When in late March Sri Lanka was unable to marshall enough support to defeat the United Nations Human Rights Council's (UNHRC) Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka resolution, Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and State Minister of Finance Ajith Nivard Cabraal decided to put a spin on the reality of the situation.
Gunawardena added up the numbers of those who abstained and opposed and claimed that they made up more votes than those in favour of the resolution.
Cabraal went further; he added up the populations of every country that voted against the resolution or abstained and said therefore that more people were not in favour of the resolution.
And of course our gullible public will believe them, as they did the story of the appearance of a Cobra from the waters of the Kelani to announce the imminent election of the next President, that the concoction promoted by a shaman would cure and prevent COVID-19 or that agreeing with the USA to the MCC would mean those in the South would require a visa to visit sacred places in the North.
Resolutions on human rights violations and accountability have been put to the UNHRC in various formats, ever since government forces defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) in May 2009. But each time, Sri Lanka has mustered enough support from a variety of member countries to vote in their favour. However, that backing has been gradually dwindling as was seen with the poor showing when the vote was counted this time around.
The Yahapalanya government that won power in 2015 co-sponsored a resolution promising reconciliation and upholding human rights and accountability, angering the Sinhala nationalists who screamed ‘betrayal.’ In February of 2020 the newly elected government of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pulled out of that agreement.
In the run up to the vote, Sri Lanka’s media invited key individuals to discuss the pros and cons of the resolution and what should or not be done to defeat it. Most former diplomats who worked for the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration and who were successful in steering the country out of a debacle, revealed the many strategies they adopted.
It is indeed tragic that instead of ensuring that the rights of all citizens are protected, concerns ironed out and genuine attempts at reconciliation are made, that Sri Lankans continue to promote supremacist and triumphalist strategies.
While the government and its emissaries work hard at defeating resolutions, they pay lip service to the undertakings given at such times of initiating solid internal mechanisms to put things right. Instead, they’d rather pander to the cries of nationalists, parade their war triumphs, interfere with independent processes and allow perpetrators to act with impunity. Such behaviour not only ferments anger and frustrations amongst victims but also provides further ammunition to those who seek redress through international intervention.
It’s been almost twelve years since the ethnic war ended in Sri Lanka. And yet, since then, and notably under administrations headed by the Rajapaksa family, inter-ethnic and inter-religious reconciliation has taken a back seat. In fact, anti-Muslim rhetoric has seen a rise, with rumours of Muslims preparing the groundwork to change Sri Lanka into an Islamic state, to render non-Muslims infertile etc., being fed to a gullible public. Intimidation of journalists and attacks on civilians for a variety of reasons has occurred even during peace times.
While families of missing persons across the country continue to hold vigils and plead for closure, Covid-19 provided the government a perfect weapon to use against the Muslim community by insisting that all who succumb to the virus be cremated. That regulation was lifted just a few weeks ago, after the Organisation of Islamic States (OIC), in its opening statements to the UNHRC on Sri Lanka indicated its deep displeasure. Interestingly, though the government had no compunction over violating the rights of Muslims, it had no misgivings when it sought the support of Islamic countries to defeat the resolution. That Pakistan and Bangladesh voted against the resolution and that Indonesia abstained should signal to the Muslim community, that at the end of the day, each nation would be looking out for itself, and safeguard their political and economic interests, instead of standing by the individual rights of a community, even if they are of the same faith or ethnicity.
The resolution came in the wake of a damning report submitted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, which highlighted not only violations that took place towards the end of the war in 2009, but that both parties to the conflict were guilty of some crimes.A major part of the report discussed the deteriorating human rights situation in the country and the move towards militarisation of civilian bodies etc.
The resolution will not amount to enforcing blanket economic sanctions on the people, but will allow other countries to impose restrictions such as travel bans on individuals deemed to have committed war crimes or crimes against humanity.
To this end, funds to the tune of $2.8 million is to be allocated for the UNHRC to begin investigations and to gather, collate and preserve evidence for any future prosecutions and to recommend to the international community steps that could be taken towards ensuring justice and accountability for victims. The High Commissioner is expected to enhance monitoring and reporting on the situation of human rights, including the progress of reconciliation and accountability.
Indeed, all of this could have been avoided if Sri Lanka’s government got down to the business of investigating the many allegations and took concrete steps towards holding the perpetrators accountable and promoting a genuine reconciliation process. But no, that would be seen as a weakness and betrayal; so drumming up support at international level to defeat resolutions, one-upmanship, pandering to the hysterics of nationalists and giving credence to various bogeymen stories, are the feel good stories the administration believes it must feed the public with.
It is not too late yet to turn things around and begin a process of genuine reconciliation, bring perpetrators to book and keep the country on a more democratic path.
But all that depends on whether or not this administration has the political will and courage to withstand the pressures of its voter base, and prepare the foundations for a democratic nation that upholds respect and dignity for all citizens.
(Twenty two member countries voted in favour of the resolution, 11 voted against and 14 abstained.)