Image: UN Rights Commissioner (UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferre)
The report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights would give an indication of the forthcoming decision of the UN Human Rights Council with regards to its resolution on Sri Lanka. The report is primarily a fact based one. Almost every assertion made is backed by evidence. Particularly damning are the large number of cases given in which serious human rights violations and crimes took place, but which have got stalled somewhere or other in the legal system. Examples would be the murder of Wasim Thajudeen, Sri Lanka’s Rugby captain, and Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper. There are some assertions however that can be contested. One such is the assertion that the security forces, when they withdraw from land they have occupied, destroy the buildings of the people and leave behind only a flattened landscape for the people to return to.
Security forces personnel who were attending a university educational programme on peacebuilding denied this allegation when I brought it up before them. They said that the people’s houses would have either been destroyed in previous rounds of fighting or had fallen into disrepair than being purposely destroyed in an act of vindictiveness. They said that the soldiers who now are stationed in the North and East were not those who fought to gain or defend those pieces of land, and that they would much prefer to be stationed outside the North and East than within it. Therefore they do not have an interest in destroying the houses of the people when they vacate the land. The allegation that the security forces behave in this destructive way needs to be independently investigated.
On a previous visit to Jaffna to a new resettlement area, I too heard this allegation from the people who had just been resettled. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission such as the one proposed by the government, but still to be approved by President Maithripala Sirisena, would be indispensable in coming up with the factual situation. The UN Human Rights Commissiner’s report is a fair reflection of the divided thinking about the present reconciliation process in the country and it is not deliberately partisan or condemnatory. On the contrary it appreciates what the Sri Lankan government has done over the past four years especially with regard to the increase in democratic space and sense of security of citizens.
The High Commissioner’s report states that “Since 2015, the general situation has improved with regard to civil and political rights: there have been advances with respect to freedom of expression and assembly, incipient efforts made to consult representatives of civil society, a robust right to information framework has been established, and independent commissions, such as the Human Rights Commission, have been strengthened, and relations between security forces and civilians have improved. As noted above, commendable progress has also been witnessed in the State’s cooperation with United Nations human rights mechanisms. Certain parts within the administration, in particular in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms, the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation and the independent commissions, have been consistent in their commitment and determination to improve the human rights situation.”
From these statements it can be seen that the intention of the UN Human Rights Commissioner is not to undermine or weaken the Sri Lankan government as alleged by the political opposition as a matter of routine. The crude analysis of the opposition sees a conspiracy of international forces together with the Tamil Diaspora to weaken the Sri Lankan state and thereby to pave the way for a separate Tamil state. However, the reality in terms of present day geopolitics is that the international system does not wish to weaken states, which form the bulwark of international order. Weakened states are the ones that are seen as most likely to be penetrated by terror networks and anti-systemic forces that jeopardise the international order. Therefore the strengthening of potentially weak states, and not their further debilitation, is usually the priority of the international community.
In the present period there is a theory that the main threats to the international order come not only from aggressive states but also from failing or conflict-prone states, or even from non-state actors. Theories of conflict and instability increasingly point to the weakness of the state as a key factor in the onset of violent conflict – the ‘‘declining state’’. Amongst foreign policy elites, this is a paradigm shift in security thinking: challenges to security come not from rival global powers, but from weak states. As a result, greater efforts and resources have been forthcoming from powerful states to contain, resolve and to some extent prevent civil war. This is especially the case when the potentially weak state is one that supports the existing international order, which is the case with Sri Lanka under the present government.
In the context of this analysis of the international community’s concerns about the vulnerability of weak states, President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to send a three member delegation to represent him and the government at the ongoing UN Human Rights Council session can be seen as an aid to the government rather than as an obstacle. President Sirisena has said that his delegation will address the international community at the UN forums in Geneva with an intention to persuade them to leave Sri Lanka to resolve its problems by itself without continuing to interfere in its internal affairs. This is in opposition to the already articulated foreign ministry position that Sri Lanka will be a co-signatory to the new resolution that will be jointly produced by the two sides. The dual message from Sri Lanka will send a message to the international community that the Sri Lankan government is a beleaguered one that cannot be excessively pushed.
President Sirisena’s recent role in creating the political crisis that destabilised the country in October last year was specially noted in the High Commissioner’s report. “The High Commissioner joins the Secretary-General in welcoming the resolution of the political crisis in Sri Lanka through peaceful, constitutional means, and applauds the resilience of the country’s democratic institutions. Nonetheless, for seven weeks, the legitimacy and the legality of a number of authorities were in question, which led to further delays in the implementation of the recommendations made in Human Rights Council resolution 30/1, for instance owing to staff changes in key institutions and uncertainty with regard to reporting lines… The political crisis at the end of 2018 further obstructed progress owing not only to the temporary paralysis of institutions but also because it generated fears that another government might not embrace the reconciliation agenda.”
With regard to the UN High Commissioner’s report, the two issues that opposition politicians and the media have been most critical of, and using to mobilise opposition to the government, are the High Commissioner’s call for universal jurisdiction principles to be followed in regard to Sri Lankans travelling abroad to be arrested in foreign countries for crimes they may have committed in Sri Lanka, and for a hybrid court which will lead to foreign judges sitting on Sri Lankan courts to judge whether war crimes took place or not. Both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have said that they do not agree with the hybrid court in particular. A scenario in which Sri Lanka speaks in two voices at the UN Human Rights Council will send a message to the international community, especially those countries that have goodwill towards Sri Lanka, that the Sri Lankan government should not be further weakened by their demands.