By Kalinga Seneviratne*
SYDNEY (IDN) — “The Core Group chaired by the UK tabled a shoddy motion based on a hostile UNHRC Report riddled with factual errors and unproven allegations going back to 2009; none of which qualifies as robust evidence,” said Lord Naseby. Conservative party member and the President of the All-Party Parliamentary UK-Sri Lanka Group in a statement issued on March 23 following a vote at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva that called for intrusive human rights intervention in Sri Lanka’s domestic affairs.
The resolution, which was tabled at the 46th session of the UN body by the UK on behalf of what is called a “Core Group” consisting mainly of western nations such as the UK, France, Italy and Austria, would involve UNHRC spending some $2.8 million to set up an office “to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence, and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights” that could be used to mount war crimes cases against Sri Lankan military personnel, as well as economic sanctions against the country.
The resolution was adopted with 22 voting for it and 11 against with 14 abstaining among them India and Japan, while China, Russia, Cuba, Pakistan, Philippines and Venezuela voted against it. Lord Naseby argues that it “is a gross intrusion on the sovereignty of a state (to adopt a resolution) based on a simple majority vote when Motions of this significance would need a 2/3rds majority”.
Sri Lanka has strongly rejected the resolution. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunewardena said the resolution lacked authority and it “was brought by countries supported by Western powers that want to dominate the Global South”.
Speaking before the vote, China’s ambassador to the UNHRC Chen XU said that this resolution is an attempt to “interfere in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs and undermine its development and stability under the pretext of human rights”. He commended the Sri Lankan government for improving human rights by advancing sustainable economic and social development, to improving peoples’ living standards. Russia, Cuba and the Philippines speaking in support of Sri Lanka also expressed similar sentiments.
This battle in Geneva reflects a fundamental difference in the way human rights is viewed by the East and West. Ever since Sri Lanka crushed the Tamil separatist terrorist group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009, western countries have been using the UNHRC in a witch-hunt against Sri Lanka, mainly because the Sri Lankan government led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa ignored western calls for a ceasefire to ship the LTTE leaders overseas—to fight another day. The war was won mainly due to Chinese and Russian diplomatic support and military aid.
In January 2015, there was a regime change in Sri Lanka, where Rajapaksa was defeated in elections that were mainly fought on human rights and corruption allegations mounted by NGOs funded by the West that influenced young voters. The new government led by President Maitripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe were considered “subservient” to the West and openly expressed anti-China sentiments. In September 2015, Sri Lanka co-sponsored a resolution that called for setting up war crimes courts in Sri Lanka with foreign judges to try Sri Lankan military personnel.
Many Sri Lankans saw it as similar to the 1815 Kandy Convention where the Kandyan chieftains signed away sovereignty to the British. The Kandyan king had already been captured and deported to South India.
The 2019 Easter Sunday Islamic terrorist attacks in Colombo turned public sentiments against the government when it was realised that undermining of the intelligence services and the military, where many of these personnel were in jail, awaiting trials precipitated by the UNHRC resolution Sri Lanka co-sponsored, were a major reason for the attacks.
These attacks helped to solidify a national-security focussed Sinhala nationalist wave that catapulted the Rajapaksas—who are still credited with having ended a 30-year terrorist war—back to power. After coming to power, the new government informed UNHRC in 2020 that they are withdrawing the co-sponsorship of the resolution, and this year opposed a new resolution.
Initially the UNHRC resolutions called for accountability for 40,000 deaths during the final push to defeat the LTTE in 2009. Neither the UN, international human rights organisations nor the western media that transmitted these claims were able to provide evidence. Now the UNHRC has quietly dropped this claim and instead the latest resolution talks about reconciliation and militarisation of civil administration.
“The impact on thousands of survivors, from all communities, is devastating. Moreover, the systems, structures, policies and personnel that gave rise to such grave violations in the past remain—and have recently been reinforced,” said a statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “The growing militarisation of key civilian functions is encroaching on democratic governance,” she added.
The UNHRC seems to be out of touch with recent developments in the country, where at the general elections in August 2020 there was a significant shift in Tamil voter sentiments towards development-based empowerment as opposed to rights-based constitutional changes the UNHRC resolutions have been promoting.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which has been working with the Tamil diaspora groups to pressure western governments such as the UK, US, Canada and France to move resolutions against Sri Lanka, had their vote share and seats reduced by over a half. For the first time in 60 years, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)—a party traditionally identified with Sinhala nationalism—topped the vote in the Tamil bastion of Jaffna fielding a local Tamil candidate.
“Tamils have voted for change (and) this is a big change and the Tamils in Jaffna have spoken in one voice,” the newly elected Jaffna MP Angajan Ramanathan, who joined the ranks of the government, with the SLFP as a constituent party of the Rajapaksa-led alliance, told the Sunday Observer: “When it comes to the North, some politicians only focus on the rights of the Tamils. The Government will provide the peoples’ basic needs and infrastructure and help them to improve their economic status.”
The Rajapksa regime believes in the Chinese and Singaporean model of economic development which Ramanathan’s statement reflects. Whereas the UNHRC resolution tends to go in the opposite direction.
After abstaining from the vote in Geneva, which most Sri Lankan see as voting against them, India released a statement saying that they could not support Sri Lanka because devolution of power to Tamil areas agreed to with India in the late 1980s, has not been properly implemented and the Provincial Council (PC) system that is part of it is being undermined by the current government.
India may have unintentionally given a boost to increasing public sentiments in the country to abolish the PC system because it is seen by most people as an added tier of corruption. People in Sri Lanka want less politicians, not more, and they would much prefer to see development funds equally distributed to the provinces via existing governments structures.
Sri Lanka’s UNHRC battle is without doubt part of the geo-political power play with the West and India trying to use the UNHRC (with western support) to control Sri Lanka, while China with heavy investments in the island is seeking support for Sri Lanka in UN forums. The UNHRC’s vote may have pushed Sri Lanka further into China’s embrace, and since the UNHRC’s resolutions are not binding—unlike UN Security Council ones—Sri Lanka will be constrained to bank on trusted China to veto any such moves. Though China could not win the vote for Sri Lanka, China may have won another battle for influence in the Indian Ocean. [IDN-InDepthNews – 26 March 2021]
* Dr Kalinga Seneviratne is the Asia roaming correspondent of IDN-INPS. He is the founder of Lotus Communication Network (LCN), a prolific writer and editor.
Image credit: UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC)
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