Who Will Win at the Human Rights Council?
The US recently tabled a draft resolution against Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council’s 19th session in Geneva. No one should be too surprised by this; everyone knew it was coming. However, the draft resolution is so incredibly weak that President Mahinda Rajapaksa must be breathing a sigh of relief. It is no wonder that the US feels confident that it has the votes it needs. Besides, it is likely that the resolution will be watered down even more in the coming days—making this exercise seem that much more formulaic and pointless.
The resolution requests that the government of Sri Lanka implement the recommendations from the Final Report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). In order to achieve this objective, it asks the government to present an outline or roadmap as “expeditiously as possible” so that everyone will know how much progress Sri Lanka is making towards genuine national reconciliation and to addressing purported violations of international law.
The resolution mentions that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) could help the Sri Lankan government with this. The resolution asks for OHCHR to report back to the Council so that its members can be aware of all of the collaboration that has taken place between the Sri Lankan government and OHCHR; OHCHR should present a report about this at the Council’s 22nd session, which is well over a year away. Do people honestly believe that the government of Sri Lanka is going to voluntarily cooperate with OHCHR?
As expected, there is no reference to an independent international mechanism to probe alleged violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law during the war’s final phases. Getting something that strong passed through the Human Rights Council would have been an epic achievement. Alas, epic achievements and substantial resolutions continue to elude the Council. The US’s draft resolution looks more like an abbreviated version of something that should come out of a session of the UN’s (perennially disappointing) Universal Periodic Review, rather than the Human Rights Council.
Again, the draft resolution is even weak when it comes to the recommendations of Sri Lanka’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. This resolution is so toothless that it is almost embarrassing that a country like the US has tabled it. Sure, a resolution this light will almost certainly pass later this month, although it will have little effect on human rights and national reconciliation within Sri Lanka. According to the draft resolution, Sri Lanka would not have to make any meaningful commitments that are binding. Nor would Sri Lanka be forced to move too quickly. Rather, this is a resolution that puts the pressure back on an already fragmented opposition.
Coming out of Geneva, nobody wants to look like a “loser.” Everyone wants to emerge victoriously. What is really going on here? Was the Obama Administration trying to show a more muscular foreign policy on East Asia’s doorstep in the name of the extraordinarily malleable term “human rights?”
It now looks like everyone—including the US, the government of Sri Lanka, and the Council itself—will leave Geneva blemished. The US will be claiming victory because they said they would pass a resolution and it looks like they will do that. Although, how much will this resolution really hurt the Rajapaksa government? Sure, having a resolution passed against it is a clear criticism of the Sri Lankan government’s approach towards human rights and national reconciliation. But does it do much else? If it is passed, will this resolution really change policy in Colombo?
As an absolute minimum, Sri Lanka must be on the formal agenda for the 20th session of the Human Rights Council this June. If that does not happen, the US will emerge as the “biggest” loser. Right now, the Council’s 19th session looks like another example of the US government ineffectively using “human rights” as a foreign policy tool. Given all of the diplomatic resources it dumped into this initiative, the US looks rather weak right now. In order for that to change, a lot needs to happen between now and March 21st.