UNHRC Resolution 30/1 Implications for Sri Lanka (Based on a presentation to the OPA - Part 1)

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By 2017-10-12

Dr. Palitha Kohona

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted the resolution entitled 'Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka' on 1 October 2015, Resolution 30/1. (After a resolution promoted by the European Union (EU) was defeated in 2009 and a resolution tabled by Sri Lanka was adopted by an overwhelming majority. An attempt to table a resolution critical of Sri Lanka in 2010 was aborted). Resolution 30/1 has been described by some critics as a Constitution amendment project for Sri Lanka. Interestingly, it was co-sponsored by Sri Lanka. In 2017, Sri Lanka obtained a two year grace period to implement the resolution, further confirming the country's acquiescence with Resolution 30/1.

Ominously, this year, the High Commissioner noted that in the absence of progress on the implementation of Res. 30/1, other countries could invoke the 'universal jurisdiction' principle to start judicial proceedings against persons accused of having committed war crimes. This quantitative leap in the approach of the normally circumspect High Commissioner has caused more than a few eyebrows to be raised. Special Mandate Holder, Ben Emmerson, went way beyond his brief when he threatened dire consequences for Sri Lanka not vigorously implementing the resolution. We have reached the end of another Human Rights Council Session. Sri Lankan nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) took centre stage at this session.

Resolutions critical of Sri Lanka

Prior to 2015, the Human Rights Council had adopted three resolutions critical of Sri Lanka since 2012 with every year witnessing a diminishing number of votes in support of Sri Lanka and a gradual tightening of the provisions in the resolutions. Interestingly, with the change of government, Sri Lanka decided to co-sponsor the 2015 resolution. The key objective of the new government in co-sponsoring the resolution appears to be to accommodate the concerns of its main sponsors (mainly some key Western counties) and appease them with a view to ending the increasingly bitter confrontation that was developing between them on the one side and Sri Lanka on the other. Perhaps, the government even expected to be rewarded with large dollops of aid money from the West, but this has not happened while demands for its implementation have increased. (The new administration in Washington has reduced the small amount of aid provided to Sri Lanka, US$ 35 million, to a measly US$ 3.4 million). Earlier, with the gradual deterioration of key bilateral relationships, and the slow motion drift away from each other, the US began to take the lead in driving the resolution critical of Sri Lanka in 2012 at the UN Human Rights Council. A country that was once considered a warm friend of Sri Lanka was now acting in an outright hostile manner. The US military had even shared vital intelligence with the Sri Lankan military during the critical last stages of the war although other parts of the administration, with the Leahy Act providing the inspiration, had an increasingly hostile attitude. The US lead was followed by the UK and Canada, with the EU joining in. The result was inevitable. The US, with diplomatic missions in a majority of countries of the world and far reaching economic and military clout, had the type of diplomatic and financial influence that could overpower many challengers. Even friends such as India, a stalwart of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and a longstanding opponent of country specific resolutions in the HRC, advised Sri Lanka at ambassadorial level to reach an accommodation with the West. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka, for reasons that cannot be explained in a few words, decided to confront the US at the Human Rights Council and to oppose the resolution. Sri Lanka just did not have the diplomatic and financial muscle to take on the US head on. The US was able to ensure that even India, despite its longstanding proximate relationship with Sri Lanka, joined those who would vote against us in 2014. It was not reason or logic that prevailed, but diplomatic brute force. Some capitals of member countries of the HRC were telephoned in the middle of the night by senior officials of the Obama Administration.

Lobby groups

And Sri Lanka, by far, was not even the worst offender to incur the wrath of the international human rights lobby groups and the leading Western HR champions. However, once the decision was made in Colombo to confront the US, the diplomats gamely spearheaded Sri Lanka's campaign, including in New York. Capitals were lobbied at great expense by fly-in, fly-out ministerial level delegations (who may not have been well prepared for the task) while diplomats at multilateral missions were tasked to approach their counterparts. It was increasingly clear that the outcome would not be a happy one for Sri Lanka.

Unfortunately, the US position continued to harden and Sri Lanka was getting pushed into the same basket of usual suspects reserved for the states regularly blacklisted by Washington. Examples include North Korea, Burma, Iran, Belarus, and Syria. This was an unfortunate development in the bilateral relationship.

Could this change in the relationship be explained in a simple manner? Much more research will need to be done. In my mind, one thing was clear. It was not only the possibility that the Sri Lankan forces may have committed human rights violations that drove Washington to spearhead a campaign to demonise Sri Lanka and its leadership. There were other more likely candidates for this demonic label of 'really nasty state.' In my view, there were political and personal goals and prejudices at play as well. Some have even suggested that this was part of a regime change project.

Picking on Sri Lanka

The three human rights champions of Washington, all women, (Power, Rice, Donoghue) may have decided to pick on Sri Lanka for their own reasons. They seem to have formed a dislike for the Sri Lankan leadership and were not reluctant to say so publicly.

Iraq, Afghanistan, and definitely Israel were 'no go' areas for any American official with ambition. Iran and Syria were a waste of time because the countries concerned were in the habit of ignoring Washington's agonized, vitriolic, and selective complaints about human rights violations. Sri Lanka was always in the lime light, thanks to an array of human rights organisations that targeted the country regularly and a good candidate to be dragged over the coals. There was a cheer squad of Tamil expatriate organisations and human rights NGOs egging them on. The media could not get enough of the bad side of Sri Lanka. Channel 4 produced heart wrenching documentaries on Sri Lanka's war on terrorism from an anti-government perspective annually and, intriguingly, prior to the Human Rights Council sessions. Channel 4 seemed to popularise the view that Sri Lanka was the nastiest of them all, largely based on allegations which have been challenged repeatedly by Sri Lanka. Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, once said that a lie repeated often enough would become the truth. This was happening in the case of Sri Lanka.

In addition to this, prominent elements of the Sri Lankan leadership glowed in the light of Western approbation. The elements behind the resolution may have figured out that denying them the approbation that was so eagerly sought, was a punishment by itself.

Most importantly, Sri Lanka seemed to take the bait and respond as expected. Was it more like a game?

Personal confrontations and prejudices most certainly encouraged powerful individuals in the West to strive for the kill in Sri Lanka. There is no doubt that personal relations are a major part of diplomacy. After having defeated a bloody terrorist group at immense cost, the Sri Lankan leadership failed to recognize the importance of continuing to cultivate the power brokers of the West.

Sri Lanka, for its part, may also not have adequately addressed some of the allegations or orchestrated its message contradicting the Channel 4 documentaries, the media stories and the negative perceptions that were mounting. There were considerable opportunities to do so without appearing to toe the HRC line. Sometimes we may have missed the trees for the woods.

Opportunities dismissed

But the opportunities presented were not used, ignored, or simply dismissed. Significantly, well resourced Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) support groups kept up the anti-Sri Lanka campaign using influential members of the Western political establishment, the NGO community, and the media. Yasmin Sooka, a member of the Secretary General's personal Panel of Experts, has continued to highlight absurd numbers of civilian deaths with no substantiation. She has even made the outrageous suggestion that the government deliberately starved the civilians. This allegation just cannot bear scrutiny as the food supplies to the areas controlled by the terrorist group were regularly monitored by a high level committee (the Committee for Coordinating Humanitarian Affairs) that included the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the UN and the ambassadors of the US, Norway, and Japan. You will recall that Hillary Clinton received funding from the group, 'Tamils for Hillary' which was affiliated with the LTTE while the LTTE was a proscribed foreign terrorist organisation in the US. Later, the campaign was obliged to return the contribution quietly after representations were made at the highest level. That did not stop Hillary Clinton from subsequently talking about bad terrorists and good freedom fighters.

The possibility of orchestrating a regime change may also have entered the minds of the powerful sympathizers of the Tamil Tigers in the West. The UNHRC provided a useful platform to enhance the negative image of Sri Lanka.

Continued tomorrow

(Dr Palitha Kohona is former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations)

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