The UNHRC’s High Level Segment is in session now, and is due to discuss Sri Lanka’s progress on the implementation of the Resolutions that this government eagerly co-sponsored in 2015 and 2017. The report of its progress is due to be presented later in the session, but one of the first reports to be presented at the Council is the Annual Report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Annual Report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Sri Lanka does not feature heavily in it, this being a general report of activities of the Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) during the year. However there were 3 brief entries: that the OHCHR gave training on minority rights in Sri Lanka, another that ‘OHCHR advocated for legislative enactments and reforms necessary to ensure that States comply with international human rights standards in the administration of justice’ in Sri Lanka, and another entry under the heading “Early warning and protection of human rights in situations of conflict, violence and insecurity” which refers to a briefing the OHCHR gave to the UN Peacebuilding Commission, on “the situation in Burundi and Sri Lanka”.
‘Situation’? Intrigued that there was a “situation” in Sri Lanka that warranted a briefing, I looked for the UN Peacebuilding Commission’s engagement with Sri Lanka when I came across a report of another briefing held 2 months ago, in November 2107. The report of that briefing says:
“On 20 November 2017, the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) convened an Ambassadorial-level meeting to discuss the peacebuilding experiences of Sri Lanka, upon the request of the Sri Lankan Government. H.E. Mr. Indrajith Coomaraswamy, Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, H.E. Mr. Prasad Kariyawasam, Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Mano Tittawella, Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM) attended the meeting and explained to the Commission the peacebuilding priorities of the Government of Sri Lanka. Mr. Jehan Perera of the Sri Lanka National Peace Council also delivered remarks.”
The “Chairperson’s Summary of the Discussion” outlines some alarming conclusions:
“Mr. Prasad Kariyawasam, Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, explained that the engagement of the UN with Sri Lanka would be critical for securing sustainable peace and development in the country. After explaining the history of the conflict, he underscored that the elections in 2015 sent a strong message by the people of Sri Lanka against ethnic and religious divisions, extremism and impunity.”
After this, there seems to be a consensus on the implementation of Resolution 30/1, which is unsurprising since this government co-sponsored it.
“Mr. Mano Tittawella, Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM), talked about the ambitious transitional justice and reconciliation agenda that Sri Lanka has embarked with UN support to operationalize its commitments to Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution 30/1…He stressed the importance of international support for the efforts to pursue transitional justice and reconciliation, and highlighted the PBF’s catalytic effect on the PPP that resulted in additional funding contributions from donors, such as the EU, UK, and Norway.”
It gets even more interesting when UN official Andrew Gilmour has his say, because the summary of his contribution breaks new ground in “stealth diplomacy”, or displays a lack of serious study on the matter of Sri Lanka’s war. Considering that Sri Lanka comprehensively won its war against a terrorist army, the UN’s list of appropriate action needs to be aligned to that reality. Instead he seems to be elevating the controversial Resolution 30/1 to the level of a national framework for post-war Sri Lanka “in the absence of a peace agreement”!
“Mr. Andrew Gilmour, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, stressed that transitional justice is an essential element of the UN’s peacebuilding work in Sri Lanka, and in the absence of a peace agreement, HRC resolution 30/1 established the framework by which the government, victims and civil society can address the root causes of the past conflict.”
“Peace agreements” are signed when two sides to an armed conflict are at an impasse. There are several features that are present in such a situation where the final solution is ‘negotiated’, which are not present when one side wins! Especially so, when one side is a terrorist army holding large numbers hostage!
“In the absence of” any evidence that anyone present there actually intervened to enlighten the UN representative, it appears that this government too imagines that Resolution 30/1 forms a framework for postwar peace-building in Sri Lanka. One fervently hopes that not all members of the Sri Lankan delegation agreed with this view.
At this meeting it seems to be the general consensus that Resolutions 30/1 is all Sri Lanka needs to have itself a bright future. Mr. Fernandez-Taranco, ASG for Peacebuilding Support, “highlighted Sri Lanka’s unique experiences on reconciliation, peacebuilding and economic development, and noted the centrality of implementing the HRC resolution 30/1 to its efforts to guarantee non-recurrence of past human rights violations and to put the country on the path to sustainable peace and development.”
According to the Chairman’s summary some others insisted that Constitutional Reform should go hand in hand with Resolution 30/1!
“Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 had to be fully implemented with the support of Sri Lanka’s international partners. Moving forward on constitutional reforms would help guarantee the non-recurrence of violations and abuses…”
It is only right that a government that promised these things should try to implement them. That the government doesn’t seem to have the support that it requires to run its regular affairs let alone implement controversial reforms and has gone into crisis mode following its dire performance the local government polls, surely comes as a relief to the large number of citizens who voted against them recently.
Human Rights Impact of Economic Reform Policies
There are also many other human rights issues that are useful and relevant to countries like Sri Lanka discussed at these UNHRC sessions, and new groundbreaking developments in setting human rights norms. Many of those initiatives of will prove to be valuable interventions that change the way States view their obligations to their citizens and to the rest of the world.
One of the welcome new initiatives of the UN Human Rights Council is the Special Procedure Mandate held by Juan Pablo Bohoslavsky, the “Independent Expert on the effects of foreign debt and other related international financial obligations of States on the full enjoyment of all human rights, particularly economic, social and cultural rights”, who will present his report at the on-going session of the Council. His report is titled “Development of guiding principles for assessing the human rights impact of economic reform policies”.
The attention of the international community on this aspect of Human Rights comes not a moment too soon for Sri Lankan citizens who are probably looking at a time of severe economic hardship as the government struggles to come out of the economic and financial quagmire it have got itself into. When the Governor of the Central Bank vehemently opposes a Bill to grant powers to the Prime Minister to take loans that will not come under its or anyone else’s scrutiny, and the Joint Opposition declaims it loudly while one of them hurriedly initiated court action to prevent it, the citizens are absolutely right to get nervous about the economic health of the nation and the perils that seem to await it. It is a relief that a UN body has actually decided to make governments accountable for the economic decisions they make that impact their populations adversely.
The new report’s first recommendation is: “Recognize that managing economic and fiscal affairs is a core government function, while underlining the obligations of States and international financial institutions to ensure that their economic reform policies and conditionalities on financial support respect human rights.”
In a welcome development in recent sessions, the Special Procedures have included in their study the large international financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank at the request of the Council, and proposed guidelines not only for states but for these institutions as well. This report reiterates this: “While States have the primary responsibility to comply with international human rights treaties and standards, international financial institutions and other international organizations are also bound to respect human rights.” In a previous report, Alfred Zayas, another Special Rapporteur said that some “believe that these institutions have a greater impact on the world order than the UN General Assembly and the ECOSOC combined”. Since our government works closely with these institutions which have never been held accountable, it is useful that they have come under scrutiny of the Council as well, and reminded of their human rights obligations.
In what might be immediately relevant to Sri Lanka, the Bohoslavsky report warns that “Fiscal consolidation measures are often accompanied by structural reforms, such as deregulation, labour market flexibilization, reduction in labour rights and various administrative and legal reforms. While these measures are ostensibly aimed at facilitating future economic growth, reducing unemployment and increasing tax revenues, they have often directly affected the enjoyment of human rights, including access to justice.”
It warns States for red lines that should not be crossed: “States have the discretion to select and adopt policy measures according to their specific economic, social and political circumstances. Yet, this discretion is not without bounds; fiscal adjustment must be designed in line with specific substantive and procedural human rights obligations, which draw certain redlines that should not be crossed.”
In a worrying reminder, the report outlines some of the fiscal consolidations measures that States usually adopt, without adequate thought to their human rights impact: “(a) public expenditure cuts affecting human rights-sensitive fields such as public health care, social security and education; (b) regressive tax changes; (c) wage bill cuts and caps and reduction of positions in the public sector; (d) pension reforms; (e) rationalization and further targeting of safety nets; (f) privatization of public utilities and service providers and introduction of user fees; and (g) reduction in food, energy and other subsidies affecting the prices of essential goods and services such as food, heating and housing.”
It warns that ‘due diligence’ should be exercised before rushing into these reforms: “The onus is on governments to demonstrate that their proposed response measures will meet their human rights obligations. States, and if applicable, international financial institutions, must therefore exercise human rights due diligence before implementing far reaching economic reforms that have the potential to undermine the enjoyment of human rights.”
Sri Lankans who are still unable to fully apprehend the enormity of the Bond-scam know that human rights ‘due diligence’ was the last thing on the minds of those in government responsible for the changes to the system that enabled that robbery. This new report should give them pause.