By Jehan Perera –
The departure of the United States from the UN Human Rights Council will weaken a global institution which has been mandated to protect and uphold human rights throughout the world including Sri Lanka. The UN body was established in 2006 with the aim of promoting and protecting human rights around the globe, as well as investigating alleged human rights violations and is made up of 47 member states, which are selected by the UN General Assembly on a staggered basis each year for three-year-long terms. Members meet around three times a year to debate human rights issues and pass non-binding resolutions and recommendations by majority vote.
The US government has justified its decision to leave the UNHRC on the basis of the hypocrisy and double standards within the institution in which countries that violated human rights are also present and pass strictures on others. In the case of the United States this is focused on the repeated criticisms of Israel, which is a close US ally. Sri Lankans are also familiar with this type of justification for being unwilling to follow the recommendations and criticisms of the UNHRC. The previous government in particular took a strong and defiant stand against UNHRC resolutions.
In both 2012 and 2014, the UNHRC passed increasingly strict resolutions that were opposed by the then Sri Lankan government. These called for the government to implement the recommendations of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and for the Office of the High Commissioner to undertake a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka during the period covered by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.
The present government’s decision to co-sponsor rather than to oppose the UNHRC resolution of 2015 helped it to become a drafting partner to that particular resolution. The resolution called for promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights. As this resolution was drafted in partnership with the Sri Lankan government it cannot be simply dismissed or critiqued as something that the international community alone wished to thrust on Sri Lanka, but as something that Sri Lankan authorities too thought was necessary to implement to enable national reconciliation to become a reality. This was evident at the session of the UNHRC in March 2017 when the Sri Lankan government asked for two more years to implement the resolution, which was granted without difficulty.
The sudden withdrawal of the United States from the UNHRC has generated an expectation that is being promoted by the nationalist opposition and some members of the government that Sri Lanka will no longer have to comply with the requirements of the UNHRC resolution of October 2015. At that time the government promised to implement the resolution within a two year time frame. An assessment of developments over the past three years will reveal that the countries that spearheaded the resolution on Sri Lanka, including the United States, have been giving Sri Lanka the time and space it requires, and asks for, to implement its commitments without forcing it to keep to the original time frame.
In March 2017, the UNHRC without dissent agreed to give Sri Lanka the two extra years that the government asked for to implement the October 2015 resolution. The international community represented on the UNHRC recognized that it is only the Sri Lankan government that can deliver on all of these, and not the international community which can at best play a supportive role. The United States in particular said it was pleased that Sri Lanka had agreed once again to co-sponsor the resolution, and invited like-minded UN members to demonstrate support for reconciliation and peace in Sri Lanka by adding their names to the list of cosponsors. In a statement, the US applauded the government for its continuing efforts to promote reconciliation.
Therefore it is clear that the United States had ceased being a source of hostile or coercive pressure on Sri Lanka as long as two years ago. This also accompanied the foreign policy shift of the Sri Lankan government away from overdependence on China. The March 2017 session made it clear that the countries that are active on the UNHRC, including the United States, were looking for signs of progress even though they would have preferred the pace of change to be swifter. One of the positive features of the present government is that it is constantly making incremental changes in advancing the frameworks for good governance and reconciliation.
Attention, rather than pressure, is what the UNHRC has been giving to Sri Lanka for the past three years. The departure of the US from the UNHRC is unlikely to reduce the attention that this international institution gives to the country. As for pressure, there was very little coercive or hostile pressure even when the United States was an active member in the post-2015 period. The US embassy in Sri Lanka has assured that it will continue to assist Sri Lanka to fulfil its international commitments to advance the cause of reconciliation and lasting peace for all Sri Lankans. It is more likely that the European countries, particularly the EU, may be more strict in terms of asking for the fulfilment of commitment than the United States, which has a more political approach to international issues, including human rights.
It is necessary that the government should fulfill the commitments it made in that resolution. These commitments are ones that need to be kept whether or not the government has international commitments because these should be national commitments. These are for the release of civilian land held by the military, release of prisoners held without charge for years, demilitarization, removal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and establishing a truth seeking and accountability mechanism to investigate and prosecute violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law.
The release of yet another hundred acres of land by the military in the North to the civilian population is a message that the process of land returns is continuing. This is complemented by the government decision to build a further 50,000 houses in the North for those who were affected by the war. In addition, the government has been providing livelihood assistance to war victims, rehabilitating ex-LTTE cadres, and has recently passed a law that criminalises enforced disappearances, set up an Office of Missing Persons, and is in the process of establishing an Office of Reparations.
It is necessary for the government to seek to implement the remaining commitments made in the UNHRC resolution, which include reducing the military presence in the former war zones of the north and east, and engaging in constitutional reform that would devolve more power to those areas. These are necessary to bring about a lasting solution to the ethnic conflict that has plagued the country since its independence and prevented it from developing as a united and strong nation. The government also needs to be more focused, and of one mind, in communicating the truths about the need for reform and for change to the larger population so that they understand them to be part of the process of national integration and unification of hearts and minds in the aftermath of decades of war and conflict.
The US departure from the UNHRC may weaken that global institution, but it must not weaken Sri Lanka’s commitment to ensure the protection of human rights and achieve reconciliation within our own country. This is for the good of all Sri Lankan people and not simply giving in to the international community. The US action should not be seen as leading to a lessening of international attention on Sri Lanka. Nor should it be seen as an opportunity for either this government or future governments to evade engaging in the reforms that would bring a political solution to the ethnic conflict and make national reconciliation a reality.