Eight myths about Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council
Since the beginning of the current session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in February 2021, and in the lead up to it, there has been a lot of anxiety and misinformation among the public around what the outcome of the UNHRC sessions would mean for Sri Lanka. This is no doubt the product of years of misinformation deliberately spread domestically by pro-government actors around the consequences of international investigations and accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Eternal bogeymen were made of these processes. Then President Mahinda Rajapaksa who oversaw the end of the war in 2009 even claimed that he would be taken before a war crimes court and executed on an electric chair.It speaks to the astonishing capacity and success of these misinformation campaigns and machinations to be able to continue to spread misinformation in 2021. This is despite significant technological advancement, increased internet penetration in the country and a generation that is far more digitally savvy than the last to be in a better position to do simple fact-checks. Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard the most creative takes on the UNHRC process that are misleading, and sometimes, downright mythical. Allow me to allay some of these fears by busting some common myths around the UNHRC.
Myth 1: Western countries make up the membership of the UNHRC
False. The UNHRC consists of 47 member states elected by the UN General Assembly for a term of three years and are not eligible for immediate re-election after being in the Council for two consecutive terms. The Council’s membership is based on equitable geographic distribution, which means that African States are allocated 13 seats, Asia-Pacific States are also allocated 13 seats, Latin American and Caribbean States have 8 seats, Western Europe and other States have 7 seats and the Eastern European States have 6 seats. Moreover, the group of states leading the resolution is composed of states from Africa (Malawi), Western and Eastern Europe (Germany, the UK, Montenegro and North Macedonia) and North America (Canada).
Myth 2: Trade sanctions will be imposed on Sri Lanka
False. The report of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights recommended for Member States to explore possible “targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans against credibly alleged perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses.” The recommendation is a far cry from trade sanctions, which are generally accepted as having negative impacts on national economies while disproportionately affecting the livelihoods of some of the most vulnerable people in society.
Myth 3: The atrocities committed by the LTTE are glossed over by the UN and the UNHRC
False. Every UN report based on human rights investigations in Sri Lanka have probed and found allegations of potential serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by all sides to the conflict. The report of the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka (2011), known domestically as the Darusman report, found six core categories of potential serious violations by the LTTE associated with the final stages of the war (i. using civilians as human shields; ii. killing civilians attempting to flee LTTE control; iii. using military equipment in proximity to civilians; iv. forced recruitment of children; v. forced labour; and vi. killing of civilians through suicide attacks). The panel found five core categories of potential serious violations by the Sri Lankan government forces (i. killing of civilians through widespread shelling; ii. shelling of hospitals and humanitarian objects; iii. denial of humanitarian assistance; iv. human rights violations suffered by victims and survivors of the conflict, including both IDPs and suspected LTTE cadre; and v. human rights violations outside the conflict zone, including against the media and other critics of the government). The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) investigation on Sri Lanka (2015) also found that there are reasonable grounds to believe that gross violations of international human rights law, serious violations of international humanitarian law and international crimes were committed by all parties during the period under investigation, and urged that these allegations should all be promptly, thoroughly and independently investigated, and those responsible, directly or as commanders or superiors, brought to justice. As such, every resolution at the UNHRC on Sri Lanka has called for accountability for perpetrators from both sides of the conflict to be held to account.
Myth 4: It’s only the Tamil diaspora that is calling for accountability at the UNHRC
False. Victims of human rights violations based in Sri Lanka, including from Sinhala, Muslim and Tamil communities, have called for accountability and supported the UNHRC process after consecutive domestic mechanisms have failed to provide them truth, justice, and reparations for what they have experienced. Families of the disappeared from all communities, and in all parts of the country, have resorted to the UNHRC in efforts to seek truth and redress for their loved ones.
Myth 5: The UNHRC process is against Sri Lanka
False. The UNHRC process seeks to promote reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka. It is the victims of human rights violations and abuse from all sides to the conflict – whether they be Sinhala, Tamil, or Muslim — that stand to benefit from the process. The process is pro-people, pro-human rights, and is therefore actually, pro-Sri Lanka. It’s a shame that consecutive Sri Lankan governments have failed to promote and protect the rights of all Sri Lankans, and sections of society have been left with no option but to raise their concerns with the UNHRC.
Myth 6: The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report on Sri Lanka is based on hearsay and open-source investigations
False. The report is based both on publicly available information and on research and consultations with a range of stakeholders, including Government representatives conducted by OHCHR. The report sets out its methodology and makes it clear that in preparation for the report, the OHCHR had sent a detailed list of questions to the Government of Sri Lanka on 23 November 2020 and received written inputs on 28 December 2020. The OHCHR also held a constructive and substantive meeting with Government representatives in virtual format on 7 January 2021. The Government provided comments on the report, some of which were reportedly reflected in the final text. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka as the National Human Rights Institution has also raised concerns publicly regarding some human issues, which are also reflected in the report. OHCHR has also received direct communications from victims. For e.g., the report states that as of December 2020, over 40 civil society organizations had approached the OHCHR with reports of harassment, surveillance and repeated scrutiny by a range of security services who questioned them about administrative details and activities of the organization, lists of staff, including their personal contact details, donors and funding sources. The report also builds on the findings and recommendations of UN Special Procedures mandate holders. The Special Procedures mandate holders have sent communications regarding complaints they receive to the Sri Lankan government, although the Government has only responded to two out of eight in the past year. The Government has had ample opportunities to engage and provide substantive feedback, to clarify and/or provide an alternative viewpoint to the complaints or the assertions made in the report itself, as the report was sent to the government before being tabled at the UNHRC.
Myth 7: China will veto the resolution on Sri Lanka
False. China is a member of the UNHRC for its 46th session, however it has no veto powers like in the UN Security Council. There are also no permanent members in the UNHRC like in the Security Council. So, while China can call a vote, and vote against, a resolution brought on Sri Lanka, it will not be able to veto any resolution brought to the Council by another Member State. The adoption of the resolution requires the support of a simple majority of UNHRC member states.
Myth 8: The UNHRC has no mandate to act on impending human rights disasters
False. The UNHRC was created by the General Assembly in 2007 through resolution 60/251, which details its mandate. The resolution clearly mandates the UNHRC not only “to address situations of violations of human rights, including gross and systematic violations, and make recommendations thereon,” but also to contribute to “the prevention of human rights violations and respond promptly to human rights emergencies.”
This article first appeared in The Daily FT