The second resolution requesting the Sri Lankan government to do more to address alleged wartime rights violations, but observers question whether such resolutions can create meaningful change.
The new resolution calls on Sri Lanka to formally respond to UN “Special Rapporteurs” – investigators working on behalf of the UN – who have pending requests to visit the country to cover such issues as minority rights; freedom of peaceful assembly and association; freedom of opinion and expression; extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and enforced or involuntary disappearances, according to the latest report on Sri Lanka by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.
The resolution once again put the onus on the Sri Lankan government to act on allegations. Instead of the international investigation that Pillay called for in her report, the resolution called “upon the Government [of Sri Lanka] to conduct its own independent and credible investigation into allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.”
The latest resolution is unlikely to have any immediate impact in Sri Lanka, but if the government does continue to ignore these international concerns, I expect the pressure will grow, with an increasing chance that in the next year or two the Human Rights Council will authorize an international investigation and that other international bodies will take stronger action.
A possible effect of the latest resolution may be countries downsizing their delegations – or boycotting altogether – the biennial Commonwealth Heads of Meeting to be held in Colombo in November. While the boycott may not result in any serious change in the ground situation in the short-term such symbolism is still more potent than resolutions and the Commonwealth meeting could be a catalyst for more critical action on Sri Lanka, whose government would chair the scheduled meeting.
In August 2010, the European Union (EU) suspended a preferential tariff agreement, Generalized System of Preferences Plus, which had been granted to Sri Lanka since July 2005. The scheme is available to “vulnerable” countries that have “ratified and effectively implemented” a number of specific human rights, labour law and good governance conventions.
As during the 2012 Human Rights Council meeting, the Indian government played a key role in limiting the 2013 resolution to seeking action from the Sri Lankan government, as opposed to calls from human rights activists to also threaten sanctions. The Indian government wanted to minimize other countries’ leverage, and partly to avoid the appearance that India has been overshadowed.
New Delhi would likely try to persuade Colombo to devolve power to the Tamil minority in the north, rather than support sanctions or an international investigation. If the government softens its stance and indicates a willingness to cooperate with international critics, then calls for an international probe may weaken.
But ultimately, – the impetus for change must be from within. “Ultimately, real change can only come from Sri Lankans.”