By Jehan Perera –
The humanitarian catastrophes taking place in other parts of the world such as in Myanmar, and events that have the potential to become catastrophes, such as North Korea firing its second rocket over Japan, have taken Sri Lanka away from the centre of attention at the ongoing sessions of the UN Human Rights Council. The tragic events unfolding in Myanmar are attracting international humanitarian attention. The flight of tens of thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar on a daily basis has aroused international sympathy for them and condemnation for the Myanmar government. There is even a move among advocates of human rights to persuade the Nobel Peace Prize awards committee to revoke the award that was given to Myanmar government leader Aung Sang Suu Kyi in 1991 for her work to bring democracy to her country.
The virtual ethnic cleansing that is taking place in Rakhine state in Myanmar, which borders Bangladesh, is an outcome of deep seated ethnic fears and resentments that have pitted the Buddhist population of Rakhine against the Muslims who have Bengali origins. The Rakhine Buddhists see themselves as vulnerable to being swamped by Muslim migrants from across the border. The generality of the people of Myanmar see the Rohingya as being relatively recent migrants into their country who have come to enjoy a better standard of living and access to more land than is available in densely populated Bangladesh. This is contested by the Rohingyas who say that they have lived in the Rakhine region from time immemorial and are also sons and daughters of that soil.
Similar debates have taken place in Sri Lanka in the past. But today Sri Lanka will be an oasis of peace and stability to an international community that is seeing increasing disintegration and polarization in the world. It is not only countries such as Myanmar and North Korea that present a fearsome picture of polarization that has consequences that could lead to wider and larger conflict. There are civic protests in Muslim countries against the outrages taking place in Myanmar, and it is to be expected that extremist groups will also seek to get involved there. UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein’s opening speech listed a large number of countries from all continents which were engaged in appalling violations of human rights. He said, “In the first three years of my current term, the world has grown darker and dangerous.”
The slow progress of Sri Lanka’s internationally mandated reconciliation process has come in for adverse international commentary and criticism. The UN Human Rights Commissioner recently made known his concerns with Sri Lanka’s slow implementation of the resolution of the UN Human Rights Council to which it had committed itself two years ago in 2015. He warned that if Sri Lanka did not proceed along its promised path the international community might want to invoke the principle of universal jurisdiction. This would mean that any Sri Lanka accused of human rights violations could be arrested in foreign countries. He said, “The absence of credible action in Sri Lanka to ensure accountability for alleged violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law makes the exercise of universal jurisdiction even more necessary.”
The strong words of the UN Human Rights Commissioner have been echoed by human rights organizations both within and outside the country. The Association of Relatives of Enforced Disappeared in Kilinochchi who have been engaging in non-stop protests for many months have said that they “vehemently refuse to be deceived again” by government promises and half hearted actions. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has said that United Nations member countries at the Human Rights Council in Geneva should press Sri Lanka to promptly meet the targets of the October 2015 resolution for transitional justice and that “Sri Lanka should put forward a time-bound and specific implementation plan on the four transitional justice mechanisms it agreed to establish as pledged in the resolution.”
However, it is also notable that foreign embassies representing the international community in Sri Lanka have been more appreciative of the government’s performance in regard to human rights and good governance in general. An EU monitoring mission was in Sri Lanka recently to assess how the government was complying with the requirements to obtain the GSP Plus tariff concessions. A team of senior officials from Brussels were in Sri Lanka for 10 days on a fact-finding mission regarding the government’s implementation of 27 international covenants. The EU Ambassador in Sri Lanka, Tung-Lai Margue said after a meeting with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that “The excellent cooperation by the Government is a reminder of how much the situation has changed in the country over the last two and a half years, including real advances in human rights.”
Those who prioritise the implementation of the UNHRC resolution by the government as the way forward to reconciliation and justice have anticipated a strong role for the international community in Sri Lanka and the pressure they might exert on the government with regard to human rights issues. The importance of the international community is due to the fact that it is a source of pressure that the government will feel compelled to heed. The denial of visas to military personnel who were in combat units associated with the last phase of the war has been one form of pressure. In addition, the war crimes cases filed against former army commander General Jagath Jayasuriya in five South American countries show the dangers of international involvement that could go even beyond the diplomacy of foreign governments to the realm of their independent judicial systems.
However, when looking at the international community for support, it is important to make an assessment of the international context. In comparison to Myanmar and North Korea, or to Philippines where thousands of alleged drug dealers are being killed with impunity, or to South Sudan where one million people have become refugees, Sri Lanka would be a less urgent priority. International human rights organizations stand for the full implementation of human rights protections, and by those standards Sri Lanka falls short. But foreign governments tend to look at relative standards, and not absolute standards of human rights, and Sri Lanka is loses its priority status in comparison with other humanitarian crises in the world.
Today, in comparison to other hotspot countries, Sri Lanka has a government that is generally perceived as being responsive to human rights concerns. There is a shift in attitude and a manifest improvement over the past government. Even though the government is slow in correcting the wrongs of the past, it is doing so in a number of areas, whether it is the release of land taken over by the military, release of prisoners or provision of housing to war victims. It is also not creating new victims on a large scale as in the past. In this context, the course of action that the international community is likely to be to engage in dialogue rather than to confront the government. This is also the approach of the TNA, which is the main political party representing the Tamil people.
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