By Neville Ladduwahetty
Resolution A/HRC/46/L.Rev.1 dated 16 March 2021 has been adopted by the UN Human Rights Council based on procedures and practices adopted by Committees of the General Assembly. Of the 47 Members in the Council, 22 Member States cast an affirmative vote, 11 members opposed it, and 14 abstained. The procedure adopted does not recognize the number of votes that abstained. Therefore, adoption of the Resolution was based on 22 affirmative votes, which is less than half the 47-members in the Council. This outcome should be a cause to fault the Council for adopting a procedure that permits a Resolution to be adopted even when more than half of its members decided not to support it for whatever reason.
However, other agencies of the UN adopt other procedures. For instance, the 15-member Security Council requires nine affirmative votes for a decision to be adopted. Others who see a moral obligation to the institution they represent require half plus one for a decision to be adopted. Simple majorities in most Parliaments require half plus one of its elected members for a Bill to become Law. Therefore, there is nothing comical if perceived from another perspective, that the resolution did not secure a majority of the 47 Member Human Rights Council and furthermore, that 25 Members did not affirmatively support the Resolution. The lesson, in particular for the Human Rights Council, is that the basis for adopting a Resolution should be revisited, because the current practice allows Resolutions to be adopted by less than half the number in the Council. This is not good enough a threshold for a UN institution as vital as the Human Rights Council where much is at stake for all States.
Notwithstanding all of the above, the hard reality is that the Resolution was adopted. Another hard reality that is of serious consequence is that the adoption of the Resolution comes at a great cost to the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter. In fact, having stated at the very outset that the Resolution is “Guided by the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations …” the Resolution goes on to violate Article 1(2) and Article 2(7) of the Charter. In addition, it recalls co-sponsored Resolutions of 2015, 2017, and 2019, despite withdrawal from co-sponsorship because they violate Sri Lanka’s Constitution; a right granted under the Vienna Convention and furthermore, violates the mandate granted to the Human Rights Council under General Assembly Resolution 60/251. Under these circumstances, such a flawed Resolution should not be adopted, particularly with votes less than half the membership in the Council.
Article 1(2) states: “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect of the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples…”. AND Article 2(7) states: “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state…”.
Article 1(2): Right of Self-Determination
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights AND the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights state in Article 1 of their respective Covenants:
“All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”.
In view of the people’s right to freely determine its political status, the Resolution of the Core-Group states: “…to ensure that all provincial councils, including the northern and eastern provincial councils, are able to operate effectively, in accordance with the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka” (Preamble to the Resolution)
COMMENT: This is a violation of the right of self-determination of a people to freely administer and govern themselves because it binds the people of Sri Lanka to a particular form of internal Government, and denies them the opportunity to self-determine a form of Local Government that best serves them. Therefore. this provision amounts to a denial of the fundamental freedom of a Peoples to govern themselves under a form of Government of their choosing. For the Human Rights Council to impose restrictions on how a Member State should govern itself is a denial of their fundamental right to self-determination.
The Preamble states: “Noting the enactment of the twentieth amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka, while stressing the importance of democratic governance and independent oversight of key institutions”.
COMMENT: The need to remind the people of Sri Lanka the “importance of democratic governance and oversight key institutions” is an insult in view of the fact that the amendment is a product the people of Sri Lanka have determined in keeping with their right of self-determination. Furthermore, Sri Lanka is not the only country to function under a Presidential system of government under provisions of separation of power and the internal arrangements in each are different as they are with the systems of governance in each state that supported the Resolution. Under the circumstances, the need to draw special attention to arrangements in Sri Lanka is a slur on what Sri Lanka has rightfully determined for itself.
It is indeed comical for the U.K. as the sponsor of the Resolution to “stress the importance of democratic governance”, when three-fourths (¾) of U.K. Parliament was for staying in the European Union whereas the majority of the people of U.K. wanted to leave the EU, thus laying bare the U.K.’s deficit in democratic governance.
Article 2(7): Domestic Jurisdiction
Section 2 of the Resolution states: “…implement the recommendations made by the Office and to give due consideration to the recommendations made by the special procedures ….”
Section 7 of the Resolution ‘expresses serious concern at the trends emerging over the past year, which represent a clear early warning sign of a deteriorating situation of human rights in Sri Lanka, including the accelerating militarization of civilian government functions; the erosion of the independence of the judiciary and key institutions; ongoing impunity and political obstruction; policies that adversely affect the right to freedom of religion or belief; increased marginalization of persons belonging to the Tamil and Muslim communities; surveillance and intimidation of civil society; restrictions on media; freedom, and shrinking democratic space; arbitrary detentions; alleged torture and sexual and gender-based violence’.
COMMENT: Section 7 of the Resolution is influenced by the Report of the Office of the High Commissioner. It contains comments and observations that violate provisions of Article 2(7) of the UN Charter in respect of issues that are “essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state” cited above.
Unlike under normal circumstances, the literal interpretation of Article 2(7) that prohibits UN from intervening in issues domestic as enunciated by Professor Kelsen and others of similar view, is justified under the extremely extraordinary background that Sri Lanka and the rest of mankind had to face due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This view was underscored by the UN when it decided NOT to intervene in issues domestic relating to how member states coped with the COVI-19 pandemic. What the Resolution addressed instead was the situation that prevailed in Sri Lanka in the background of a terrorist attack by Muslim extremists in 2019, and the measures adopted to cope with the pandemic in the absence of international guidelines that the UN should have spearheaded.
The extraordinary circumstances referred to above started with a new President being elected in November 2019. A bare two months later, starting January 2020, Sri Lanka encountered its first COVID-19 patient. Until August 2020 when a new Parliament was elected, it was the Executive that had to deal with the unprecedented challenges of COVID-19 pandemic.
In fact, most countries were at a loss as to what strategies to adopt to deal with the pandemic. Furthermore, a fact that should not be overlooked is that during the period of review by the Council, the Legislative and Executive Branches of the government in Sri Lanka had existed only for four months.
At the end of the day, governments have to make hard choices. In the background of a raging pandemic the choice is whether to implement strict controls by deploying personnel known for their ability to ensure strict adherence to health guidelines, or to relax them. Those countries that have decided to leave it to individuals as a matter of individual choice have experienced far more deaths than countries such as Sri Lanka that decided otherwise. Are they guilty of fratricide? To fault elected representatives for the choices they made in the fulfillment of their responsibilities to their people, is to place individual choice at a premium over state-initiated guidelines to contain a global crisis. Not to recognize the positive results in terms of lives saved because of the measures adopted by the government is not to recognize the most fundamental of all human rights which is right to life.
The impression conveyed upon perusing the list of societal shortcomings cited in Section 7 is that they are unique to Sri Lanka. On the other hand, over the span of one year there would be instances of societal shortcomings similar to those cited in Section 7, in every country. For instance, in other countries too, policies exist that affect freedom of religion or belief; marginalization of persons or groups; restrictions on media freedom; shrinking democratic space; sexual and gender-based violence etc. Such shortcomings exist, albeit to different degrees, in all of the 22 countries that supported the Resolution despite the existence of independent institutions, or how liberal and democratic their policies are. Therefore, what is so special or unique about Sri Lanka for it to deserve special attention?
Mandate of the Human Rights Council
Section 6 of the Resolution states: “Recognizes the importance of preserving and analyzing evidence relating to violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes in Sri Lanka…and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law…and to support relevant judicial proceedings in Member States with competent jurisdiction”.
COMMENT: The Human Rights Council has NO MANDATE nor the COMPETENCE to collect evidence relating to international humanitarian law or to support judicial proceedings in Member States. The Council is expected to function within the mandate stated in UN Resolution 60/251. The relevant provisions are:
3. Decides also that the Council should address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and make recommendations thereon. It should also promote the effective coordination and the mainstreaming of human rights within the United Nations system;
4. Decides further that the work of the Council shall be guided by the principles of universality, impartiality, objectivity and non-selectivity, constructive international dialogue and cooperation, with a view to enhancing the promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development…”.
The mandate of the Council does not authorize it to share its findings with other Member states for them to engage in judicial proceedings because it violates the “principle of equal sovereignty” (Article 1(1) of the Charter. If they do, what about the evidence sequestered for thirty years? Instead, what the Council is supposed to do, is to make recommendations to the states concerned. By focusing on Sri Lanka, the Council is being selective, thus violating the principles it is supposed to follow as stated in Paragraph 4 cited above.
A fact that should be borne in mind is that no investigations that could lead to a prosecution would be possible, using any evidence gathered for the purpose of future accountability exercises because access to victims and witnesses would not be possible due to Paragraph 25 of the OISL Report relating to confidentiality in the OISL Report.
Resolution A/HRC/46/L.Rev.1 dated 16 March 2021 has been adopted by the UN Human Rights Council based on the procedures and practices adopted by Committees of the General Assembly. Since the procedure adopted does not take into account the 14 abstained votes, the 22 members who supported the resolution prevailed over the 11 that opposed. Consequently, the procedure adopted enabled the Council to adopt the Resolutions based on votes that were less than half of the 47-member Council.
While the procedure adopted by the Council is acceptable for Committees of the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council is in a league by itself. Since its decisions impact on nearly every aspect of human life, the procedures and practices it adopts should be unique and stand alone. Another Council of similar standing is the Security Council. The procedure adopted by them is that out of its fifteen members at least nine should vote affirmatively for a decision to be adopted. Democratic Parliaments require half plus one of its members for a Bill or decision to have any legitimacy. Therefore, Sri Lanka should take the initiative to table a Resolution in the General Assembly calling on the Human Rights Council to take a fresh approach in the adoption of Resolutions. The outcome of such an approach should as a minimum be that even if the abstaining votes are not recognized, no Resolution should be adopted without half plus one of its members casting an affirmative vote for it to have any legitimacy i.e., more than 24 affirmative votes.
Having stated at the very outset that the resolution is “Guided by the purposes and principles of the Charter”, the Resolution goes on to violate Article 1(2) and 2(7) of the Charter, right of a State to withdraw from an undertaking if it is in conflict with the “internal law of fundamental importance” to the State based on a right granted under Article 46 of the Vienna Convention, and violates the mandate granted to the Human Rights Council. If a Resolution violates the stated purposes and principles of the UN Charter, the General Assembly should take note and declare such a Resolution unadoptable.
The call on the Sri Lankan government to hold Provincial Council elections and to ensure that all Provincial Councils operate effectively in accordance with the 13th Amendment is a violation of Article 1(2) because it denies the right of self-determination to institute local government arrangements that suit them best and to bind the people of Sri Lanka to internal arrangements of governance set by external entities.
Article 2(7) does not “authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state…”. In keeping with this provision the UN did NOT intervene in the decisions taken by member states to handle the enormous challenges arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Having stayed in the sidelines they have decided to single out Sri Lanka to document what the Council determines as shortcomings in the manner Sri Lanka coped with the crisis presented by the COVI-19 pandemic in a background of a Muslim terrorist attack that denied the fundamental right to life of hundreds.
The resolution is not binding on Sri Lanka. Furthermore, as stated above it violates certain provisions of the UN Charter and holds Sri Lanka to commitments it withdrew from on legitimate grounds. What Sri Lanka could do is table a Resolution in the General Assembly highlighting the issues at stake and seek redress. In addition, such a Resolution should propose a revision on the lines suggested above to the procedures adopted by the Human Rights Council in respect of how it decides to adopt Resolutions since current procedures are totally inappropriate for an all-important institution as the Human Rights Council.