Wednesday’s oral update on Sri Lanka by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay to the 24th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva seems to confirm the view that the rights body is using the Sri Lankan case to test the still-debated concept of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ or R2P, as it [...]


Pillay’s update: Has Sri Lanka become an imperial guinea-pig?


Wednesday’s oral update on Sri Lanka by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay to the 24th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva seems to confirm the view that the rights body is using the Sri Lankan case to test the still-debated concept of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ or R2P, as it is commonly known.

In this regard the most relevant section of the speech, delivered on her behalf by her deputy, says: “The High Commissioner encourages the Government to use the time between now and March 2014 to show a credible national process with tangible results, including the successful prosecution of individual perpetrators, in the absence of which she believes the international community will have a duty to establish its own inquiry mechanisms.”

This would seem to mean that the ‘international community’ (read, a ‘coalition of the willing’ working through the HRC?) gives itself the right to intervene using whatever means it thinks necessary, to see what it considers to be justice done, if the state party itself does not take measures to that end. The US-led HRC Resolutions against Sri Lanka in 2012 and 2013 laid the groundwork for this process in Sri Lanka. 

The three steps in the R2P process are that 1) the state concerned is responsible to protect its citizens; 2) If a state is seen to be failing in this duty the ‘international community’ should assist it to do so; and 3) If the state concerned still fails to act, the ‘international community’ has a responsibility to intervene in order to ‘protect’ them. The HRC’s path in relation to Sri Lanka may be seen to be following this trajectory, under the US’s watchful eye.

Sri Lanka’s former UN ambassador Tamara Kunanayakam has shredded the R2P concept which she said “Washington is forcing upon the UN so as to provide legitimacy for its increasingly aggressive unilateral interventions, and domination of peoples and their wealth and resources in countries of strategic interest to Washington!” 

Kunanayakam is not alone in her criticism. Former Indian ambassador to the UN Nirupam Sen described R2P as “a Trojan Horse for a refurbished imperialism.” America’s leading public intellectual Noam Chomsky in an address to the UN General Assembly in 2009 called it a “weapon of imperialist intervention at will.”

Certainly it appears that Sri Lanka is under very close scrutiny by the HRC in general and the US in particular, and is unlikely to go off their radar any time soon. Nowadays it would appear the US issues statements even if there is a fight over a jak fruit in Sri Lanka. It has made no less than four statements on the recent Provincial Council elections which, by all accounts were relatively peaceful. The most recent was on Thursday by US ambassador Eileen Donahoe at the UN General Assembly. After a peremptory reference to the elections (which made no special mention of the historic one in the North) she went on to list allegations of rights violations, and drew attention to Pillay’s call for an international inquiry in the absence of ‘meaningful progress’ on accountability. 

Sri Lanka also figured in the High Commissioner’s opening remarks to the HRC on 9th Sept and in UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s opening statement to the general debate in New York on Tuesday. Isn’t this a disproportionate lot of attention? It’s not that Sri Lankans are unconcerned about their country’s human rights situation. But who wants to be an imperial guinea-pig?

At a side event of the UN General Assembly to “Ensure peaceful, just and resilient societies in the post 2015 development agenda” on Thursday, Erik Solheim, chair, OECD Development Assistance Committee, made some observations on Sri Lanka. Norwegian Solheim who was closely associated with Sri Lanka’s peace process at one time, admitted that “global involvement in Sri Lanka exacerbated the problem. It made the problem worse.” He noted that after the 2004 tsunami no less than 50 different presidents, prime ministers and foreign ministers visited the country, all with their own development programmes, humanitarian programmes, NGOs and TV crews.

“There was a strong element of politicians wanting to be seen ‘back home’ doing something,” he said. Under what he called the ‘New Deal’ principles he said “the nation being discussed had to be in the lead,” and there had to be a “compact between political forces in that nation and global forces so that governments spend their money wisely.”

It’s unlikely that the US will look kindly on Solheim’s remarks. To states in the global South where most of the world’s conflict situations are located, the comments are important because they acknowledge the need to respect their sovereignty and independence.

At this same side event, Guatamala’s Planning Secretary Ekatarina Parilla said that the 17 years since that country’s 36-year civil war ended “might seem like a long time, but it is very little to create solid institutions in a post-conflict society.” Yet Navi Pillay’s March 2014 deadline, after which she says establishing an international inquiry would become a duty of the ‘international community,’ allows barely four years for Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process to work.

It’s interesting that with regard to LTTE detainees, the High Commissioner’s oral update said, “She has always stressed the importance of the LTTE being held accountable for its crimes” and “urged the Government to expedite such cases, either by bringing charges, releasing them, or sending them for rehabilitation.” Thus the High Commissioner locates the task of bringing the LTTE to justice, entirely within the purview of the state (although the remaining members of that organisation considered to be any threat have mostly found safe havens in the West).

But the LTTE, which she herself has described as a ‘murderous organisation,’ does not seem to be bound by her call for “an independent and credible investigation into allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, as applicable.” International scrutiny is applicable, apparently, only to the state party. How fair is this?

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