Language in the draft resolution now before the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for an investigation into past and ongoing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka lacks teeth say critics. A resolution that establishes a weak investigating body will only render ineffectual what the international community says it is working for – strengthening human rights to promote reconciliation in a country recovering from war.
Following the military defeat of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in May 2009, Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapakse pledged to appoint a domestic commission of inquiry to probe excesses of the warring parties. But increasingly haunted that such an investigation could implicate him and his government, Rajapakse has prevaricated.
Adding to this, post-war militarisation in the former warzone of northern and eastern Sri Lanka, continues to spawn grave human rights abuses – disappearance, torture and sexual violence. In the face of Colombo’s stonewalling, the only option for justice and accountability for past and ongoing violations was an international investigation.
Resolutions adopted by the UNHRC in 2012 and 2013 warned Sri Lanka that if there was no credible domestic inquiry, an international investigation would be set up. The Rajapakse government’s defiance to this call, and continuing violations led to expectation that the international community would move for an international commission of inquiry (COI) in Geneva, 2014.
It is in this context that an animated debate has opened on whether the first draft of the resolution up for adoption by the UNHRC will be adequate. Critics of the draft say the language calling for an investigation through the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) will be less effective than a COI set up by the UNHRC. The latter would have greater legitimacy as the experts doing the investigating would report to the council than the commissioner.
Critics of the draft support their argument by citing the recent success of the COI appointed on North Korea by the UNHRC, and relative ineffectiveness of the OHCHR-appointed investigation on Yemen. There are also fears that in the coming weeks haggling over language by state parties for political reasons could further dilute the resolution, which is to be voted on at the UNHRC later this month.
A weak resolution will not achieve either the hopes of the people of Sri Lanka or the international community’s for justice and reconciliation. Among other adverse consequences, a weak resolution will have a deleterious effect on three agencies that are deeply vulnerable but have yet taken great risks to mobilise opinion on human rights violations and war crimes in Sri Lanka so that justice would be served.
The first are the survivors of human rights violations. The most visible of them are the loved ones of the disappeared, mostly women, who in their search of justice openly defied unjust, government-imposed prohibitions to meet high-ranking international players. Two recent instances, vividly captured on camera, was when they met UN High Commissioner Navi Pillay during her visit to Sri Lanka in August despite Colombo trying prevent the meeting. Following her visit Pillay recorded her dismay in statement: “This type of surveillance and harassment appears to be getting worse in Sri Lanka, which is a country where critical voices are quite often attacked or even permanently silenced.”
The other was during the visit of British Prime Minister David Cameron visited northern Sri Lanka during the Commonwealth Summit in November. Barred from meeting him desperate survivors broke a police cordon to at least present their case to foreign journalists present to cover the Cameron visit.
The people who risked life and limb to tell their story did so because they realised internal justice mechanisms did not deliver for them. They were willing to endanger their lives only because their hope for justice lay in the international community’s power to make the Sri Lanka government and the LTTE to account for misdeeds. A weak resolution that does not exert sufficient pressure on Colombo will not bring survivors justice, but will only make them sceptical of international justice mechanisms. Further, they will feel that interacting with human rights defenders (HRDs) is of no avail because while it endangers their lives it does not bring them justice.
Second are the HRDs. HRDs are a diminishing breed in Sri Lanka. Those who remain are subject to constant intimidation and violence. Some like Kuhan Murgananthan and Lalith Weerakumar disappeared. Others like Sunesh Soosai, who works for families of the disappeared and fishing rights was repeatedly threatened with death by suspected intelligence officers.
The repercussions of a weak resolution on HRDs will be to discourage activism. However idealistic and altruistic HRDs are the pressures upon them are tremendous. If an opportunity to stem the deteriorating climate of human rights is not taken by the international community at the forthcoming UNHRC session, it is only natural that HRDs will feel the risks they endure is not worth the trouble.
Third, is the Northern Provincial Council (NPC). From September, when the Tamil National Alliance became the governing party in the NPC, it has been assailed by a number of issues: administrative, political and existential. The TNA and the NPC have flaws, but it cannot be discounted that the TNA required great courage and determination to pass a resolution that called for an international investigation into war crimes. Its impact can be gauged by indignation it caused among the country’s Sinhala nationalists.
A weak resolution at the UNHRC, by not delivering on its promises will affect deeply the already embattled TNA in the NPC. The northern voters elected the party hoping it would deliver on human rights, demilitarisation and negotiate a political solution. Desperate that its negotiations with the Government were not producing results the TNA passed a resolution in the NPC calling for an international investigation. If that is denied by a weak resolution in the UN, the legitimacy and relevance of the ruling party in the NPC will be questioned by voters.
The international community says reconciliation is possible within a united Sri Lanka. If so, there has to be, among many other factors, accountability for human rights violations. While a weak resolution could derail or prolong the path to justice, it could also affect any possibility of reconciliation by upping the sense of hopelessness among human rights survivors, by dispiriting HRDs and placing the TNA in the NPC in a highly vulnerable position. Needless to say, this will only enhance turmoil and violence, not promote fraternal relations between Sinhalese and Tamils.
Therefore if the international community actually believes what it preaches to the Tamils – that reconciliation within a united Sri Lanka is possible – it should at least fulfil its part of the bargain by using all means available to adopt a robust resolution in the UNHRC that delivers on human rights and justice to the survivors.