Post Geneva War Begins
Rights groups, Diaspora upbeat but Government defiant
By Easwaran Rutnam
It was a session marred by allegations and counter allegations on Sri Lanka, but, in the end, the resolution on Sri Lanka submitted before the UN Human Rights Council was adopted, not before there was a bit of drama.
The draft resolution submitted by the United States and co-sponsored by 41 countries, including those who do not have voting rights in the Council, was adopted with 23 countries of the 47 member council voting for and 12 against while 12 abstained.
big surprise came from India. The Indians were expected to back the resolution, but, instead, India decided to abstain on the basis that some clauses were not acceptable.
What remains to be seen now is if the Government will cooperate with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to implement the resolution, which includes a call for an international investigation over alleged human rights abuses which took place between 2002 and 2009.
So far, the Government has said a firm “NO” to an international investigation, but some are of the view that this position may change slightly with the end of the provincial council election fever.
International human rights groups are of the view that it will serve the Government well if they cooperate with OHCHR on the resolution instead of adopting a confrontational attitude.
“The Sri Lankan Government has twice ignored calls by the UN Human Rights Council to conduct an independent and credible investigation into allegations of violations during the country’s horrific civil conflict. Now, they have a fresh opportunity to restore some international credibility by cooperating with the investigation,” Asia-Pacific Deputy Director at Amnesty InternationalDavid Griffiths said.
The Government, however, fears the international investigation will not be independent if it is monitored by the High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.
External Affairs Minister G L Peiris accused Pillay of being biased, adding that statements she had made soon after the war was testament to this.
However, Human Rights Watch feels the investigation will be independent and will not only look at allegations against the Government but even the LTTE.
“There will now be an independent investigation into allegations of war violations and other serious abuses by both sides during the conflict in Sri Lanka. This is a welcome decision, and one that will encourage victims and activists in Sri Lanka who have strived so courageously for accountability and justice. India chose to abstain but should now encourage Sri Lanka to cooperate with the UN human rights office to put this resolution into motion,” South Asia Director for Human Rights Watch Meenakshi Ganguly said.
Meanwhile, the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), one of the most influential Tamil Diaspora groups based in London, which campaigned for an international probe on Sri Lanka, said that the international community must make it absolutely clear to the government what the consequences will be if they do not cooperate and/or wilfully obstruct the investigation.
“Since inception, GTF has consistently called for an independent international investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both sides of the armed conflict which ended in May 2009. As an independent international investigative mechanism, the OHCHR has been authorised to conduct a comprehensive inquiry in Sri Lanka, which will investigate the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both the Sri Lankan military and the LTTE forces in the last years of the civil war,” GTF said.
Among the countries GTF sought support from for the resolution was South Africa, but the South Africans decided to abstain from voting. GTF feels it is because South Africa is looking at playing the role of facilitator at negotiations aimed at reaching a political solution in Sri Lanka.
“We share the Tamil National Alliance’s view that an inquiry should happen as soon as possible to ensure that further evidence of breaches of international law are not erased by the Government of Sri Lanka. We urge the OHCHR to issue an authoritative public statement on how witnesses and their families will be protected in the event of those witnesses coming forward to give evidence to the inquiry,” GTF said.
Another Diaspora organisation based in London, Tamils for Labour, said the UK Government, one of the co-sponsors of the resolution, and other members of the international community, must also ensure that the investigation is provided with adequate resources and that the establishment of a proper witness protection program, for those that testify, is given the highest priority.
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), meanwhile, said that, while the resolution did not fully respond to calls from civil society for the Council directly to establish an international Commission of Inquiry, an investigation led by the OHCHR has the potential to deliver similarly powerful findings, particularly if the Office fully exercises its mandate to draw on the assistance of independent experts and special procedures with a focus on ensuring accountability, truth and justice.
“The resolution sends a strong message to the Government of Sri Lanka that the international community is not willing to turn its back on victims’ pursuit of truth, justice and accountability in Sri Lanka,” said ICJ South Asia Programme Legal AdvisorSheila Varadan.
The resolution is the third resolution adopted by the Council on Sri Lanka since 2012. The previous two called on the Government of Sri Lanka to undertake an independent and credible national investigation into allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.
Professor GL Peiris claimed that the US exerted pressure on some countries to back the resolution, including by warning that failure to do so may hurt US ties with those countries.
“Some countries had no choice but to back the resolution. They could not reject US threats as some countries have strong economic ties with the US,” he said.
He said that even Sri Lanka had refused to submit to pressure to accept the resolution and he asserted that there was a need to stand up to pressure from powerful countries.
“The fact is that some of these people want to see a political change in Sri Lanka. What cannot be done internally through elections, they are trying to do internationally,” he said.
Minister Peiris said that, in the end, the US resolution had minimal support from Asia and Africa and even most of the co-sponsors of the resolution were from Europe.
Peiris said the Sri Lankan Government will continue with its domestic process to address human rights related issues and not agree to an international process.
The Indian Stand
The explanation provided by India’s Permanent Representative to the UN Offices in Geneva, Ambassador Dilip Sinha, as to why India decided to abstain from voting for the resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council:
The UN Human Rights Council has adopted three resolutions on Sri Lanka since May 2009 when the three decades old conflict in that country ended. India has always been of the view that the end of the conflict in Sri Lanka provided a unique opportunity to pursue a lasting political settlement acceptable to all communities in Sri Lanka, including the Tamils.
India believes that this Council’s efforts should contribute to a State’s own efforts in the promotion and protection of human rights. We are strongly supportive of Sri Lanka’s continued engagement with the OHCHR. We encourage the High Commissioner to continue to provide technical assistance in accordance with the relevant HRC resolutions. We are also supportive of close engagement of UN Special Procedures with the Government of Sri Lanka. It was in this spirit that India supported the resolutions adopted by the Council in 2012 and 2013, which sought to promote such cooperation.
During the past year, there have been some notable developments in Sri Lanka. The Government of Sri Lanka has honoured its commitment to the international community to hold elections at the Northern Provincial Council. Further, the Government of Sri Lanka has taken steps to implement some of the important recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), such as Trilingual Policy, promoting the official use of the Tamil language and the upgrading of schools in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
The High Commissioner’s report mandated by this Council’s resolution of 2013 on Sri Lanka, rightly acknowledges the progress made in reconstruction, resettlement and implementation of some of the recommendations made by the LLRC established by the Government of Sri Lanka. At the same time, the report also notes that the Government of Sri Lanka has failed to ensure independent and credible investigations into past violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.
The implementation of LLRC recommendations lies at the core of reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka. India continues to underscore that the report of the LLRC, and its findings and recommendations, provide a window of opportunity to forge a consensual way forward towards a lasting political settlement. We call for effective and timely implementation of all the constructive recommendations contained in the LLRC Report, including those pertaining to missing persons, detainees, reduction of ‘high security zones’, return of private lands by the military and withdrawal of security forces from the civilian domain in the Northern Province.
The elections to the Northern Provincial Council in September 2013 were a significant step forward. However, much more needs to be done by the Government of Sri Lanka towards a meaningful devolution of powers. It needs to continue to take specific measures towards broad-based, inclusive, meaningful and genuine reconciliation with the minority Tamil community. We call on the Government of Sri Lanka to make purposeful efforts to fulfil its commitments, including on the devolution of political authority through the full implementation of the 13th Amendment of the Constitution of Sri Lanka and to build upon it.
As the closest neighbour, with thousands of years of relations with Sri Lanka, we cannot remain untouched by developments in that country. Since the end of the armed conflict, India remains engaged in a substantial way in the relief, resettlement, rehabilitation and reconstruction process in Sri Lanka. We have extended substantial assistance to the Government of Sri Lanka in its efforts for resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons, de-mining, education, connectivity, livelihood restoration, economic revival, etc. This has contributed towards return of a modicum of normalcy in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka.
In asking the OHCHR to investigate, assess and monitor the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, the resolution ignores the progress already made by the country in this field and places in jeopardy the cooperation currently taking place between the Government of Sri Lanka and the OHCHR and the Council’s Special Procedures. Besides, the resolution is inconsistent and impractical in asking both the Government of Sri Lanka and the OHCHR to simultaneously conduct investigations.
India believes that it is imperative for every country to have the means of addressing human rights violations through robust national mechanisms. The Council’s efforts should, therefore, be in a direction to enable Sri Lanka to investigate all allegations of human rights violations through comprehensive, independent and credible national investigative mechanisms and bring to justice those found guilty. Sri Lanka should be provided all assistance it desires in a cooperative and collaborative manner.
It has been India’s firm belief that adopting an intrusive approach that undermines national sovereignty and institutions is counterproductive. Any significant departure from the core principle of constructive international dialogue and cooperation has the potential to undermine efforts of this Council for promoting universal respect for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Moreover, any external investigative mechanism with an open-ended mandate to monitor national processes for protection of human rights in a country is not reflective of the constructive approach of dialogue and cooperation envisaged by UN General Assembly resolution 60/251 that created the HRC in 2006 as well as the UNGA resolution 65/281 that reviewed the HRC in 2011.
We are, therefore, concerned that the resolution has the potential to hinder the efforts of the country rather than contribute constructively to its efforts, and, hence, inadvertently complicate the situation.