The UN Human Rights Council approved on 21 March a second resolution requesting the Sri Lankan government to do more to address alleged wartime rights violations, but observers question whether such resolutions can create meaningful change.
The latest resolution, sponsored by the USA, is similar to last year’s, calling on the Sri Lankan government to “to fulfill its public commitments, including on the devolution of political authority, which is integral to reconciliation and the full enjoyment of human rights by all members of its population.”
The new resolution calls on Sri Lanka to formally respond to UN “Special Rapporteurs” - investigators working on behalf of the UN - who have pending requests to visit the country to cover such issues as minority rights; freedom of peaceful assembly and association; freedom of opinion and expression; extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and enforced or involuntary disappearances, according to the latest report on Sri Lanka by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.
The resolution once again put the onus on the Sri Lankan government to act on allegations. Instead of the international investigation that Pillay called for in her report, the resolution called “upon the Government [of Sri Lanka] to conduct its own independent and credible investigation into allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.”
Alan Keenan, Sri Lanka project director at think tank International Crisis Group (ICG), told IRIN the resolution was unlikely to change much. “The latest resolution is unlikely to have any immediate impact in Sri Lanka,” but he added:
“If the [Sri Lankan] government does continue to ignore these international concerns, I expect the pressure will grow, with an increasing chance that in the next year or two the Human Rights Council will authorize an international investigation and that other international bodies will take stronger action.”
The assessment was shared by Rukii Fernando, a member of the Rights Now Collective for Democracy, a Sri Lankan NGO. “Although the resolution falls short of expectations, it's a step in the right direction, in the context that wheels of international justice turn very slowly,” he said.
In March 2012, the US introduced a similar resolution to the Council that sought a roadmap from the Sri Lankan government on how it would implement recommendations from the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) - a Sri Lankan government-appointed body that investigated the conduct of military and rebel operations during the final months of the country’s civil war (1983-2009).
According to the UN, tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives from January to May 2009, many of whom died anonymously in the carnage of the final days of the war between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland.
In her latest report on Sri Lanka, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Pillay said, to date, the government “has not adequately engaged civil society in support of a more consultative and inclusive reconciliation process”.
Pillay renewed calls for an international investigation into allegations of rights abuses and wrote that despite progress in resettling more than 400,000 war displaced, and work on highways and other infrastructure projects in the former northern war zone, “considerable work lies ahead in the areas of justice, reconciliation and resumption of livelihoods.”
Colombo-based advocacy NGO Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) has accused Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government of selectively carrying out LLRC recommendations in the National Plan of Action (NPA), approved in July 2012. The NGO wrote of a “disconnect between suggested activities and the problems on the ground”.
Analysts say the lack of answers and action on those who went missing, were killed or were abused during the conflict, as well as lack of power devolution to ethnic Tamils in the north’s former war zone, have stunted progress on accountability.
Colombo countered claims of selective implementation by arguing the NPA is an evolving process with “short, medium and long term goals”, Minister of Plantation Mahinda Samaraisnghe, leader of the Sri Lanka delegation to Geneva, said in his address to the Human Rights Council on 27 February.
Keenan agreed the 2012 resolution has hardly achieved anything apart from increasing domestic criticism of the government’s alleged inaction on the LLRC recommendations. And the 2013 one would have been more effective had it given wider investigative powers to the UN Human Rights Commissioner - which it did not - he added.
2012 resolution “rather weak”
A group of Christian clergy from the island’s north and east wrote to the Council on 18 February, calling last year’s resolution “rather weak”. They said lacklustre action was due to lack of political will and not capacity. The signatories said cooperation with the UN would be insufficient to force change and called for, instead, an international independent commission of inquiry to look into allegations of violations committed by all sides during the war, with a proper witness protection mechanism, citing findings from a UN Secretary-General appointed panel of experts that investigated accountability issues in 2010. And while domestic critics have become more vocal, they are still a small contingent.
Meanwhile, international criticism has dead-ended, noted Keenan. “International criticism has yet to lead to any real reforms - just more government promises that are never honoured.”
Not that this has stopped international groups, including ICG, from publicly criticizing the government. ICG released its report, Sri Lanka’s Authoritarian Turn, on 20 February with Human Rights Watch’s Sexual Violence against Tamils by Sri Lankan Security Forces following a week later. A documentary produced by a team of UK journalists, No Fire Zone - the third in a series on the bloody conclusion of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war - started screenings on the sidelines of the ongoing Human Rights Council meeting, despite a formal Sri Lankan government protest.
A possible effect of the latest resolution may be countries downsizing their delegations - or boycotting altogether - the biennial Commonwealth Heads of State Meeting set to be held in Colombo in November.
Local NGO member Fernando told IRIN that if the government aggressively resists action advocated by the Human Rights Council, at least some of the 54 Commonwealth states may boycott the upcoming meeting to send a strong symbolic signal.
And while the boycott may “not result in any serious change in the ground situation in [the] short-term,” Fernando said, such symbolism is still more potent than resolutions.
ICG’s Keenan said the Commonwealth meeting could be a catalyst for more critical action on Sri Lanka, whose government would chair the scheduled meeting.
Both the 2012 and 2013 resolutions limited outside “interference” (for example, international sanctions), putting the onus on the Sri Lankan government, noted CPA.
Though still a “remote” possibility, Sri Lanka may lose out on export earnings if investors react negatively to the latest resolution, said a leading local economist who asked not to be identified.
In August 2010, the European Union (EU) suspended a preferential tariff agreement, Generalized System of Preferences Plus, which had been granted to Sri Lanka since July 2005. The scheme is available to "vulnerable" countries that have "ratified and effectively implemented" a number of specific human rights, labour law and good governance conventions.
In announcing the suspension the EU said an investigation from 2008-2009 found shortcomings in Sri Lanka's implementation of three UN human rights conventions - the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
While the EU suspension shuttered some garment factories, the overall impact has not been “debilitating”, according to the Joint Apparel Association Forum, a Sri Lankan clothing industry body.
Over 70 million Tamils live in India.
As during the 2012 Human Rights Council meeting, India’s government played a key role in limiting the 2013 resolution to seeking action from the Sri Lankan government, as opposed to calls from human rights activists to also threaten sanctions. Analysts told IRIN India’s government wants to minimize other countries’ leverage, partly to avoid the appearance that India has been overshadowed.
“India as a policy does not support sanctions,” said Ramani Hariharan, a former Indian intelligence officer who headed the intelligence unit of the Indian peacekeeping forces in northern Sri Lanka in the early 1990s.
Hariharan said with India’s national elections due in 2014, the central government there is feeling pressure from parties from its southern state of Tamil Nadu - ethnically allied with neighbours in Sri Lanka’s Tamil-dominant Northern Province - to be more aggressive in pressuring Sri Lanka to act on longstanding humanitarian grievances.
He added that New Delhi would likely try to persuade Colombo to devolve power to the Tamil minority in the north, rather than support sanctions or an international investigation.
The 13th constitutional amendment, signed in 1987, introduced a system of nine provincial councils designed to devolve power to areas where Tamils live. Currently, all but the council in Northern Province - the country’s only Tamil-dominant province - is operating, though the president was quoted recently in regional media as saying that council elections are scheduled there in September.
“India will be satisfied as long as [the Sri Lankan] Rajapaksa [government] provides face-saving alternatives,” concluded Hariharan.
The 2013 resolution welcomed the government’s announcement that it planned to hold the Northern Provincial elections. Provincial elections in the former war zone have been one of India’s key demands.
Fernando, the local activist, said if the government softens its stance and indicates a willingness to cooperate with international critics, then calls for an international probe may weaken.
But ultimately, ICG’s Keenan said - external pressure failing - the impetus for change must be from within. “Ultimately, real change can only come from Sri Lankans.”