Although the outcome of the US resolution during the 25th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council was a foregone conclusion, many were worried about the margin of victory.
The UNHRC has 47 member-nations elected by the UN General Assembly on a rotational three-year term representing five geographical groups – Africa-13, Asia-13, Eastern Europe-6, Latin America & the Caribbean -8, and Western European and Other states-7.
This was the third showdown by US at Geneva against Sri Lanka. In 2012, US sponsored resolution titled Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka got the support of 24 (including India) out of 47 member states of UN Human Rights Council, while 15 member-states voted against and eight abstained.
In 2013 the voting was 31 in favour, 15 against and 1 abstained giving a majority of 16 votes.
This year the US resolution was supported by 23, 12 against and 12 abstained giving a majority of only 11 votes. India was one of the countries that abstained from voting.
UN member nations are usually reluctant to vote for country specific resolutions demanding international probes into internal issues. The voting reflected the mindset of such countries. Voting shows more countries abstained this year than in 2013. Also support for the resolution dropped from 31 to 24 and those opposed from 15 to 12. The reason is due to new member states elected to the UNHCR during 2013.
The following shows how member states voted this time.
Countries that voted ‘Yes’: Argentina, Austria, Benin, Botswana, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cote D’Ivoire, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Montenegro, Peru, South Korea, Romania, Sierra Leone, Macedonia, United Kingdom and the United Station of America.
Countries that voted ‘No’: Algeria, China, Congo, Cuba, Kenya, Maldives, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, U.A.E, Venezuela and Vietnam
Countries that Abstained: Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Gabon India, Indonesia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Morocco, Namibia, Philippines and South Africa
Thus India, South Africa, Japan, and Indonesia were among the prominent countries which abstained from voting on the resolution. Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, China, Russia, Maldives voted against it. It is interesting to observe that those countries which voted against the resolution have a dismal record on human rights domestically. China invaded Tibet and forcibly occupying it since 1949. Prior to the invasion Tibet was a sovereign state inhabited by a people with a distinct language, culture, religion, history and customs. Occupation of Tibet by the Chinese military has witnessed oppression and brutalisation of what was once a “Spiritual Kingdom.” Since the occupation it is reported 1.2 million Tibetans have died. Russia “invaded” Ukraine and annexed Crimea at the beginning of March, 2014 claiming Crimea was part of Russian Federation till it was ceded to Ukraine in 1954. About Cuba and Vietnam the less said it is better. Both are one party communist dictatorship where there are no free elections. In Saudi Arabia and Kuwait there is comprehensive system of institutionalised discrimination against women.
In all there were 3 drafts before the final one. When the initial draft came out there was disappointment all around. Normally the initial draft will be worded strongly and the process of dilution takes place thereafter. This year it was the other way round. The final draft was relatively stronger than the previous drafts. It should be noted that the final US draft resolution was prepared by the office of Navaneetham Pillay. Here are some highlights of the changed draft resolution:
• The OHCHR to investigate into the war crimes that took place between the time periods 2002 to 2009.
• The resolution demands accountability for the killing of as many as 40, 000 civilians during the end of war between Sri Lankan government and LTTE.
• The OHCHR will not probe into the allegations of human rights violations in the post-war period. That is, no war crimes committed after 2009, when the war ended, will fall within the ambit of investigation.
• The change also excluded the Indian participation in the pre-2002 period especially during the Indian peacekeeping Force mission from July 29, 1987 to March 24, 1990.
• The resolution mandated the OHCHR to investigate human rights abuses and violations in Sri Lanka including the period covered by the LLRC.
The council approved the US-led resolution authorizing Pillay’s office to launch “a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka.” The inquiry also seeks to hold perpetrators accountable.
The UNHRC resolution expressed deep concern at reported intimidation and retaliation against civil society members who engage with UN human rights mechanisms, including those who met with High Commissioner Navi Pillay during her visit to Colombo.
It expressed serious concern at the continuing reports of violations of human rights in Sri Lanka, including sexual and gender-based violence, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, threats to judicial independence and the rule of law, as well as intimidation of and reprisals against human rights defenders, members of civil society, lawyers and journalists.
The resolution expressed alarm at the significant surge in attacks against members of religious minority groups in Sri Lanka, including Hindus, Muslims and Christians.
It called upon the Sri Lankan government to fulfill its public commitments, including on the devolution of political authority, which is integral to reconciliation and the full enjoyment of human rights by all members of its population.
The resolution noted that the national plan of action does not adequately address all of the findings and constructive recommendations of the LLRC.
It encouraged Sri Lanka to increase its dialogue and cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner, including with regard to technical assistance.
There were attempts made by countries like Pakistan, China and Cuba to scuttle the resolution, but those attempts were defeated.
The resolution was taken for vote following much delay after Pakistan suggested a no-action motion to postpone it due to insufficient funds and China demanding time for an explanation prior to the vote.
The no-action motion, backed by Cuba and Russia, was eventually defeated with a majority of 9 votes. 16 members voted in favour while 25 voted against and 6 states abstained.
Due to the defeat of the no action motion, the call to remove the paragraph empowering an international investigation was taken up for vote. The paragraph was kept in the resolution with 23 voting to keep the paragraph and 14 voting to remove it and 10 abstaining.
The biggest surprise came from India which abstained from voting on an “intrusive” US-sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. Earlier India said it will vote in favour of the resolution.
British Prime Minister Cameron welcomed the resolution and was pleased that the UNHRC agreed to press ahead with its own independent investigation into the alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. Prime Minister Cameron was a driving force behind the US.
Deepak Obhrai, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs and for International Human Rights, in a statement welcomed the adoption today of a resolution by the UN Human Rights Council that reiterates the need for the Government of Sri Lanka to address outstanding issues of reconciliation and accountability and serious human rights violations and abuses.
US Secretary of State John Kerry also said the UNHRC decision “sends a clear message” to the Rajapaksa government that the time to pursue lasting peace and prosperity is now. “Today’s vote in the UN Human Rights Council sends a clear message: the time to pursue lasting peace and prosperity is now; justice and accountability cannot wait,” Mr. Kerry said. He also expressed deep concern over recent actions against some of Sri Lanka’s citizens, including detentions and harassment of civil society activists.
Amnesty International welcoming the resolution said “The U.N. inquiry brings new hope for the thousands of victims of abuses in Sri Lanka,” said David Griffiths, its Asia-Pacific deputy director, saying Colombo had twice ignored calls by the council to conduct an independent probe. Now they have a fresh opportunity to restore some international credibility by cooperating with the investigation.”
In a clumsy explanation Permanent Representative of India to the UN Offices here, Dilip Sinha, claimed that the resolution at the UNHRC imposes an “intrusive approach” of international investigative mechanism which was counterproductive apart from being “inconsistent and impractical”.
Dilip Sinha noted that unlike the resolutions in 2009, 2012 and 2013, this resolution asks the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to “investigate, assess and monitor” the alleged human rights violations in Sri Lanka during the last phases of the war with the Liberation Tigers of Thamil Eelam (LTTE) which was an “intrusive” approach that undermines national sovereignty.
“It has been India’s firm belief that adopting an intrusive approach that undermines national sovereignty and institutions is counterproductive. Any significant departure from the core principle of constructive international dialogue and cooperation has the potential to undermine efforts of Human Rights Council for promoting universal respect for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms,” Sinha said.
“As the closest neighbour with thousands of years of relations with Sri Lanka, we cannot remain untouched by developments in that country. Since the end of the armed conflict, India remains engaged in a substantial way in the relief, resettlement, rehabilitation and reconstruction process in Sri Lanka,” the explanation of India’s vote said.
“We have extended substantial assistance to the Government of Sri Lanka in its efforts for resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons, de-mining, education, connectivity, livelihood restoration, economic revival, etc. This has contributed towards return of a modicum of normalcy to the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka,” he said.
India’s abstention has placed India and US in a collision course. If it comes to the worse US is prepared to by-pass India in dealing with Sri Lanka.
The long explanation by India does not cut ice since India was telling the Thamil National Alliance that Mahinda Rajapaksa is recalcitrant and not listening. India couldn’t get Sri Lanka to implement 13 A + fully despite promises to Salman Kurshid, Minister of Foreign Affairs. In a rare show of dissent, the TNA said it was disappointed by India’s stand.
An elated President Mahinda Rajapaksa ordered the release of all Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan custody, hours after India abstained from backing a resolution against Colombo at the UN. Just over 100 Indian fishermen remain in Sri Lankan custody after some 170 others were freed last week, reported Xinhua.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa in a show of bravado has said he has nothing to fear as his country faces a US-moved human rights resolution at the UN rights body. Addressing a televised question and answer session last night, the president said,” We have nothing to be worried of, I am not worried”.
He said a handful of powerful countries are being backed by local elements to undermine him and his government. “The opposition who can never be victorious in the country and certain NGOs are carrying tales to the international community. They try to win this way,” Rajapaksa quipped.
“This commissioner (Pillay) came here and stayed for 4 days gathering incorrect information. Now they are trying to base that wrong information. We have rejected it. We have said we will not accept it,” he said.
Rajapaksa said Cuba and Israel have also faced similar action by the UN Human Rights Council against their countries.
“So it is not only us. There are more countries”. Rajapaksa said he had guaranteed the right to live of all Sri Lankan communities by ending the separatist armed campaign of the LTTE.
Finance Minister P. Chidambaram said New Delhi should have supported the resolution. “It is my personal opinion. Twenty three countries had supported it and we also should have supported even if it was a watered down one,” he told reporters in Chennai. The decision could have been taken by officials in the External Affairs Ministry.” If Chidambaram is right, then the cabinet which he is a member has abdicated its power to unelected officials. It is also a blow to the Congress candidate’s chances in the forthcoming elections in Thamil Nadu.
DMK leader M. Karunanidhi described India’s decision to abstain from voting on the US-backed resolution in Geneva against Sri Lanka for its alleged human rights violations as “a mother strangling her own child”. “India’s stand has made us hang our head in shame before the world community. While countries like the US that had no direct connection with the Sri Lankan Thamils, have moved a resolution purely for the purpose of upholding human rights, India, the motherland of Thamils, has abstained from voting. India’s stand brings blood in our eyes,” Mr Karunanidhi said in a statement.
Sadly there was no serious agitation by political and civil groups in Thamil Nadu demanding India to support the resolution. Only a few fringe groups agitated over the issue by holding rallies and meetings. Lack of interest by major parties is probably due to the current election campaign.
The Commissioner for Human Rights has been asked to present an oral update to the Human Rights Council at its twenty-seventh fourth session (September 08-26, 2014) and a comprehensive report followed by a discussion on the implementation of the present resolution at its twenty-eighth fifth session in March, 2015.
Whether Sri Lanka will mend its ways is very doubtful. Sri Lanka has already rejected the resolution and said it will not comply. The uncompromising and hardened attitude of the government is bound to increase tension between the government and the TNA. Already there is friction between the Northern Provincial Council and the government on number of pressing issues. The resolution in support of the UN High Commissioner’s report and wants an international enquiry under the UN auspices has angered the government.
A section of Thamil Diaspora says the resolution has failed to address the “core issues” facing the Thamil people. By core issues it is meant holding referendum in the Northeast, inquiry into genocide and political settlement to the ethnic issue. TNA’s strategy is one of taking incremental step at a time. It is time consuming but there is no other way. It is better to have a relatively ‘weak’ resolution than to go for a strong resolution and lose it. We must be mindful of the fact unlike in 2013; this time around US has to sweat hard to muster the necessary votes.