Posted on May 18th, 2021



The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is a separate body. It is not part of the UNHCR. It is a department of the Secretariat of the United Nations. Unlike the UNHCR, the Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has the power to intervene in human rights issues of countries.

 The office was established by the United Nations General Assembly on 20 December 1993. The Office is headed by the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who co-ordinates human rights activities throughout the UN System and supervises the Human Rights Council in Geneva. The task of the OHCHR is to promote and protect the human rights that are guaranteed under international law and stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. 

Its Mandate includes preventing human rights violations, securing respect for all human rights, promoting international cooperation to protect human rights, coordinating HR related activities throughout the United Nations, strengthening and streamlining the United Nations system in the field of human rights. OHCHR   is also expected to encourage a human rights approach in the work of the United Nations agencies. But the OHCHR must respect the sovereignty, territorial integrity and domestic jurisdiction of States when carrying out its activities.

OHCHR has   set up field offices in several countries, In 2020, OHCHR had offices in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Syria, State of Palestine, Tunisia, Yemen, Ukraine, Chad, Guinea, Niger, Liberia, Sudan, Uganda, Mauritania, south Korea, Cambodia.

OHCHR    has a list of ‘experts’ given ‘mandates’ to report and advice on human rights of specific countries. Currently there are 41 thematic and 14 country mandates. There are also the HRC ‘Special Rapporteurs’, about 25 of them, one for each Human Right. These experts serve in their personal capacity, and do not receive pay for their work, which hopefully, ensures their independence and impartiality. OHCHR provides staffing and logistical support for these experts.

The OHCHR like the UNHCR is under funded. Other UN agencies were given over a billion dollars, the office of the UNHCR has only 97 million per year, the Organization complained in 2014.

OCHRC is largely financed from voluntary funds. These donors are mainly US, UK, and other rich Western countries.  USA, particularly has invested heavily in the OCHRC and the Office has become a ‘weapon’ of the US, observed Tamara Kunanayagam.  All the important staff positions in OCHRC are also held by persons from western countries.  They make up half the cadre in the OHCHR.  The west influences the Office through them.

Countries have objected to the imbalanced representation in the OHCHR, where the west holds half the staff positions. Every year the UNHRC passes (with more than a two thirds majority) a resolution calling upon the OHCHR to end the domination of Westerners in that office and reduce its dependency on Western funds, said Tamara.

OHCHR field offices are also fully funded by the Western countries, and most of the staff are directly or indirectly linked to the donors, continued Tamara. The offices are frequently utilized for destabilization purposes and help the west to gain a foothold in countries where it is difficult to have a direct western presence.  In 2012 the Government of Nepal asked OHCHR office to leave the country. 

OHCHR is not impartial in carrying out its role, said Pathfinder. In 2009, Algeria criticized   the Commissioner’s   report on civilians and armed conflict. Navaneethan Pillay had lumped together various conflicts around the world where circumstances differed and used a one size fits all approach. 

 In Sri Lanka OHCHR was on the side of the LTTE. It was not on the side of the government of Sri Lanka. The Commissioner herself was against Sri Lanka. Navaneethan Pillay, UN Commissioner for Human Rights 2008-2014, a South African of Indian Tamil origin took the side of the Eelam fighters. She spoke against the government of Sri Lanka on many occasions. She said that the government of Sri Lanka had perpetrated atrocities in the Eelam war ‘under the guise of fighting terrorism’.

In 2009 after the anti Sri Lanka Resolution had been rejected, at the UNHCR she had called for an independent inquiry into Sri Lanka.  The Algerian envoy had pointed out that the Council had already rejected the call for such an inquiry. She could not challenge this.

In 2012, after the US resolution against Sri Lanka at 19 session of UNHRC at Geneva, was passed an aide at OHCHR, (Mungoven) had emailed that the US victory was a culmination of sustained and determined work over the past few years.’  He had thanked the OCHCR representative in Sri Lanka, (Velko), the Secretary General’s advisory panel, the Special Procedures Branch of the OHCHR and the Special Rapporteur on extra judicial execution.

Sri Lanka representative Tamara Kunanayagam had pointed out that the OHCHR had acted outside its mandate in facilitating the US resolution. OCHCR was playing to the political agenda of the USA and the west. This raised serious doubts about the impartiality of the OHCHR. The OHCHR is bound by the UN Charter to be neutral, she said.

In May 2014, presumably on leave prior to retiring from OHCHR, Navi Pillay appeared at    a US Tamil Sangam’s commemoration event to mark the LTTE’s war and those who were killed. She wore a saree that featured the colors in the LTTE flag. She began her address by announcing that she had brought greetings from the Durban (South African) Tamil Sangam.

At this meeting Navaneethan Pillai said, This memorial event to commentate victims of the final war in Sri Lanka on May 18 in 2009, is a re-enforcement of our commitment to honour the almost 146,000 Tamils perished in the six decades of struggle for self-determination of Tamils in Sri Lanka and reverberations of collective action for justice.

She had made an official visit in 2013. What I saw and heard of the suffering of Tamils in Sri Lanka is worse. The anguish of survivors was dramatic. I saw fresh shallow unmarked graves with limbs and clothing visible abandoned in the sand. That was the point where civilian Tamils who have been shot from air. I saw videos of piles of dead bodies, women naked in several areas. It is an enormous violation of the Tamil women. Tens of thousands were annihilated, not for no other reasons than being Tamil. Such killings constitute international outcry. Sadly, the Tamil minority continues to suffer discrimination.

Last year, the Government of Sri Lanka refused to play the national anthem in Tamil. In past, on Independence Day celebrations it was sung. Last year it was denied. This is one more act of denying the Tamils and their identity. I understand 200 people are in detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. This act violates human rights. The UNHRC appealed to the Sri Lanka government to review it.

 Tamil lands that were seized by military are restored in minuscule portions. Most lands have been still not been returned. Instances of violation of human rights of Tamils are regularly reported to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, she concluded. Sunday Times observed that Navi Pillay was now a champion of LTTE policies and propaganda.

OHCHR dispatched several high ranking officers on fact finding missions to Sri Lanka starting 2006. P. Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial executions and Alan Rock, Special representative of the UN for children in armed conflict came in 2006. John Holmes, UN Under Secretary for humanitarian affairs, Louse Arbour UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Manfred Nowak, the U.N. Special Rapporteur against torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment came in 2007. Pablo de Greiff, Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, and Ben Emmerson, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism” visited Sri Lanka in July 2017.

Ben Emmerson was openly critical and also threatening.  He said that work on the 2015 Resolution seems to have ground to a halt.  There was little evidence that perpetrators of war crimes were being brought to justice. If Sri Lanka failed to meet HRC commitments, the international community could use a range of measures increasing in severity, against Sri Lanka .There comes a point where patience runs out, he said.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, Rita Izsak-Ndiaye visited in 2016. She said ‘Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian leadership’ as the main reason behind minority grievances and Sri Lanka’s ‘long civil war’. She also thought that keeping Article 9 of the Sri Lankan Constitution which refers to the primacy of Buddhism, ‘could lead to further suppression of and discrimination against minority religions and communities’.

Rita Izsak-Ndiaye   brought strong charges against the Buddhist majority for construction of Buddhist places of worship ‘in areas that were traditionally non-Buddhist’. she blamed ‘Buddhist extremists’ for inciting ‘violence and hatred against religious and other minorities while proclaiming the racial superiority of Sinhala Buddhists’.

Asoka Bandarage observed that the widespread destruction of Buddhist places of worship in the island’s north and the east and incidences of aggression, extremism and violence by members of other religious groups towards the Buddhists, however, are not mentioned in Izsak-Ndiaye’s statement.

Sri Lanka has been highly critical of these HRC experts. These experts arrive with fixed ideas on Tamil Separatism and they produce biased reports based on limited surveys of doubtful validity, said G.H.Peiris. They had contact with the LTTE.  Rock had participated in LTTE festivities in Canada.  Louise Arbour met the Bishop of Jaffna and members of civil society in Jaffna. At her request, several such meetings in Colombo and Jaffna were held without the presence of Government or security officials, enabling her to interact freely.

Whenever HRC experts are sent in to review Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka media and analysts demolish their statements while the Tamil Separatist Movement   praises them. The media criticized Emmerson heavily, giving much publicity to his statements. Wijedasa Rajapaksa, then a Cabinet Minister had openly disagreed with Emmerson.

These   visiting groups do not hide their support for the LTTE. UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, reporting to OHCHR arrived in December 2017. They had inspected 30 detention centers and interviews with more than 100 imprisoned persons.  They travelled to Colombo, Negombo, Anuradhapura, Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Polonnaruwa.  

But they were not prepared to visit Commodore D.K.P Dassanayake, held in remand at Welikada, without bail, for six months. ‘He is also an arbitrary detainee, said Dassanayake’s daughter Manjari.  This group came to Sri Lanka to investigate arbitrary detainees. They interviewed LTTE people, but not war heroes, she commented.  

TV news showed one of the Group refusing to accept Manjari’s petition. The others had said they would not come out of the Conference Room till Manjari left. Commodore Dassanayake’s wife said she had to hand over her letter to UN Resident Representative as UN staff refused  to  let her hand it over directly to leader of the Working Group.’ The UN staff had wanted to know, first of all,   whether she represented a missing LTTE cadre.’

The OHCHR badly wishes to establish an OHCHR field office inside Sri Lanka .High Commissioner Louise Arbour had wanted to establish a UN mission to monitor human rights in Sri Lanka in 2007.  This was criticized as a ‘diabolical plan’. The government refused to consider it. It emphatically ruled out the possibility of establishing a OHCHR country office and setting up a field mission in Sri Lanka. The Government, quite rightly, rejected the proposal to set up such a field presence said analysts.

The 2015 UNHRC Resolution 30/1 tried to achieve what Louise Arbour had wanted. It allowed for the establishment of an office which will have the combined function of investigation, monitoring, and governance. It would be a permanent Western presence. This Field Office will also see to the implementation of the 2015 Resolution, going beyond its General Assembly mandate, said Tamara Kunanayagam

If such an Office is established, Washington and London will take over the entire process. The office will become the Trojan Horse that will permit direct US intervention in Sri Lanka, concluded Kunanayagam. Rajiva Wijesinghe, then Secretary-General of the Peace Secretariat, was told not to let the OHCHR into Sri Lanka, because once they come in you cannot get rid of them.

In 2014, UNHRC requested the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to undertake a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka during the period covered by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), with assistance from relevant experts and special procedures mandate holders” and produce a report at its twenty-eighth session.

Instead of commissioning such an inquiry, OHCHR engaged in an inquiry of its own, known as the OISL report.  (2015) This report was heavily criticized. the correct procedure was for the HCR to appoint a three member commission after the resolution is passed in HCR but here the investigation was done by the OHCR itself, said critics. 

On page 250 OISL report has recommend that the Sri Lanka government develop a vetting process to remove form office security force personnel who are believed to have been involved in human rights violations. This is actually a purge of the armed forces.

 On page 252 of this report a specific request is made for member states to investigate and prosecute those allegedly responsible for war   crimes. This is a call for universal jurisdiction.

 Names of important military personnel and units have been mentioned in the report in a manner designed to incriminate and direct investigations. These persons are under grave risk of being arrested in foreign countries for alleged HR violations under universal jurisdiction.

The OISL Report of the OHCHR came up for discussion in Geneva on 30.9.15.  The High Commissioner Zeid Al Hussein said that there are reasonable ground to believe that the Sri Lanka security forces and armed paramilitary forces were implicated in widespread and willful killing of civilians and other protected persons.

 There was also widespread torture by the armed forces Of LTTE members and civilians detained on a mass scale, also rape.  There was repeated shelling of hospitals etc. denial of medical supplies and food. IDPs were deprived of their liberty in camps far beyond what is acceptable in international law, and discriminated against because of their Tamil ethnicity, which may amount to crime against humanity.

 Zeid Al Hussein says that reports suggest the existence of secret and unacknowledged place of detention.  He recommended a hybrid court of international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators to try war crimes and crimes against humanity.   ( continued)

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