A principled stand | Sunday Observer

A principled stand

28 March, 2021

Sri Lanka has weathered yet another storm at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), where the Western world once again ganged up against a small country that had the audacity to defeat terrorism. These self-same countries sent emissaries to Colombo at the height of the battle against terrorism in 2009 probably with the aim of saving of Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, not necessarily the Tamil people who were held hostage by him in the No Fire Zones. Ever since Sri Lanka spurned their intervention and won a massive victory over terrorism, they have been hounding Sri Lanka at the UNHRC and other multinational forums.

Last Tuesday, the UNHRC in Geneva adopted by an e-vote, the draft Resolution titled “Promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka” (A/HRC/46/L.1/Rev.1) tabled by a ‘Core Group’ of countries, during its 46th Session. Out of the 47 Members of the Council, 22 countries voted in favour, 11 voted against and 14 abstained. It is implicit from the voting result that the majority of the Council did not support this Resolution.

In fact, in many countries the abstentions have been seen as being supportive of Sri Lanka. In India, politicians including Vaiko, Stalin and Chidambaram have taken the Central Government to task for “supporting” Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. It is clear from the voting patterns that most Asian nations have either supported Sri Lanka or abstained from voting.

One chilling effect of this resolution, as explained by Sri Lanka on several occasions, is that it may impede the legitimate battle against terrorism worldwide. Most countries will be reluctant to press ahead with decisive military and other actions against terrorism, lest they be accused of violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) at a later date. Moreover, their military personnel could be targeted for crimes against humanity etc. In this respect, the Resolution against Sri Lanka could set a dangerous precedent. Nevertheless, some of the strongest supporters of Sri Lanka at the UNHRC were countries battling terrorism on their soil, such as Pakistan and the Philippines.

Ironically, most Western countries represented at the UNHRC have brought in laws that prevent the UN and other international mechanisms such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague from prosecuting and persecuting their military personnel for war crimes committed at home or abroad. The US even withdrew from the UNHRC on these grounds, though the present administration has indicated a desire to rejoin the grouping. Needless to say, some of these countries are responsible for heinous crimes against humanity in a range of war theatres from Yemen to Afghanistan.

They clearly have not heard the expression “What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander”. Alas, this is an unequal world that we live in and the Western world usually bends international laws in their favour. Fortunately for Sri Lanka, at least two Veto-power wielding Permanent Members of the UN Security Council (Russia and China) are firmly on its side, which makes any referral of Sri Lankan War Heroes to the ICC via the UN General Assembly/UNSC highly unlikely at any point of time.

But even this action against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC is a blot on the International Community. Sri Lanka not only ended terrorism per se – it also saved hundreds of thousands of civilians who were held at gunpoint by the LTTE (in fact, LTTE cadres shot at civilians who tried to flee) and even rescued and rehabilitated around 12,000 ex-Tiger combatants. A recent international survey concluded that Sri Lanka has the third best program of this nature. Today, they have rejoined the mainstream society as useful, economically empowered citizens.

The other danger manifested from the Resolution against Sri Lanka is that certain nations have cast aspersions on internal processes in Sri Lanka, a sovereign nation. They have clearly commented on internal developments that should be of no concern to other countries. For example, the appointment of serving and ex-military personnel to various high posts, which the report by UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet has highlighted, is purely an internal matter. Virtually all Sri Lankan Governments have engaged in this practice, not only the present one.

In the US, new Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin is a decorated war hero who retired just a few years ago. As far as we know, no other country or organisation has commented adversely on this appointment, which the US has every right to make. The same theory should apply to the Third World. After all, many observers have pointed out that interfering in the domestic affairs of sovereign states is tantamount to violating Article 2 (7) of the UN Charter which states: “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorise the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any State...”

At the same time, Sri Lanka has firmly rejected isolationism. Sri Lanka is an active member of the International Community and of the UN. As stated earlier by Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, Sri Lanka will continue to engage constructively with the UN and its agencies in the same spirit of cooperation that have stood for over six decades for the betterment of its people, including through the achievement of sustainable development goals, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies as well as international obligations and undertakings. Instead of penalising Sri Lanka, the International Community should give it the time and space needed to fulfill its accountability and reconciliation obligations through purely domestic mechanisms. Interference and intrusion can only stymie this process and delay the healing of the wounds of conflict.