Sri Lanka Perspectives – March 2021
Sri Lanka: Learning from UNHRC resolution
As expected, the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted the resolution titled “Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka” (A/HRC/46/L.1Rec.1) with 22 countries voting for it while 11 against (for Sri Lanka) on March 23. Eleven countries including India abstained. Sri Lanka Foreign Affairs Minister Dinesh Gunawardena’s claim in parliament that it was “implicit from the voting result that the majority of the Council did not support this Resolution” would be dismissed as quibbling.
A big chunk of 10 of the 14 members of Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) abstained, because of issues smacking of anti-Muslim stance, like mindless resistance to allow the burial of Muslim victims to the Covid-19 and officially thinking aloud about closing down madrasas and banning of burqas. Other such actions include hounding police officers who investigated corruption cases against Rajapaksas and threatening contrarian opinion makers in the media etc did not endear members to Sri Lanka.
This was the sixth resolution on the subject tabled before the UNHRC since 2012. So, the writing in the wall is clear: Sri Lanka has not been able to address international and local concerns on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in the country. It is not only Rajapaksa’s who failed in making a sincere effort to implement the resolution. The Yahapalana government bought time for three years, by co-sponsoring Resolution 30/1 but made only feeble efforts to implement it.
The four-member core group led by UK, which drafted the resolution, appears to have been influenced by the scathing report of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Ms Bechelet. There are three key stipulations in the resolution. It requests of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OCHR) “to enhance its monitoring and reporting on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka, including on progress in reconciliation,” and to present an oral update to the UNHRC at its 48th session, as written update at its 49th session and a comprehensive report that includes further options for advancing accountability, at its 51st session, both to be discussed in the context of an interactive dialogue.”
It introduces a new accountability process on evidence of international crimes committed in Sri Lanka for use in future prosecutions. It establishes a dedicated capacity within the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCR) “to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence” of gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in Sri Lanka and to advocate for victims and survivors and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in member states with competent jurisdiction.”
However, the resolution has given Sri Lanka time till September 2023 to improve its record to meet the requirements of the resolution. But the Sri Lanka government appears to be in a defiant mood to evolve a game plan to constructively bring the resolution to a close. If this attitude is not changed, we can expect the resolution to hang like a Damocles sword over Sri Lanka’s head beyond 2023. The complexion of the UNHRC is changing as the US is now backing its efforts and India will complete its term as a member. There are clear indications of larger US involvement under Joe Biden’s leadership in the Indo-Pacific region as part of the Quad framework in which India will be playing bigger role. Sri Lanka needs to understand and take advantage of the changing strategic dynamics.
Sri Lanka government’s approach to the UNHRC session, even after knowing the issues that would come up, showed a lack of strategy. Answer to the simple question “how to achieve a win-win situation for Sri Lanka in the UNHRC session?” probably never figured in the minds of its leaders. Or probably it got submerged in the sophistry of sovereignty and UN charter violations.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a military strategist with hands on experience in operational planning, had won the Eelam War. In spite of this, under his watch Sri Lanka’s performance at the UNHRC session was bereft of strategy. In spite of the government packed with veterans from the three services, there appear to be a lot of confusion in strategizing the approach. Of course, perhaps the disconnect between the President and the ruling Sri Lanka Podjujana Peramuna (SLPP) coalition added to the confusion.
Silicon Valley disruptive technology and innovation analyst Jeremiah Owyang explains in simple terms the difference between strategy and tactics: “strategy is done above the shoulders; tactics are done below the shoulders.” The simplistic statement hides a lot of difference between strategy as what you want to achieve and tactics as how you go about achieving it.
If we apply this yardstick to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy statement at the opening of the 8th Parliament on January 3, 2020, his difficulties in reconciling it to the UNHRC issues of “promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka” can be understood. His vision includes respecting aspirations of the majority of the people because “only then sovereignty of the people will be safeguarded.” He will defend the unitary status of our country and protect and nurture Buddha Sasana, “whilst safeguarding the right of all citizens to practice a religion of their choice.”
However, the President’s actions have defied safeguarding the rights of all citizens to practice a religion of their choice as well as humanitarian laws enshrined in the Geneva Convention. So, the President has to tailor his actions to meet requirements within his policy goals. That would require promoting ethnic reconciliation while recognising Sri Lanka as the home of Theravada Buddhist Sinhalas, tolerating the practise of other religions and ensure human rights are respected by rule of law with full accountability through amendment to the constitution or drafting a new one. Otherwise, Sri Lanka may well end up at the UNHRC in 2023, with yet another loss of face. That will be an avoidable tragedy