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UNHRC: An acid test for Lankan diplomacy


20 February 2021 01:36 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The government seems to have given up hopes of adopting a consensual resolution with the Core Group which has been preparing a resolution on Sri Lanka at the next session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) which is to begin on Monday. 

In fact agreeing upon a consensual resolution which seems to be not different from a co-sponsored resolution is a difficult task as what the Core Group wants and what the Sri Lankan government wants is diametrically opposite. The Core group is firm in making the Sri Lankan authorities accountable for war crimes allegedly committed during the separatist war in Sri Lanka while the Sri Lankan government expects the same authorities to be exonerated from the said allegations.

The government leaders feed the domestic audience with additional allegations against the Western powers that are pushing forward these resolutions and the recommendations of the High Commissioner’s report

Thus, it is likely that the Core Group would proceed with its plan to adopt a resolution on Sri Lanka at the forthcoming UNHRC session without the support or consent of the island nation. Except for the three resolutions co-sponsored by the previous United National Party (UNP) led government and the one that was initiated by Sri Lanka in 2009 all resolutions on the country were rejected by the country. 

The reasons for the government’s decision to reject the resolutions or the report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights are not totally unfounded. Government has always been accusing that the resolutions and the reports have been selective and a threat to the sovereignty of the country. The selectivity is vividly clear when the response of Western countries to the allegations of human rights violations against countries like Israel are compared with those against Sri Lanka.

For instance, during the March 2012 sessions of the UNHRC two resolutions on both Sri Lanka and Israel were presented. The US that moved the resolution on Sri Lanka, single handedly opposed another resolution that was meant for the protection of human rights of the Palestinian people on the same day. In another development, a day before the US resolution on Sri Lanka was taken up for voting at the UNHRC, the then Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul called on the United States to launch a “swift and transparent” investigation into the involvement of the American forces in Quran burning and the massacre of Afghan civilians. Yet, it was put aside.

The government leaders feed the domestic audience with additional allegations against the Western powers that are pushing forward these resolutions and the recommendations of the High Commissioner’s report.  In a recent televised discussion government representatives explained with graphic details how these very powerful countries violate human rights in their own countries and other countries while turning a blind eye to such crimes committed by their allies. 

It was said that 9,000 Iraqi soldiers who were in trenches were buried alive by the US forces during the first Gulf War in Iraq in 1991. The Western powers cannot absolve their responsibility for the chemical weapon attack in March, 1988 at Halabjain in Iraq where between 3,200 and 5,000 Kurdish people were killed while injuring 7,000 to 10,000 more and for the current situation in Syria or Yemen. It was said that more than 500,000 Iraqi children have died of malnutrition due to the economic sanctions against the Saddam Hussain regime by Western powers after the first Gulf War, which was prompted by the economic interests of these powers. 

However, these allegations against the powerful nations could be seen by other countries as an attempt to justify the allegation of human rights against the armed forces and the other authorities in Sri Lanka. On the other hand, these arguments would only help rouse the nationalistic sentiments of Sri Lankans which might in turn help the ruling party at elections. They would not help prevent the powerful countries from pursuing Sri Lanka in the field of human rights. 

Despite the claims by government representatives that the country rejects the UNHRC resolutions, in a practical sense their recommendations are being followed up, to some extent. One of the three operational clauses of the 2012 resolution required the country to present a comprehensive action plan detailing the steps the Government has taken and will take to implement the recommendations of Sri Lanka’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and also to address alleged violations of international law.The then Foreign Minister in fact obliged and presented an action plan. 

In spite of the government’s denial of people having gone missing during the last phase of the war against the LTTE, it appointed a commission on missing persons (The Maxwell Paranagama Commission) in 2013. The commission received over 19,000 complaints on alleged disappearances. Later the government appointed three foreign advisors to the Paranagama commission and gave it another mandate to investigate into the loss of civilian lives during the last phase of the war. It is obvious that the government would not have taken these actions unless it was pressured by the UNHRC resolutions which it rejected. 

Similarly, the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government last year withdrew the co-sponsorship of three resolutions during the previous UNP-led regime. Yet, Foreign Relations Minister Dinesh Gunawardena told the UNHRC on February 27 last year that the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) and the Office of Reparations (OR) which were direct results of the 2015 resolution will be continued. Besides, the minister assured that a Commission of Inquiry (COI), headed by a Justice of the Supreme Court, will be appointed to review the reports of previous Sri Lankan COIs which investigated alleged violations of Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law (IHL), to assess the status of the implementation of their recommendations and to propose measures to implement them.

The basic demand by the UNHRC since 2012 has been the implementation of the recommendations made by the LLRC. And the Minister assured that the government would appoint a new commission to assess the status of implementation of the recommendations of past commissions including the LLRC, and to implement them. Accordingly, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on January 22 appointed a three-member Commission of Inquiry headed by Supreme Court Judge A.H.M.D. Nawaz for this purpose. Then what is the meaning of rejecting the resolutions?

However, we strongly question the morality of the actions of the world powers in respect of human rights, by slowly tightening the noose. It was a demand to implement the recommendations of the LLRC in 2021. Then they have been adding post-war Human rights violations such as the Rathupaswala shooting and the killings in the Welikada Prison to the alleged wartime violations. 

In 2014 the then Human Rights High Commissioner Navanethem Pillay appointed a group of investigators to probe the human rights violations in Sri Lanka. The investigators had analysed the evidence they had gathered and submitted an overall picture of trends of human rights violations. A plethora of atrocities allegedly committed both by the armed forces and the LTTE during the war had been included in their report. 

As was the case with the past UNHRC resolutions,this year’s resolution too would be based on the report presented by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet days ago.The report had recommended to “take steps towards the referral of the situation in Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court” while requesting, as done earlier in 2019, to “actively pursue investigations and prosecutions of international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka before their own national courts.” Accordingly, a Sri Lankan man was sentenced last year to six years and ten months in jail, in connection with the killing of former Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in 2005.

It is against this backdrop that the government has to plan its engagements with the UNHRC and the leaders of the powerful nations.

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