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Human Rights: Double standards and Sri Lanka by Radhika Coomaraswamy


[it is difficult to punish the permanent five members of the Security Council because of their veto]
By Radhika Coomaraswamy-

As a global community we have inherited this edifice of human rights that has been created over decades. We cannot escape it and our best diplomats have understood that and have engaged it successfully at different stages of our history. Nevertheless the one question on everyone’s mind is of course the question of double standards. I hear this constantly. If the US is not in the dock for Iraq why anyone else?

Before I speak about the important issue of double standards let me point out two things: _

    At the same time the institutions and processes set up earlier in the 1980s and the 1990s are now working in an even more systematic manner, constantly fact finding, gathering evidence and filing reports. As I said earlier, information on human rights abuses is gathered and processed on a constant basis. As a result violators of human rights today have really no place to hide. We then have this strange paradox of intensive human rights activity from the grassroots upward existing alongside major human rights challenges at the international level.”

    – Radhika Coomaraswamy

First- are we asking the correct question when we scream “Why the double standards”? Should our response to international criticism by a defensive “we may be wrong but you are worse”. Is it not better for us to just focus on doing the right thing regardless of what others say or do? After all no one will be able to criticize us if we do not give them the room to do so.

Second, while it is true that it is difficult to punish the permanent five members of the Security Council and hold them accountable for violations because of their veto, Sri Lanka is not the only country that is criticized internationally. As you saw with the recent incidents in Gaza, the High Commissioner for Human Rights was as critical if not more critical of Israeli actions and the Human Rights Council has passed two resolutions against Israel including one asking the OHCHR to conduct an inquiry along the lines of the resolution on Sri Lanka. In this case one must also point out that the United States was isolated. Israel may not be punished by the UN system because of the US veto in the Security Council. But, she will be monitored and evidence will be gathered, perhaps for action at some future date.

Nevertheless, there is no question that international power and politics insulates some countries over the others. And yet, the truth is that double standards do exist even in national legal systems. Let us turn the searchlight inward-let us take our own national system. A minister ties someone to a tree- he is not arrested. A religious figure incites violence, he is not arrested, a politician murders another politician in cold blood in front of a crowd with plenty of witnesses but now wanders free – yes we too have impunity for the rich and the powerful. National and international legal systems are not that different.

So we must ask ourselves- is the answer to these double standards at the national and international level to do nothing, dismantle the entire criminal justice system, let everyone go free and allow for widespread impunity. Surely not- the answer is to keep putting the pressure so that impunity will eventually disappear and everyone will finally be held accountable.

The humanitarian approach to all this has always been very patient- one step at a time. Justice for one person is better than justice for none. There may be double standards but with one conviction there will also be a measure of deterrence. Convictions always send a very strong signal. After the case against Thomas Lubanga was filed by the ICC with regard to child soldiers whenever I met rebel groups in the Sudan or even the Philippines the first question was- “what about the ICC”? That to me is the beginning of deterrence.

Today in Sri Lanka we are immersed in a climate of cynical realism and arguments about how to out conspire the next conspiracy theorist. We are told today that the international community is dominated by the US and other imperialist powers. These powers are out to get us and force regime change. We of course have done nothing wrong. We are told that we should not participate in what is a western, hegemonic UN process. Anyone who consorts with the West or the UN is a traitor. Our duty is to subvert the system until it changes- when that is, is anybody’s guess. We are urged to embrace and celebrate our status as a brave, international outcast. A kind of 1960s Macho nationalism that is loved by many prevails in Sri Lanka today.

And yet we are searching desperately for foreign direct investment. Over 60% of our exports go to the west, including our children for education and employment. We also want to become the capitalist hub of South Asia as well as a pleasure and tourist resort. Surely there must be a more sophisticated response?

This sort of cynical realism, which lives in constant fear of encirclement and in a state of siege, is not the best mindset to move our country forward- it never is. It is a ploy of defensiveness and evidence of a lack of imagination. It cannot be our future. We must have hope that we will eventually have the courage to confront the ugliness within us and that truth and justice will prevail even in the hardest of cases.

As you can see from what I have said so far- human rights is a theory and a practice at the United Nations has been long in the making. It is not the plot of an individual country or groups of countries- it is a discourse used by everyone and is precious to many blocs around the world. It is a concept that has grown and evolved because of situations on the ground whether it is World War II, apartheid in South Africa, disappearances in Latin America or Genocide in Rwanda or the new technologies of war.

Just before I left the UN I met an Asian diplomat who said that the days of human rights and western dominance were over and that it may be the best time to leave. As he said this with a cynical smile I thought of the countless women and children whom I have met around the world, victims of the worst kind of brutality for whom human rights was devoid of politics and a real whisper of hope. I remember one woman in Rwanda, who had been brutally raped and who was forced to kill her own child by burying him in the sand, say to me, “Take my story, take it to Geneva- this must never happen to another woman”.

Martin Luther King, in a quote that is very famous, once said “the arc of history bends toward justice”. I too believe that- it is often a matter of time- one year, ten years perhaps even a hundred years but the search for truth and justice will happen.

[ Excerpts frm A Talk given at the Colombo Club, August 2014]
The full speech

    International Human Rights: Dispelling the Myths

is apublished by the groundviews


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