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Government’s self-inflicted misfortune at the UNHRC

2 February 2021 12:08 am - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


  • Ms. Bachelet’s report is unusually blunt. It’s a cut and paste job of Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, etc, probably with some input from types of transnational govt. of Tamil Eelam and likeminded groups
  • It’s not clear how far the European Nations (plus Joe Biden’s America, which has announced returning to the UNHRC) would like to go to address the GoSL’s concerns

Sri Lanka is heading towards a major showdown at the UN Human Rights Council, and that is a fight the country is bound to lose. Its implications would not necessarily be immediate but would be pestering the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Administration for the rest of its term. One thing is all clear. President Rajapaksa would soon begin where his elder brother left off.  That is not any sort of achievement.

Last week, UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet released her report on Sri Lanka which she will present to the upcoming UN Human Rights Council session that begins on February 22. She was asked to submit the report by the member states in a previous Human Rights Council Resolution (40/1) that the former government of Yahapalanaya cosponsored with the Core-group of countries on Sri Lanka.  The new administration withdrew the co-sponsorship February, last year.

Ms. Bachelet’s report is unusually blunt. It smacks much less of diplomatic communication, but a cut and paste job of Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, etc, probably with some input from types of Transnational government of Tamil Eelam and likeminded groups.

That has disturbed the government, which harboured usual misgivings that it is in control of things. Ms. Bachelet and her office had escalated campaign, which is also on social media. The core- group of countries on Sri Lanka is finalizing a resolution, which in its draft resolution ‘hint at possibilities of individual countries devising their own mechanisms to deal with the perpetrators of these alleged crimes’, echoing the recommendations of the UN Rights Commissioner.  

Though there are overtures for a consensus resolution, it is unlikely that the current administration could agree for one, without losing its face.  Also not clear is how far the European Nations (plus Joe Biden’s America, which has announced returning to the UNHRC) would like to go to address the Sri Lankan government’s concerns. 
In her report, Ms. Bachelet, a former Chilean President whose father, a former military officer was tortured to death by the military Junta of Augusto Pinochet, recommends that the member states  ‘investigate and prosecute international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka through judicial proceedings in domestic jurisdictions, including under accepted principles of extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction; and explore targeted sanctions such as travel bans and asset freeze against perpetrators of human rights violations in Sri Lanka. 

She calls on strict vetting on Sri Lankan military personnel in UN Peace Keeping Assignments and military training programmes. 

For the government of Sri Lanka, she has a host of recommendations, including, rather an offensive call to ‘publicly issue unequivocal instructions to all branches of the military, intelligence and police forces that torture, sexual violence and other human rights violations are prohibited and will be systematically investigated and punished.’ 
 There is no hiding of both the concern and contempt in her report. She notes though the predecessors of the current government made some notable, yet still inadequate gains, developments since November 2019 (in other words since the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa), have ‘reversed that direction and, instead, threaten a return to patterns of discrimination and widespread violations of human rights experienced in past decades.’
She outlines six broader areas of concern: I) militarization of civilian government functions; II) reversal of Constitutional safeguards including the passage of the 20th Amendment; III) political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations such as the presidential commission of ‘political victimization’ which has intervened on behalf of a number of military officers implicated in gross human rights violations, including the killing of Lasantha Wickrematunga, abduction of Prageeth Ekneligoda, and the naval officers implicated in ransom induced abductions and murder of Tamil youth in Trincomalee; IV) majoritarian and exclusionary rhetoric; v) surveillance and obstruction of civil society and shrinking democratic space; and vi) new and exacerbated human rights concerns.  

The working partnership between the office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner and the Tamil diaspora groups, some were made of former affiliates and associates of the LTTE’s global network is well known. That might have made it possible for a government of a different kind to dismiss her claims over the final phase of the conflict as a partisan hatchet job.  But, this government is not that one. It has skeletons in the closet. Most states and leaders would read into the convergence of liberal democratic values of their peers and other states when making judgements.

 As I wrote during the beginning of this administration, it suffered from an image problem from the very outset, an inheritance from the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. Add to that the faltering of the democratic framework in the country makes it less likely to be taken as sincere by the civilized nations.

And it has made its posture among the international community progressively weak by the concentration of power through the 20th amendment. The militarization of the civilian bureaucracy and majoritarian rhetoric made it further untenable. The foreign minister has retorted that certain other countries also have an overdose of military officials running civilian departments. Yes, there are. Donald Trump himself had a knack to hire military men to hold top positions, in part to appease his White nationalist crowd. However, the sway of the institutions of America and Sri Lanka is worlds apart, and President Rajapaksa made them weaker by the 20th Amendment.

Granted that his government had not reverted to a full re-enactment of the glory days of 2010-2015 when white vans roamed and prisoners jumped to rivers with handcuffs on.  However, current developments are a cause for concern, and if they persist, would make Sri Lanka a loathsome place to live. 

The trigger of the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s salvo, nonetheless, is this government’s own making. It withdrew the UN Human Rights Resolution 30/1 which its predecessor co-sponsored in 2015, and two rollover resolutions, which were also co-sponsored by the Yahapalanaya.

By co-sponsoring the UNHRC resolution, the then government effectively managed to control the narrative. The UN Human Right Council ceased to be a major seasonal distraction in Sri Lankan government policy as it was under the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime.  This government for no apparent rational reason, choose to withdrew from the resolution. It was playing to its nationalist electorate at home. The consequences of that monumental folly would be dictating its foreign policy in the coming years.

It is not clear how the government would climb out of the hole it put itself in. There are multiple dangers in the government’s predicament. The elder brother Mahinda shunned by the world community opted to capitalize on the government’s woes at the UNHRC, and used them for domestic political mobilization. That could be the ultimate desperate choice of his brother’s as well. 

Follow @RangaJayasuriya on Twitter 

  Comments - 1

  • Bernard Tuesday, 02 February 2021 04:46 PM

    By withrawing from the U.N. Human Rights Resolution 30/1 the current government is showing to the global community it is averse to be questioned on Human Rights issues but its membership intact.

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