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Avenues for action: the UNHRC and beyond

As the March session of the United Nations Human Rights Council approaches, and nearly a year after the resolution at the 19th session called on Sri Lanka to take credible action to ‘ensure justice, equity, accountability and reconciliation’, it is clear that the island’s ethnic crisis has only deepened. The 2012 resolution relied on Sri Lanka acting responsibly and was therefore, arguably, bound to fail. Sri Lanka’s hostile reaction to the resolution and subsequent insincerity in addressing the issues it raised are not surprising. It is time for the international community to take decisive action.

This week the United States announced it will sponsor another resolution on Sri Lanka. This is a welcome development, although it very much remains to be seen if the resolution passes, and with what consequence. In short, the members of the UNHRC must now spell out in clear and concrete terms the consequences that President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime will face if it continues to defy international demands. And then decisively follow through with action.

Last year Sri Lanka made the argument that it needed ‘more time and space’. This disingenuous ploy is now laid bare: in the past year Sri Lanka has only intensified its various forms of repression. The international community has historically been well behind the curve on Sri Lanka’s escalating crisis. Prof Stephen Ratner, a member of the UN’s Panel of Experts that studied the horrific end to Sri Lanka war, argued recently that international institutions tasked with addressing problems like those then unfolding in Sri Lanka, were hindered by politics and unpreparedness, thus delaying prospects for accountability. These past failures must serve as a lesson and spur for action now.

Over the past year Sri Lankan diplomats have been on a hectic schedule, lobbying developing countries – particularly in Africa – in an effort to gather support against another resolution in Geneva. As usual the government will rely on supposedly representative Tamils to make its case; last March, human rights activists from diaspora and international organisations were startled to come face-to-face with paramilitary leader Douglas Devananda, responsible for murder, kidnap, rape and trafficking of women, who was being presented as a symbol of reconciliation. Sri Lanka will also again attempt to portray itself as subject to ‘western’ harassment and deflect attention on its critics, rather than what is being criticised. But last year’s resolution, also sponsored by the US, was supported by a range of countries including Mexico, Nigeria and, at the last minute, India.

Moreover, the UNHRC is but one route the international community can take towards ensuring accountability. If UN institutions remain deadlocked, those genuinely committed to the universality of human rights protection are obliged to take up other options. A number of states have enacted legislation recognising the principle of universal jurisdiction for grievous violations of human rights and crimes against humanity. Many also have in place legislation to prosecute individuals responsible for genocide. These laws are already being used routinely in relation to violations in many other parts of the world. Sri Lanka should be no exception.

It is also time for the long overdue step of imposing tangible sanctions. It is no longer acceptable to blame Sri Lanka’s allies when effective pressure can be applied by regional bodies or individual states. The EU, for example, suspended Sri Lanka’s entitlement to GSP+ trade concessions in 2010. With the consequences now being much felt, the regime is under growing pressure at home to approach the EU again. The Commonwealth holds substantial influence over Sri Lanka - its membership is amongst the most valued by Colombo. Countries like the US, Britain and Australia have considerable leverage by virtue of their continuing trade, sporting and military links with Sri Lanka.

Without decisive international action, Sri Lanka’s crisis will deepen and intensify. The present growth in asylum flight is but one reflection of the coming disorder. The March session of the UNHRC has the potential – if it adopts a resolution with sufficient force and follows through with concrete action – to be a significant step, not only in advancing accountability but also in restoring much worn faith that international mechanisms can ensure a just and peaceful future for the Tamil people. However, whatever the outcome in Geneva next, members of the international community must now work separately towards this end.