INDIA’S ACTION AND GOVERNMENT’S REACTION TO UNHRC RESOLUTION
The Sri Lankan government attempted to make the best of a bad situation by pointing to the narrowness of its defeat at the UN Human Rights Council last week. Out of the 47 countries on the Council, 15 of them supported Sri Lanka and voted against the resolution on Sri Lanka proposed by the United States. In addition there were 8 abstentions, making a total of 23 countries that did not vote for the resolution. As this was only one less than the 24 who did vote in favour of the resolution the government sought to claim a near victory over the world’s superpower. The government’s bitterness was also reflected in its official statement after the vote that even its genuine efforts to bring about reconciliation in Sri Lanka had not been recognized at the UNHRC. President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself addressed a public meeting and said that the defeat in Geneva would please the LTTE proxies and Tamil Diaspora but not the people of Sri Lanka.
Underlying the emotional response to the UNHRC resolution from within ranks of the government was the perception of unfair treatment that many of Sri Lanka’s general population also shared. A glance at the newspaper headlines on the events that transpired the day after the vote in Geneva would reveal the negative feelings of government leaders. These headlines included We will not let anyone intervene in Sri Lanka’s affairs; Be united to defeat foreign conspiracies; Do not give India any economic concessions; Mervyn (Minister of Public Relations) threatens to break limbs of journalists; NGO conspiracy to create anarchy; and US resolution has set a very dangerous precedent. However there were also more positive headlines, in which sources that were not a part of the government were quoted, and which gave the news coverage a greater degree of balance such as US resolution not inimical to Sri Lanka; Frequent reporting to UNHRC averted; and Tamils must get justice and lead a life of dignity.
There has been a strong feeling within Sri Lanka that the government had been singled out for unfavorable judgment, which is felt even by those who are not necessarily supporters of the government. This sentiment has been compounded by the observation that many of those in the Tamil Diaspora who had once championed the cause of the LTTE, and funded its war machine, had metamorphosed themselves into human rights defenders in Geneva. Some of them were seen in the company of world leaders. During the final stages of the war many of them had denied that the LTTE indiscriminately and forcibly recruited children while holding the civilian population hostage. Even sections of the TNA took the same position instead of urging the LTTE to let go of the people and the children. But at the UNHRC the Tamil Diaspora and TNA were seen as campaigning against the Sri Lankan government on the same human rights platform alongside well known international human rights groups.
In retrospect, a preamble to the UNHRC resolution that mentioned the past context in greater detail and the role of the LTTE and its supporters in contributing to the human rights debacle at the end of the war might have made it more palatable to public opinion within Sri Lanka. This is an issue that may be considered at future sessions of the UNHRC when follow up assessments of developments in Sri Lanka are taken up. It has been said that only those who come before the temples of justice with clean hands can expect the courts to mete out justice on their behalf. The sense of grievance of the Sri Lankan government and the majority population of the country, that countries and groups that were guilty of human rights violations themselves had passed strictures on Sri Lanka, needs to be addressed if a change of heart within the larger population of Sri Lanka is to be obtained.
Another issue that has evoked a strongly negative reaction from the government is the possibility of the UNHRC resolution being made into an instrument to pursue charges of war crimes against it. While the UNHRC resolution does give the centre stage to the LLRC and its recommendations, it also contains language that can be construed as seeking to go beyond it. The resolution also critiques the LLRC report by “Noting with concern that the report does not adequately address serious allegations of violations of international law.” Although the LLRC did address issues of accountability in its report, this was not done in a comprehensive manner, as it was not a part of the mandate given to it by the President who appointed them. Therefore the LLRC findings on accountability are limited and it recommended independent investigations to be carried out into the few cases it looked into, including the controversial UK Channel 4 video.
Proponents of the UNHRC resolution have often sought to explain the resolution as a moderate and harmless one that merely calls on the government to implement the constructive recommendations of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. The thrust of the LLRC recommendations pertain to the rebuilding of Sri Lanka’s political institutions that have been progressively dismantled in the course of nearly three decades of fighting the LTTE. Today there is widespread criticism within Sri Lanka about the manner in which the present government in particular has set about dismantling the independence of public institutions and further politicized the public service. It has been a near miracle that the LLRC was able to go as far as it did despite the infirmities in its appointment and mandate, and the general political environment in which nationalist discourse prevails.
Despite the good governance focus of the LLRC, and ostensibly of the UNHRC resolution itself which gives central place to the LLRC recommendations, the Sri Lankan government has reason to be concerned. In its original draft version, the UNHRC resolution opened the door to an international presence within Sri Lanka in regard to accountability issues. The draft resolution stated that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and relevant special procedures mandate holders were to provide technical assistance and advice to the Sri Lankan government on implementing accountability measures, and the Sri Lankan government to accept it. This imposition of an external mechanism was anathema to the government especially in view of the strained relations with the UN High Commissioner. In any event, it is difficult to imagine any government in any part of the world that would wish to have external parties sit in judgment over the conduct of a war fought by its armies or even offer advice on how to protect human rights that has to be accepted.
Ironically it was India, whose vote against Sri Lanka came as a great shock, which also softened the potentially adverse impact of the UNHRC resolution on the Sri Lankan government. It did this by negotiating an amendment to the clause relating to external technical assistance to ensure that it only came after “consultation with, and with the concurrence of,” the Sri Lankan government. Whereas the original draft resolution seemed to make it compulsory for the Sri Lankan government to accept the UN High Commissioner’s technical assistance and advice, the final resolution gives the Sri Lankan government the opportunity to minimize international intervention that is unacceptable to it. In his letter to President Rajapaksa after the vote at the UNHRC, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh explained that the Indian delegation had “spared no effort and were successful in introducing an element of balance in the language of the resolution.”
At a time when Sri Lankan government leaders may be feeling a sense of betrayal at the vote in the UNHRC it is also important for them to realize that Sri Lanka is part of the international community, and abide by the commitments that they and previous Sri Lankan governments have made. When it fought the war against the LTTE, the Sri Lankan government did receive the political and military support of virtually the entire international community, including the United States that sponsored the UNHRC resolution and India which voted for it. This political and military support was given to Sri Lanka on the understanding that after the end of the war there would be structural reforms that addressed the political roots of the conflict.
Significantly, in his letter to the President, the Indian Prime Minister also reiterated his “conviction that a meaningful devolution package, building upon the 13th Amendment, would lead towards a lasting political settlement on many of these issues and create conditions in which all citizens of Sri Lanka, irrespective of their ethnicity, can find justice, dignity, equality and self-respect.” The implementation of LLRC recommendations, particularly those relating to the devolution of power, can go a substantial part of the way in meeting those commitments and ensuring that countries that are now critical of Sri Lanka will resume their positive support for it in the years ahead.