By Malinda Seneviratne –
UNHRC. That’s United Nations Human Rights Commission. Key term, ‘Human Rights’. The UN system has all kinds of organizations mandated to deal with fairly well defined spheres of concern. ‘Human Rights’ does seem all-encompassing and that’s both good and bad. Good because it provides comprehensive cover. Bad because it makes for selectivity.
The current moves in the UNHRC against Sri Lanka, by a well-known incompetent to boot, shows up the negative rather than affirm the positive. The draft resolution authored by the USA, for example, menti
on issues such as rule of law, judicial matters, ‘healing and reconciliation’ (whatever that might mean), independent oversight of security system (a recipe for insecurity, surely?), institutional reform (good governance from above?), sexual and gender based violence, devolution of power etc. They might as well have added things like water supply and sanitation, organic agriculture, protection of forest cover, medicines free of the pharmaceutical mafia and polythene-free packaging among other things. It’s that ridiculous, folks.
The authors have interjected liberally a lot of vague terms but nothing as ridiculous as ‘widespread, ’followed of course by ‘allegations’. Now anyone anywhere can allege any number of things. What gives weight to allegation is ‘widespread’. How is widespread wrought, though? Longtime Tiger-lover Bishop Rayappu Joseph sending a note to Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu and Sara saying something to Jehan which Jehan whispers into Nimalka Fernando‘s ear and which Nimalka passes onto Callum Macrae and which Callum emails Frances Harrison and the whole bunch of them cross-posting this same message to each other and to ready recipients such as Michele Sison, John Rankin, David Cameron, Samuel Harper, John Kerry, Navi Pillay etc., etc., is that how?
The Rule of Law Index 2014, recently put out by the World Justice Project, which measures how the rule of law is experienced by ordinary people around the world, covering 100,000 households and 2,400 expert surveys in 99 countries has yielded some numbers the UNHRC should reflect on. South Asia is the worst region but within South Asia, Sri Lanka bests the biggies India and Pakistan by quite a margin when it comes to absence of corruption (SL 39th, India 72nd, Pakistan 91st), fundamental rights (SL 56th, India 63rd, Pakistan 92nd), order and security (SL 59th, India 95th, Pakistan 99th), and in the overall ‘Rule of Law’ category is placed 48th, whereas India is 66th and Pakistan 96th. Begs the question: how about some knuckle-raps on the rest of the region, Navi Pillai?
Let’s consider the USA. What’s the ‘Rule of Law’ situation there? We can talk about institutionalized racism in the form of racial profiling, spot-checks, arrests, convictions and so on. We can talk of police brutality. We can talk of sexual and gender based violence. We can talk of freedom of expression or lack thereof, citing ‘action’ on protestors from the November 1999 anti-WTO protests to the wave of Occupy Wall Street protests. We can talk of the prison industrial complex and slavery 21st Century style. Let’s consider some facts.
African-Americans comprise 13 percent of the U.S. population and 14 percent of the monthly drug users, but 37 percent of the people arrested for drug-related offenses in America. Studies show that police are much more likely to pull over and frisk blacks or Latinos than whites. In New York City, 80 percent of the stops made by the NYPD were blacks and Latinos, and 85 percent of those people were frisked, compared to a mere 8 percent of the white people stopped. After being arrested, blacks are 33 percent more likely than whites to be detained while facing a felony trial in New York. In 2010, the U.S. Sentencing Commission reported that blacks receive 10 percent longer sentences than whites through the federal system for the same crimes. African-Americans are 21 percent more likely than whites to receive mandatory minimum sentences and 20 percent more likely to be sentenced to prison than white drug defendants. In a 2009 report, two-thirds of the criminals receiving life sentences were non-whites. In New York, it is 83 percent. Blacks make up 57 percent of the people in state prisons for drug offenses. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics concluded that a black male born in 2001 had a 32 percent chance of going to jail in his lifetime, while a Latino male has a 17 percent chance, and a white male only 6 percent. Why is Navi Pillai not worried?
Isn’t the UNHRC worried about the fact that in the USA, nearly 1 in 5 women are estimated to have been victims of rape? Is it not worrisome that the USA is No 6 in the list of countries with the highest rape rates? What do we make of the fact obtained by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2010) that 1.27 million American women were raped in that year alone (equivalent to one woman every 29 seconds) and that 5.1 million women were stalked (one every 7 seconds)? So what about the human rights of women in the USA and why aren’t there resolutions against that country?
If you want ‘human rights’ we could talk of all the atrocities committed in battlefield, through drone attacks and on prisoners in holding facilities. If you want ‘demilitarization’ (another word in the document), we can ask ‘Why do you still have troops in Japan almost 70 years after the end of World War II?’ For each and every line of censure in this document, a bad-behavior file ten times as thick can be thrown at the USA (and of course India, UK, Canada and other resolution-supporters).
And yet, even in these days of dark clouds over Ukraine and the threat of big powers clashing, ‘Geneva’ seems to think that Sri Lanka is bigger than Ukraine, Russia, the USA and the EU put together. Strange.
For all this, the resolution on (sic) Sri Lanka (read, ‘against Sri Lanka’) is not a ‘tightening’ considering the wording in the 2013 document? If it is indeed a tightening, does it amount to pinch, punch or strangulation? Well, those who were salivating at a choking-prospect are dismayed. That should say something.
At best it is a lazy (tired?) upgrading of the 2013 document (upping, if you will) that appears like a copy-paste exercise from some good-governance guidebook. There are keywords, though. There’s ‘concern’ and ‘deep concern’. There is ‘alarm’. There is ‘taking note’ of this and that. There is ‘recollection’. There is ‘reiteration’. There is ‘affirming’ and reaffirming’. There is ‘report’. There is ‘allegation’. There is underlying assumption. No, ‘assumption’ is not a keyword, don’t get us wrong here; it is the thread that loosely ties one paragraph to the next and the next.
Reading through the litany of woes (reports of woes, to be precise) and the usual disclaimer about ‘intimidation and retaliation against civil society members’ (who, by the way, roam around Colombo and party to their hearts’ content), one might think the authors are talking about Albuquerque, New Mexico or Anaheim, California. One could also think of places in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and other places where the Democracy Squads of the USA have opened the doors to ‘sexual and gender-based violence, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, intimidation of and reprisals against human rights defenders, members of civil society and journalists, threats to judicial independence and the rule of law’. The USA has not only ‘opened the doors’ but done the honors too, let us not forget.
So we have exaggeration. We have selectivity too. Come on, there’s worse stuff being ‘reported’ in other countries but no finger-wagging ‘no-no’ resolutions being tabled in the UNHRC about them. Really, if this is what the UNHRC is about, and if it is indeed serious about right all (assumed) wrongs, the sessions should be 12 months long, for that’s the time it would take to table, debate, listen to submissions and counter-submissions, prepare texts, pencil in amendments, take votes etc., on all the countries that deserve this kind of ‘censure’.
And yet, this is still a watered-down resolution of the kind that would upset the delicate sensibilities of the likes of Fr (sic) Emmanuel, Navi Pillay, Callum Macrae, Frances Harrison, Louise Arbor, David Cameron and other Sri Lanka haters. Indeed it is surprising that the USA, such a mover and shaker, such a lover of those who love to hate Sri Lanka, has not upped the ante here. Makes one wonder.
Is it that the USA fears a harsher document would get shot down because a) it is ridiculous, b) the membership has bigger things to worry about, or c) Sri Lanka might call the US bluff and say ‘ok, let’s investigate all atrocities committed by all parties from 1975 to 2009, India included, and if you want post-war stuff, let’s go with that too; and since we need the world to be lovely let’s extend the logic to include all nations, happy?’
It might be that in the aftermath of Obama’s ‘cost-warning’ to Russia over Ukraine (which didn’t stop Russia) and John Kerry’s ‘you can’t invade a country on a trumped-up pretext in the 21st Century (although we invaded Iraq), the USA is worried that some countries might begin to figure out that Washington was, is and will always be full of sh**. Some might even think that they would be digging their own graves by saying ‘aye’ to this blatant bullying, meddling, destabilizing and indeed wrecking the chances for peace and reconciliation. It might even upset India, come to think of it.
Since ‘Ukraine’ remains unresolved and signs are that Obama may have to eat his words, voting representatives at the UNHRC might do a re-think of ‘best do what boss says’. If someone, anyone, gives the boss the finger then ‘bossness’ is under threat and a threatened boss can’t exactly throw his weight the way he did before. Is that the problem, one might ask.
With regime-change fanatics betting heavily on a fillip from Geneva, this kind of watering down will be seized by the Government as a victory that’s sweet and, all things considered, adequate. If this is what all the frenetic lobbying by powerful persons (US and UK envoys in Colombo were canvassing the support of the voting members in blatant violation of protocol; this too is indicative of desperation) yielded, it is a sad indictment on their powers of persuasion. That too will be noted by the Government.
Let Sri Lanka not entertain any illusions. The deck is stacked. Against Sri Lanka. Watered down or otherwise. The watering down, however, constitutes a ‘blinking’ on the part of Uncle Sam. Let Sri Lankans have no illusions. A ‘come down’ on the part of the USA would do the country good, but that does not mean Sri Lanka is a perfect nation. Its imperfections are many and quite apart from the fact that many imperfections flow from a flawed constitution, the arrogance of the powerful and a manifest reluctance of fixing the democracy-gap embedded in the constitution is not something to cheer about.
*Malinda Seneviratne is the Chief Editor of ‘The Nation’ and his articles can be found at www.malindawords.blogspot.com