UN human rights commissioner in the firing line

Protests in front of the UN compound in Colombo usually call for more assertive action by the world body, but this week was different: The People’s Liberation Front (PLF), the second largest opposition party, held a demonstration calling on UN Human Rights High Commissioner Louise Arbour to mind her own business, and her language.

The PLF’s criticism of Arbour stems from comments she made in recent speeches that human rights violators in Sri Lanka, even those in senior government posts, could be charged in international criminal courts.

“The high commissioner warned that violations of these rules by any party could entail individual criminal responsibility under international criminal law, including by those in positions of command,” the UN said in a statement on 15 January.

Arbour’s statement reflects her concern over the possibility of increased civilian casualties with the end of the ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers on 16 January.

The PLF and other groups, including the pro-government National Patriotic Movement (NPM), said they took Arbour’s comments as a veiled threat to discourage military operations by government forces to dislodge Tamil Tigers from areas under the latter’s control in the north.

“Arbour directly threatens the political and military leaders who are involved in taking measures for national security,” the National Patriotic Movement (NPM) said in a statement on 18 January. “What she says in diplomatic language is that if anyone takes steps to liberate the Wanni and Killinochchi areas [under Tiger control] they would be branded as war criminals and brought before international law. This is clearly a threat.”


Photo: Buddhika Weerasinghe/IRIN
Supporters of the People's Liberation Front, including parliamentarians, protested on 23 January in front of UN headquarters against UN High Commissioner for Human Right's Louise Arbour's latest statements on the need for human rights oversight

The PLF also came out strongly against Arbour’s statement and said it was “international terrorism” to attempt to influence the actions of a democratically elected government.

“If any politician or military officer is taken before international law for taking decisions on behalf of the motherland,” PLF leader Somawansha Amarasinghe said on 16 January, “they would have to take them over our dead bodies.”

The NPM warned such statements could endanger the lives of UN staff and requested UN officials to be more careful. “We also call upon all responsible officials of the UN in Sri Lanka, considering the safety of the employees of the UN and its assets, to refrain from making such utter[ly] foolish statements that would enrage the people in this country,” it said.

Government reaction

The government reaction to Arbour’s statement has been more measured. Disaster Management and Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said the decision to pull out of the ceasefire was taken after lengthy deliberation and the government would not condone or support rights violations by its forces.

“As in the past, even at the cost of delay in the implementation and successful completion of military operations, the government will take all necessary and meaningful measures to avoid civilian casualties and hardships to civilian populations,” Saramasinghe said in a statement on 16 January, adding, “the government is compelled to indicate to the UN high commissioner for human rights that it considers her statement on the end of the CFA [ceasefire agreement] containing warnings on ‘individual criminal responsibility’ as being untimely, inappropriate and unacceptable.”

Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva called Arbour’s comments gratuitous and biased. “The high commissioner has once again proven one point - how unqualified the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is in monitoring and reporting human rights in Sri Lanka as an independent actor,” it said on 17 January.

The government has had a long-running disagreement with Arbour, who visited Sri Lanka in October 2007, over the latter’s proposal to set up a field presence of the high commissioner’s office in Sri Lanka to monitor and report on abuse.


Photo: Buddhika Weerasinghe/IRIN
Military and police in front of the UN office in Colombo just before the People's Liberation Front protested there against the latest statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour on 23 January 2008

Civic groups speak out

Civic groups in Colombo see the latest attack on the UN official as an extension of recent efforts by political groups and sections of the media to discredit international agencies, including the UN.

A group of 13 national organisations including the Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Law and Society Trust and the Free Media Movement have banded together to defend Arbour and others who have come under criticism for advocating international human rights monitoring. They said attacks like the recent one on Arbour could hamper assistance to the most needy in Sri Lanka and endanger the lives of humanitarian workers even more.

“Where it concerns the war-affected civilian population in the north and east, it is the humanitarian organisations that have often been the main source of institutional solace to the people,” they said in a statement on 17 January.

“Over the last two years humanitarian agencies have faced multiple incidents of violence, including killings and disappearances of humanitarian staff, attacks against offices and vehicles, and threats and intimidation, which has made working in Sri Lanka all the more challenging.”

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