ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 16, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 16

Prime slot at UN, but big price and big questions

By Our Diplomatic Editor

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has got the traditional prime-time speaking slot on the opening day of this year's United Nations General Assembly sessions, being the first speaker in the afternoon. Sri Lanka has long been the recipient of this slot. Traditionally, the US President also gets an opening day address. Both President Rajapaksa and President George Bush will speak on Tuesday, September 25.

Of the more than 65 Sri Lankans and expatriate Sri Lankans who will be part of Sri Lanka's delegation to the UN General Assembly next week, how many will really take part in the UN sessions remains a question. Last year, less than half of the more than 50 Sri Lankan delegates ever set foot on ‘UN soil’. Some of the delegates who are going from Colombo have already contacted their friends and relatives living in the US about their impending junket. One of them has asked for an appointment with a cardiologist, another has arranged for a visit to a casino in Atlantic City and a third wants advanced tickets to a Broadway show -- all at taxpayer's expense.

Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama who promised to release the names on the delegation by Friday, failed to honour his pledge. Up to yesterday, the Foreign Office had not released the names on the Sri Lankan delegation.

Last week The Sunday Times reported that US$ 2,500 a night suite at the Ritz Carlton Hotel had been booked. The Presidential suite – with marble soaking tub with separate stall shower, floor model telescope, with "two and a half bathrooms" and guest's choice of either 100% linen or 700 thread-count jacquard cotton sheets, custom designed for the hotel by Pratesi, the world's most luxurious linen -- is priced at US$ 3,750 per night (Rs. 415,000).

President Rajapaksa, however, is skipping the Asia Society this year: the traditional venue for a public lecture by most visiting Asian heads of state. According to a foreign ministry source, the Sri Lanka mission to the UN has been asked to negotiate a lower price on the hotel rooms on the grounds of "bulk purchases" since all or most of the delegates are going to stay under the same roof, or insist on the marketing principle: buy 10 rooms and get one free.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka is in for more bruising doses from top UN officials on the country’s handling of human rights issues in the coming weeks and months on top of highly damaging remarks made by earlier visiting officials of the world body. Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona yesterday confirmed the visits by UN Special Rapporteur against Torture Manfred Nowak from October 1 to 8, High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour from October 08 to 13, and Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Human Rights of IDPs, Walter Kaelin, from December 13 to 21.

He said invitations to these officials had been extended by Human Rights and Disaster Relief Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe months in advance on the premise Sri Lanka had nothing to hide from the world.

Several Tamil groups have written to the UN asking that Arbour should visit both the northern and eastern provinces and talk directly to people caught up in the crossfire. It is possible she may also insist on talking to some of the LTTE leaders. If so, will the government block any such move — as it did during former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's visit?

An Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation on human rights too is expected later this month on a fact finding mission. Meanwhile, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who met Foreign Minister Bogollagama in Paris last week too has accepted an invitation from his Lankan counterpart to visit Sri Lanka early next year, Dr Kohona said.

Mr. Kouchner was earlier a member of the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) headed by former Indian Chief Justice P.N. Bhagawati. The committee was appointed to oversee progress of investigations into unlawful killings here. Mr. Kouchner too comes amidst increasingly critical comments made by IIGEP and by many NGOs on the progress of the investigations by the independent Presidential Commission into unlawful killings.

Dr Kohona, however, said it was very unfair for critics to lambaste the independent commission headed by retired Justice N.K. Udalagama as it had started work only about four months ago. In comparison the Yugoslav Criminal Tribunal took more than 18 months just to work out its procedure spending millions of dollars and the Cambodian Criminal Tribunal even after two years has yet to arraign a single person.“It is very unfair to single out our Commission for criticism. We are a poor Third World country, we don’t have the resources that those tribunals are blessed with,” he said.

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