The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution on Sri Lanka is a landmark in many ways. It dilutes the much despised blockade on country-specific resolutions that has often dogged the council; it indicates a positive change in the voting patterns of big and influential Commonwealth countries such as India and Nigeria; and it dismantles a longstanding impasse on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC that many feared might tire the international community into avoiding the question of accountability.
While these are good reasons for jubilation, it is important to remember that the current resolution is only a beginning and not nearly enough to actually realise justice in Sri Lanka. For this to be achieved, the international community has to be able to continue its scrutiny and judge Sri Lanka’s future actions towards accountability in accordance with international standards. If this does not take place, then the resolution would have served as a means for Sri Lanka to buy time for a long holiday from international pressures on accountability.
Further, the resolution gives domestic initiatives for accountability a chance at a time when allegations of international law violations point to involvement at the highest levels of government. If the international community fails to monitor Sri Lanka’s follow up to the resolution meticulously and act on shortcomings, it would amount to forfeiting the responsibility for initiating urgently-needed, independent, international investigations.
Countries that have voted in favour of this resolution should recognise that the positive nature of the resolution lies in the unsaid responsibility it places on the international community and the UNHRC to monitor and probe issues of accountability. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and it is the ultimate achievement of justice in Sri Lanka that will say whether the resolution has been a positive breakthrough for the council and the member states who voted for it.
Among Commonwealth country positions on the resolution, India’s stance in favour of the resolution has been the most striking, as it is viewed as a game-changer. Such positive changes bolster India’s reputation as the world’s largest democracy and its ambitions to play a leading role in the UN, including securing a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. This also means that the eventual outcomes of this initiative will weigh heavily on India’s reputation and ambitions. India will have to ensure that the resolution is not followed by inaction that leads to a lowering of international standards and the denial of true justice to victims in Sri Lanka.
The UNHRC took two steps backwards when it passed its 2009 resolution on Sri Lanka. Coming at the conclusion of Sri Lanka’s war, the 2009 resolution congratulated Sri Lanka on successfully winning the war, and ignored allegations of massive international humanitarian law violations in the conduct of the war. The current resolution has only taken one step forward by calling on the Sri Lankan government to implement the much criticised LLRC report and initiate “credible and independent actions” for accountability. The weak tone and wording means that there is much more work to be done. The UNHRC may have broken its Sri Lanka jinx, but it is yet to overcome the nemesis of inaction on urgent or chronic human rights crises that killed its predecessor — the UN Commission on Human Rights. In this regard, Sri Lanka has so far been the biggest test case for the council and continues to be so.
The writer is director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative