By Yolanda Foster, Sri Lanka team, Amnesty International
This is a vital first step towards justice for the thousands of people who have suffered during and since the end of the country’s brutal, decades’ long war in May 2009.
My visits to the Human Rights Council in Geneva have been a regular part of Amnesty International’s advocacy on Sri Lanka since 2009.
But contrary to what you may think, there’s little glamour in lobbying work which often involves long hours sitting in the Serpentine Gallery waiting to catch diplomats entering and exiting Council Chambers in between debates.
I try to impress on diplomats the human cost of human rights abuses. The officials register these stories but are still to deliver any action that will have concrete impact on the ground.
On the eve of the 14th session, I remember sifting through a set of photos an aid worker sent me after visiting Menik Farm in Northern Sri Lanka.
The stills of frail survivors standing in line with empty water bottles deeply affected me.
Why were thousands of ordinary survivors of the war interned in military-run camps with squalid conditions instead of being welcomed back into Sri Lankan society?
Why were they still suffering instead of being offered adequate food, water and shelter?
The purpose of my first visit to the Council after the formal conclusion of the war was to bring these issues – of international humanitarian and human rights protection work – into Council debates.
There were children in the camps, young mothers, surely the Council would recognize that these individuals were not a security threat and that their internment was a form of collective punishment by the Sri Lankan authorities.
I was too optimistic about the promise of protection at the heart of the Human Rights Council mandate, as the Council was slow to act.
In fact, in 2009 the Council congratulated the Sri Lankan government for defeating ‘terrorism’ sidelining the protection needs of survivors in Sri Lanka.
At the 19th session of the Human Rights Council, council member states have finally seen through the governments’ spin and demanded accountability.
They have voted, by an overwhelming majority, for a resolution that can bring justice to Sri Lanka.
It calls for implementation of the recommendations made by the Sri Lankan government’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and asks for a plan to implement those recommendations and investigate the alleged violations at the end of the conflict.
It is seen by many member states as an appropriate way to support reconciliation in Sri Lanka. I’ve heard it described as “mild” and “constructive”.
Yet the response of the Sri Lankan authorities to the resolution was disappointing to say the least.
Instead of working with other Council members to find a way to work together, the Sri Lankan delegation engaged in stand offs with missions and sustained attacks on a number of human rights defenders.
The delegation, swelling to more than 50 members, was described by one observer as ‘a battalion’.
Photos taken by Sri Lankan officials at side events were followed by personalized attacks in state run media.
One media editorial describes human rights defenders as ‘degenerates’.
The lack of decorum by the Sri Lankan delegation did not go unnoticed by the President of the Council, Laura Dupruy Laserre who pointed out the “incidents of harassment and intimidation” as NGO representatives were photographed and videoed without their permission.
“I take these allegations very seriously and they will be investigated,” she pledged.
I had coffee with a couple of Sri Lankan activists and we discussed why the resolution is important for their country.
The resolution isn’t a cure or an alternative to reform but a first step for member states at the Council to help Sri Lanka re-engage with human rights – and maybe even create the space for internal political pressure for recommendations of the Lessons Learnt Commission to be implemented.
We’ve highlighted the lack of credible mechanisms and pointed to a lack of political will to deliver justice.
With the adoption of this resolution, this can be overturned. There is a chance for moderate voices in the country to rebuild institutions damaged from decades of war.
Government Commissioners have recognized the problem of disappearances, challenged security forces’ complicity with torture and asked for independent investigations.
Professionals in the country recognise that rebuilding the rule of law requires dialogue and commitment not simply denial and dismissal.
Today’s Human Rights Council vote is a positive step forward for Sri Lankans many of whom want to end the longstanding impunity for human rights violations that have marked the country for decades.
This blog was amended on 22 March 2012 to reflect the recent vote in the Human Rights Council.