On Wednesday evening, the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva refused to answer calls for a UN inquiry into war crimes and backed the Sri Lankan Government by praising its victory over the Tamil Tigers.
After weeks and weeks of demonstrations by Sri Lankan Tamils in Parliament Square, after allegations from both sides accusing each other of committing terrible atrocities, after actions from the Sri Lankan Government which blocked not only foreign journalists, but also international aid organizations such as the Red Cross from accessing the conflict area, it is hard to understand why the UNHRC would come to this decision.
Of course we must assume that propaganda has been published and spread by both sides. But the Sri Lankan Government’s claim to “not be responsible for the death of even one of the 7,000 civilians” the UN estimates were killed in the first four months of the year seems rather dubious.
Sri Lankan lobbyists have successfully convinced the majority at the UNHRC that the Tamil conflict is a domestic matter which it does not wish to interfere in. The Sri Lankan ambassador in Geneva, Dayan Jayatilleka, described the call from European countries for an inquiry to be a “punitive and mean-spirited agenda” and claimed that the “vast mass of humanity are in support of Sri Lanka.”
It is important to understand that the UNHRC has no enforcement power, no other tool than to make recommendations to the General Assembly about situations in which human rights are violated. A key component of its work is based on the Universal Periodic Review, which aims to assess the human rights situations in all 192 UN Member States.
It is therefore highly surprising, but mainly disappointing, that it now refuses to do exactly that in Sri Lanka. After decades of civil war it seems almost naïve to assume that no atrocities were committed by the Government’s military forces. Proving this would, of course, require an independent inquiry; refusing this could be seen as a confession to guilt.
When the UNHRC was established in 2006, the US voted against the relevant General Assembly Resolution, claiming that it did not have adequate provision to keep states which abused human rights from being on the Council. There have been critical voices in the past which claimed that the body was “too politicized” to function and that its existence was therefore obsolete. After Wednesday’s resolution, the Council itself has given these voices their strongest support. Its function, role and capacities need to be urgently reassessed.