Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 June 2009
Issue No. 951
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Pointing with broken fingers

Partial and selective, the UN human rights system creates more contention than it addresses, as the case of Sri Lanka attests, writes Curtis Doebbler

Every diplomat at the United Nations will tell you that the work of the world body is about achieving consensus. Those who have the courage to speak frankly and honestly will also admit that there is a trend away from consensus that troubles many. The recent special session on the question of the protection of civilians caught up in the armed conflict in Sri Lanka is a case in point.

On 26 and 27 May, just a few days before its 11th regular session, the UN Human Rights Council held an 11th special session on Sri Lanka. It was one of its most divisive sessions yet, and clouded by irony and contradictions.

The special session was not a result of concern about the long-standing Asian conflict by states from that region, but rather an attempt by European states to tell Asian states how to handle their own affairs. Most strikingly the advice givers did not even involve some of the most prominent Asian states in the formation of their advice. The European Union instead merely planned the session in coordination with the Sri Lankan government, who opposed it, and the Latin American and Caribbean Group of states. Powerful states like India and China were told to participate if they could agree with the European position and were not asked what a more unifying position might be. In sort, it was a recipe for disaster and this was apparent even before the meeting started.

The timing of the special session itself was an ironic testament to the cumbersomeness of the UN's human rights mechanisms. The meeting was intended to protect civilians in wartime, but it did not take place until after the war in Sri Lanka had ended. Even more ironic was the fact that rifts over the special session did not arise because of the subject of the session, but rather because of the way in which the special session came about.

No one in the new Human Rights Council's hall at the UN European headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, doubted the unfortunate consequences of the civil war in Sri Lanka. Indeed, it has led to thousands of deaths, to child soldiers, to widespread displacement, and the internment of thousands of civilians. In origin, the conflict emerged from British colonial rule of the land then known as "Ceylon". The Tamils were brought to Sri Lanka from India, serving in the most senior administrative posts under the British. After independence, the majority Sinhalese, who had ruled the island for centuries until it was colonised by the Portuguese, Dutch and eventually the British, intensified their efforts to regain their control.

The Sinhalese, often viewing the Tamils as a minority that had benefited from the occupying powers, slowly marginalised the 30 per cent of ethnic Tamils living on the island. This led to a vicious civil war, waged from 1983 to 2009. The government and the Liberation Tamil Tigers Elam (LTTE) were both accused of violating international law, a point emphasised by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in her video message to the special session. At the special session most states urged general concern for the human rights of all Sri Lankans, expressing special concern for the reconstruction of the country in the aftermath of the war. This was, however, not the real issue in the hall. The main concern of states was why and how the special session was called.

The politics surrounding the special session had already become public before the special session started Tuesday afternoon. On 22 May, after the European Union and a handful of allies, including the lone Asian state of South Korea, called for the special session, the Sri Lankan government quickly rushed to get the almost 120 states of the Non-Aligned Movement to support a Sri Lankan government proposed resolution. In doing so, they were able to exploit the fact that the call for the special session did not come from local countries but from states that were former colonial powers and that were far displaced from what was actually happening in Sri Lanka. As a result, most Asian, African, Middle Eastern and some Latin American governments opposed the call for a special session, viewing it as just another example of bullying a weaker country while ignoring human rights abuses in some of the most powerful countries.

At the meeting, Cuba and Egypt, speaking for the Non-Aligned Movement and the African Group respectively, questioned the motivations of the governments that called the special session. The Cuban delegate called the process "odd" and wondered why the Western states had not adequately sought the cooperation of states in the region. Later speaking on its own behalf, Cuba accused the European states calling for the special session of using old "colonial practices", employing "double- standards", and of "selectivity". Both Cuba and Egypt also welcomed Sri Lanka's cooperation with the Human Rights Council. The Philippines also stated that the "government of Sri Lanka was doing its utmost to protect the human rights of all Sri Lankans" and cited -- as many governments did -- the statement of the Sri Lankan president that all the victims of war would be protected and assisted. In this context, they wondered what the special session would achieve.

Criticising the failure of the council to deal with serious human rights violations by "some of the world's most powerful states", Pakistan's ambassador, speaking on behalf of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, the largest bloc in the council, lamented that in the council "for some there is a different standard." The Indian delegate expressed a similar view that the special session "regrettably politicised" the work of the council. He also reiterated his government's pledge to offer $20 million in aid and stated that it was considering contributing another $10 million in humanitarian assistance. Meanwhile, the South African ambassador, without mentioning the US or Iraq by name, wondered why the council was considering Sri Lanka, which had pledged to cooperate with the council and that had lived up to that pledge in the past, when those that had caused more than a million deaths as a consequence of their illegal aggression were ignored.

Some delegations were more measured in their comments. The Russian delegate, for example, focussed on international cooperation for reconstruction and development. The Chinese delegate recognised the "daunting challenge" facing the government and people of Sri Lanka and called for international cooperation "to achieve national reconciliation, social stability and development". The Chinese delegate also joined the Egyptian government in welcoming Sri Lanka's victory over terrorism.

The Latin American countries, which supported the special session as a bloc, called for supporting the government of Sri Lanka's efforts to restore peace and development to the country. Chile was the most forthright in stating explicitly that it disagreed with the statement of Non- Aligned Movement member states that there should not have been a special session. The Chilean delegate said his country supported the special session to emphasise the protection of internally displaced persons' human rights, but ended by calling for cooperation with the government of Sri Lanka. Argentina, although a supporter of the special session, made a very vague statement about its support for a consensual outcome to the session. Brazil was also vague, recognising inter alia that the "Sri Lankan government has won the war over terror, but that they have yet to conquer peace".

Non-governmental organisations generally supported the European concern for the human rights of civilians, often vigorously accusing the Sri Lankan government of violently suppressing the self- determination of the Tamils. Only Nord- Sud XXI, an NGO focussed on human rights advocacy, expressed discomfort with the fact that this was the first special session that was called without the support of a significant number of regional states.

Marred by political divisions from the start, the special session was eventually overwhelmed by the expediency of politics. Thus when Sri Lanka proposed a resolution before others, being the first to be proposed, it was tabled for an immediate vote. When the German government opposed it with a series of amendments, the Cuban government responded with a motion to close debate. The Cuban proposal was quickly adopted and so the subsequently Sri Lankan resolution was adopted. This, in effect, ended the special session with a weak statement of concern about civilians in Sri Lanka.

Although both states and NGOs had been given the opportunity to express their concerns in a general debate that came on the first day of the special session, little consideration seemed to be given to issues raised in the debate in the final text of the adopted resolution. Similar to the text adopted a few weeks earlier at the Durban Review Conference against racism, it appeared that the conclusion had been arrived at before the special session had even begun. In the end, the only real consensus created was that the special session was less about civilians in Sri Lanka than it was about the growing rift between the South and the North in the UN.

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