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UN-Lanka ties hit rough patch

Wimal Weerawansa, cabinet minister and leader of the left-nationalist National Freedom Front, offers a lot on his website. Sutirtho Patranobis reports.

world Updated: Jul 12, 2010 01:06 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

Wimal Weerawansa, cabinet minister and leader of the left-nationalist National Freedom Front (NFF), offers a lot on his website.

"…nothing but himself; he offered blood, toil, tears and sweat to achieve one aim, an aim that can be explained in one word: victory."

Last week, he even offered to die.

Die fasting if United Nations secretary general (UNSG), Ban Ki-moon did not dissolve the international panel of experts he set up in June to advise him on allegations of war crimes committed as the Lankan civil war came to a bloody end in May, 2009.

The raucous protests outside the UN headquarters, located on a heavily-guarded and shaded road, began Tuesday. Fiery placards calling Ban various names were brandished; "three idiots" and other less savoury adjectives were used to describe the three-member panel.

"A peaceful protest, even if it was outside the UN compound, would have been in order. It was when the UN staff was threatened with bodily harm with the possibility of damage to the premises that things went too far," the Sunday Times newspaper wrote.

Then the NFF leader went on a futile hunger strike. It lasted for all of two days. Weerawansa didn't quite get his "victory" and the panel remains, ready to meet soon.

But the diplomatic damage had been done. Ban recalled the UN resident coordinator Neil Bunhe to New York for discussions.

And then – the second response was termed misleading – he ordered the closure of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) regional office. Many western nations including the US and EU issued strong statements against the way the protests were carried out.

"The Secretary-General finds it unacceptable that the Sri Lankan authorities have failed to prevent the disruption of the normal functioning of the United Nations offices in Colombo as a result of unruly protests organised and led by a cabinet minister of the Government," a UN statement said.

Weerawansa's protests came might have come now, about two weeks after the panel was set up, but Sri Lanka's relation with the UN has been progressively souring since the end of the civil war.

In May, 2009, a UN spokesperson in Colombo had called it the fighting a "bloodbath". The statistics of 7000 civilian deaths was also sourced from the world body's office here.

Later, Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions asked the Lankan government for explanations about the alleged executions of LTTE leaders attempting to surrender on May 18, 2009.

Alston followed this up in January with a statement saying that the mobile phone video allegedly showing Sri Lankan army (SLA) soldiers executing suspected LTTE cadres was authentic despite some inconsistencies.

Ban's panel is seen as logical follow-up in the efforts of the UN trying to gradually build up a war crimes case against the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime.

"The advisory panel is the first step. After this, the UN will set up an investigative panel (to look into the allegations of war crimes). Finally, there will be a war crimes tribunal," one of Weerawansa's political advisors V Bandara told HT, adding that was why the minister was opposing the panel.

Weerawansa couldn't have punched above his stature without the government's support; he has three MPs in Parliament but is considered close to Rajapaksa.

For the UN, ironically, Weerawansa's punch seemed to have landed where it wanted it to. The UN statement said the closing of the UNDP regional centre was related to the protests.

But there are two points which don't match: one, the regional office is located few kilometres away from the protest venue. And, it's well-known in the UN circles here that the centre was anyway being downsized before its relocation to Bangkok. The protests certainly expedited the process.

It has in fact left the remaining staffers of the regional office shocked. They were not expecting to be relocated before another year.

Weerawansa, meanwhile, was in the army hospital on Sunday amid his wife and two children. For now, the Lankan government I' m sure wants a bit of calm from him instead of his blood and sweat.