Sri Lanka’s third showdown at UNHRC
by R Hariharan on 07 Mar 2014 1 Comment

Sri Lanka will face the flak at the 25th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for the third time this week when the US fields its draft resolution on Sri Lanka’s accountability over its conduct during and after the Eelam War. US Secretary of State John Kerry spoke of his country’s keenness to do so as the Sri Lanka government “still has not answered basic demands for accountability and reconciliation, where attacks on civil society activists, journalists, and religious minorities sadly, continue.” His comments came after he released the State Department’s annual human rights report for 2013.


He was echoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navneetham Pillay’s rationale for recommending an international inquiry into war crimes committed by both sides during the Eelam War in her draft report released on February 24, 2014.

[The advance edited version of her draft report submitted to the UNHRC is available at - 94k - 2014-02-24 –  ]


Ms Pillay in her report has put forth powerful arguments to support her recommendations for an impartial international inquiry by including a complete section on “Recent human rights developments” which explains a whole range of concern at the continuing trend in Sri Lanka. These include attacks on freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, particularly against human rights defenders, journalists and families of victims, the rising levels of religious intolerance, and continued militarization. According to her these developments have continued to undermine the environment where accountability and reconciliation could be achieved.


The Secretary of State explaining the US stand said, “Our concern about this ongoing situation has led the United States to support another UN Human Rights Council resolution at the March session. We will do so because we know countries that deny human rights and human dignity challenge our interests as well as human interests. But we also know countries that advance those values, those countries that embrace these rights are countries that actually create opportunities.”


UN member nations are usually reluctant to vote for country specific resolutions demanding international probes into internal issues. Usually democratic nations generally have domestic mechanisms to carry out such tasks. Sri Lanka as a functional democracy with all the trappings of good governance would normally be considered as one such country. Apart from issues of real politick, this was one reason that the UNHCR’s two earlier resolutions gave opportunities to Sri Lanka to assume responsibility and implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report.


But Sri Lanka due to lack of sensitivity to the international environment has failed to live up to the international community’s expectations. So the US moves to haul up Sri Lanka before the UNHRC comes as no surprise. The US in tandem with the UK had been monitoring the progress made by Sri Lanka since the UNHCR passed the last resolution. They had kept Sri Lanka informed of their continued concerns at the tardy implementation. Both countries had also given sufficient notice to Sri Lanka of their intention to bring a resolution on Sri Lanka for the third time at the UNHCR session in March resolutions. Ms Pillay had also spoken about her intention to seek an international inquiry more than once, particularly after her visit to Sri Lanka in August 2012.


The UNHRC has 47 member-nations elected by the UN General Assembly on a rotational three-year term representing five geographical groups – Africa-13, Asia-13, Eastern Europe-6, Latin America & the Caribbean -8, and Western European and Other states-7.


At present the Asian group includes Bahrain, Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Philippines, Saudi Arabia and South Korea. Most of them would probably vote against the US draft. On the other hand, most of the Western European group and the Latin American group (barring Cuba) are likely to vote for it, a few countries might abstain. So the African group’s voting becomes crucial to decide the fate of the resolution. 


Among the doubtful supporters of the US resolution are Australia and Japan. According to Australian media, the Tony Abbot government does not seem to be inclined to support it as Sri Lanka had been cooperating with Australia in preventing illegal human traffic from Sri Lanka coast. Japan also could abstain as it had been averse to international interference in Sri Lanka’s process; it wants to help the country to improve it. But will this hold against its strategic ally the US’ pressure? Among other major powers, China and Russia have declared their opposition to a resolution against Sri Lanka.


Though Sri Lanka had been lobbying vigorously with the UNHRC members against the resolution, it seems to be in a tight corner as President Rajapaksa has chosen to continue with his inflexible stand that all issues highlighted by the various resolutions and reports at the UNHRC on Sri Lanka are conspiracies to defame Sri Lanka.


President Rajapaksa tried to put on a brave face at the Foreign Correspondents Association (FCA) a few days ago, though he admitted being “uncomfortable with the whole situation”. However, while addressing a public meeting he tried to trivialise it. The Geneva issue was not something to be concerned about, it was “still a headache.” He found consolation in the fact that countries like Israel and Cuba had faced so many resolutions and were “yet not shaken while Sri Lanka has faced just three resolutions.”


He has continued with his pet refrain that some countries were attempting to use resolutions to “destabilize” Sri Lanka. In spite of all this bravado, the truth is Sri Lanka’s ‘human rights baggage’ will only grow if he delays positive action any more. This is evident from Ms Pillay’s present and past reports.


Internally it is likely to increase ethnic friction. This would make the resumption of the process of ethnic reconciliation even more difficult. Already the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) has passed a resolution in support of the UN High Commissioner’s report and wants an international enquiry under the UN auspices. This has angered the President; his knee jerk reaction to haul up some of the  Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leaders before law for their links with the LTTE in the past will only harden the TNA, which is still politically strong, whether he likes it or not. 


There is growing disaffection among the Muslim minority over the government’s continued inaction against repeated attacks by Buddhist extremists on Muslim establishments. This came to the fore when the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), a partner of the ruling UPFA coalition, submitted a report on attacks against Muslims to Ms Pillay during her last visit to Sri Lanka.


The President’s attitude to the SLMC action was typical.  He accused Minister Rauf Hakeem of SLMC of “betraying the country” when he heard of allegations that the SLMC had been lobbying with West Asian countries over attacks on Muslims in Sri Lanka. The Christian community has not fared any better. Rajapaksa wants such complaints to be kept “in house” to be dealt not by the government but by the majority community.


So it is not surprising that Sri Lanka government rejected Ms Pillay’s report outright. It said the report had not given adequate attention to the domestic processes ongoing in Sri Lanka within the framework of the LLRC recommendations. It branded the report as “politicized in premise" and called the recommendations as arbitrary and intrusive.

[Detailed comments of Sri Lanka’s permanent mission at the UN on the draft report are available at]


India is going to have a difficult role to play when Sri Lanka is hauled up before the UNHCR all over again as its manoeuvring space appears to have reduced further. Moreover, India had set a precedent by voting for the two earlier resolutions. Though India’s stand has not been made public, India’s Minister of External Affairs Salman Khurshid is reported to have told his Sri Lanka counterpart that India would be voting for the US draft, as it did earlier. So Sri Lanka will probably ask India’s help in getting the resolution toned down.


However this may not be possible as India has both diplomatic and internal issues in obliging Sri Lanka. In fact Sri Lanka’s continued intransigence has made it difficult for India to support it. India may not be able to ward off American pressure also. So New Delhi is likely to go by the earlier precedence and vote for the US resolution.


This makes sense if we consider the internal compulsions of the Congress party as it faces bleak prospects at the parliamentary elections in a few weeks. The Sri Lanka war crimes issue has become a major political controversy in Tamil Nadu in the cat fight between the two major Dravidian parties. The DMK in an opportunistic move has deserted the Congress Party - its long time partner – in the state. A vote for the US resolution could be one of the last ditch efforts to save the Congress party’s face in the State.


The saving grace is that President Rajapaksa seems to understand New Delhi’s problems. Answering a pointed question during his FCA interaction on India he is reported to have said: “You must remember they [India] are facing elections and have to listen to the electorate, think about the future. Last time they voted against us, this time we don’t know yet. But we understand them.” But that does not help Sri Lanka.


What should Sri Lanka be doing to get things right? At present Sri Lanka should consider what it should not be doing. It has to take positive action. In an interesting interaction with a delegation of Sri Lankan journalists in New Delhi, the Indian External Affairs Minister explained the Indian perspective on various aspects connected with Sri Lanka’s approach to the ethnic reconciliation process and the war crimes allegations. According to Sri Lankan media, he listed out a few things for Sri Lanka to ponder.


-   No isolation: Sri Lanka should not isolate itself from the world and find ways to communicate its ‘compulsions and limitations’ and find a greater understanding with the world. He stressed that accountability and justice are now more pervasive in the world than before as the world is increasingly interconnected and open.


-        Show commitment first: “For India to help Sri Lanka in Geneva, Sri Lanka should address local concerns so that India would be able to lobby on behalf of Sri Lanka. For us to help, you should be doing things that we would be able to tell the world.”


-        Ego: He advised that ego should not be allowed to get in the way: He advocated a much saner approach “in contrast to the local proclivity to slander the visiting UN and US officials.


-        Sensitivity: Sri Lanka should not be too sensitive and the world should not be over-reactive. He referred to the government orchestrated demonstrations against the US and the UN in Colombo when the resolution was brought before the UNHRC earlier. Rights activists and journalists were subjected to character assassination.   


It is an irony that Sri Lanka, which proclaims it has liberated the people from three decades of LTTE tyranny after the humanitarian war, is now facing flak at the UN forum on allegations of war crimes and continuing human rights violations. President Rajapaksa has to seriously introspect on the shortcomings of his present approach. Though he may be averse to listen to ‘the Big Brother’ India’s counsel (as given by its foreign minister) it could help to take Sri Lanka back from the brink. But will he? If we go by Sri Lanka’s attitude to things ‘foreign’ I find it difficult to answer with ‘aye.’

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