UN Official Turns Activist

A Sri Lankan national, who is an official of the UN, plays the role of a lobbyist for the Sri Lanka government.

An official of the UN Sub-commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights has become an advocate for the Sri Lanka government. At the Human Rights hearings held in Geneva (31 July to 18 August, 2000) this person acted and behaved more like a lobbyist for Sri Lanka rather than an impartial officer of the UN.

Mr. R.K.W. Goonesekere is one of a 26-member group of the Sub-commission known as experts. He, along with his alternate Ms. Deepika Udagama, was elected to this body in 1998 through voting by member states. Sri Lanka’s vigorous campaign at this election was successful.

The experts are trusted to be impartial in judging human rights violations and other related matters brought before the sub-commission. Most do, and abstain from commenting on matters linked to their own countries.

Mr. Goonesekere broke ranks with this tradition at the most recent (Fifty Second) session of the sub-commission, when he took the podium to speak on ‘Standardization in Education’ in Sri Lanka. He spoke at length, justifying Sri Lanka’s ‘standardization’ policy, which many of the NGOs have held to be directed against the Tamil population of the country.

In a well-crafted speech, he portrayed this as ‘Affirmative Action’ aimed to help the rural poor. He left out important historical information on the campaign by Sinhala chauvinist groups to reduce Tamil students' access to higher education, which eventually led to this policy. He said nothing about the fact that the beneficiaries of this policy were the under-qualified Sinhala students, and that well-qualified Tamil students even from Tamil rural areas were shut out, by clever classification. In talking about this, in isolation of other areas of discrimination, such as in language, religion, social and economic rights, etc., he tried to justify this ‘standardization’ policy.

Mr. Goonesekere’s advocacy role has been evident right from the beginning. Immediately after his election 1998, at a dinner party for the other experts, he circulated a leaflet defending the human rights violations by Sri Lanka. The dinner was paid for by the Sri Lanka government. Since then he has been campaigning vigorously to defend Sri Lanka’s poor human rights record. Although viewed as a loosing battle by many observers, he has been quite zealous in his mission.

This year he also took the podium to defend the murder of Mr. Kumar Ponnambalam. In April 1999, Mr. Ponnambalam had mentioned to a member of this expert group that he faced threats from the government. In view of the subsequent murder of Mr. Ponnambalam, this expert drew attention of the sub-commission on 5th August. He stated that he ‘had brought the matter of Mr. Kumar Ponambalam’s fear to the notice of the Ambassador for Sri Lanka’ last year, and that no action was taken. ‘This year, on 5th January, Mr. Ponnambalam was killed on the street,’ he said, but ‘no proper investigation has taken place.’ He urged, ‘the sub-commission has to take this into consideration.’

No sooner this was said, Mr. Goonesekere took the floor and gave a lengthy explanation as to why the Sri Lanka government has been unable to find the killers. He said, ‘in an armed conflict, these things can’t be brought to justice!’ The audience was completely taken aback by this, and several commented, ‘even the (Sri Lankan) ambassador wouldn’t have tried to defend this!’

When a group of lobbyists raised this issue separately, he had said, ‘do you know what Mr. Kumar Ponnambalam said in the national television?’ The implication that ‘Mr. Ponnambalam had to be punished for what he said’ was not lost on this group.

Another NGO, who raised the issue of the embargo on food and medicine to the Tamil areas, was told, ‘You see, there are many hospitals in the south which have big shortages of medicines, and there are many villages in the south which have no food at all compared to the Tamil areas!’

Since Mr. Goonesekere’s election to the expert group the Sri Lankan ambassador has had fewer occasions to speak in defense of Sri Lanka. This year he spoke only once.

An independent expert of the UN playing this advocacy role has created quite a stir among the NGO groups and other observers. Many have started to question the system itself, which permits experts to be elected by member states that are themselves guilty of the violations the sub-commission is mandated to investigate.

Sri Lanka has been ranked by another UN body, again this year, as the country with second highest the number of unresolved disappearances in the world, next to Iraq.