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UNHRC: Politicisation of human rights

16 September 2022 05:43 am - 5     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


A general view during the opening day of the 51st session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on September 12. (Pic by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP)


Sri Lanka is being once again pilloried at the United Nations Human Rights Council for alleged war crimes during the last stages of the separatist war in 2009. But the question is: which of the council’s 43 member-states is sinless to cast the first stone at Sri Lanka? None. 

The council is not a court comprising independent experts or jurists. It is a politicised body where nations, more often than not, make use of it to vilify other nations with the aim of achieving their political objectives. Their contribution to the council’s mandate -- “universal respect for the protection of all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all” -- is tainted with national interest objectives. 

Almost all international bodies suffer from politicisation. Take, for instance, the International Monetary Fund, a UN body. However independent it claims to be, there is much politics in the disbursement of funds, with western nations wielding a bigger clout in the IMF’s decision-making process.
Similarly, UNHRC sessions often take the form of more a political platform than an international human rights tribunal. 

At the UNHRC, delegates are responsible and accountable to their respective governments – not to the council. They act on the advice of their government leaders whose primary focus is preserving and improving their domestic power bases, with the next election in mind. Some western nations which have ganged up at the UNHRC to form a core group against Sri Lanka speak for the victims of Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes to appease the Tamil Diaspora vote block.

At the UNHRC sessions this week, India reiterated that Sri Lanka should implement fully the 13th Amendment and ensure meaningful devolution of power to the provincial administrations. China made use of the UNHRC platform to convey a subtle warning to those nations which frown upon its larger-than-life presence in Sri Lanka’s strategic locations. It’s all politics, stupid. 

The UNHRC is paralysed by politicisation. The council usually shies away from human rights violations by big powers. During the current session, the council is under heavy pressure from western nations to deal with China over allegations that it persecutes the Uighur Muslims in its Xinjiang province and Russia over allegations of war crimes in territories it has occupied in Ukraine.  Russia was thrown out of the council earlier this year by a UN General Assembly vote following its invasion of Ukraine.  The outgoing Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet issued last week the long-delayed Xinjiang report. However, it is unlikely the council will have the courage to adopt measures similar to those regarding Sri Lanka and pass a resolution, calling on China, the world’s soon-to-be number one power, to allow foreign judges or investigators to probe human rights violations in Xinjiang. 
Due to politicisation, often the UNHRC sessions erupt into a war of words between rival nations – between accusers and defenders. During the council sessions, nations compete with each other to take the moral high ground and portray themselves as the world’s human rights protectors, although their cupboards are full of skeletons. In fact, the UNHRC session speeches offer big powers a fig leaf to cover their nakedness. When the core of group of nations accuses Sri Lanka of committing war crimes, one wonders how these Lanka-bashing nations sit in judgment when they themselves are the world’s biggest human rights violators. 

If extrajudicial killing and torture are war crimes for Sri Lanka, they should also be so for other nations, especially big powers which are expected to maintain an exemplary human rights record. Agree that the Human Rights Commissioner does mention violations by big powers in regular reports.  But it is a serious indictment on the office of the human rights commissioner when there is no movement in the direction of presenting resolutions condemning extrajudicial killings the US carried out in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and other places, the torture the US troops committed in Afghanistan and Iraq, and rendition flights by which Washington outsourced the interrogation of terror suspects to countries known as dreaded torturers. 

One explanation for the lack of action is that the council is satisfied with the US position that it has a domestic mechanism to deal with allegations of war crimes and human rights violations. But the high commissioners in deference to big powers have not raised the inadequacy of such mechanisms and the US attempts to hide serious violations. Some of these serious violations would not have been known if WikiLeaks had not exposed them. 
The council was set up in 2006 after its predecessor, the UN Human Rights Commission, was dissolved following criticism that it was heavily politicised and, therefore, incapable of dealing with serious human rights violations. The council saw its birth in the post-Cold War global hope for a world order that would uphold democracy, justice, and human rights. One of the outcomes of this positive movement towards a just global order was the adoption in 1998 of the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court to try and punish those who commit crimes against humanity. The US was only among the seven countries – along with China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar, and Yemen – that voted against the Rome Statute.  Although President Bill Clinton eventually signed the Rome Statute in 2000, neither he nor the presidents who succeeded him did submit the treaty to the Senate for ratification. The reason: The US felt universal war crimes jurisdiction would stand against its national interest objectives.
The US faced the ignominy of not being elected to the UNHRC’s first set of members in 2006, for, many states, including some of its allies, felt that the George W Bush administration’s human rights violations were unimaginably appalling for a democracy. 

Snubbed, the Bush administration shunned the UN body, saying it did not need to be scolded by countries such as Syria and Cuba whose own records on human rights were poor. It also accused the council of being biased against Israel, which is emboldened to commit human rights violations and war crimes due to Washington’s blind and servile patronage. Though the US gained council membership during the presidency of Barack Obama, President Donald Trump withdrew the US membership, calling the council a “cesspool of political bias” that targets Israel in particular while ignoring atrocities in other countries. 

The US reentered the council under the present president, Joe Biden, whose administration has no qualms over resorting to economic sanctions that have seriously undermined the people’s right to life not only in sanction-hit countries such as Cuba and Iran but also the world over. The sanctions on Russia have shot up world energy and food prices, affecting largely the poorest of the poor, especially in countries hit by economic crises, Sri Lanka included.

True, there needs to be an institutionalised international mechanism to protect the weak and the vulnerable from states resorting to state terrorism and genocidal measures. But the question is whether a highly politicised body such as the UNHRC is competent enough to be up to the task. As long as national-interest-driven global order exists, the politicisation of human rights will remain.

  Comments - 5

  • Raja Rajavannian Friday, 16 September 2022 08:04 AM

    Good article! It appears that the writer agrees that the vulnerable should be protected from state terrorism and genocide. Therefore if there is evidence that these atrocity crimes have been committed, then there must be an investigation to send the criminals to prison. However, if the highly corrupt state refuses an investigation by the UNHRC or any other international body then what you do? In the case of Sri Lanka, the country is in a precarious situation. The so called corrupt states like the US, western countries and India can make use of this vulnerable position and hit us where it hurts most mainly for their Geo-political purposes. We cannot blame them because everyone wants to know 'what's in it for us?'. We have to take the begging bowl to friendly nation China. Sometimes friendly countries have their own hidden agenda. The President has to bite the bullet and allow an international investigation instead of trying to protect partners in crime for the good of the country.

    sammy cooper Friday, 16 September 2022 09:53 AM

    The writer seems to have an axe to grind against the U.S. This is conspicuous in him blaming the U.S. for violations in Yemen and not Saudia Arabia. A more pertinent question is why nations are still participating in the UNHRC or the UN for that matter if what the writer says is true?

    navaratne willamune Friday, 16 September 2022 03:53 PM

    unhcr is a tool of the west to achieve its global political .objectives,people who inflic cted untold damage ,and loss of life to people go un punised

    Kapila Fernando Sunday, 18 September 2022 10:36 AM

    Mr. Izzadeen is only able to write completely biased anti Western articles and probably has never left Sri Lanka in his life and never interviewed Western intelectuals.

    Chan Sen Sunday, 18 September 2022 04:45 PM

    30 yrs of war in SL, brought misery to her people and armed forces, with tens of thousands of people losing their lives and limbs. Why aren't those atrocities addressed in UNHCR? The Tamil diaspora continues to agitate on Human Rights, driving SL economy to the ground, as their anger and disappointment of not being able to win the Terrorist war they funded, is more than the love for the future of the country and its people who are living in poverty, including their very own kind. They never cared for the child soldiers and disruption of their education and future of nearly 2-3 generations! This should be a bigger crime they have committed, of once highly respected, educated, studious, disciplined, and intelligent race that the British was fond of. They have caused more long term harm, to their own kind. To me, SL has not played their cards right, in addressing this issue, and has allowed the international media to exaggerate one aspect of a brutal war.

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