By Jehan Perera –
The government’s confidence that the March session of the UN Human Rights Council will not be damaging to its interests would have grown with the visit of the three member US governmental delegation on a fact finding visit to Sri Lanka. Their statement that the US would follow up on its March 2012 resolution at the UNHRC with a “procedural resolution” will be a disappointment to those who have been hoping that the international community will do the job of the opposition in ensuring accountability within the country. The emphasis on procedure suggests a lack of emphasis on substance. The indications are that there will be no new mechanisms that will be proposed in the “procedural resolution” which will possibly reiterate the same concerns that were put out in the 2012 resolution and urge a continued attention to implementation of the same.
In this context, the government is taking the impending meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March without a display of anxiety unlike on the last occasion last year. The aftermath of the US-sponsored resolution in 2012 has shown the limited ability of the international community to take action in the face of opposition by the country concerned. The forthcoming meeting in Geneva did not stop the government from impeaching the country’s Chief Justice on largely political grounds. There was some speculation that the government might stall the impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandarayake until the March session of the UNHRC as completed, rather than provide more ammunition to its detractors. But this speculation proved to be without foundation as the Chief Justice was both impeached and removed in quick order.
The government’s public demonstration of confidence in the strength of its position can also be seen in the manner it has dealt with the proposed visit by a top level delegation of the International Bar Association. The government had originally given permission for the visit and even issued a visa to one member of the delegation, a former Chief Justice of India. The purpose of the visit was to assess from the Sri Lankan protagonists themselves what had transpired during the course of the impeachment of Chief Justice Bandaranayake and its aftermath, and the implications for the rule of law and independence of the judiciary. But now the government has felt emboldened to revoke the permission for the visit of the international legal delegation even to the extent of cancelling the visa that had been granted.
The government’s tough approach towards the human rights champions of the international community is based on the understanding that most international institutions, especially UN bodies, require a great deal of consensus between unlike minded actors. In general countries are protective of their own sovereignty. Even in mature and advanced democracies such as the UK the issue of surrendering too much of sovereignty to supranational bodies, such as the EU, is a deeply felt one. Countries that are more vulnerable to external interventions on account of their lack of power are also concerned about establishing precedents that might be used to adversely affect them. Sri Lanka therefore has a natural affinity with the majority of non-Western countries who are often at the receiving end of strictures on human rights and good governance from the more mature and advanced democracies of the Western world.
Among the comments by non-Western diplomats that I heard over the past two weeks, one was that they did not wish to do anything that would be against Sri Lanka. Ideally speaking this should be the attitude of all who seek to influence the course of events in Sri Lanka or any other country for that matter. Even opposition to those actions of governments that violate their people’s human rights should have the “Do no harm” principle underlying them so that it does not make a bad situation worse, as in the case of Iraq, Libya and now Syria. The follow up to this concern is that the current weakness of the opposition political parties makes a political vacuum more likely if the government is weakened as a result of international pressures. The comment of another non-Western diplomat was that Sri Lanka must never be made to go the way of Cyprus where the UN itself has itself become part of the system that keeps the country divided.
The extreme Western position would represented by the letter written by two leading Senators Patrick Leahy and Robert Casey to the outgoing US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking her for an independent international investigation into accountability issues. They argued that “Achieving a sustainable peace in Sri Lanka will require continued and sustained leadership by the United States and others in the international community committed to genuine accountability.” However, the grounds on which they have made this call is questionable. They have said that “During the years following the end of the war, the Sri Lankan people have waited for the government to address these concerns, yet no tangible or substantial progress has been made.” The problem with this statement is that it does not represent the ground reality in an ethnically and politically divided society. It can be believed that the big majority of the Sri Lankan people will not be in agreement with such international intervention.
In sponsoring a procedural resolution, the US would be recognizing the need to obtain the support of the non-Western countries in the UNHRC who form the majority of countries and who see Sri Lanka as a kindred country. At the present time these countries are unlikely to be willing to support a stronger resolution than the one that was approved by the majority of them in the March 2012 session of the UNHRC at the strenuous insistence of the United States. This time around the government will be able to argue that a mere one year is not a sufficient period of time to be able to make a fair assessment of what has been done and not done in terms of implementing the 2012 resolution. The UNHRC resolution 19/2 of March 2012 titled “Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka” called on the Sri Lankan government to implement the constructive proposals of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission while noting that it failed to adequately address serious allegations of violations of international law, and called for UN assistance in addressing these problems.
The Sri Lankan government has prepared an impressive list of documents, action plans, committees, activities, indicators of achievement and date lines. It also has its own military’s report on their implementation of the recommendations of the LLRC. The government is also in a position to show visible changes in the post-war landscape that is impressive to the not-so-well-informed outsider. Those who last saw Sri Lanka during the time of the war and see it today would be considerably impressed by the visible changes that have occurred. They will see open roads where there were once barricades and checkpoints, and also feel comfortable as they speed upon well carpeted roads while looking upon the new constructions on the roadside that have erased the destruction of war. The critic might say it looks better but feels worse. This requires spending more time with the people to get to know their inner thoughts, which few of the visiting international government representatives have time or inclination to do.
In these circumstances the rationale underlying the US position to restrict itself to a procedural resolution becomes clearer. It will help to mobilize those same countries that voted in 2012 to back the US sponsored resolution. It will also keep the resolution of 2012 alive on the UNHRC agenda to be brought up again in 2014 when the country comes closer to the next national election cycle. What is significant is that the issue of accountability will not subside until the Sri Lankan government is able to demonstrate on the ground that it has fulfilled the imperatives of reconciliation. Mere posturing about action plans and political maneuvering may buy time and ensure survival for the day, but it will not make the problem go away. What it also means is that those in Sri Lanka and internationally who want to see change in Sri Lanka have to work harder until Sri Lankan society itself wants democracy and human rights in greater measure that what the government is prepared to give.