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Prejudice against UNHRC and Human Rights is Part of Our Problem

| by Laksiri Fernando

( March 20, 2014, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) There are frenzied protests organized by the supporters of the government against the impending resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), inside and outside the country. All these are by and large orchestrated by the government. Instead what they should have done is to negotiate the terms of the resolution diplomatically, both behind and open doors, to safeguard any national interests that might be jeopardized as a result of the implementation of such a resolution. The draft resolution allows ample opportunities for such negotiations directly by the Sri Lankan government.

Instead of negotiating themselves, the matter has completely been left for the friends of Sri Lanka, quite dubiously by the government. This is not the picture however given to the people in Sri Lanka. At the informal consultations held on the 18th, the Russian Federation, China and Pakistan have proposed some changes to the formulations of the resolution, undoubtedly favorable to Sri Lanka, but they have not touched very much on the operational paragraphs. It is reportedly Cuba, backed by Vietnam that have objected to the key operational paragraphs, but those objections will not take the resolution or Sri Lanka anywhere.

Possible Negotiations

Three of the phobias created by the government on accountability investigations are (1) that they are going to be arbitrary trials (2) they confine to the last stages of the war and (3) only the government actions will be investigated and not of the LTTE. If the above created phobias are correct then the resolution or the actions of the UNHRC would be ‘selective,’ bias and harmful to the country. However, these are far from the reality as can be seen by the section (b) of the key operational paragraph 8 of the draft resolution pertaining to an investigation.
“The Human Rights Council… requests the Office of the High Commissioner… To lead a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes by both parties in Sri Lanka and establish the facts and circumstances of such violations and of the crimes committed with the view to avoiding impunity and ensuring accountability with assistance from relevant experts”

There are very clear rules and principles emerging regarding the investigation in that draft resolution. The investigation will be on both parties. It will not confine to the last stages of the war. The investigations will be on alleged serious violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes. It will be comprehensive led by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN OHCHR) and not by any other international body. The scope of the investigation will be to establish the facts and circumstances of such violations. The purpose will be to avoid impunity and ensure accountability.

It is my view that whatever the weaknesses of UN system, this is the best for Sri Lanka under the given circumstances. In addition to avoid impunity and ensure accountability, I must add that such an investigation with the full cooperation of the government and the civil society organizations could and should ensure the halting of the recurrence of cycles of violence and conflicts in the country. In the absence of such an initiative, another cycle of conflict and violence might recur. There are all signs of such a situation at present in the country. Already the government is talking about a resurgence of terrorism as a scapegoat for the ongoing and intended human rights violations unleashed for political and authoritarian reasons.

Objections and Defiance

There have been opinions expressed in recent times against an ‘international investigation’ arguing that ‘foreigners’ can be prejudiced against Sri Lanka, particularly on the government or the Sinhala side. These are the views expressed in some of the protests, in addition to the sovereignty argument. It was during our school days that we learn from Harold J. Laski in his (translated) “Desapalana Viyakaranaya” (Grammar of Politics) that the state sovereignty is limited both internally and externally. He wrote the book before the UN was formed in 1945, and under the UN Charter, there are more limitations on state sovereignty when it comes to human rights or international crimes. That was the whole idea of the UN, after the atrocities committed particularly by Hitler and Mussolini or their regimes.

If the government strongly believes that Suddhas, as some of them call the Westerners disparagingly, cannot understand our culture, customs or history, then the best thing that they could have proposed was an investigation composed of both the UN OHCHR and the GOSL appointed experts, even fifty-fifty. I have suggested this before. The experts on human rights or investigations can come from anywhere, not only from the West. Darusman who headed the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts was an Indonesian. Navi Pillay who is the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights at present is a South African. But when it comes to people like Pillay, she is branded as Kottiya or Tiger because she happens to be of Tamil ethnicity. This is a clear cut racial prejudice or vilification. Anyway she is leaving her position in August.

Culture and customs don’t have much to do with investigations, except the culture of killing or culture of impunity that we all should abhor. The Sinhalese advocates accuse the Tamils or the LTTE as killers and the Tamil advocates accuse the Sinhalese or the government/s as killers. But when we come to think of it, both are the same. Some are killers on both sides, but not all. But all have to pay the price unfortunately. We fail to understand that since 1971 major cycles of violence have erupted in this country involving the state as well as non-state actors. The lives lost in vain have been enormous. I am not giving a number arbitrarily.

During the informal consultations on the 18th, some countries have wanted to give a time frame for the investigation. One suggestion has been to investigate since 1983 and that may satisfy the government’s expressed concerns. Another was to commence since 2002 which is the LLRC period. If the government wants to have a say on the time frame, again they should negotiate with the proposing countries. There may be some other matters that the government wants to negotiate and even they might succeed.

Complete defiance and rejection of the resolution is quite childish and some of the friendly countries are also becoming weary of Sri Lanka’s adamant position and that they have to run an extra mile in its indefensible defense. Many of these weary countries are in the African region. The ‘Lokay Uthum Rata’ (the greatest country in the world) mentality is not going to work in international relations and particularly on human rights. The mentality is quite parochial.

Defeating the resolution is mere wishful thinking. Since 2009, the government has antagonized the country’s traditional friends and allies, India in particular, through their bigoted policies on ethnic and religious minorities or simply by the behavior of some people who handle external affairs. There can be few countries who would still support Sri Lanka, like Pakistan, perhaps for the last time.

Prejudice and Contempt

What underpins Sri Lanka’s bigoted policy on the proposed resolution or the reasons behind that, is the present government’s prejudice against the UNHRC and human rights. This is unimaginable for a government which is headed by a President who went behind the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva and the Western countries during the 1989-91 period, as the Leader of the Opposition. I am a witness to what he did in Geneva. There can be two possible explanations to this mammoth contradiction. First is that he went to Geneva not because of any conviction of human rights, but for political expediency or to utilize human rights merely as a political weapon. He must be judging all others from the same yardstick, perhaps to an extent correctly. Even that time, there were LTTE threats and terrorism in the country.

Second is that the scenario in respect of human rights have completely changed in the country. He is now the President for the second time, and even eying for a third term after surreptitiously amending the constitution. Unfortunately, there is no leader of the opposition to go to Geneva today. At least he (MR) had the guts to do so. Two and half decades of brutal war has brutalized the minds of many Sri Lankans on both sides of the ethnic divide. People have become largely insensitive to human life and human values, quite unknowingly perhaps. Otherwise how can you explain the claim that there was only ‘zero civilian casualties’ during the intense battles that waged in the Eastern Vanni? This is not only a claim by the government but by some people. Some of the explanations can be psychological. Some Tamil extremists may say that this is the Mahavamsa mentality. But they are no different. Both extremists are the products of the same predicament. Perhaps most of these people are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The brutalization of minds is also expressed in religious fanaticism of the BBS and Ravana Balakaya (RB). Look at the way they speak and also act, and what they utter. Those are beyond accepted decency. It is not long time ago that Galagoda Atte Gnanasara, a leader the BBS, wanted to ‘shred Rauf Hakeem into pieces’(“Patta Pathuru Gahanawa me parayawa”) also calling him Paraya or bastard. Hakeem is the leader of a minority party, the Sri Lanka Muslim League (SLMC), ironically a partner of the anti-minority rights government. I am not sure whether to call this monk ‘Venerable’ or not. This is not an ordinary organization, but a neo-fascist outfit under the clear patronage of the country’s defense establishment. These are the dangers that Sri Lanka is facing today.

Consult Your Doctor!

When you have an ailment what do you do? You go to a doctor. Likewise when a country has serious human rights problems it should go to the UNHRC for proper treatment. When your ailment is related to abnormal behavior or psychiatry and refuses to take treatment it is normal that attendants may have to coerce you a little. Otherwise you may harm yourself and others.

Perhaps I am giving an extreme example. Perhaps Sri Lanka is not that insane, hopefully. It can still change its cause. UNHRC is not a monster as some people like to picture to the ordinary masses. The President himself should know better from his past experience. It is one of the primary institutions set up by the United Nations General Assembly to carry out its tasks and mandate on human rights under the UN Charter. It is not an instrument of ‘Western imperialism’ as some would like to claim although Western countries are very active and even vociferous due to the ambiguous policies of the non-Western countries on human rights.

Why do the non-Western countries are apathetic or even pathetic when it comes to human rights? If there is any imbalance created within the UNHRC that is largely due to the mistakes and faults of the non-Western countries, particularly Russia and China. Even if it is a problem, one should not throw the baby with the bath water. Within the UNHRC, over 70 percent of the members are from what we used to call the ‘Tri-continental’ countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America. If we cannot convince them, what is the point in browbeating against the West?

It is not only a prejudice against the UNHRC. It is a prejudice against human rights. More than a prejudice, it is also a contempt. It is this prejudice, contempt and even distortions that have led to the conflicts, violations and violence in the past in Sri Lanka. It may be true that the LTTE or its supporters used human rights in a distorted manner to achieve some of their ulterior political objectives. That is not a reason to reject human rights. The international community or the UNHRC are not blind to see the difference between the genuine minority rights and extremist political claims perhaps in the name of minority rights.

What might be at the core of the government’s rejection of human rights is the rejection of the minority rights in the country of particularly the ethnic and religious minorities. This has been the case for a very long time, and even the opposition needs to have a greater clarification on this matter. A UNHRC involvement in the country is necessary not only on the issues of accountability but also to educate the people and even the politicians on these matters of human rights.

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