By Mohamed Harees –
“Government is instituted for the common good; for the protection, prosperity and happiness of the people; and not for the profit, honour, or private interest of any one man, family, or class of men” ~ John Adams, 2nd President of the United States
The landmark UN resolution adopted by the UNHRC on 23rd March, is considered as a crucial turning point on justice and accountability, an important step forward, offering renewed hope of long-awaited justice for victims of the country’s 30-year civil conflict. Hilary Power, Amnesty International’s representative to the UN in Geneva said “This is a significant move by the Human Rights Council, which signals a shift in approach by the international community. Years of support and encouragement to Sri Lanka to pursue justice at the national level achieved nothing. This resolution should send a clear message to perpetrators of past and current crimes that they cannot continue to act with impunity”. Meanwhile, in the run-up to the voting, the government of Gotabaya was busy issuing blanket denials and challenging the findings and legitimacy of the UN Report, while at home, continuing to prove the concerns valid, passing new regulations that target minorities.
The 47-member council adopted this resolution, brought by the UK, on behalf of a group of countries, boosting UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet’s staff and powers, with a view to future prosecutions. 22 countries voted in favour of the resolution, 11 opposed and 14 abstained, including Sri Lanka’s neighbours, India and Nepal and most Muslim majority countries, except for Pakistan, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan, who voted against the motion. In this resolution, UNHRC expressed “deep concern” at the “deteriorating situation” in Sri Lanka, and criticised the erosion of judicial independence, marginalisation of minorities and impunity. Speaking on behalf of the European Union, Tichy-Fisslberger highlighted the “accelerating militarisation of civilian government functions, “the erosion of the independence of the judiciary”, and “increased marginalisation” of Tamil and Muslim minorities, which has been “exacerbated” by the island’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, such as the reported prevention of Muslims, and members of other religions, from practicing their own religious burial rites.
The resolution titled “Promotion of Reconciliation Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka” was taken up after a report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The report, released on January 27, warned that Sri Lanka’s failure to address human rights violations and war crimes committed in the past had put the country on an “alarming path” that could lead to a “recurrence” of policies and practices of earlier crimes. India which abstained, urged Sri Lanka to “carry forward” the process of reconciliation and to “address the aspirations of the Tamil community and continue to engage constructively with the international community to ensure that the fundamental freedoms and human rights of all its citizens are fully protected”. The abstention of most Muslim countries was very much based on the ongoing demonization of the Muslim community, despite both President and PM making personal calls , appealing them to vote against. It was comical that the Foreign Minister and Minister Cabral using mathematical calculations to show that they scored a victory.
There is no celebration or triumphalism needed to mark the adoption of this resolution. It was in in fact not a win for anyone; but a loss for the country due to the racist, short sighted policy of this majoritarian, ultra nationalist government, which showed sheer sense of insensitivity to the concerns of the people- in this case the numerically lesser communities such as Tamils and the Muslims. Its racist agenda made a mockery of their cultural and religious rights enshrined in the Constitution. They blatantly violated the human rights and their impunity stank to high heavens. Forced cremation policy was one such example. Gotabaya’s vile attempts to portray himself predominantly as the leader of the Sinhala Buddhists boomeranged eventually on him, when dismal all-around performance was exposed in style. Most Sinhalese have realised the idle boast of this government and coming to understand that racism against the minorities is only a diversion tactic. Thus, the people should understand that the sad plight of the nation in the global arena, as reflected at the UNHRC, was only an adverse reflection on this government, and not on them or the country although the latter’s image got tarnished as a result.
Thus, Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims should instead join hands and defeat the vain attempts of this government to use this ‘defeat’ at the UNHRC to further polarize their ranks, using the ‘national heroes’(Rana Viruwo) or patriotism card, to provoke the baser instincts of the majority. In fact, this resolution is a blessing in disguise as it provides an opportunity for the people to pause and reflect, and unite to hold this government to account. It is time opportune for the people to make this UNHRC vote as a turning point for the country, instead of allowing the government to use it to further lead the nation on a disastrous divisive path, making it a Pariah within the international community. Comical and loud mouthed Ministers such as the Public Security Minister Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara, Udaya Gammampila and Wimal Weerawansa have already split the nation; nay also divided their own political ranks – SLPP too. Even’ Easter Sunday’ report prosecutions too appears to be becoming a King Kekille’ type exercise!
In a recent TV show ‘Pathikada’, Dr Dayan Jayatilleka clearly stated that the main reason which is behind Sri Lanka facing this dire situation in the international scene today is more to do with the credibility issues of this present government relating to human rights, during its last year in power, more than the alleged war crimes. He referred to this government throwing stones into an already filled beaker, making it to overflow outside, making it unmanageable. Also, by repeatedly failing to advance accountability for past human rights violations committed, and by withdrawing its support for the Council’s resolution 30/1 and related measures, the Government has largely closed the door on the possibility of genuine progress to end impunity through a national process. Thus, whitewashing the sins of this government by using the patriotism card should not be undertaken.
The issue of accountability and post-war reconciliation in Sri Lanka has been on the agenda of the U.N. Human Rights Council for the past 12 years, with seven resolutions having been passed to date. And yet the record has been one of failure and of signs that the international community has been more prepared to tell itself tales of hope – sometimes on the basis of geopolitical considerations — than to make the difficult decisions required to achieve justice. However, recent developments in Sri Lanka have shown that this clearly was a case of unwarranted enthusiasm. UNHR Commissioner Bachelet therefore rightly and very strongly concluded, like her predecessor Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al Hussein, in her January 2021 report that Sri Lanka, despite being given multiple chances to engage in genuine transitional justice, is both “unwilling and unable” to deliver on accountability.
It is in this backdrop, that the effectiveness of this resolution adoption should be examined in the local context. Sri Lanka was cited as a country by the ICJ and other HR watchdogs as one with an ongoing impunity and rule of law crises as well as an example of how impunity can breed further atrocity. The international community through this UNHRC Resolution may not be able to change the government’s mind, but it could at least keep the pressure on Colombo by endorsing the High Commissioner’s call for international actors to take additional steps in the service of accountability. As analyst Alan Keenan says, ‘resolution is unlikely by itself to turn Sri Lanka’s trajectory around, it remains an important and immediate step. It would send a clear multilateral message to the Rajapaksas, focus international actors on their harsh and dangerous policies, and galvanise efforts to keep them from either further enflaming ethnic and religious tensions or closing what remains of democratic space’.
Among many observations made, the Michelle Bachelet report, highlighted Sri Lanka’s egregious record of complete impunity for appalling crimes, and very disturbing developments under the Rajapaksa administration”, which calls for greater international involvement to help protect vulnerable groups and hold those responsible for grave international crimes to account. It also drew attention to the growing dangers vulnerable minority groups face. Rajapaksa set up an advisory council on governance consisting of senior Buddhist monks, established a task force on the sensitive issue of archaeological heritage management that consisted almost entirely of Sinhalese members, and under the pretext of Covid-19, mandated cremations for all deaths, groundlessly preventing Muslims from practicing their own burial rites. This racist policy was exposed as one sans medical justification when it was reversed as a diplomatic ploy.
The High Commissioner described how counterterrorism laws have been used to “stifle legitimate activities” of civil society organizations. She noted that as of December, over 40 civil society organizations had approached the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights with reports of harassment, surveillance, and repeated scrutiny by various security services. Bachelet also expressed concern that the 20th amendment to the constitution, adopted in October, “has fundamentally eroded the independence of key commissions and institutions, including the HRCSL [Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka], the Election Commission, the National Police Commission and the judiciary.” Thus, the people need to realize that the underlying reasons for this resolution is not based on the alleged human rights violations in the last lap of the war. Rather it encompasses the whole gamut of the dismal human records of Post- war 2009 governments , which included the tyrannical arrogance of Mahinda Rajapaksa government whose agents launched a racist campaign against the minorities, the hypocrisy and inefficiency of the Yahapalana government which failed to adhere to its commitment on national reconciliation and prosecute the offenders, as well the present Gotabaya government which openly advocated a majoritarian racist policy, clearly polarizing the society and alienating the minorities.
When US President John Adams wrote those words cited at the top, America was an idea, a declaration of principle: government is the servant, people are the sovereign. But like any statement of principle, this must be renewed through action, and not just recital. As seen in the subsequent period until today, there has been a deep contradiction between the values that America espouses and the reality of how its government behaves, both internationally and at home. Sri Lanka too, is no different. The country today, has turned into the exact opposite of what the leaders of all nationalities (who made Independence possible) envisaged, when it was freed from foreign domination 72 years ago. The people has only themselves to blame for this unfortunate state of affairs of the nation, for voting in corrupt and moronic leaders, with historical lessons not been learnt. Today, it was a case of ‘exchanging a coughing woman for a woman with a runny nose’ as an adage goes, by voting in, a dictatorial regime decked in democratic clothing after voting out the hypocritical Yahapalana cast.
The Resolution may not satisfy or be condoned by all the parties concerned, but it was a clear reminder from the international community that the alleged human rights abuses in the Sri Lanka cannot be forgotten ,ignored or hidden in the name of State Sovereignty. On reflection , as it is said, this resolution was intended to help advance the human rights of all communities, including Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Sinhala or Tamil. And more importantly that it will be also designed to help prevent the recurrence of past grave violations of human rights which the High Commissioner warned this council about in such clear terms.” Yes! States could not any longer hide human rights violations behind the principle of sovereignty, as this Resolution proved. For, ‘Sovereignty must not be used for inflicting harm on anyone, whether citizen or foreigner’, as Ludwig von Mises said.