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Distressingly for Rajapaksa administration ‘Accountability’ will be the elephant in the room

Gibson Bateman
Sri Lanka’s Minister of External Affairs, G.L. Peiris, has recently given one additional reason for the passage of a resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN’s Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva: “collective commitments.”  Evidently, Mr. Peiris had been informed by one of his European counterparts that certain members of the European Union (EU) were unsupportive of the resolution, but were compelled to vote in favor of it, since a group decision had been taken by the EU.

Mr. Peiris went on to say that even some US Congressman did not view the HRC in a positive light, due to the fact that the body is “politicized.” (It is unclear to this writer how a United Nations forum where nation states meet to discuss human rights could be apolitical, but I will not belabor that point).

In addition, Mr. Peiris also announced in Parliament that the government would not tolerate foreign intervention of any kind.

If this is post-Geneva government policy, what does all of this mean?

The Sri Lankan government mismanaged its time and resources in Geneva. Besides, it was never really clear who was leading the delegation anyway. Was it G.L Peiris or was it Plantation Minister and Special Human Rights Envoy Mahinda Samarasinghe?

It will be interesting to see how Rajapaksa’s administration handles questions related to the resolution, national reconciliation and international diplomacy moving forward. Having just been embarrassed in Geneva, now would be an appropriate time to show more political maturity and to craft a practicable strategy that the government can act upon over the next twelve months.

What Next?
The recent remarks made by G.L. Peiris miss the point: irrespective of “collective commitments,” the flaws of the HRC and the seemingly contradictory stance of some Western nations on this matter, the resolution on Sri Lanka has been passed. The Rajapaksa administration should spend more time talking about how it is going to comply with the resolution and less time making excuses for its feckless diplomacy and failed policies, both domestic and foreign. Instead, President Rajapaksa is busy talking about how his country has been “victimized” as a result of biased media coverage.

The president forgot to mention that, when it comes to media, Sri Lanka is one of the least free places in the world. And, particularly when it comes to print media, there are virtually no strident critics of government policy.

Unfortunately, these are all early indications that Rajapaksa’s insecure government is still unable to face reality. The merits of the resolution on Sri Lanka can be debated endlessly, but the fact that 40 nations signed on as co-sponsors is telling. It appears that Sri Lanka’s shoddy human rights record will continue to garner attention, at least until March 2013. At that time, the HRC will reconvene for its 22nd session and the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) will present a report as to how it has worked with the Sri Lankan government to implement the LLRC recommendations.

Now, according to the resolution, OHCHR can only “assist” the government with the regime’s consent. But, just a few days after the passage of this resolution, the government is still talking about Western conspiracies, lamenting the faults of the HRC and making it clear that it wants and needs no foreign assistance.

It is unfortunate that the appetite for a stronger resolution in Geneva did not materialize this time around. However, what will happen if the government continues to prevaricate when it comes to implementing the LLRC recommendations and responds tepidly to offers of international support?

The Endgame

If the Rajapaksa administration does not take this resolution seriously, it is obviously making the following political calculation: Nothing will happen (except inertia and empty rhetoric) at the 22nd session of the HRC.

Relatedly, political grandstanding and intransigence on this issue, while concurrently extolling the virtues of Sinhala nationalism, will continue to resonate with the masses in Sri Lanka; so the Rajapaksa administration will keep those exhortations alive.

If the government is right about the HRC, President Rajapaksa will have played his hand brilliantly and would further consolidate his power. Yet, if he is wrong, Sri Lanka will again be embarrassed at a United Nations multilateral forum and may face consequences (like another (tougher) resolution or perhaps economic sanctions) at that time.

And, most distressingly for the Rajapaksa administration, that dreaded “A” word, accountability, will be the elephant in the room. The continued deterioration of the rule of law, the lack of respect for minority rights and, most importantly, the government’s refusal to act upon the recommendations outlined in its own presidentially-appointed commission are what (hopefully) give the words “independent investigation” meaning nearly three years after the end of the civil war

Gibson Bateman is an international consultant based in New York City. He is a graduate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). Bateman has worked for leading NGOs in Latin America, Africa and South Asia.This article first appeared in International Policy Digest and next in Foreign Policy Journal

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