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Explained: Sri Lanka at the UN rights council, another test for India

Country-specific resolutions against Sri Lanka have regularly come up at the UNHRC in the last decade. New Delhi voted against Sri Lanka in 2012 and abstained in 2014. It was spared the dilemma in 2015, when Sri Lanka joined resolution 30/1.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Mumbai |
Updated: March 2, 2021 2:48:28 pm
The United Nations Human Rights Council (File Photo)

After Sri Lanka’s abrupt 2020 withdrawal from a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution under which it had committed, five years previously, to a time-bound investigation of war crimes that took place during the military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the country faces another resolution at the current session.

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Sri Lanka has officially sought India’s help to muster support against the resolution, which it has described as “unwanted interference by powerful countries”.

Whichever way it goes, the resolution is likely to resonate in India-Sri Lanka relations, and for India internally, in the run-up to the Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu.

UN human rights report

The draft resolution is based on a damning report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights) that was submitted to the Human Rights Council on January 27.

The report warned that Sri Lanka’s failure to address human rights violations and war crimes committed in the past had put the country on a “dangerous path” that could lead to a “recurrence” of policies and practices that gave rise to the earlier situation.

It flagged the “warning signs”: accelerating militarisation of civilian governmental functions, reversal of important constitutional safeguards, political obstruction of accountability, exclusionary rhetoric, intimidation of civil society, and the use of anti-terrorism laws.

The report pointed to the appointment of at least 28 serving or former military and intelligence personnel to “key administrative posts”, and said the appointments of two senior military officials implicated in UN reports on alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity during the final years of the conflict were “particularly troubling”.

The government had created “parallel military task forces and commissions that encroach on civilian functions, and reversed important institutional checks and balances, threatening democratic gains, the independence of the judiciary and other key institutions,” according to a UN press statement on the report.

The shrinking space for independent media, and civil society and human rights organisations are also themes in the report.

Rights chief’s statement

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has said the present government in Sri Lanka was “proactively” obstructing investigations into past crimes to prevent accountability, and that this had a “devastating effect” on families seeking truth, justice and reparations.

UN member states “should heed the early warning signs of more violations to come”, Bachelet has said, and called for “international action” including targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans against “credibly alleged” perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses.

“States should also pursue investigations and prosecution in their national courts — under accepted principles of extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction — of international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka,” Bachelet has said.

She has also asked the Council to support “a dedicated capacity” by countries to collect and preserve evidence for future accountability processes.

What resolution draft says

A first draft of a resolution to be tabled by the Core Group on Sri Lanka at the UNHCR — the UK, Germany, and Canada — seen by The Indian Express incorporates some of the elements of this report, including those on strengthening the HRC’s capacity on preserving evidence, devising strategies for future accountability processes, and supporting judicial proceedings in members states with jurisdiction.

This “zero draft”, dated February 19, also talks about encouraging the Sri Lankan government to implement the requirements of the previous 30/1 resolution (from which it pulled out) and two follow-on resolutions, 34/1 and 40/1.

The draft resolution asks the High Commissioner’s office to monitor progress on national reconciliation and accountability mechanisms, and come up with updates next March, and a full report in September 2022.

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Sri Lanka and Resolution 30/1

Sri Lanka’s decision to become a co-sponsor of 30/1 followed the shock electoral defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa as President in 2015, and the failure of his faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party in the parliamentary elections the same year. The Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe government, which took office on the promise, among others, to speed up the ethnic reconciliation process, agreed to partner the resolution.

But some of its provisions, such as the setting up of “hybrid” courts — with non-Sri Lankan judges — as well as bringing military officers to account, proved problematic from the start. After failing to meet deadlines set out in the resolution, the government set up a Commission of Inquiry, an Office of Missing Persons, and an Office of Reparations, in the final months before it fell apart due to tensions between the President and the Prime Minister.

During his election campaign in 2019, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made it clear that he would not put military officers on trial. And last year, Sri Lanka pulled out of the 30/1 resolution.

In his address to the Council on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena even blamed 30/1 for the 2019 Easter bombings.

He said the previous government, “in a manner unprecedented in human rights forum, joined as co-sponsors of Resolution 30/1 which was against our country. It carried a host of commitments that were not deliverable and were not in conformity with the Constitution of Sri Lanka. This led to the compromising of national security to a point of reviving terror acts on Easter Sunday 2019 causing the deaths of hundreds”.

Where India comes in

The Council was scheduled to hold an “interactive” session on Sri Lanka on Wednesday, where the High Commissioner’s report was to be discussed, and member countries were to make statements. India was expected to make a statement too.

For India, this is déjà vu. Country-specific resolutions against Sri Lanka have regularly come up at the UNHRC in the last decade. New Delhi voted against Sri Lanka in 2012 — the DMK was part of the ruling UPA at the time; Sri Lanka has not forgotten this yet — and abstained in 2014. It was spared the dilemma in 2015, when Sri Lanka joined resolution 30/1.

With elections coming up in Tamil Nadu, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi declaring on a recent visit that he was the first Indian leader to visit Jaffna, Sri Lanka has begun reading the tea leaves. India’s position may become clearer after Wednesday’s session.

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