When outgoing President Donald Trump, in his last official act, pardoned a few of his supporters who were serving jail terms for their crimes, the silence of the so-called champions of justice, the European Union (EU) and United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) was deafening. However, these two multination bodies are very enthusiastic in their pursuit to defend justice, when dealing with smaller countries, especially sovereign nations that refuse to bow down to their unreasonable dictates.
In its latest communication to Sri Lanka, the UNHRC stated that the High Commissioner is “concerned that the emergency security deployments that followed the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in 2019 have evolved into an increased militarization of the State. The Government has appointed active and former military personnel, including those credibly implicated in war crimes, to key positions in the civilian administration, and created parallel task forces and commissions that encroach on civilian functions. Combined with the reversal of important institutional checks and balances on the executive by the 20th Constitutional Amendment, this trend threatens democratic gains.”
Not only the mighty United States, but its ally Israel ignored the UNHRC Resolutions with impunity. The majority of UNHRC resolutions were on Israel and the country did not even bother to reply to the charges levelled against the Jewish State. The South Asian regional power, India told the UN point blank that it was not ready to talk about Kashmir at the world body. In 2002, when communal clashes took place in Gujarat, killing over 1,000 civilians and injuring many more, Narendra Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat and later Prime Minister of India, was accused of initiating and condoning the violence, as were police and Government officials who allegedly directed the rioters and gave lists of Muslim-owned properties to them. The Congress Government, despite its major differences with Modi’s Bharathiya Janatha Party (BJP), told the foreign powers that it was an internal matter and New Delhi would not allow it to be raised at international forums.
Incidentally, during the EU–India bilateral talks in 2002, the EU President himself suggested that the Gujarat communal riots should be included in the agenda for talks and immediately, leader of the Indian delegation said, “I am sure you are joking. It is ok to joke as we are among friends. If such an issue is raised in a serious manner, this meeting would be a very short one,” indicating that if the Gujarat issue was to be included in the agenda, the Indian team would walk out.
Although very concerned about the partisan manner of the UNHRC, Sri Lanka will continue to work in harmony with the UN and its institutions. In 2015, Sri Lanka co-sponsored UNHRC Resolution 30/1 with United States without the approval of the Cabinet of Ministers or the Parliament. After the US withdrawal from the UNHRC, Resolution 40/1 of 2019 was co-sponsored by the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Montenegro and North Macedonia. In 2019, the newly elected Government’s Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena informed the UNHRC about its withdrawal from the co-sponsored resolution.
The US, though no longer a part of the UNHRC, continues to press for the co-sponsored resolution. Earlier this week, US Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz urged the Government to come up with a meaningful plan at the upcoming UNHRC session. However, she added that she was pleased to hear last year from Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena that there will be a comprehensive reconciliation strategy through a domestic process.
In spite of the government’s detailed report on the steps taken for reconciliation, the UNHRC repeated its demand to promote an inclusive, pluralistic vision for Sri Lanka, based on non-discrimination and protection of human rights for all, and in line with the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda (SDA). The UNHRC ignored the fact that Sri Lanka has already achieved some targets of the SDA and good progress has been made to achieve the rest of the goals.
The UNHRC wants the Government to publicly issue unequivocal instructions to all branches of the military, intelligence and police forces that torture, sexual violence and other human rights violations are prohibited and will be systematically investigated and punished. This is something in the penal code and the law enforcement agencies strictly follow them and culprits are being prosecuted regularly. Hence, the UNHRC recommendation is redundant.
It is apparent that most of the UNHRC recommendations are based on false information. The demand to order all security agencies to immediately end all forms of surveillance and harassment of and reprisals against human rights defenders, social actors, and victims of human rights violations is an example of baseless allegations. The call to stop torture and ill-treatment is surprising as no evidence whatsoever has been provided to substantiate the absurd charges.
Another demand of the UNHRC is to remove from office Security Forces personnel and other public officials credibly implicated in human rights violations, in compliance with human rights standards; implementation of other reforms of the security sector to strengthen and ensure accountability and civilian oversight. It has ignored the fact that the alleged charges were not proven against any of the officers. The removal of such officers without being proven guilty would be a violation of their human rights.
The US has refused visas to Army Commander General Shavendra Silva and his family members although there are no charges filed in any court against them. It is interesting to note that the US denied visas to Narendra Modi when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat due to his alleged role in the Gujarat riots. But Washington gave him a grand welcome at the White House when he became the Prime Minister of India. That alone is sufficient proof of Western double standards.
The UNHRC has demanded from Sri Lanka to establish standard procedures for the granting of pardons or other forms of clemency by the President, including subjecting it to judicial review, and excluding grave human rights and international humanitarian law violations. However, the Geneva-based UN organization refrained from uttering a single word when Donald Trump pardoned his friends serving jail terms.
The European Union, which was snubbed by India for its demand to discuss the Gujarat communal clashes in 2002, also tried to raise the issue of the Presidential pardon to a prisoner in Sri Lanka.
The UNHRC wants Sri Lanka to cooperate with victims and their representatives to investigate and prosecute international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka through judicial proceedings in domestic jurisdictions, including under the principles of extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction. Sri Lanka has explained time and again that under the Constitution of the country there is no provision to set up international courts. Cabinet spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella pointed out earlier this week that in March 2019, the then Foreign Affairs Minister Tilak Marapana, eminent legal luminary and former Attorney General, explained at length the constitutional, legal and socio-political challenges involved in ‘fully implementing’ HRC Resolution 30/1 during the 40th Session of the Council.
While the UNHRC report accuses Sri Lanka of “credible allegations of serious violations of international humanitarian law amounting to war crimes having been committed during the separatist war,” the charges remain unsubstantiated and no evidence to support those allegations has been furnished.
At the same time, Sri Lanka is willing to work with interested parties in bringing about a closure on this vexed issue. Foreign Secretary Admiral Prof. Jayanath Colombage said that the government was having discussions with the UK-led Sri Lanka Core Group in a bid to explore the possibility of reaching a consensus on what he described as a ‘consensual resolution’ ahead of the 46th sessions of the UNHRC scheduled for February-March this year. The Western nations should drop their previously displayed hostile attitude and work impartially to find a consensual formula to end this irritant and forge a healthy relationship with Sri Lanka, a nation fully committed to peace, reconciliation and progress.