A Turning Point
The Unhrc-sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka is crucial for post-conflict ethnic reconciliation. This international move could also possibly backfire.
Sri Lanka faced a tough audience
at the recent UNHRC meeting
In May 2009, Sri Lanka was rejoicing. The country had killed two birds with one stone. The crushing of the LTTE resolved one of the fundamental problems the state was facing for over three decades and Sri Lanka’s status internationally was boosted as a state, which achieved the unachievable, i.e. successfully terminating an armed resistance. The Sri Lankan leadership began to argue that it could become an example for other nations on how to deal effectively with terrorism. The international community also rewarded Sri Lanka with a commendation in Geneva for defeating terrorism.
However, the international euphoria did not last too long. Stories of very serious human rights violations allegedly committed during the last phase of the battle against Tamil civilians and surrendered LTTE cadres began to emerge coupled with photographs and video clips of these incidents, which the international groups claimed “tro- phy footage,” taken by members of the Sri Lankan armed forces. International actors, including the UN and USA, which assisted Sri Lanka to defeat the LTTE, were under pressure to address the alleged human rights violations, some of which were amounted to “crimes against humanity.” Under the leadership of the US, some of the Western states began to demand an “international investigation” on the alleged atrocities. A resolution against Sri Lanka demanding an international investigation was to be introduced in Geneva. Eventually the US cosponsored a deeply watered down version of a resolution in the UN Human Rights Council session in March 2012, which demanded that Sri Lanka implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), a commission appointed by the government of Sri Lanka. There was no mention of international investigation against Sri Lanka.
Yet, Sri Lanka rejected all allegations of human rights violations and opposed the resolution in Geneva, tooth and nail. It argued that there was no intentional violence against the Tamil population as what was undertaken was a “humanitarian operation” and not a war. However, Sri Lanka’s fundamental argument was that the states that were sponsoring the resolution, especially the US, had no right to criticize Sri Lanka because they were also guilty of serious human rights violations elsewhere. The killing of Osama Bin Laden and the treatment of Guantanamo Bay prisoners were cited as evidence of US involvement in human rights violations. Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, Chief of the Sri Lankan delegation in Geneva, on the day of voting declared, “physicians heal yourself,” a term that essentially means to solve your problems first. Sri Lanka strategically also used the argument that a resolution against it may serve as a precedence and could
backfire on other states in the future.
One of the major questions that transpired from this scenario was why the US was so interested in investigating violence or the alleged human rights violations in Sri Lanka. This question gained significance due to the fact that the US was a major ally of Sri Lanka during the last phase of the war and extended crucial strategic assistance to the country in the war against the LTTE. It was clear that the US unleashed a major assault in Geneva to get the resolution approved. It maintained that an international investigation and establishing accountability were crucial for post conflict ethnic reconciliation. Therefore, the US brought the resolution on Sri Lanka on the ground that it was trying to help the small state.
It is possible that there are other reasons as well. The US and other western co-sponsors of the resolution certainly wanted to preempt the possibility of Sri Lanka becoming a model for conflict resolution in terms of internal violent conflicts. States like Pakistan and Nepal have already begun to discuss Sri Lanka as a model worthy of emulation, to deal with their problems. The US may also have geopolitical reasons to sponsor the resolution. The rapidly increasing Chinese presence and influence in Sri Lanka is certainly a problem for the US as it has a strategic interest in the Indian Ocean region. The US was losing its grip on Sri Lanka as, in the post-ltte era, China emerged as the major partner of Sri Lanka and a predominant player in the region. The resolution also has the potential to ensure some western control over Sri Lanka and as a result, mitigating growing Chinese influence in region.
Sri Lanka, however, was confident that it could successfully defeat the resolution in the Human Rights Council, largely due to the fact that it had powerful friends in the Council. China and Russia, both Security Council members, have constantly supported and protected Sri Lanka from international criticism. They also voted against the resolution in Geneva. States that supported Sri Lanka in the Council argued that it is wrong to bring in country-specific resolutions as it amounts to interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. It is also obvious that these states agree with Sri Lanka on the argument that the resolution, in the future, could come to haunt them.
On March 22, 2012 the US sponsored resolution on Sri Lanka was endorsed by the UNHRC by 24 to 15 votes with eight states abstaining. The resolution empowers the UNHRC to work with Sri Lanka to implement the LLRC recommendation and requires Sri Lanka to come up with a roadmap. The immediate Sri Lankan reaction was to reject the resolution saying that it did not need external assistance in the implementation of human rights standards. Since the resolution is “non-intrusive,” thanks to India, and non-binding, due to the backing of China and Russia, Sri Lanka has the ability to be intransigent. However, non-compliance with the resolution has the potential to instigate more obstinate decisions in the future. One has to wait and see how Sri Lanka will react in practice as rhetoric is for local consumption only. It is, however, imperative to note that the resolution has the potential to be a turning point in the history of Sri Lanka.