The United States pulling out of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) this week on the basis that it was a “cesspool of political bias” proves one thing: that it is a “cesspool of political bias”. Sri Lanka has also, in the past, said as much in not so many words. The US envoy [...]


US withdrawal from UNHCR: Where do we go from here?


The United States pulling out of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) this week on the basis that it was a “cesspool of political bias” proves one thing: that it is a “cesspool of political bias”. Sri Lanka has also, in the past, said as much in not so many words.

The US envoy to the UN described the Council as a “hypocritical and self-serving organisation” that displayed “unending hostility towards Israel”. US President Donald Trump’s partiality towards Israel needs no second guessing. His decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to locate the US embassy there was proof enough, had there been any need for it. Quitting the UNHRC, therefore, was a long time coming–at least since Mr. Trump took office–with Israel regularly getting the stick therein for its aggressions against the Palestinians.

The US clearly displayed that UNHRC advocates are driven by political and strategic considerations and not so much the intrinsic value of human rights. Washington withdrew from the Council because of double standards with regard to Israel while completely ignoring other double standards such as the targeting of Third World countries.

One such example is persistent US actions against Cuba. As recently as last month, the US and Cuba clashed in the UNHRC, with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez saying the US embargo against his nation “continues to be the principal obstacle to the economic and social development of the country”. Unmoved, the US used the Council to attack Cuba’s electoral process and accuse it of rights abuses.

There is ample evidence over the years to show that the UNHRC often works as a political body, blatantly exercising selectivity, condemning some while condoning with others. But the question for Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the US pullout is what happens to UNHRC resolutions 30/1 and 34/1 on “Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka”? These were co-sponsored with the US in 2015 and 2017?

The Sri Lankan Government has said nothing on this count. The US Embassy in Colombo, however, issued a statement. It said Ambassador Atul Keshap assured Sri Lankan officials that his Government would remain “fully engaged” with the Sri Lankan Government “to help meet its continuing and standing commitments to the international community”. It also said the US extends its support to Sri Lanka to fulfil the commitments and obligations as articulated and reaffirmed in these resolutions.

This is a strange phenomenon. The US wants to continue wielding power over jurisdictions like Sri Lanka using the UNHRC’s resolution mechanism while denouncing that very same process as less than ingenuous when it comes to Israel. But how influential will the US be given that Mr. Trump’s differences with the US State Department are also legendary–and it was the US State Department that, for years, has tried to take Sri Lanka to the cleaners on its fight against terrorism.

Under Mr.Trump, the State Department is a rubber stamp of White House fiats–however crazy some of them may be. So, the various dynamics in Washington could play out in a manner that renders resolutions 30/1 and 34/1 inutile; dead ducks, so to speak.

Unless–and this we do not yet know as Sri Lanka has remained mum–Sri Lanka creates a record of being the only country in the world to be the co-sponsor of an accountability resolution of this nature against itself at the UNHRC. For, it is being widely overlooked that, although the US is labelled as the promoter of these resolutions, one of their other owners is Sri Lanka. US withdrawal from the UNHRC could, therefore, be immaterial.

The legal status of the resolutions, which are already adopted in the Council, is unlikely to change despite the US withdrawal. They were, after all, co-sponsored by several other member States. The resolutions are deeply embedded in the UN/UNHRC process and will have a life of their own. The repercussions of the US leaving in a huff, therefore, are likely to be of a political nature rather than legal. In other words, Sri Lanka will still have to deal with its commitments.

If anything, this week’s developments are likely to make the other (Western) stakeholders of the Sri Lanka resolution work harder to make sure there is compliance. As pointed out before, they do not want this resolution mechanism, which helps them wield power, to fail.

The US dropping out could, ironically, expose Sri Lanka to greater pressure from countries with highly active Tamil diasporas such as Canada, Britain, Germany and other European Union members. The “heat shield” of the US, therefore, is no longer a buffer. This brings us back to an oft-repeated point–the failure of domestic processes giving rise to external intervention. Sri Lanka brought these resolutions upon itself by not doing what had to be done, such as implementing recommendations of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLLRC). One cannot expect bodies like the UNHRC to be fair-minded or equitable. It is for us to prevent human rights problems–which exist everywhere–from becoming diplomatic ones.

Sri Lanka needs to secure a domestic, national consensus on accountability and to implement whatever is possible from the resolutions. As long as that does not happen, and the two major political alliances continue to abuse the topic at elections, external pressure will continue.

The LLRC’s sell-by date expired under Mahinda Rajapaksa. There must now be an LLRC-plus, and that is the UNHRC resolutions. And there are no quick fixes. Overall, there is international acceptance of some progress but the speed of implementation is an issue. There are also questions over actual positive impact domestically. The Government must preserve the gains made (for domestic reasons) and manage expectations (domestic and foreign) going into the elections cycle and March 2019, when Sri Lanka’s progress–or lack thereof–in delivering on its commitments will be examined in the Council again.

Sri Lanka must move domestically and in a manner that is not seen among the citizenry as being guided by outsiders or shaped by foreign interference. The choice of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) as the lead agency to direct this process might have to be reconsidered for the sake of local public opinion. Even when several mechanisms such as the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation and Office of Missing Persons were set up, it is the MFA that issued statements–hardly the hallmark of a Sri Lanka-led process.

Whatever happens next, the UNHRC narrative that is a high octane domestic political and diplomatic issue, will need to be re-set with the US pulling out of the UN agency. How best the Government will take advantage of the move to dislodge this sword of Damocles over the nation’s head remains to be seen.

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