The UN Human Rights Council Resolution on Sri Lanka’s Alleged War Crimes

In this article, the author explores the resolution’s impact on Sri Lanka, and its probable implications with reference to Sri Lanka.


By Rithika Nair, 3rd April, 2012

The United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) judgment on Sri Lanka’s efforts at post-conflict reconstruction, invited an abundance of opinions and debate globally. Newspapers cried out country decisions to the US sponsored resolution with regard to their foreign policies, domestic policies and moral policies. In lending an ear to all the global justifications and rationalizations, the importance shifted away from what Sri Lanka had to say with regard to the resolution and its possible impact on the island.

In 2010, the Government of Sri Lanka created the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) suo moto, to look into the causes of the conflict, its consequences on the people, and to promote national unity and reconciliation. The LLRC, though criticized for overlooking the violations of human rights and humanitarian law committed by the Sri Lankan army, stated that there were “considerable” civilian casualties. This was opposed to the government claims, which insisted on a zero-casualty rate.

The international community had already begun to push Sri Lanka to begin its post-conflict reconstruction agenda.  The LLRC report increased this demand for the Sri Lankan government to act – prosecute those who were accountable for civilian massacres, and bring relief to those displaced and devastated by the war.

This never happened.

The disappointing LLRC report largely exonerating the government, and the subsequent government inaction to suggested accountability procedures encouraged the international community to act.

In March 2012, the US submitted a resolution at the 19th session of the UNHRC, urging the Sri Lankan government “to address serious allegations of violations of international law by initiating credible and independent investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for such violations.” The resolution, after being slightly amended to word that the implementation of any external advice or investigation by the Human Rights Commissioner or Special Procedures must unfold only “in consultation with and the concurrence of ” the Sri Lankan government, was passed with 24 votes in favour, 15 against, and 8 abstentions.

The closing of Sri Lankan embassies in Europe, the threats to human rights defenders and the anti-Americanism in Sri Lanka are some of the immediate effects of the resolution. But it’s long-term implications – constructive and destructive, are nothing but analytical renderings as of now.

The resolution with its honorouble intentions could be a possible check on the quasi-dictatorship of Mahinda Rajapaksa. It could be the warning hand on the back, reminding Sri Lanka of what it had promised to deliver three years ago, a paternal gesture offering assistance if needed. It could imply that dialogue and soft diplomacy may harden, and the whispers of a ‘South Asian Spring’ may jump to reality with an international demand for the removal of Rajapaksa from his throne. With the Sri Lankan Tamils still dissatisfied with their government’s empty promises of reconciliation, and Sinhalese human rights activists being called traitors if they stood up for the Tamils, it would not be long before Sri Lanka could walk the line with Maldives, Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. If such a future be predicted, then the precautionary resolution – a very fair and balanced one, has been passed at a very appropriate juncture.

The resolution may have been a UN step to avoid being blamed for not taking action. Perhaps the UN was guilty of its own lack of action while the crisis unfolded over 26 years. Then, the resolution is but a ticking pendulum, softly but notably reminding Sri Lanka of its obligations and responsibility – and in doing so, delivering rehabilitation and hopeful justice to the victims of the war – the people of Sri Lanka.

On the other hand, the resolution placed the ball back in the Lankan court, and it ordered the multi-faced Lankan king to finish what he had promised to do. It asked him to submit an action plan detailing what he had done, and will do to implement the LLRC recommendations, and to address all matters that violated international law.

The king, with all ten heads, rejected the resolution.

Neither he nor his court thought that it added any value to the humanitarian and justice implementation process in Sri Lanka. They felt the resolution was ‘counterproductive’, ‘ill-timed’, and ‘an unwarranted initiative’. They perceived the supporters and sponsors of the resolution to be LTTE sympathizers – those who underestimated the violence and trauma that the LTTE had unleashed upon them. They felt that the unpunished situations in Afghanistan, Iraq and India removed the moral legitimacy of the resolution.  Lobbying against the vote in Geneva transcended into anti-America lobbying, and human rights activists and defenders of the resolution were threatened in Sri Lanka. In such circumstances, the significance of the resolution is undermined.

This resolution should not and cannot be rejected by comparing them to conflict situations where deeds committed by the sponsors and supporters go unchecked. This matter pertains to and reflects on Sri Lanka, and Sri Lanka alone. This does not mean that this case supersedes any of the other situations, but the current context is Sri Lanka, and that should be respected. If the world and its leaders were to act and re-act following the policy of every eye for an eye, and every tooth for a tooth, the vicious cycle of blame and revenge would never stop spinning.

However, as the ambassador for Bangladesh very prudently stated at the Council session, if Sri Lanka is not on board, then the resolution will have a very limited impact. Without the Sri Lankan nod to implement efficient rehabilitation and accountability measures, the resolution is but an empty bell with no sound.

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One thought on “The UN Human Rights Council Resolution on Sri Lanka’s Alleged War Crimes

  1. The human rights issue is being used by a handful of countries as a pretext and tool to pursue selfish interests, demonize the image of other countries and intervene in their internal affairs.

    The US shouldn’t behave as a self-proclaimed human rights judge. The US has never hesitated to point the finger at other countries’ human rights and to advocate that “human rights are superior to sovereignty” when it serves its own interests. But the US has refused to sign some of the major United Nations human rights covenants. On March 18, the UN Human Rights Council made 228 proposals for the US to improve its own human rights conditions, including urging Washington to ratify some key international human rights treaties, improving the rights for minorities and reducing racial discrimination. However, the US refused most of these proposals on the grounds that its human rights allow no intervention from the outside.

    The double standard embraced by the US testify to the fact that human rights are being used by some countries as a tool to interfere with others’ internal affairs and the idea that “human rights stand higher than sovereignty” has become a political slogan for some to justify their hegemonic activities.

    Until the outbreak of World War II, Western countries were still enmeshed in their history of colonialism, racial discrimination and outside aggression. The widespread national liberation and democratic movements across the world following the end of World War II quickly resulted in the collapse of the West’s long-held moral excuses that were used to justify their past crimes and “use of force” and it turned to concepts, such as “humanitarian intervention” and “human rights are superior to sovereignty”, as the main means to regain their lost moral dominance and maintain their dwindling domain of influence throughout the world.

    By using abstract terms and their own criteria to define the concept of human rights, Western countries have attempted to completely separate human rights from sovereignty and then cause conflicts in specific countries and regions from which they can benefit and achieve their own political purposes.

    Human rights in individual countries can only be realized and protected in a sovereign country, when there are still strong and weak countries and when hegemonic activities and power politics still prevail.

    A country belongs to all its people and the country’s sovereignty is the concentrated embodiment of its collective human rights. The existence of sovereign nations constitutes the foundation of the current international society and under this precondition human rights conditions worldwide have made continuous advancements.

    In the absence of sovereignty, a country will have no ability and means to protect the human rights of its people. From Kosovo to Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, under the pretext of “human rights being superior to sovereignty”, Western countries have chosen to use guns and bombs against the governments of these countries to realize their own ulterior motives. But the use of force has failed to bring the people in these countries improved human rights, on the contrary it has plunged them deep into humanitarian disasters and cost many their lives.

    Protecting human rights is a universal pursuit of people of all countries across the world. But if this issue is rigged by a handful of countries as the excuse to interfere with other countries’ internal affairs, the human rights of these countries and their people are ignored.

    Military interventions under the guise of moral slogans are in essence a kind of neo-colonialism.

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