National Pride and Prejudice and the UNHRC Sessions

| by Shanie
“Ask you what provocation I have had?
The strong antipathy of Good to Bad.
When truth or virtue an affront endures,
Th’ affront is mine, my friend, and should be
yours . . . .
Mine, as a friend to every worthy mind;
And mine as Man, who feel for all mankind.”
Alexander Pope (1688-1744)

( March 17, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Alexander Pope was a controversial but outstanding poet, well known as a social critic and for his satirical poetry. In this poem, he urges that high standards of truth and virtue should make up all social and political activity in civilized society. He calls the reader, all lovers of their country, to join him in this crusade for social morality. The poem is apposite for our time when all sorts of jingoistic trash are being aired over the ongoing sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council. One cabinet minister has reportedly called for a boycott of Google and gmail, presumably because their creators are US-based. This minister, who is well known for talking before thinking, probably will not be concerned for the economy of our country if we have to stop exporting our garments to US-based companies or withdrawing our deposits of foreign reserves from US-based financial institutions. It is also reported that some journalists (presumably from the state media) have discarded all journalistic ethics and obtained accreditation in Geneva as members of the Government of Sri Lanka delegation. They have also forgotten the journalistic maxim that ‘comment is free but facts are sacred.’
Graphic by Red Mohawk
When Sri Lanka’s record on human rights is under scrutiny in Geneva, it seems the official line is that it is the patriotic duty of everyone to deny that there has been or is any violation of human rights in our country. There is much truth in the cynical comment that Samuel Johnson made long ago that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’. Whether it is self-delusion or a deliberate distortion of ground realities, the truth is that the pseudo-patriot is unwilling to separate fact from fiction. In one of his essays written two hundred and fifty years ago, Oliver Goldsmith, the famed Anglo-Irish writer and poet, spoke of his stumbling into a group of men at an English pub. One of the men in the group was waxing eloquent on the characteristics of other European nations and declared that in bravery, generosity, decency and in every other virtue, the English excelled allthe world. The rest of the group seemed to agree. Goldsmith remained silent which was noticed by the man who spoke earlier. Pressed for his views, Goldsmith spoke of the virtues of the other European citizens and also referred to the virtues and weaknesses of the English. The ‘patriotic’ gentleman, writes Goldsmith, observed, with a contemptuous sneer, that he was greatly surprised how some people could have the conscience to live in a country and enjoy the protection of a government, to which in their hearts they were inveterate enemies. After going on to castigate people with such national and other prejudices, Goldsmith concludes: ‘In fact, you will always find that those are most apt to boast of national merit, who have little or no merit of their own to depend on, than which, to be sure, nothing is more natural; the slender vine twists around the mighty oak for no other reason in the world, but because it has not strength sufficient to support itself.’
The resolution before the UNHRC
A resolution has been tabled by the US government at the current 19th session of the UN Human Rights Council. India has expressed concern that resolutions before the UNHRC should not be country-specific. Although there is merit in this concern, the mandate for the UNHRC includes addressing ‘situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and make recommendations thereon’. Looking at situations of human rights violations have necessarily to be country-specific and recommendations have to be made accordingly. The resolution calls for the implementation of the recommendations in the LLRC report. President Rajapaksa has already assured the nation that he would be doing so. So the cry of the anti-resolution demonstrators that the resolution is anti-Sri Lanka has no merit.
One cabinet minister, the Minister of External Affairs no lees, is reported to have stated that the resolution is likely to delay the implementation of the LLRC recommendations. One fails to understand the logic in this comment by the former Law Professor. Seventeen months have passed since the LLRC made its interim recommendations and over three months have passed since the final report was released. As we shall note later in this column, no meaningful steps have been taken to implement any of the recommendations. There are some recommendations that could have been implemented without any delay. One such was the disarming of pro-government armed groups that operate with impunity in the North and East. But with arrogant disdain, the government includes the leader of one such group cited in the LLRC report as part of its delegation to the UN Human Rights Council session. That seems to give a loud and clear message about the government’s commitment to implement the LLRC recommendations.
In the preamble, the resolution notes with concern that the LLRC report does not adequately address serious allegations of violations international humanitarian laws. This is acknowledged by the LLRC itself whose members were not expected to carry out and who did not have the resources to address these violations. That is why they have recommended a suitable mechanism to investigate such allegations.
Implementing LLRC recommendations
Following the preamble, the resolution before the UNHRC has three basic clauses. First, it ‘calls on the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the constructive recommendations of the LLRC report and to take all necessary additional steps to fulfill its relevant legal obligations and commitment to initiate credible and independent actions to ensure justice, equity, accountability and reconciliation for all Sri Lankans.’ The government has already announced that it intends to implement the LLRC recommendations. So the government cannot have any concerns on that score. The other part of this clause is a call for initiating credible and independent action. If the government is sincere in its stated commitment to implement the recommendations, it will no doubt ensure that there is in place a credible and independent mechanism that will be put in place to undertake this task. Rajiva Wijesinha has suggested a new Ministry of Reconciliation to implement the LLRC recommendations. Others have suggested a statutory body vested with the necessary powers and authority. There could be other mechanism but it is important that there should independent and credible. We know that the Inter- Agency Advisory Committee headed by Mohan Peiris, former Attorney General, to implement the interim recommendations of the LLRC has lost all credibility. Seventeen months have passed since the LLRC made its interim recommendation, and there has been no meaningful progress by this committee on any of the recommendations. So the resolution before the UNHRC calling for credible and independent action makes sense.
The second clause in the resolution before the UNHRC requests that the Government of Sri Lanka present a comprehensive action plan as expeditiously as possible detailing the steps the Government has taken and will take to implement the LLRC recommendations and also to address alleged violations of international law. It will be difficult to find any excuse oppose this clause. Any serious attempt at implementation must have an action plan or a road map to go ahead with the necessary investigations and implementation. Such a road map will assure the sceptics that the government does seriously intend to abiode by its commitments.
Role of the UNHC for Human Rights
The third clause in the resolution is perhaps the most contentious one. It ‘encourages the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and relevant special procedures to provide, and the Government of Sri Lanka to accept, advice and technical assistance on implementing those steps and requests the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to present a report to the Council on the provision of such assistance at its twenty-second session.’ But this clause is worded carefully to ensure that there is no denial of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and of the right of the government to carry out the implementation of the LLRC recommendations in accordance with its own action plan or road map. The High Commissioner for Human Rights (HCHR) provides technical assistance and advice which the government is encouraged to accept. This already happens and has been the accepted procedure in many areas. To quote a recent well known example, the IMF and World Bank have not only been providing technical and financial assistance and also proffering advice on matters of monetary policy. This is not considered an infringement on the country’s sovereignty although critics may well differ on the suitability of that advice for the advancement of the economic health of the country. Similarly many UN and other international agencies have been and continue to give advice and technical advice in a variety of areas like health, agriculture, education, etc.
This clause further requires the HCHR to report back to the UNHRC next year on the progress made in respect of the advice given. This stems from the concern of the member states of the Council to ensure that human rights obligations should be met by Sri Lanka. Here, it is true that Sri Lanka is being singled out for special treatment. But we shall have no need to complain if the commitments we have already made in respect of investigation of human rights violations and the taking of appropriate steps in this regard are followed. Every country has skeletons in its cupboard where abuses of human rights are concerned. But that should not and cannot take away from the need of every country to strictly adhere to international norms. Sri Lanka should be no exception.
We cannot deny that there is a sharp increase in acts of lawlessness in our country. The LTTE was responsible for gross violations of human rights and for abductions and killings of thousands of not only political dissidents but of others merely because of their ethnicity or as agents of the state. The state forces also stand accused of such crimes. All violators of human rights need to be held accountable for their actions, as has been pointed out by civil society and committees like the UNSG’s Panel of Experts and the LLRC. Prabhakaran is dead but there are others still living, as the LLRC has pointed out, who stand accused of mass murder. Such violators of human rights need to be investigated and held accountable for their actions.
The preamble to the UN Charter states: “…to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, … ” National pride or prejudice should not blind us to the need to reaffirm our faith in fundamental human rights.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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