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Opposing an instrument of bias

Hoping for a 'world government' that is fair and even handed to all countries

  • Jehan Perera, Colombo
  • Sri Lanka
  • April 9, 2012
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Prior to the passage of a US-sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka on March 22, the Sri Lankan government gave free rein to its nationalist members. Those powerful speakers mobilized the nationalist sentiments of the general population and brought them to the streets to demonstrate public opposition to the charges leveled against the government.

More than a fortnight after the vote in Geneva, the public stance of the Sri Lankan government appears unchanged in its opposition to the resolution that was passed by the UN Human Rights Council.  Shortly after the resolution was passed, the government minister vested with the portfolio of public relations publicly threatened to break the legs of those Sri Lankan activists who had campaigned internationally against the government.

The government leadership continues to insist that it has been right and justified in its post-war conduct and accuses the international community of punishing it solely for winning the war against the LTTE [Tamil Tigers]. By that same token, those who supported the UNHRC resolution are branded as either being LTTE supporters or those hell bent on dividing the country.

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. 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 center stage to the LLRC and its recommendations regarding good governance and reconciliation, 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.”  Therefore notwithstanding 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 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.

The defeat in Geneva has undoubtedly been a very negative experience for the government which had, hitherto, a track record of victory that would have created an impression of invincibility. Government leaders appear to have believed that like in 2009 they would be able to defeat the resolution that called on Sri Lanka to probe human rights violations and accountability for alleged war crimes in the aftermath of the war.

In this context they appear to be seeing their defeat in Geneva to be the outcome of a biased and politicized international order where double standards prevail. They are able to cite numerous examples of the Western countries protecting themselves and their allies, such as Israel and Bahrain, from censure despite criticism from other countries, and even a majority of them.

However, a realistic assessment of the international system is that it favors the interests of those countries that are most powerful in it and who contribute most to its sustenance. The international system is still in the process of evolution and has far to go before there is a world government that is even-handed, just and fair to all countries.

The main protagonist that the government is combating today is no more the LTTE but the infinitely more powerful countries of the Western world. Proponents of the charisma of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the valor of the Sinhala nation may claim that the Sri Lankan government will emerge victorious from the unequal combat. They may advocate that it is better to fight injustice than to compromise. But the government’s case will be that much stronger if justice prevails within Sri Lanka rather than impunity and the rule of men, which the LLRC recommendations are meant to cure.

Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council and author of From War to Peace
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