UNHRC on Blinkers
By Shivanthi Ranasinghe
The United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) holds three sessions per year. Its stated purpose is to discuss what the UNHRC describes as ‘thematic human rights issues and situations that require its attention throughout the year.’ In reality though, this inter-Governmental body behaves no different to the dime a dozen so-called civil societies with its armchair critics that plague us with politicised Human Rights agendas.
The UNHRC High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet behaves no differently than did her predecessor Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein. Bachelet too does not miss a single session to flay Sri Lanka. Though the UN has an office in Sri Lanka, the High Commissioners’ views strongly reflect those of politically partisan civil societies, rather than of ground realities.
The UNHRC blinders
It is not an accidental omission by any means that Bachelet fails to congratulate Sri Lanka for the superb management of the COVID-19 pandemic. When even anti-COVID vaccine producing countries like the US has failed to vaccinate more than a quarter of its population, Sri Lanka’s vaccination drive has inoculated more than half its population. This deserves to be commended.
Contentiously, the western nations that produce these vaccines are shamelessly hoarding it amongst them. Currently, the vaccine is the only safeguard against the virus. Without it, both lives and economies are at stake. These countries refuse not only to share their vaccines but also to recogniSe the vaccines produced by other countries. India has threatened to retaliate if UK continues to quarantine fully vaccinated Indians with the Covishield, of which the original manufacturer is in the UK.
According to a statement issued by New Delhi, India provided 4 million doses of Covishield vaccine to the UK at their request as this is also used in the British health systems. Therefore, there is no rational explanation for UK not to recognise Covishield other than as a marketing ploy. The behavior of these western countries is a clear violation of humanity. Yet, this is largely ignored by the UNHRC. Interestingly, UK is leading the self-appointed core group that has taken upon itself to address the human right allegations against Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is also the first country to install a State of the art facility at the Katunayaka airport to expedite the PCR testing of all arrivals into the country.
Within the space of three hours, each traveler will receive the test report, clearing him or her from being quarantined. This facility at any given hour can simultaneously test 500 samples. Just before the pandemic broke, Sri Lanka was considered the second safest travel destination. It would not be long before Sri Lanka once again regains this title.
Whoever wants to be quarantined has the option of choosing a Government facility if they do not wish to pay for the two-week stay at a designated hotel. These facilities provide meals and all other services absolutely free of charge.
These facilities thus allow all to enjoy the same safeguards irrespective of their economic capacities. Yet, the only point Bachelet and likeminded NGOs focus on is that these are managed by the Military. Strangely, their reaction to any Military involvement is not different to that of a rat snake to kerosene. Factually though, the Military of Sri Lanka is under political authority and trained to manage a wider range of subjects other than the business of toting guns. For instance, Sri Lanka as a country does not deal much with radioactive substances.
Yet, when the pandemic broke, it was the training the Military had to handle a radioactive calamity that helped design the first quarantine facility. This allowed those Sri Lankans residing in Wuhan to be safely brought back to the country without allowing any room for the virus to spread into the country. Likewise, Sri Lanka is the first country to ban agrochemicals. This was a bold decision.
There will be many challenges Sri Lanka will have to overcome before this program can be pronounced a success. Yet, in the interest of people and environment this was a vital decision. Many countries have applauded Sri Lanka and pledged their support. These positive steps and clear leadership undoubtedly influenced the UN to place President Gotabaya Rajapaksa as a speaker on the first day itself of its 76th General Assembly. UNHRC on the other hand had largely ignored these developments that are core areas in human rights.
UNHRC’s new pet concerns
It appears that the last phase of the war against terrorism is beginning to fade from UNHRC’s memory. Instead, judging by High Commissioner’s opening remarks at the ongoing 48th regular session; the focus is shifting from unsubstantiated war crime allegations to the detention of the Easter Attack perpetrators.
Bachelet made a special reference in her speech on behalf of Easter Attack suspects in custody, namely Hijaaz Hisbulla and Afnaf Jazeem. However, she failed to note that they are in custody in connection over the Easter Attack that destroyed the lives of a thousand or more lives. Instead she described Hisbulla as a lawyer and Jazeem as a poet. Hisbulla is a human rights lawyer.
However, it is not his profession that is at odds but his clientele. Everyone deserves due legal representation. However, it is worth noting that the role of a lawyer representing a mafia is not an ordinary one. Furthermore Hisbulla’s detention stems from his connection to a madrasa school that promoted extremism. Jazeem may be a poet but then Hitler was a talented artist.
It is thus important to understand ones profession or passion need not necessarily reflect ideologies they promote. Bachelet’s demand to either charge or release them is met with silence from the Sri Lankan Catholic community. They in turn are pushing the Government to take firm action against all those culpable for the atrocity. This includes not only those who failed in their duty to prevent the attack but also those who aided and abetted the terrorists. One of the turning points where the Catholic community lost confidence in the Government was when MP Rishard Bathuideen and subsequently his brother were released from the CID custody.
Even though they were later re-arrested, the Government had been unable to restore the community’s confidence. Interestingly, during PM Mahinda Rajapaksa‘s recent visit to Italy the Tamil Diaspora and SJB supporters with their civil societies gathered to protest over PM’s presence.
Their main slogan too was of those arrested in connection with the Easter Attack. Interestingly, the protestors did not gain the support of the church. The Italian police too played an active role to ensure that the protestors were kept out of sight and hearing from the Sri Lankan delegation.
This is a stark difference to their British counterparts. Fundamental Rights of Terrorists More Important than Civilian Safety Bachelet also found fault with the Sri Lankan authorities for their lack in progress in the investigation over the Easter Attack. However, she did not make any reference to the New Zealand authorities’ deliberate concealment of information pertaining to the knife attacker from the Sri Lankan authorities. Instead, they were trying to portray him as a failed asylum seeker. Had they managed to deport him to Sri Lanka, the local authorities would have had no idea of what a danger he posed and would neither have had sufficient evidence to detain him: which would have endangered innocent civilians.
The New Zealand authorities’ excuse is that they were concerned over the PTA in Sri Lanka. It is contemptuous that the fundamental rights of a terrorist suspect was placed above the safety of civilians - especially that of a friendly Nation. Instead of apologising to Sri Lanka, weeks later the New Zealand authorities granted asylum to a Sri Lankan couple. They were seeking to escape the investigations in Sri Lanka over their connection in funding the Easter Attack bombers. The Catholic community in Sri Lanka continues to maintain their silence over these developments.
The UNHRC’s silence is unacceptable but also unsurprising. The UNHRC failed to question the West over its failure to prevent their Tamils citizens from getting intimidated by the LTTE’s international network. During the years of the separatist war, through direct and indirect forms of harassment, these citizens were extorted to fund their terrorist activities in Sri Lanka.
The Office for Missing Persons (OMP) was created as stipulated by the UNHRC Resolution 30/1. Yet, the western Governments have refused to corporate with the OMP to share information of those who had received asylum in those countries. This is despite the fact that a large number of hardcore terrorists escaped to the West. Adele Balasingham who created the LTTE suicide cadres who comprised mostly of young men and women continues to live in UK. Not a single human rights activist has protested about her presence there.
The Draconian PTA
Instead Western communities and Bachelet focus their contention on Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). This act was introduced because of the Tamil separatist terrorist’s horrendous atrocities. Whether it is draconian or not is debatable. Sri Lanka is not the only country to take a tough stand against terrorism. Sri Lanka does not maintain offshore detention centers like the notorious Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, nor does it hold a single inmate who had threatened Sri Lanka or her interests in any manner. Hence in comparison describing it as draconian is an overstatement. At the same time, whether we can afford a more lenient act is questionable. The pressure is for us to comply with international standards.
Yet, we need to understand whether these international standards are indeed international or influenced by the west and promoted as international. Perhaps countries in the West can afford to take a more lenient approach to deal with prospective terrorists. After all, countries in our region neither fund nor advocate terrorism in those countries.
Nor do we interfere in their internal affairs and prevent them from taking appropriate action to safeguard their territory and lives of citizens. Countries like ours on the other hand have the additional challenge to overcome the sympathy and support of the western nations given to those who commit terrorism in our countries. It is hardly a secret that larger and powerful nations directly and/or indirectly promoted terrorism in our country.
At one point one of our closest neighbors armed, trained and funded terrorism in Sri Lanka. At the same time, just as there are no financial fraud prisoners there is no such thing as PTA prisoners. Therefore, to refer to those taken into custody over terrorist acts cannot be referred to as PTA prisoners, as if somehow the person under detention is a victim of the PTA. To refer to one imprisoned for terrorism as a PTA prisoner is simply to whitewash the severity of the crimes committed by these prisoners. Terrorism is not a clearly defined topic. Especially for onlookers the subject can get blurry as terrorists often disguise their agendas with political, religious or equally emotive stance.
However, terrorism is a serious business as the victims are always the innocent civilians. It is important to understand that terrorists are those who have renounced all forms of politics and threatens the very framework of democracy. There is absolutely no reasoning with the terrorists. This is unfortunately compounded by geopolitics that seeks to gain from confusion. Therefore, especially interGovernmental bodies as the UNHRC is beholden to support Governments to deal with these dangerous elements than denounce their efforts.
This makes the need for its officials, specifically the High Commissioner to act on facts than mere allegations, especially from non Government actors who do not hold the lives of civilians in their hands. Most importantly, the UNHRC must maintain a balanced approach and treat all countries with equity. UNHRC must also make an effort to appreciate the constructive steps of a Government. Bringing such positive endeavors into the world’s attention is an important part of the process in promoting human rights. [email protected]