UNHRC’s Sword of Damocles

There was a time when leading proponents of the present regime would go on hunger strikes and speak out vocally against perceived western interference in domestic matters. These chest-beating “patriots” would be the first in line to give their unsolicited opinion on matters of “national interest”. Such “patriotism” usually results in placing the Government in an awkward situation, leading to inevitable backtracking. But these days, with no election on the horizon, the pseudo-patriots seem to have vanished into thin air, paving the way for what appears to be a tectonic shift in official government policy.

In the first instance, the change of stance is difficult to digest coming as it is from an administration long known for its obstinacy in compromising on such controversial issues as amending the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), divestiture of national assets, and giving due recognition to concerns raised by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), especially with regard to post-war accountability and allegations of human rights violations. But, it’s all happening.

Over the last few days, signalling a dramatic shift in policy, the Government has made known its intentions that it no longer has any qualms in sitting down with the relevant stakeholders in plotting the way forward be it the PTA, UNHRC allegations, or divesting the East Container Terminal (ECT) of the Colombo Port. The PTA, for starters, has been a controversial piece of legislation enacted during the three-decade war with the specific purpose of fighting that war on the legal front. The far reaching and expansive provisions that form the basis of the legislation have long been described as draconian in nature, even encroaching on fundamental rights prescribed and guaranteed elsewhere in the Constitution.

These draconian provisions have been the subject of legal debate for decades now and its abolition has been on the table ever since the end of the war 12 years ago. Human rights defenders, civil society representatives, parliamentarians, among others, have at regular intervals called for the abolition of the legislation, pointing out that the only purpose it served in the post-war era was to strengthen the hand of the State to control and stifle dissent.

Even the previous dovish Yahapalana regime fell for the temptation of retaining the controversial Act, being well aware of its many uses; so it comes as somewhat of a surprise that the far more hawkish present regime has expressed its willingness to water down the legislation. It can only be speculated that the change of heart may have been brought about by the realisation that the time has come to play ball with the international community, if the country was to escape the doghouse at the upcoming UNHCR sessions in Geneva.

For more than a decade now, two consecutive governments representing the major political parties have made promises to the human rights watchdog but failed to live up to them on returning to Colombo. The old ruse of appointing commissions to inquire into allegations, most notably accountability for the war disappeared, has now passed its expiry date and will no longer hold water with the West. Therefore, the appointment of a new commission to inquire into the reports presented by all previous commissions that had been appointed over the years for the very same reason is unlikely to serve its purpose.

For starters, the latest UN report, published last week in the run up to the 46th Session of the UNHRC in Geneva, casts a shadow on the Government’s intentions, pointing out that there is a serious threat to the further erosion of civil liberties owing to the failure of the State to effectively address past violations already probed and documented. The report that has caused consternation in Colombo was mandated by the UNHRC Resolution 40/1 adopted on 21 March 2019 with regard to promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka and will be presented to the Human Rights Council on 24 February.

This blot on Sri Lanka that has stuck on for the past decade is not something its people or its government deserves. It is a blot that has contributed to stifling development in the country and has prevented it from achieving its full economic potential. In fact, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has echoed these very same sentiments in her report, stating that Sri Lanka can achieve lasting peace and sustainable development only if it effectively addresses systemic impunity and ensures civic space.

The time has come to grab the bull by its horns and put this matter to rest once and for all. It is of paramount importance if the Government is serious about its intentions to attract quality foreign investment, develop tourism to its full potential, and restore Sri Lanka’s standing in the international community. As long as the black mark of human rights violations is stuck to its name, none of these objectives can ever be fully realised, especially in an era in which the new US administration will most likely be leading the charge at the UN agency.

A hallmark of the present regime has been its obsessive compulsion to engage in domestic theatrics, little realising the consequences of its actions on the international front. Put plainly, this is an era in which optics matter more than ever. The thin line that used to distinguish between local and foreign audiences no longer exists in a digitised world. Both action and non-action have consequences that could end up being self-defeatist. A case in point is the spate of appointments of retired military personnel to key positions in the civilian administration apparatus. Despite having the best of intentions to instil discipline in the state sector, it sends the wrong signals in the wrong directions.

The continued persecution of police personnel actively involved in probing various incidents has been frowned upon by the UN body, which in fact goes on to cite former CID Director Shani Abeysekera as a case in point, where it alleges that the administration has directly attempted to halt ongoing investigations. The report also goes on to cast aspersions on interference in the country’s criminal justice system, all of which points to an impending storm in Geneva.

In an unprecedented development, the UN Commissioner, in her report, has called on member nations to refer Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court (ICC) while going on to recommend targeted sanctions on individuals, including punitive action such as travel bans and freezing of assets. It is to be noted that the UN Commissioner’s call to refer Sri Lanka to the ICC, which is the court of last resort when all domestic options have been exhausted, points to the fact that the UNHCR has lost faith in domestic mechanisms that have been proposed by successive governments over the past 12 years.

If the UNHRC is to go down that road, it will no doubt cast a cloud over the country and its economic prospects. To put it into perspective, every tourist and every potential investor will think twice about venturing into a country that is on trial for human rights violations. Therefore, it is in the best interest of all concerned to avert such an eventuality by calling on our friends in the global community to desist from embarking on that rocky road by voting against such a resolution, and in return for the Government to act in a spirit of co-operation. Given what is in store, it is clear that the Government in general and the Foreign Minister in particular have their work cut out.