Another US sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka – the second in 12 months – was passed recently at the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva. Twenty-five countries voted in favor of the resolution and 13 voted against it. There were 8 abstentions. Importantly, the resolution also had 41 cosponsors.
This resolution is similar to the one that was passed in March 2012. It calls on the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) to implement the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) recommendations and to address the (very credible) allegations of international humanitarian and human rights law which occurred during the civil war’s final phase. And, like the previous one, this resolution encourages GoSL to work with the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to fulfill these objectives.
The resolution also calls for OHCHR to present an “oral update” at the HRC’s 24th session which is to be followed by a “discussion” of the implementation of the resolution at the HRC’s 25th session. It’s good that the US was able to get something through the HRC again, but this doesn’t look like a resolution with teeth. Rather, the entire process looks like a holding pattern.
Just like last year, India voted in favor of a resolution that it had worked diligently to water down – in spite of all the drama in Tamil Nadu and DMK’s departure from the UPA government.
In a direct response to political pressure from Chennai, India did attempt to bring forth seven amendments which would have made the resolution stronger. Not surprisingly, the US rejected all of them.
At venues like the HRC, there is usually an inherent tension between a resolution’s strength and its ability to get a wide backing from a range of countries. (In spite of Sri Lanka’s deplorable human rights right record and nearly complete noncompliance with the previous resolution (19/2) – getting a strong resolution through the HRC this time would have been much more difficult, if not impossible).
Yet, in spite of another diplomatic marker condemning the autocratic Rajapaksa administration, it remains to be seen whether this type of pressure will force the regime to change its behavior.
The passage of this resolution is a clear sign that the international community is not buying the GoSL’s inaccurate story about the progress the country has made post-war. Yes, there has been progress when it comes to infrastructure and economic development, but all other trends are overwhelmingly negative.
The GoSL continues to lie about matters related to human rights, reconciliation and its implementation of the LLRC recommendations. There’s no sign that a credible investigation into wartime atrocities will materialize in the near-term.
The Year Ahead
The GoSL must have known that this resolution was going to pass. However, when it comes to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) this November, there is still much to be decided. Many people have already raised concerns about Sri Lanka hosting such a gathering. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already said that, if the situation in Sri Lanka doesn’t improve, he won’t be attending.
The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) will hold a meeting in April and the GoSL is (justifiably) concerned that it will be placed on CMAG’s formal agenda. As others have suggested – given the current situation in Sri Lanka – allowing the Rajapaksa administration to host the summit would be an embarrassment to CHOGM and tarnish its international credibility.
In a way, this new HRC resolution resets the clock for the regime in Colombo; they’ve been given another year to make some progress on the above-mentioned issues and reverse negative developments related to human rights, the centralization of power, judicial independence, disappearances, extrajudicial killings, land rights, sexual violence, militarization and media freedom, among other issues.
For the time being, this is an important moment because it means that Sri Lanka will not fall off the HRC’s formal agenda. If that were that to happen, it would be extremely difficult for members of the international community to regain their momentum and keep the pressure on.
Disregarding this resolution would be risky because it would leave the regime open to real diplomatic isolation and the possibility of more unpalatable consequences that could include economic sanctions, travel restrictions for certain members of the regime or a shift in military and/or intelligence cooperation with other countries.
However, those types of outcomes would likely fall outside the scope of the HRC. Nearly four years since the civil war’s tragic end, it remains to be seen whether the HRC can help turn things around in Sri Lanka.
(Gibson Bateman is an international consultant based in New York City. He is a graduate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Bateman has worked for leading NGOs in Latin America, Africa and South Asia.This Article appears in “Asian Correspondent”)