Sri Lanka under fire at 25th Session of UN Human Rights Council in Geneva


Gibson Bateman

On March 3, the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) began its 25th session in Geneva. Since two US-led resolutions have been passed on Sri Lanka in as many years at the HRC – and the possibility of a third resolution being passed highly likely – the human rights and governance record of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime will garner significant attention.

Nearly five years since the conclusion of a brutal civil war, Sri Lanka’s peace remains a troubled one. The Rajapaksa regime has made notable achievements when it comes to economic growth and infrastructure development in the country’s Northern and Eastern Provinces – the principal theaters of conflict.

Nevertheless, the war ended with massive civilian casualties and credible claims of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law being committed by the Sri Lankan military and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In spite of significant international opprobrium, the regime has refused to conduct a proper investigation of the war’s final phases.

Amidst strong calls for accountability for wartime atrocities the regime established its own accountability mechanism, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Though it does not properly address questions of accountability, the commission produced a final report that contains many prudent recommendations – pertaining to land, law and order, language, political rights and governance – that go to the heart of the country’s longstanding ethnic conflict.

Nonetheless, the regime has largely disregarded the LLRC recommendations and, concurrently, problems pertaining to governance, human rights and the rule of law are not getting any better.

In this context the first HRC resolution was passed in March 2012. The second resolution, passed in March 2013, is similar to the first. It called upon the government to address accountability issues, act upon past suggestions made by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and implement the recommendations prescribed in the LLRC’s final report.

In spite of the unwanted international attention, the regime remains widely popular within Sri Lanka. The opposition is deeply fragmented and unable to pose a clear challenge. Furthermore, the government has masterfully used international excoriation for domestic political gain – highlighting infringements upon sovereignty, “neo-imperialism” and claims of double standards from Western nations.

In the aftermath of 9/11, it is true that the US and other Western countries wanted the Sri Lankan government to defeat the LTTE – a proscribed terrorist organization in nearly three dozen countries – and that some countries in the West even provided support to Sri Lanka. It is also true that that the US has its own human rights issues, domestically and others which are byproducts of what was dubbed the “war on terror” – including the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, illegal detention centers, drones and invasive surveillance policies.

That being said, the case against Sri Lanka is a persuasive one. Moreover, the regime’s narrative that works so well with its constituents has not been very effective at the HRC.

The HRC’s ability to raise awareness about human rights violations across the globe is indisputable. Post-war Sri Lanka has been no exception. Coercive diplomacy – actually compelling authoritarian regimes to behave more democratically – has proven far more difficult to achieve.

The Obama administration was keen on becoming a member of the HRC. And Sri Lanka’s future at the Council has implications – both for other matters brought before the HRC and for US foreign policy as it relates to America’s promotion of human rights abroad.

Throughout the HRC’s 25th session, Sri Lankan diplomats will be asking the international community for more time and additional financial resources to support Sri Lanka’s post-war recovery. Such exhortations would be consistent with past GoSL behavior at the Council. It remains to be seen whether the international community will be amenable to such requests.

Unfortunately, the draft resolution which was recently tabled on Sri Lanka is weak. It again calls upon the GoSL to conduct its own examination into purported violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. While, the resolution also “requests” that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) investigate such abuses, OHCHR’s mandate to do so should – at the very least – be far more explicit. The text will invariably be modified over the coming weeks, but these are not encouraging developments.

No matter what happens in Geneva this month, the way forward for Sri Lanka will be difficult. The situation on the island is clearly worsening and, up to now, international efforts to exert pressure on the regime have been largely ineffectual. Since the ability of international actors to shape events in Sri Lanka is limited, the passage of a strong resolution at the HRC – one that emphasizes an independent international mechanism to monitor ongoing human rights trends and also to conduct an examination into the war’s final phase – would not guarantee a decline in authoritarianism. On the other hand, the passage of a weak resolution or – less likely – the failure to pass any resolution on Sri Lanka this time around would probably encourage heightened repression, the continued rejection of Tamil and Muslim rights and an even more evident period of ethnic discord.

(Gibson Bateman is an international consultant who writes frequently on Sri Lankan affairs.This piece appears in Asian Correspondent)