N Sathiya Moorthy, Colombo 26 June 2018
Responding to a blogger, who addressed him as ‘Machang’ in Sinhala, Atul Keshap, outgoing US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, used the same Buddy slang and said that if we responded to every inaccurate news story that appears, we would have little time for anything else.
The reference of course was to a media story that ‘Machang’ Atul had told former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at his farewell call that the US would not let the latter’s brother and war-time Defence Secretary Gotabaya R. to contest the presidential polls due by January 2020. It is another matter the Tamil equivalent of the ‘buddy’ word is near-sounding ‘Machan‘.
It is one thing for Ambassador Keshap to indicate that the news story may have been ‘inaccurate’ and it is another matter for the US to be seen as wanting to ‘interfere in the internal affairs’ of Sri Lanka. But it is a third thing altogether for the US of A to strike yet another bolt from the blue in the ongoing Trump era, pulling out from the UNHRC, overnight, after predecessor Governments had hauled Sri Lanka over the human rights coals at Geneva over the past years.
“If the Human Rights Council is going to attack countries that uphold human rights and shield countries that abuse human rights, then America should not provide it with any credibility,” Nikki R Healey, US Ambassador to the UN, said.
The issue related to the UNHRC continuing to target America’s Israeli friend, passing five resolutions this year — more than the number passed against North Korea, Iran and Syria combined,” Amb Healey declared.
With this, the USA has become the first member-nation to quit the UNHRC, which was founded as late as 2006. With this, the US has joined only three others, namely, Iran, North Korea and Eritrea, which have refused to participate in the meetings and deliberations of the UN Human Rights Council, or UNHRC for short.
Sri Lankan irony
Independent of the US decision and justification, the Sri Lankan irony in the matter is striking. The US took the nation’s ‘war crimes’ and ‘accountability issues’ to the UNHRC only because the West could not take it to the UN Security Council (UNSC), where both China and Russia reportedly declined even an ‘informal discussion’ on the subject, as has been the tradition.
Even otherwise, when the US-led West campaigned for, and put together the UNHRC, critics had said that they wanted a human rights outfit that would do their bidding without interference of the UNSC’s veto kind.
Be it as it may, the US personally led the ‘HR attack’, if it may called so, targeting not just Sri Lanka as a nation but also former President Rajapaksa and his aides, at the UNHRC, it also got Resolution 30/1 passed in September 2015, co-sponsored by the new Government in Colombo.
It is another matter that since the March session of UNHRC in 2012 and until the Rajapaksas were out, the US-led West had got a harsher resolution passed against his Government, if not leadership personally, session after session, year after year – declaring that they kept changing the ‘goal-post all the time’.
The US’s exit announcement, that too made at the UN HQ in New York, and not the UNHRC in Geneva, comes amidst the Human Rights Council’s 38th session, due to conclude on 6 July. For Sri Lanka, it came only a few days after outgoing UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, in his opening statement, had commended the country for hosting at least five visits by thematic mandates in the last five years.
That way, Sri Lanka under the joint leadership of President Maithiripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe could be said to have come some way on meeting the UNHRC commitments, though not to the extent that the West might have wanted. Starting with then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, now Finance Minister, seeking time till the September session, when the new Government went out there for the first time in March 2015, there have been ups and downs in meeting the commitments made in the co-sponsored Resolution 30/1.
It is another matter that the West that had reserved the terminology of ‘shifting the goal-posts’ for the Rajapaksa regime seems to be lenient on that score with the incumbent Government. This, despite the fact that President Sirisena, had himself gone back on the nation’s commitment at his first UN General Assembly address in October 2015, which was aligned to the contents of the co-authored UNHRC resolution, on ‘independent, international’ probe into ‘war crimes’ and ‘accountability issues’.
Back home, President Sirisena, as may be recalled, quickly rebutted all suggestions of bringing in ‘international’, lawyers and prosecutors for the probe. While the thinking of Prime Minister Ranil W. and his major UNP partner in the Government remains clouded in mystery, this is one issue on which President Sirisena and his SLFP have remained consistent since his return from the maiden UN speech.
Healing touch, but…
Today, no one is talking about any probe of the kind, with or without international judges, prosecutors and lawyers. Not even the TNA, representing the ‘victimized’ Tamil community from the war years for whom alone the UNHRC resolutions were meant to provide a healing touch. In its place, you now have the Office on Missing Persons (OMP), and more recently law on cooperation in criminal investigations (with foreign Governments).
No one has said why neither the international community, nor the Tamils nearer home or their Diaspora brethren cooperated with the Justice Paranagama Commission, whose multiple tasks also included locating ‘missing persons’ from the war. It is another matter that even now, there are reports that the victim families in the war-affected areas are not cooperating as much with the new OMP as they were supposed to be. The issue requires deeper thought.
On the other issue, of cooperation with foreign governments in criminal investigations, Mahinda R. is on record that the incumbent Government was exposing the nation’s war veterans for prosecution by overseas governments. The Government should clarify if it was possible, and if so what measures it had taken to filter out such possibilities.
The mid-course is that this Government at the very least, may not be averse to considering requests for such investigation, possibly leading to extradition of individuals, against whom prosecution could well be initiated in foreign courts by their citizenry, possibly including human rights NGOs. No marks for guessing, who all could belong to this class.
Left in the lurch?
The question at this stage is if or not the Government should have conceded Resolution 30/1. The question instead is about the ever-victimised Tamil sense of being taken for granted, taken for a ride and being left in the lurch, in the process.
In the past, and even now, the Tamil community and polity have always complained that the ‘Sinhala South’ and the Sri Lankan State had always gone back on their commitments, political and others (thus leading to war and violence for close to three decades?).
It was thus that the Tamils wanted ‘international facilitation’ of the Indian kind for political negotiations in the eighties, then an international commitment on war-crimes probe, if not political resolution, per se, now in the post-war era. It was also one reason that the majority of the Tamil community, both nearer home and overseas, refused to heed the Rajapaksa offers for such mechanisms, made however half-heartedly and always too late in the day – that too under international pressure and to international interlocutors of the week, one varying from the other, one side-stepping the earlier one.
It is thus that the powerful Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora groups in many western countries, including the US, convinced the US to take up the ‘war crimes probe’ all the way up to the UNHRC after America’s idea of taking it to the UNSC did not really take off. In a way, they all have given up on the UNHRC probe, and it is truer of the Diaspora hard-liners. Yet, they hoped to press the UNHRC card whenever domestic elections became due in individual nations in the West.
Now, thus the US withdrawal from the UNHRC could well mean both to the Diaspora and the Tamil polity and community nearer home that they now been let down by the ‘international community’, too.
Suddenly, many of them would remember that how individual nations and individual Governments had ‘conspired’ with the Sri Lankan State until the late stages in the conclusive ‘Eelam War IV’, to have the (terrorist) LTTE neutralised and its leader Prabhakaran eliminated.
If nothing else, they all know that but for the US putting its political and diplomatic weight behind all UNHRC resolutions since 2012, they all would have also gone the way of the infamous EU resolution, voted (out) only 10 days after the end of the war, and was countered by the joint India-China resolution that helped Sri Lanka buy time from the international community – but not buy peace!