UNHRC resolution sets stage for international jurisdiction of rights violations in SL

Wednesday, 24 March 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • Rajapaksa administration faces humiliating defeat 
  • Resolution adopted by 22 votes for, 11 against, 14 abstentions 
  • India, Japan among key abstentions 
  • Amnesty International hails “landmark” resolution; says it signals shifting approach of international community
  • Despite hefty lobbying, Govt. secures lowest support ever to defeat UNHRC resolution 
  • Central database of evidence of rights violations in SL to cost $ 2.8 m
  • Mechanism to be operational within months 

The UN’s top human rights body has brought Sri Lanka one step closer to international prosecution of wartime abuses and human rights violations committed in the island by adopting a strong resolution at its 46th Session yesterday.  

Amnesty International called the UN Resolution “landmark”, saying it marked a crucial turning point on justice and accountability in Sri Lanka. 

The Government of Sri Lanka rejected the resolution out of hand and insisted its provisions could not be implemented without Colombo’s consent. 

Overriding opposition from Russia, China and Pakistan, the 22 member states of the 47-member UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) voted to keep the international spotlight on Sri Lanka’s human rights record.

 11 UNHRC member states voted to defeat the resolution, including Eritrea, Bangladesh, Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia. 

14 countries abstained from voting on the Sri Lanka resolution, key among them India whose vote was ambiguous until the final moments, and South Asian neighbour Nepal. Japan also continued its long-established practice of abstaining on Sri Lanka resolutions at the Council while pressing the Government to deliver on its post-war commitments. 

Despite high-level lobbying efforts led by the President and the Prime Minister as the days were grinding down to the vote, Sri Lanka managed to secure only 11 votes in its favour to try and defeat the UNHRC resolution – the lowest degree of support it has ever mustered in its history of engagement with the Council. 

Apart from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan, nearly all remaining majority Muslim member states abstained from voting, including Bahrain and Indonesia. The lack of support from Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) member states might be an indication that the Government has paid heavily internationally for its mandatory cremation policy for COVID-19 dead and the proposed ban on the burqa – both moves seen as being discriminatory towards the country’s 2.5 million Muslims. 

The resolution was co-sponsored by over 30 member states of the UN, including the US which engaged strongly on negotiations on the draft text over the past month. 

“The important resolution on Sri Lanka just adopted at #HRC46 highlights continuing impunity for serious crimes and abuses and authorises collection of evidence for future prosecutions,” the US mission in Geneva tweeted soon after the vote. 

For the first time in the history of the Council, member states made their decision known through an e-voting facility via Zoom. The 46th Session of the UNHRC has been an entirely virtual affair considering the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Government was counting on friendly nations to help to defeat the resolution with China and Pakistan calling for a vote in the Council. 

The UNHRC Resolution 46/1 on Sri Lanka steps up monitoring of the island’s human rights situation by the High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, requesting updates from her Office every six months until the resolution comes up for renewal in September 2022. 

The key dynamic in the 2021 resolution however is the establishment of a central database at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) where information and evidence of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka can be stored and analysed. 

Amnesty International said the resolution was “significant” and signals a shift in the approach by the international community to Sri Lanka’s human rights situation. “Years of support and encouragement to Sri Lanka to pursue justice at the national level achieved nothing. This resolution should send a clear message to perpetrators of past and current crimes that they cannot continue to act with impunity,” said Amnesty International representative to the UN in Geneva Hilary Power. 

The international mechanism will serve to support future trials of Sri Lankan perpetrators accused of rights abuses in foreign countries and support victims of atrocities in their quest for justice. 

A budgetary estimate provided to the Council by the OHCHR indicated that setting up the database would cost $ 2.8 million over an 18-month period. OHCHR estimates it will require 12 personnel to staff the mechanism, including three legal advisors, two analysts, two investigators/human rights officers, one information and evidence officer, two juris-linguists, one victim support officer and one program assistant. The budget estimate also makes provision for a high-level human rights officer for enhanced monitoring to the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. 

Daily FT learns that it will take the OHCHR a few months to make the mechanism operational. The project will be led by a high-level legal advisor and methodologies will be developed to analyse and preserve evidence. Strategies will also be designed for how the database will support trials internationally against those accused of violating human rights in Sri Lanka. 

But activists are warning that the real test of the effectiveness of the resolution will rely largely on the commitment of UN member states to pursue justice against Sri Lankan perpetrators. 

The Human Rights Council has no legally binding power over states and any tangible action, including targeted sanctions, asset freezes and travel bans against perpetrators of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka will depend on individual countries. 

Analysts also raised questions about how the pursuit of justice internationally for crimes committed in Sri Lanka could impact politics in the country. 

International Crisis Group Senior Consultant Alan Keenan tweeted that the OHCHR-led evidence mechanism the resolution will establish sets up a key dynamic to follow in the coming years. “To what extent do governments take up the challenge of accountability via extra-territorial jurisdiction and how does the quest for justice outside Sri Lanka affect political and conflict dynamics within?” Keenan tweeted. 

Amnesty International also cautioned that the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka would require follow-up action by individual countries to create a real impact. 

“While the resolution was an important first step, the real impact will rely on UN member states using it as a basis for concrete action, including investigations and prosecutions under universal jurisdiction and a possible referral to the International criminal court,” Amnesty International’s Hilary Power noted. 

The Government lapsed swiftly into spin-doctoring mode on the UNHRC vote yesterday, with Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunewardena claiming Sri Lanka was “very happy” with the results. 

“We welcome majority of 25 of 47 members in the council to have expressed not to vote against SL, amidst heavy lobbying and unsubstantiated statements. Sri Lanka will continue to work in international arena, along pledges we placed and domestic mechanisms in accordance with Sri Lanka’s constitution,” the Foreign Minister tweeted after his press briefing soon after the vote. 


‘Unhelpful and divisive’: Lankan envoy slams Resolution before vote

Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva C.A. Chandraprema called the resolution “unwarranted and unjustified” and said it would polarise Sri Lankan society and adversely affect economic development.

In his remarks shortly before the resolution was taken up for a vote, Ambassador Chandraprema said the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka violated the principles of sovereign equality of all states and non-interference in internal affairs.

“I cannot emphasise enough the dangers posed to all nations, particularly those of the global south, by the trajectory taken in this resolution which is urging action on the basis of emerging trends and warning signs that is events that have not yet happened,” Ambassador Chandraprema noted during his intervention shortly before the vote.

The resolution was based on the report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, which was rejected by the Government of Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan Envoy said.

The list of co-sponsors of the resolution amply demonstrates the divisive nature of this resolution, he added. The Sri Lankan Envoy remarked that the OHCHR had earmarked $ 2.8 million for its evidence gathering mechanism. Over a dozen staff members are to be recruited, he noted.

Ambassador Chandraprema called upon all members of the UNHRC to “objectively assess” whether Sri Lanka represented a situation that warrants the financial and human resources and the urgent attention of the Council, at a time of severe financial constraints indicated by the UNHRC secretariat.


Lowest point in foreign policy management since end of war: Eran

The main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) yesterday slammed the Government for its foreign policy failures, saying yesterday’s vote at the UN Human Rights Council had demonstrated how few friends Sri Lanka had retained in the international community.

SJB MP Eran Wickremaratne, issuing a statement after the vote in Geneva, said the adoption of resolution marked the lowest point in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy management since the war ended in 2009. Wickremaratne said the Government was stumbling from one crisis to another. Poor economic management, dismal management of COVID-19, and now to disastrous management of foreign diplomatic relations.”

Wickremaratne claimed that the UNHRC resolution was heavily weighted towards the correction of the infringements of human rights of the past 16 months over the issues pertaining to the military conflict that ended over a decade ago.

“The Government has compounded its policy failures by appointing the wrong persons for defined tasks. The COVID-19 virus containment should have been led by health professionals and scientists from the outset. Our diplomatic initiatives should have been led by foreign policy professionals,” he charged.

The SJB lawmaker called for a “fresh approach” that will implement human rights initiatives as identified in Sri Lankan commission reports, where investigations and accountability are dealt with by domestic mechanisms that meet the concerns of the international community.

“Arriving at the truth is an essential part of the healing and reconciliation process. This coupled with a fresh diplomatic initiative could avert a further economic and financial crisis within the next couple of years,” Wickremaratne noted.

Wickremaratne claimed that an urgent fresh appraisal was necessary to “minimise the negative economic consequences of the resolution”. “We must not risk legal battles in foreign jurisdictions, travel bans, economic and trade embargoes. The economic consequences will be catastrophic,” the SJB lawmaker said.

The UN Human Rights Council does not have legally binding powers to impose trade or economic sanctions on UN member countries and cannot impose travel bans or asset freezes even on individuals.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called on individual countries to consider bilateral targeted sanctions, asset freezes and travel bans specifically against Sri Lankans accused of major human rights violations. The UN has not threatened countrywide sanctions and the issue of UN sanctions do not arise from the resolution adopted at the UN Human Rights Council yesterday


India remains tight lipped until vote is taken

India played its cards close to the chest until the bitter end, but finally abstained from voting on the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka last evening.

Making its remarks during the general comments section when the Sri Lanka Resolution was taken up at the Council, the Indian representative reiterated that New Delhi’s approach to human rights in Sri Lanka was guided by its support to the Tamil people for equality, justice, dignity and peace and ensuring the unity, stability and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka. The Indian representative did not indicate which way New Delhi would swing even during these final interventions.

“India supports the call by the international community for the Government of Sri Lanka to fulfil its commitments on the devolution of political authority, including through the early holding of elections for Provincial Councils and to ensure that all Provincial Councils are able to operate effectively, in accordance with the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution,” the Indian representative said.

“At the same time, we believe that the work of OHCHR should be in conformity with the mandate given by the relevant resolutions of the UN General Assembly,” the statement continued.

New Delhi also urged the Government of Sri Lanka to carry forward the process of reconciliation, address the aspirations of the Tamil community and continue to engage constructively with the international community to ensure that the fundamental freedoms and human rights of all its citizens are fully protected.


UNHRC vote still positive for SL: FM