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Sri Lanka’s troubles UNHRC: Who digs them up?


2 March 2021 12:08 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}




Last week, the government rejected the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet’s written report on Sri Lanka to the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council, which is currently in progress. 
Dinesh Gunawardene, the foreign minister speaking at the interactive dialogue retorted that the report has ‘unjustifiably broadened its scope and mandate further, incorporating many issues of governance and matters that are essentially domestic for any self-respecting, sovereign country.’

He said it was a complete violation of Article 2 (7) of the Charter of the UN that states: “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state…”

Sri Lanka is right to rile at the office of the UN High commissioner for Human Rights, which is more or less a holdout of anti-Sri Lankan propaganda. This report of Ms. Bachelet could well be passed off as a work of South African Yasmin Sooka’s Truth and Justice Project, a Diaspora- funded advocacy project,  and vice versa.
A Sri Lankan government that is accountable for its own people could well dismiss this as partisan garbage, and even a more forthright one, closes the shop, on the ground of repeated bias and prejudice. 

It might even become less convincing for the governments of most countries ( though not necessarily for the core- group that had tabled another resolution on Sri Lanka)  if Ms. Bachelet or Sooka keeps harping on the dead terrorists who perished in an alleged White-flag incident 10 years ago. 

Sri Lanka does not need to apologize for defeating a ruthless terrorist group. Nor should it give a consolation prize for the remnants of terrorists and their global network for losing the war.

A decade since the end of the war, Sri Lanka should be able to move forward and leave the past behind. If needed and to smoothen the post-war transition, introduce immunity clauses to the domestic law ( like Ms. Bachelet’s Chile did after the end of the rule of Augusto Pinochet, a murderous but modernizing dictator, whose economic policies were the catalyst of Chile’s transition to a free-market economic success story). 

Alas, instead of leaving the past behind, this government has been stirring it up and wallowing in it like a buffalo in the mud. It has created new grievances and justifiable concerns. As a result, it is not just the past, but more alarmingly, the warning signs of the future, that should worry the folks at home and abroad.

In this light, Ms. Bachelet herself has a case. She noted, “The independence of the judiciary, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, the National Police Commission and other key bodies has been deeply eroded by the recently adopted 20th Constitutional Amendment.”

“The growing militarization of key civilian functions is encroaching on democratic governance. The continued failure to implement comprehensive reforms – or to vet personnel – leaves in place security and military officers who have been implicated in alleged grave crimes and violations.”

Similar concerns are highlighted in the resolution on Sri Lanka submitted by the UK on behalf of the core group on Sri Lanka. Voting on the resolution will take place in the afternoon of Monday, March 22.

The operating Para 7 of the draft resolution, expresses “…serious concern over emerging trends over the past year, which represent clear early warning signs of a deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka, including the accelerating militarization of civilian government functions, erosion of the independence of the judiciary and key institutions responsible for the promotion and protection of human rights, ongoing impunity and political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations in “emblematic cases”, policies that adversely affect the right to freedom of religion or belief, surveillance and intimidation of civil society and shrinking democratic space, arbitrary detentions, allegations of torture and other cruel, inhuman degrading treatment or punishment and sexual and gender based violence, and that these trends threaten to reverse the limited but important gains made in recent years and risk the recurrence of policies and practices that gave rise to the grave violations of the past…”
While foreign Minister Gunawardene may view these concerns, as having unduly broadened the scope of the UN Rights Commissioner on essentially domestic matters that is not exactly the case.

In the first place, sovereign quality, the much-avowed principle in international law, -that all states are equal before the law and domestic behaviour towards citizens and residents is of no business to other states – is not absolute. Though whether the concerns in the trajectory of events in Sri Lanka warrant a pro-active international role is a different question.  

It takes a great deal for the ruin of a nation, so does, for the ruin of its democratic structures. After a brief experiment in strengthening the democratic fabric of the state by its predecessor, the incumbent is in the process of undermining it. The UN rights commissioner cannot be faulted for pinpointing them. 

The current troubles are the government’s own making. It has had made Sri Lanka weaker abroad and divided at home. Paradoxically though these thinly brained policies were introduced in the name of national interest.
The 20th amendment is a test case. It concentrated the powers of the state, for yet another time in the hands of the President, and eroded the independence of the independent institutions.  As a result, Sri Lanka and its institutions are less trusted abroad, and locally. This in the long term would justify international war 
crime investigations.

 As for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has the 20th amendment made him a more palatable leader in the democratic world? 

The militarization of the state is another. It might be what the President - who spent his formative years in the military - considers as the solution to the inefficiency and the red tape in the government services. But, had his military appointees made things different, other than demoralizing a civilian bureaucracy. The solution to the ills in the government service lies in the retraining, restructuring and possibly hiring from the cooperate sector. Instead, by filling the top positions with the retired and serving military officials, the president has put the country on a slippery path that Pakistan took in the 1950s.  The already weakened constitutional safeguards of checks and balances- make Sri Lanka further vulnerable.

Then there was the right royal buffoonery over the mandatory cremation of Covid-19 fatalities, which targeted the Muslims. Last week, the government finally revoked the ban on burials, issuing a gazette extraordinaire, permitting both the burial and cremation.  The timing of the decision - on the eve of the UNHRC sessions and after the visit by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan - betrayed the conspicuous lack of empathy by the government towards its own people. The minorities had to wait for a visit by the next big shot to win their basic right.

Last, but not least, the country could have been spared of much of the negative publicity, had not the government opened a proverbial can of worms, by withdrawing the co-sponsorship of the previous UNHRC resolution which was backed by its predecessor, who though incompetent in marketing itself domestically, did well so, internationally. As the government confronts international censure in the coming weeks in Geneva, it should ask whose fault is this?  It cannot blame anyone, but itself.

Follow @RangaJayasuriya on Twitter 

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