Learning together from Geneva mistakes by Jehan Perera
The resolution on Sri Lanka that is to be voted on this coming Friday at the UN Human Rights Council is tighter than the draft that first made its appearance two weeks ago. This would be disappointing to the Sri Lankan government that worked hard through its friendly countries to dilute the draft resolution, if not defeat it entirely. However, mistakes made by the government and circumstances beyond its control have worked against it.
Many of the government’s problems have arisen from the fact that important decisions are not taken by collectively by the Cabinet, or by cabinet sub-committees, but by individuals or by individual ministries. However, matters that impact upon the entire country need to be discussed by a larger number rather than by a lesser number, as this way more points of view come across, and the best can be selected.
The arrest of two high profile human rights defenders, Ruki Fernando and Fr Praveen Mahesan, at the same time as the debate on Sri Lanka’s human rights situation was taking place in Geneva is a case in point. They were arrested on charges of being supportive of the LTTE, of embarrassing the government and giving information detrimental to national security. The timing of the arrests was puzzling. The sudden arrest of the two Human Rights Defenders during the UNHRC session itself could not have been worse timed. It served to focus international attention on the unsafe human rights situation in the country at a time when the country was in the dock of the UN in Geneva. Since the arrests took place in Kilinochchi in the North, where the military presence and domination is very high, it can be believed that the decision to arrest them was the overriding one of national security.
The arrests unleashed an unprecedented barrage of appeals on behalf of the two arrested Human Rights Defenders. It is reported that the highest levels of the UN, foreign governments and the Catholic Church appealed on their behalf. The problems of entrusting decision making to defense authorities in contexts that have long term consequences and international ramifications is apparent in this case. The government needs to have a better rounded decision making system that could include the military but is controlled by civilians who have a better rounded grasp of political realities. The government’s decision to release the two human rights defenders swiftly was a prudent one. It appears that once the nature of the damage to the country’s reputation was seen the government was prepared to reverse itself.
The charges leveled against the two Human Rights Defenders are indicative of the possible strategy to resist the resolution on Sri Lanka that is taking shape in Geneva. The first prong of this two pronged strategy is to try and convince the countries represented in the UN Human Rights Council that Sri Lanka continues to face a severe threat to its national unity. In the run-up to the vote in Geneva the government has been emphasizing that the LTTE is trying to revive itself with the support of the Tamil Diaspora. This is probably seen as the best way to justify the continued large presence of the military in the North despite the five years that have elapsed since its end. In the run up to the Geneva vote, there has also been a large scale deployment of the military to conduct search operations to find two former LTTE cadre who are suspected to be involved in resurrecting the LTTE.
The second prong of the government strategy of denying access to information to those seeking to do an investigation would be to prevent local activists from collecting and sending out information. Those who think in the short term and without looking at the wider consequences of their repressive actions, may consider this to be sound strategy. It is likely that the arrest of Ruki Fernando and Fr Praveen Mahesan was in pursuance of this strategy. This has been borne out by the follow up to their release. The police have obtained a new court order that prevents them from giving any information to the media in respect of their arrest and the ongoing investigation and going abroad without the prior permission of the magistrate.
The denial of access to information will possibly be a central part of the governmental response to the UNHRC resolution. A likely scenario is that the government will refuse to cooperate with the international investigation that is called for by the Geneva resolution and will not permit international investigators to visit the country. However, sealing off the flow of information in this highly interconnected world is likely to be impossible to achieve. Nor will the international human rights community give up on persisting in their demands for truth and accountability? It is important that the actions of the government should not serve to further justify to supporters of stronger international action on Sri Lanka the need to make the present resolution even stronger than it is.
News reports also indicate that the government is now concerned about the predicament it has got itself into and the longer term consequences in regard to its position on the Russian annexation of Crimea. It is reported that Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry felt obliged to respond positively to Russia’s request for its support. This shows the potential danger of asking help from friends who have problems of their own. They too will need help and the price of that help can be very great. Russia together with China have been staunch supporters of Sri Lanka and have given the Sri Lankan government the reassurance that they will not permit the issue of alleged human rights violations in the war to be canvassed at the UN Security Council. It is therefore not surprising that the Sri Lankan foreign ministry felt itself obliged to give its backing to Russia, despite its annexation of Crimea and even though it was a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty.
However, the Russian intervention has served to mobilize and unify the Western bloc of countries led by the United States to show their collective strength and willingness to act in concert. They have opposed Russia’s actions and have imposed sanctions upon its top leaders. The sanctions placed on Russian leaders by the US and EU are personally severe and have been without obtaining UN backing. It is these same Western countries that are the driving force behind the resolution on Sri Lanka.
The unity of purpose they have demonstrated in taking punitive action with regard to Russia is likely to carry over when it comes to dealing with Sri Lanka. If they are prepared to deal in a severe manner with a recalcitrant Russia, they are not likely to be deterred from dealing in a severe manner with Sri Lanka.
The main argument of the Sri Lankan government is that the UN resolution is an unwarranted interference in the country’s internal affairs. The Russian intervention in Ukraine and its incorporation into Russia undermines Sri Lanka’s defense. The government’s support to Russia is not going to be helpful to it either when it argues on the basis of national sovereignty. There is an unfortunate affirmation that powerful countries can interfere in the internal sovereignty of other countries. Even if the foreign ministry due to its close relations with Russia had felt itself beholden to Russia, and for very good reasons, others from different ministries might have seen different realities, and been able to give an idea of the larger consequences. There is a need for team work in deciding on important matters of state. By way of contrast, deciding by oneself can lead to one-dimensional decisions that plunge us from the frying pan into the fire.