By Jehan Perera –
The government is bracing itself to meet the next round of international human rights challenges that will arise with the commencement of sessions on the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in November. The UPR comes in a four year cycle for all member countries of the UN, where they are obliged to present a report on their progress in upholding international standards of human rights. As countries, like individuals, are inclined to view themselves in a self-indulgent manner, the UPR requires three other countries to monitor and comment on each country when it submits its report. In Sri Lanka’s case, the three countries are India, Spain and Benin.
The forthcoming UPR review in November will pose the Sri Lankan government with a stiff challenge. The review comes in the aftermath of the March 2012 session of the UN Human Rights Council at which a resolution urging the Sri Lankan government to implement the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was passed by a majority of countries, despite the opposition of the Sri Lankan government. All Asian countries, with the exception of India, supported the Sri Lankan government position that the resolution was an unwarranted interference in its sovereign affairs. The Indian vote in favour of the resolution, and amidst the opposition of the Sri Lankan government, came as a bitter shock.
The significance of the Sri Lankan government’s failure to defeat the UNHRC resolution is that it gives the international human rights community an opportunity to monitor the progress of the government’s implementation of the resolution. So far there has been little or no indication of any special effort on the part of the government to implement the LLRC recommendations that formed the centrepiece of the UNHRC resolution. The report has still not been translated into the two official languages of the country and is therefore inaccessible to the vast majority of the country’s population for whose benefit it was prepared. Even so uncomplicated a recommendation as singing the national anthem in both official languages has still to be implemented.
At the present time, it seems that the government position on implementing the LLRC recommendations is best described as automatic implementation. There are various government programmes aimed at improving the life of the people in the war affected areas, such as through resettlement of displaced people, rehabilitation of former LTTE cadres, withdrawal of the military from civilian life and economic development in general. The government is able to point out that these salutary features of normalization and reconciliation are taking place, which it deems to obviate the need for any special effort to implement specific LLRC recommendations. This would be a key message conveyed to the Sri Lankan diplomats stationed abroad, who were all summoned to the country to attend a seminar on how to deal with the international community.
The problem with the government’s strategy of dealing with the international community, and giving them its own perspective on human rights and other issues, is that it overlooks their presence within Sri Lanka. Most of the countries that sit on the UN Human Rights Council have their embassies in Sri Lanka. Their diplomats follow events that transpire in the country closely. They discuss matters with opposition politicians, civil society and human rights groups, and exchange information amongst themselves. The arbitrary arrest of journalists, abductions for ransom of alleged LTTE associates, lack of direct government livelihood assistance to war victims and the climate of impunity and general abuse of power is as much known to the diplomatic community even as it is known to the better informed sections of the general population.
A country such as India, which is engaged in major developmental projects and has a hands-on presence in those projects, would also know what is happening at the ground level. The Indian government has contributed generously to build as many as 50,000 homes for war affected people. This was originally going to be confined to the north where the last battles were fought. However, due to Sri Lankan government intervention, these houses are now being built in the east and central hills, thereby giving the Indian authorities a legitimate presence in those areas as well. India is also involved in railroad and roadbuilding projects in the north and south. In addition, more than a thousand service personnel go every year to India for military training, and would be a source of valuable information to the Indian authorities.
The visit of Indian National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon to Sri Lanka a fortnight ago took on special significance in the context of the future challenges that are likely to arise from the international community. India is strongly placed with regard to creating international opinion on Sri Lanka. Not only is India a knowledgeable witness at the ground level to the Sri Lankan government’s implementation of the LLRC recommendations as mandated by the March session of the UN Human Rights Council. India is also one of the troika, along with Spain and Benin, that has been selected to assess the validity of Sri Lanka’s submission regarding its progress on human rights issues at the four yearly Universal Periodic Review which comes this November in Geneva.
It is likely that Spain and Benin which have a limited or no diplomatic presence in Sri Lanka, will both give deference to India’s special knowledge on Sri Lankan affairs when it comes to assessing Sri Lanka’s progress in terms of the UPR process. At the 2008 session of the UPR there were a total of 95 recommendations made to the Sri Lankan government by other countries. Among the commitments that the Sri Lankan government made were to ensure that civil society organizations would be included in the follow up to the UPR process (UK), ensuring a safe environment for human rights defenders and prosecuting those responsible for harming them (Poland) and developing the former conflict zones to bring the afflicted communities living there to be on par with those living in other provinces of the country (Bhutan). It is unfortunate that actual implementation of the promises made by the government at the last session of the Universal Periodic Review in 2008 has been hardly satisfactory.
In this context winning the support of the Indian government and obtaining a favourable review from it would be extremely important to the government. The Indian government’s readiness to vote against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC sessions in March 2012 was a wake-up call regarding Indian thinking on Sri Lanka. Indian leaders have made it known that they consider the devolution of power in terms of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution to be the basis of a political solution that they will find acceptable. So far the Sri Lankan government has equivocated on this issue, saying one thing to visiting Indian officials when they meet them and another when they leave. The government needs to be prepared to implement its promise of 13th Amendment Plus, and it may also wish to consider the holding of provincial elections to the North, which is another promise that has yet to be implemented. What the visiting Indian National Security Adviser told the government will be crucial in this respect.