different to the legislation enacted by many countries to deal with terrorism and had lengthy explanations about the conduct of the armed forces in Jaffna following the killing of 13 soldiers in July 1983, the prison riots, and outlined the steps it had taken during the riots to provide security, food, clothing accommodation and rehabilitation for affected, persons.

They also explained that 6,780 persons had been arrested under the emergency regulations for various acts of violence and that 2,280 persons were granted bail pending completion of the investigations and that a total of400 cases have been forwarded to the Attorney-General, ?s of 30 January 1984 for filing of indictments. They also stated that the government maintains a continuous dialogue relating to the rights ?f the minorities and that in January 1984, the President of Sri Lanka summoned a Conference of all political parties with a view to discussing issues of concern to the minorities with a view to finding solutions acceptable to all parties concerned.

 At that early stage, this comprehensive and honest submission made by the government was considered sufficient by the UN Commission on Human Rights which at its 40th Session held from 6 February and 16 March 1984 passed resolution 1984/111 taking note of the information provided voluntarily by the Sri Lankan government and appealing to all parties concerned to maintain the peace and welcoming the measures taken for rehabilitation and reconciliation as well as the All Party Conference and declared that ‘further consideration of this matter was not necessary’. That was in March 1984. But by August the same year the UN-CHR Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and protection of Minorities saw fit to pass yet another resolution 1984/32 on Sri Lanka which went as follows. Only three members voted in favour of Sri Lanka this time.

"The Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, Deeply concerned about the recurrence of violence in Sri Lanka which resulted in severe loss of life and property, Recognizing the ultimate responsibility of the Government of Sri Lanka for the protection of all sections of the community. Appreciating decision 1984/111 of 14 March 1984 of the Commission on Human Rights in which it appealed to the parties’ to ‘continue to take all necessary measures to strengthen and maintain peace and restore harmony among the people of Sri Lanka and welcomed all measures for rehabilitation and reconciliation, Anxious that the All Party Conference convened by the Government will achieve the progress ardently hoped for in the direction of resolving or reducing the ethnic tension in the country; Expresses the hope that; the Government of Sri Lanka will submit information on the progress made in the investigation of the incidents, and the recent efforts to promote communal harmony, to the Commission on Human Rights at its forty-first session."

The good old days

 Readers will note that the whole tenor of this resolution suggests that the Western countries sponsoring this resolution were trying to take control of things in Sri Lanka by making it contingent upon the government of Sri Lanka to keep reporting back to the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities everything that goes on in Sri Lanka. In the meantime,  On 3 August 1984, D.B.S.Jeyaraj reported in The Island that the US Congress Sub-Committee on Human Rights and the South Asia section of the US Congress Sub-Committee on Foreign Affairs had begun a joint hearing on the human rights situation in SL. While the UN Commission on Human Rights was in session in August 1984, The Island staffer Eric Devanarayana reporting from Geneva said that a strong Tamil lobby led by V. Navaratnam the TULF MP from Chavakachcheri was in Geneva to bring strictures on Sri Lanka at the 37th Session with the assistance of a London based NGO called War Resistance International. The Sri Lankan delegation was led by Jayantha Dhanapala who had told The Island reporter that a TV program was being broadcast in Switzerland featuring a Tamil man claiming to be an engineer telling the European public about the discrimination the Tamils were facing in SL.

 Thus when we look back at the past 30 years, we see that little or nothing has changed between the J.R. Jayewardene era and the present day. The Western powers were passing resolution after resolution against Sri Lanka, the government was running round in circles responding to those resolutions, Tamil politicians from the north were in Geneva to lobby against the Sri Lankan government and Western TV stations were broadcasting programs against Sri Lanka while the Commission on Human Rights was in session! Back in 1984, the separatist terrorists were still stealing antiquated guns from the police, they had still not attacked the army. The terrorists did not have even a mortar and were doing hit and run attacks on unarmed targets. Back in 1984, there were no suicide bombers and even the suicide belt had not been invented. Suicide boats had not been built. From this they developed over years and decades into a fully fledged terrorist army possessing heavy field guns and multi barrel rocket launchers able to destroy whole army battalions in pitched battles, with a naval arm able to destroy gunboats in the open sea and an air wing able to bomb Colombo from the air. Having reached this peak, they were then destroyed by the Rajapaksa regime in a concerted military campaign. During this entire three decade period, nothing changed in the way things are done in Geneva. We are still faced with the same situation that JRJ was faced with in 1984. 

While President Mahinda Rajapaksa is not getting any respite from the UNHRC, President Jayewardene didn’t get any respite either, from its predecessor institution, the UN Commission on Human Rights. The Western powers tried to pass a resolution against Sri Lanka at the 38th session of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and protection of Minorities in August 1985 as well. This resolution which was sponsored by Canada, France, Mexico, Argentina and Columbia however had to be abandoned due to the lack of support. This resolution too was aimed at taking control of the process in Sri Lanka by calling upon all parties to the conflict to come to a negotiated settlement. The idea always was to prevent the government from taking military action against the terrorists. After the failure to muster support for a resolution against Sri Lanka in 1985, we got some respite in 1986 which was an year without resolutions. But that did not mean that Sri Lanka was not bad mouthed in the Commission on Human Rights. Lengthy representations were made against Sri Lanka by representatives of various Western governments and NGOs under the various topics under discussion.

JR’s attitude to Geneva

The most serious challenge in the UN Commission on Human Rights during the J.R.Jayewardene era came in March 1987 with India sponsoring a resolution against Sri Lanka. This time, even the government owned Daily News which usually downplayed these challenges in the UN system, reported this in a headline story on 14 March 1987 which said that after Sri Lanka became aware of a high level Indian campaign in capitals around the world to mobilize international opinion against Sri Lanka, Foreign Minister A.C.S.Hameed had embarked on a diplomatic counter offensive which had resulted in the watering down of the original resolution that India had been trying to get passed. The Daily News sported the triumphant banner headline "Anti-Lanka motion de-fanged: Lanka Hijacks Indian resolution". This resolution 1987/61 was passed by consensus at the 43rd Session of the Commission on Human Rights 2 February to 13 March 1987 and was titled "Situation in Sri Lanka". It went as follows:

"The Commission on Human Rights, Guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the universally accepted rules of international humanitarian law, Recalling its decision 1984/111 of 14 March 1984, Taking note of the report of the Special Rapporteur on torture and of the report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances 1. Calls upon all parties and groups to respect fully the universally accepted rules of humanitarian law; 2. Calls upon all parties and groups to renounce the use of force and acts of violence and to pursue a negotiated political solution, based on principles of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms; 3. Invites the Government of Sri Lanka to intensify its co-operation with the International Committee of the Red Cross in the fields of dissemination and promotion of international humanitarian law and to consider favourably the offer of the services of the International Committee of the Red Cross to fulfil its functions of protection of humanitarian standards, including the provision of assistance and protection to victims of all affected parties; 4. Expresses the hope that the Government of Sri Lanka will continue to provide the Commission on Human Rights with information on this question".

 Despite the call to ‘renounce the use of force and pursue a negotiated political settlement’ in this resolution, the J.R.Jayewardene was to do exactly the opposite. Less than eight weeks after this resolution was passed, in May 1987, the UNP government launched the Vadamarachchi Operation to liberate Jaffna. This was the by far the biggest military operation that the government had launched against the terrorists up to that time and it was the first time the SL army had carried out an operation in battle formations. Thus we see that the JRJ government did not care a twit about any UN resolution. In a way, JRJ was lucky. Decision making was a simple matter in those uncomplicated days.  From 1983 until he relinquished power five years later, JRJ’s government and the people of Sri Lanka were preoccupied with dodging bullets and bombs. The sound of gunfire and bomb blasts drowned out all other noises. Nobody in Sri Lanka – least of all the JRJ government - was concerned about the speeches being made in Geneva. The prevailing mood was that if someone comes at you with a gun, you shoot first and think and talk later.

Today there is no gunfire, no bomb blasts, no terrorists. A nation that had over decades got used to living on the edge now finds itself not having anything to do or talk about except what is happening in Geneva. Because there are no terrorists wreaking havoc in the country, decision making has become more complicated with a lot of humming and hawing and many ifs and buts. The mass media has expanded vastly from what it was in the 1980s and there are a lot of news-starved journalists with nothing to write about to whom the annual Geneva carnival is a great boon. We see apocalyptic headlines ‘USA talks tough’ ‘India on the warpath’ ‘Govt. in panic mode’ – the more apocalyptic the headline and the greater the promise of imminent disaster it portends, the better the sales. This is a nation that has got used to danger lurking just around the corner and it may take years or even decades to get out of that mindset.

Ultimately, as far as Geneva is concerned all governments in Sri Lanka can do only one thing – listen to all the speeches and respond as best as one can and back home, do what a government has to do protect the territorial integrity of the country and the lives and limbs of the people. One notices that today, there is no collective memory within the UNP of resolutions passed in Geneva against the UNP government. That’s because given the situation at that time, even if the UNP government heard what was being said in Geneva, they were too busy dodging bullets to be bothered.

Search News & Updates