The United Nations Human Rights Council is in session and Sri Lanka is among the countries that have come before its scanner. It is a slur on Sri Lanka’s reputation when it is being lumped together with big time human rights violators such as Israel, Syria and North Korea, with member-state after member-state taking the floor to act like prosecutor, the jury and the judge.
They do so as though they have not done any sins.
There is no motto to adore the UNHRC’s dove and olive branch logo, which, together with the colors used, signifies, among other things, the peaceful intention of the council, the universality of human rights and the urgency and the attention human rights deserve. Given the duplicitous nature of world politics and the reality that most nations have politicized human rights as a tool to demonize countries they hate, perhaps the motto should be the New Testament saying, “Let the one among you who has not sinned throw the first stone.” To use another Biblical term, the UNHRC is a forum where some nations, while carrying huge beams in their eyes, look at the speck in the eyes of other nations.
If Britain, which is leading the charge against Sri Lanka at the ongoing UNHRC sessions, is squeaky clean with its human rights record, can it say aloud that its soldiers did not commit war crimes in Iraq?
Is it not a huge human rights violation when Britain drove away the indigenous people from the Chagos Island and gave the Indian ocean atoll to the United States for it to set up a military base? What about the 1917 Balfour Declaration that let the European Zionists to set up a state in Palestine? By this declaration, Britain committed the original sin that fathered Israel’s multiple sins against the Palestinian people.
At the UNHRC, should there be a core group of countries bringing a charge sheet against Britain until it rights its wrongs? One can write volumes about the human rights violations of every big power, starting from the United States. Russia, China and France are no better. As a result of the crimes these big powers have committed and continue to commit, millions have suffered and died without justice being meted out to them. Millions are suffering even today.
The criticism is not aimed at calls to wind up the UNHRC or to dismiss its service to humanity. Rather it is to call for sweeping reforms whereby membership will be determined by a state’s human rights credibility and commitment, with Lady Justice’s international avatar holding the scales even. War or peace, every nation will respect human rights and bring perpetrators to justice. But given the nature of politics, such idealistic reforms will not see the light of the day until the wolf lives with the lamb. UN Human Rights Chief Micehelle Bachelet is not unaware of this.
She should know that if large scale human rights violations take place in a conflict zone, those who should be held accountable are not only those who commit such violations but also those who sit idle and do nothing to prevent the crimes against humanity.
In Sri Lanka, when the conflict escalated and the Sri Lankan forces zeroed in on terrorist targets, the UN fled the war zone and shirked its responsibility to protect the war zone civilians who, according to the then Sri Lankan government, were being used as human shields by the separatist rebel leadership. When the people wanted the UN’s presence amidst them the most, the UN was not there for them. For the UN to come later and issue statements accusing Sri Lanka’s security forces of committing atrocities is hypocrisy of the worst order. The UN should have been more prepared to face an impending humanitarian crisis in a conflict zone. After all, what is alleged to have happened during the last stages of Sri Lanka’s war on terror was not the first of its kind the UN had faced. In Rwanda, the UN stood watching when nearly a million Tutsis were massacred by the Hutu militia. During the Bosnian war in the 1990s, UN peacekeepers made little or no attempt to resist when in Srebrenica some eight thousand Bosnian men and boys were taken away to be massacred by Serbian forces.
To issue statements and reports expressing regret for the failure – as the then UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon did in the case of Sri Lanka – will not absolve the UN from its culpability or criminal failure. That is probably a fig leaf.
While, there is certainly a case against the UN, if Sri Lanka’s northern people cared to move an international tribunal, post-war Sri Lankan governments have not fulfilled their responsibility with regard to a truth-and-reconciliation process aimed at healing. The war crimes and human rights violations the Sri Lankan state and security forces are alleged to have committed may have happened or may not have happened or may not have happened as has been alleged.
Had there been honest efforts by post-war Sri Lankan governments to bring about reconciliation, the country would not have to undergo the shame of being paraded handcuffed to the UNHRC dock to face an ever-extending charge sheet, then plead not guilty to come again the following year to face more charges. Civilized people and civilized governments are expected to respect human rights and condemn human rights violations. If there had been violations, the right path to take is to apologize and offer compensation while moving ahead with the reconciliation process.
With superior military powers, wars can be won and territorial integrity of a country preserved. But bringing people together against the backdrop of decades of hostilities requires a bigger effort and much more meticulous strategy involving hearts and minds.
Sad to say that since the end of the war in 2009. governments have not handled the reconciliation process with the seriousness it deserves. Reconciliation cannot be achieved through infrastructure development projects alone. It is a social process and involves meticulous social engineering.
Parochial nationalism or majoritarianism is certainly not the way to reconciliation. Neither does it augur well for Sri Lanka’s efforts to reclaim its position in the community of civilized nations as a state that respects human rights and is committed to democratic values such as Rule of Law and judicial independence. Patronizing majoritarianism or alt-right extremism may help political parties achieve short-term gains, but such a policy does long term damage to the country’s social, political and economic stability.
Instead of reconciliation, such a policy leads to alienation of communities with the minorities losing the sense of belonging to the country. When a section of the population begins to feel they are lesser citizens, that is the moment a state begins to lose its credential as a democratic and civilized nation. It is a clear sign that the so-called reconciliation mechanism is only a façade.