Experience shows that the resolutions and the voting patterns reflect the geopolitical interests of rival powers with no bearing on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.
On October 6, when there is voting in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on a resolution on the human rights situation Sri Lanka, the island nation is expected to lose the vote as it did in March 2021.
But, as seen earlier, the resolution is expected to be infructuous with no follow-up action taking place.
The reason for the continuous stalemate in regard to the implementation of UNHRC resolutions is that the issues taken up by Council and the forces ranged against each other in the Council, reflect geopolitical impulses rather than a genuine interest in the establishment of human rights in Sri Lanka (or any other country for that matter).
Indeed, the UNHRC appears to be just another international arena for playing big-power politics. The teams put together by the big powers reflect existing geopolitical lineups. While the West (the US-led “Core Group”) arm-twists Sri Lanka to tow its geopolitical line (vis-à-vis China), China, Russia and other countries that are at odds with the US, support Sri Lanka. India has its own complex geopolitical axe to grind. It tries to achieve its aims by “abstaining”. Abstention sends out mixed signals to Sri Lanka. On the one hand, India gives a lot of financial and material aid to Sri Lanka, but on the other hand, by not voting for it at the UNHRC, it conveys the message that Sri Lanka should abide by New Delhi’s political and geostrategic wishes viz., implement its plan for devolution of power to the Tamil areas and keep China at bay.
The balance of power in the UNHRC is generally in favor of the West. But this does not really matter to Sri Lanka because no follow-up action ensues from its resolutions. It was only once, in 2010, that the EU withdrew its GSP Plus trade concession. But even that was restored in 2017 supposedly because Sri Lanka had “ratified and implemented measures contained in a number of international conventions on human and labor rights, environment protection and good governance.” But the fact was that there had been no improvement in the rights situation by the yardstick of the UNHRC. The real reason for the restoration was to prevent Sri Lanka from going closer to China.
Sri Lanka lost the March 2021 vote. Out of the 47 members, 22 voted in favor, 11 against and 14 abstained on a resolution empowering the UN to collect and store information that could lead to international criminal proceedings. India, Nepal and Japan abstained while China, Russia, Pakistan and Bangladesh supported Sri Lanka. Currently, Bangladesh is not a member.
The October 2022 draft resolution has been sponsored by 26 countries including ten Council members. It has the same objective of empowering the UN to collect and store information that could lead to international criminal proceedings. It calls for the extension and reinforcement of the Office of the High Commissioner “to collect, consolidate, analyze and preserve information and evidence and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka.”
However, Sri Lanka is belligerent and will ask for a vote. One of its aims is to show the futility of censure. Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Ali Sabry told the Council that the draft resolution providing for an external judicial process is against the Lankan constitution. He also said that “economic crimes”, included in the list of charges this time, are outside the purview of the UNHRC and therefore inadmissible.
Sabry said that Sri Lanka cannot agree to “an outside evidence gathering mechanism and the long-term prosecution of the Sri Lankan armed forces outside Sri Lanka.” He added that if crimes were committed, they must be prosecuted in Sri Lanka (though the domestic commissions and judicial mechanisms to ensure accountability have proved to be ineffective). “Whether we win or lose, there are things on which we cannot compromise,” he declared.
UNHRC resolutions are non-binding. The Council cannot impose any sanctions. However, the UN will have an office with an annual budget of US$ 2.8 million to collect information about war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Sri Lanka, which is expected to be the Sword of Damocles hanging over its head.
Carrot and Stick Policy
Even as they bring resolution after resolution condemning Sri Lanka, Western nation have not flinched from helping Sri Lanka and supporting its governments. Recently, USAID said that it will provide an additional US$ 65 million in assistance over a five-year period. The assistance falls under the Development Objectives Assistance Agreement (DOAG). This funding is in addition to over US$ 60 million of new humanitarian and fertilizer assistance that Administrator Samantha Power announced in response to the current economic and political crises in Sri Lanka.
At the G7 Summit in June 2022, President Biden announced US$ 20 million in additional assistance to strengthen food security in Sri Lanka. Building on other recent funding announcements from the United States, this newly posted assistance will target Sri Lankans most in need during the current economic crisis. The funding aims to support a school nutrition program that will feed over 800,000 Sri Lankan children and provide food vouchers for over 27,000 pregnant and lactating women over the next 15 months. The U.S. government also announced a third tranche of new funding to address the immediate needs of people hardest hit by the economic crisis in Sri Lanka. This humanitarian assistance, totaling US$ 5.75 million, will provide cash assistance, short-term jobs, and agriculture supplies such as seeds directly to crisis-affected people to meet their basic needs.
The US is also collaborating with Sri Lanka in the field of defense. The Offshore Patrol Vessel P 627, which was formally handed over to the Sri Lanka Navy by the US Coast Guard in October 2021, recently departed for Sri Lanka from the Port of Seattle.
The UK too is helping Sri Lanka manage the economic crisis. The UK is providing £3 million of lifesaving support to the most vulnerable and will continue to work with international partners to help crisis-ridden Sri Lanka.
The West is expected to carry on with its carrot and stick policy to bring Sri Lanka under its control so that the island nation stops its lurch towards China.
China too has adopted the carrot and stick policy to keep Sri Lanka under its thumb. Realizing that Sri Lanka needs its money, Beijing closed the financial tap during the 2022 financial crisis to punish Sri Lanka for approaching India and the IMF for help without taking it into confidence. But China has now come back with some aid if only to counter Indian aid of US$ 4 billion and the possibility of an IMF bailout following the conclusion of a Staff level agreement between Sri Lanka and the IMF.
The Chinese government has announced that it will provide a total of US$ 74.2 million in emergency humanitarian aid to Sri Lanka to help the country cope with its current difficulties. In July, 1000 tons of rice arrived. China has now said it would supply 70% of uniforms for school kids.
Given Sri Lanka’s critical geopolitical location, neither the West, nor India nor China, can afford to lose its goodwill and cooperation. And the method adopted to achieve this objective is also the same, namely, using the carrot and the stick.