President Ranil Wickremesinghe has rightly questioned Western double standards on Human Rights (HR), at an event in Welimada last week whereby countries in the Global South are hounded for HR issues while basically ignoring the HR abuses committed by rich countries or even their allies in various blocs. It has also been observed that many Western countries turn the other way when their preferred rulers in other parts of the world commit HR abuses.
The President’s assertion came in the midst of the Israeli assault on Gaza that followed the Hamas terror group’s brutal slaying of almost 1,400 Israeli civilians on October 7. Sri Lanka and many other countries have agreed with the notion that Israel has the right of self-defence, within the boundaries of International Humanitarian Law (IHL).
However, even Western leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron have acknowledged that the Israeli counter-attack is rather disproportionate, with over 10,000 mainly civilian casualties reported in the Gaza Strip. This includes over 4,000 children. United Nations (UN) Secretary General Antonio Guterres has described Gaza as a “graveyard” for children.
Even hospitals and ambulance convoys have been targeted, although Israel says that some of these attacks have been instances of “misfire” by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad themselves.
Despite the four-hour pause in the fighting announced by Israel and the frequent opening of the Rafah Crossing for aid convoys, there is growing unease in Western countries over Israel’s war tactics and belligerent attitudes. A group of diplomats at the US State Department expressed their displeasure over these events in a so-called “Dissent Channel Cable”, a mechanism which allows State Department employees to express their opinions without fear of reprisals or dismissal.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who met the authors of this Cable, has since urged Israel to dial down on the rhetoric and the fighting. Among the other Western Governments that have expressed concern over the war in Gaza are Ireland and Canada. Both countries have called for a significant “humanitarian pause” in the Gaza War, if not an outright ceasefire. Most Global South countries including Sri Lanka have urged restraint on both sides, bearing in mind the high number of civilian casualties in both Israel and Gaza.
Sri Lankans can recall how certain Western countries sent emissaries who called for a ceasefire in the final days of the Northern conflict in May 2009. Since then, the West has relentlessly scrutinised Sri Lanka’s IHL and HR records during and after the war years at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), through various adverse Resolutions.
Many other Third World nations are also targeted in the same manner. Yet, only a very few Global North countries have rebuffed Israel for its conduct over the years and right now. Many Resolutions moved against Israel have been vetoed by one or more of the five Permanent Members of the UN Security Council (UNSC).
There has been little scrutiny and even less regret over the civilian casualties caused by the wars in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria, which were primarily led by Western nations.
Iraq had no Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), yet that was the lie perpetuated to attack Iraq. Perhaps the only somewhat positive story emerged from Afghanistan, where the foreign powers restored education for women and ensured other freedoms for the population. Still, that does not efface the fact that thousands of innocents perished in that country over the years when foreign powers held sway. In Yemen, Western weapons have brought death and destruction to a large number of people, not to mention starvation.
Many Global South nations have argued that HR should not be used as a “weapon” to subdue or control them. Specifically, they say that foreign aid should not be tied to HR records. This is why some countries in Asia itself have stepped in to fill the breach, without imposing any conditions on the aid they give.
But this could have a negative effect from the perspective of Western nations, who generally like the Global South to follow their democratic norms and values. Instead of “punishing” developing nations over their HR issues, Western countries must engage with them for capacity building and raising HR awareness, for example among Police and Security Forces personnel.
HR is a complex issue with many interpretations, although all countries are bound by the basic framework of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR must however be upheld and observed globally. There cannot be one set of IHL and HR laws for one particular group and a separate set for another group.
Sri Lankans, having gone through a debilitating war for almost 30 years and having faced another terror attack just four years ago, know the pain of the people in Israel, Gaza and the Occupied West Bank. There should be no place for terrorism but civilians should not be thought of as “collateral damage” in the quest to contain terror. IHL and HR should not be confined to mere words in warfare – there should be real emphasis on protecting the civilians caught in the crossfire.