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Searching for justice amid the posturing

Get ready for another toothless UN resolution

  • Jehan Perera, Colombo
  • Sri Lanka
  • February 26, 2013
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The forthcoming session of the UN Human Rights Council is once again headline news. This time too, like last year, the US government will be sponsoring a resolution on Sri Lanka at a meeting in Geneva this month. 

It is likely that the resolution to be presented at the forthcoming rights council session will be considerably less powerful than what has been called for by a large number of Christian clergy from the former war zones of the North and East of the country.

Their demands include a “strong and action-oriented resolution on Sri Lanka” with the specific demand to create “an international and independent commission of inquiry to look into allegations of violations of international law by all sides during the war, with a proper witness protection mechanism.”

The clergy have also called for the appointment of a special rapporteur to address past and ongoing rights violations and to advise the government on reconciliation.

Despite the building pressure to address rights violations, the government appears to be less disturbed about the process than it was the last time a UN resolution was considered.

When the US pushed for a previous resolution in March last year, the government made every effort to block it. It lobbied the international community and vilified supporters of the resolution at home.

The resolution called on the government to implement the proposals of its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report, while also noting that Sri Lankan officials have failed to adequately address alleged serious violations of international law.

Perhaps the more placid response this time is the result of a government more confident in its hold on power and less fearful of the consequences of the resolution.

So long as resolutions against it in international forums are confined to the realm of words, the government feels there is no cause for alarm. 

The government is also well aware of the limits of US power in pushing for a hard hitting resolution. In sponsoring its resolution on Sri Lanka, the US would be recognizing the need to obtain the support of non-Western countries in the UNHRC who form the majority of countries and who see Sri Lanka as a kindred nation. 

They will be able to argue that a mere one year is not a sufficient period of time to be able to make a fair assessment of what has been done and not done in terms of implementing the 2012 resolution. 

The aftermath of the US-sponsored resolution in 2012 has shown the limited ability of the international community to take action in the face of opposition. 

The meeting in Geneva did not stop the government from impeaching the country’s chief justice on largely political grounds. There was some speculation that the government might stall the impeachment of Shirani Bandarayake until the March session of the UNHRC was completed, rather than provide more ammunition to its detractors. 

But this speculation proved to be without foundation as Bandarayake was both impeached and removed in short order. In addition, the government’s confidence would also have grown with the visit of the three-member US governmental delegation on a fact-finding visit to Sri Lanka. 

Their statement in Sri Lanka was that the US would follow up on its March 2012 resolution at the UNHRC with a “procedural resolution.”  The emphasis on procedure suggests a lack of emphasis on substance. 

The government has prepared an impressive list of progress reports, action plans, committees, activities, indicators of achievement and date lines. It also has its own military’s report on their implementation of the recommendations of the LLRC.  

These ‘progress’ reports have to be accepted at face value, as there is no independent verification process. In place of independent verification, the government is able to show visible changes in the post-war landscape that is impressive to the not-so-well-informed outsider. 

Those who last saw Sri Lanka during the war and see it today would be considerably impressed by the visible changes that have occurred. They will see open roads where there were once barricades and checkpoints, and also feel comfortable as they speed upon well-paved roads while looking upon the new office buildings and luxury hotels that have replaced the destruction of war. 

The government’s tough approach towards the international community is based on the understanding that most international institutions, especially UN bodies, require a great deal of consensus between disparate actors – something that is difficult if not impossible to achieve when considering practical and punitive action.

In a recent interview given to the Sunday Times newspaper in Sri Lanka, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, was asked why there was to be another resolution on Sri Lanka when her own report on the government’s implementation of the resolution showed little impact. 

In reply she said, “It is not that the last resolution has had little impact, but rather that the government has made little progress in pursuing true accountability and reconciliation measures.” 

She also noted that “in response to the resolution, the government has at least made committees and plans of action, and there is a framework in which to measure progress.”

In these circumstances the challenge to those who wish to use the UNHRC forum in Geneva to take action against the Sri Lankan government becomes clearer.  They will have to keep the resolution of March 2012 alive on the agenda to be brought up again in March 2014 with an independent assessment of implementation. 

Indeed, this is what the Christian clergy of the North and East have also called for in their statement. This will coincide with country’s next national election cycle.  What is significant is that the issue of accountability will not subside until the Sri Lankan government in its present manifestation, or a new one, is able to demonstrate on the ground that it has fulfilled the imperatives of reconciliation. 

Mere posturing about action plans and political maneuvering may buy time and ensure survival for the day, but will not make the problems in the country go away.

Jehan Perera is a Harvard-educated lawyer and executive director of the National Peace Council in Colombo

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