COLOMBO // Hundreds of supporters of a nationalist group led by a firebrand government minister marched to the United Nations headquarters in Colombo yesterday protesting at the appointment of a UN panel to review Sri Lanka's human rights record. Soldiers and police stood guard as some 500 supporters led by the housing minister, Wimal Weerawansa, a member of the National Freedom Front, shouted slogans and demanded that the UN panel be dismantled. An effigy of the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, was also set on fire.
Speaking yesterday, an opposition legislator accused the government of resorting to a "ducks and drakes" foreign policy. "What is this policy? One part of the government attacks the UN and another section says that [section] reflects a private view and not that of the [entire] government," Ravi Karunanayake, an MP for the United National Party said by telephone. "This is a joke. If all the 40 ministers express their private view, then we won't have a government."
Officially, Sri Lanka has opposed the UN panel, saying it is unwarranted and has refused visas to the three-member team. Yesterday's protest was called for by Mr Weerawansa last week in a press conference in which he urged the public to storm the UN office and take the staff hostage until the investigative panel is withdrawn. Immediately thereafter the government distanced itself from his remarks, saying they were the minister's personal views.
Earlier, police and the military made no attempt to disperse the protesters who had erected a tent outside the UN gate and refused to budge until there were assurances that the panel would be scrapped. The protesters have threatened to take the staff hostage if no action is forthcoming. Mr Weerawansa told reporters at the scene that the UN has no right to interfere in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka.
Later in the evening, three protesters jumped over the wall into the compound but were removed by police, who also created a passage for the UN staffers, including foreigners, to leave the building in a convoy of vehicles. No one was injured or harmed. Kusal Perera, a political columnist for the Sunday Leader, a Colombo-based weekly newspaper, described the protest as a criminal act that marked the first time a Sri Lankan government has resorted to laying siege to a UN office.
"The government says it is maintaining law and order; so what is it doing?" he asked. Hostage taking is barred under a 2000 law titled the Prevention of Hostage Taking Act. Since the end of the Tamil rebel conflict in May 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been juggling the country's foreign affairs policy, first refusing to allow senior officials from the US and the UN to enter the country to investigate possible war crimes, and later relenting.
The European Union on Monday confirmed Sri Lanka would lose access to its preferential trade access next month after Colombo refused to make written pledges to improve its human rights record. Mr Rajapaksa, often combative against the West and the UN over their demands for a war crimes tribunal, last week dismissed the EU's ultimatum, saying Sri Lanka does not need concessions with conditions. Perera, the columnist, said the government was worried about the UN panel documenting possible abuses.
Dayan Jayatilleka, a former Sri Lankan ambassador and permanent representative at the UN in Geneva, said foreign policy cannot be made in the street and diplomacy - including public diplomacy - cannot be conducted on the street or sidewalk by mobs. "Such a demonstration is against Sri Lanka's national interest because it will bring us enormously adverse global publicity and put us on a collision course with the United Nations," he said.