UN Rights chief urged to ensure accountability

In a statement released on 18 August 2018, on the appointment of former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet as the new UN human rights chief, the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) called on the newly appointed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to ensure there is accountability for human rights violations committed in Sri Lanka, warning that not doing so would be “an undesirable failure the UN system cannot afford”.

Global Tamil Forum welcomes the appointment of Michelle Bachelet as the UN Human Rights High Commissioner

The Global Tamil Forum (GTF) would like to congratulate former President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, on her appointment as the seventh UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. We also express our appreciation to the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, in facilitating the appointment of such an eminent person with indisputable record of national and global leadership on human rights.

There is no better endorsement than from her predecessor, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein who said: “She has all the attributes – courage, perseverance, passion, and a deep commitment to human rights – to make her a successful High Commissioner.” GTF would like to take this opportunity to express our admiration and gratitude to the outgoing High Commissioner whose principled and courageous leadership provided relief and inspired hope for millions across the globe.

With the emergence of nationalistic-authoritarian governments in several countries the world is, no doubt, becoming less hospitable place for human rights, a challenge that could be acutely felt by the new High Commissioner. But, the consolation is that the UN leaders have had notable impact in the past and could continue to play a significant role through their mandate in fostering human rights and accountability for serious human rights violations.

In Sri Lanka, the UN system failed miserably in 2009 in preventing the deaths of tens of thousands, mostly Tamil citizens in the hands of the country’s security forces. However, the initiatives taken by the leading UN officials to address this failure are notable and praiseworthy. The then UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon appointed a Panel of Experts to address accountability issues related to alleged war time abuses and an Internal Review Panel to prevent the repetition of the Sri Lanka-type failure. Former UN High Commissioner Navi Pillai advocated for the UNHRC to mandate an international inquiry and instrumental in setting up an OHCHR investigation of Sri Lanka (OISL) under the guidance of eminent international jurists. The outgoing UN High Commissioner Zeid was key to monitoring accountability and reconciliation efforts in Sri Lanka. The leadership shown by these UN officials and the support from several countries ultimately led to the passing of the UNHRC resolutions 30/1 and 34/1, in 2015 and 2017, respectively. Though Sri Lanka co-sponsored these resolutions, its commitment and will to implement them have not been demonstrated in the three intervening years. The reports presented by the High Commissioner Zeid and the core group of countries during the UNHRC reviews for monitoring the progress on implementation unambiguously attest to this fact. Frustrated by the lack of will and slow pace of implementation by the Sri Lanka government he argued for the establishment of a specialized court supported by international practitioners and urging member states to act on their responsibility via universal jurisdiction.

It is in this context that the March 2019 session will be crucial in ensuring Sri Lanka continues to be under the purview of the UNHRC, with necessary arrangements to address the discrepancies between its promises and delivery. Any failure on the part of the UNHRC will send a wrong message to countries with despicable human rights record that they can live out a resolution without consequences – an undesirable failure the UN system cannot afford and a major setback to promoting human rights across the globe.

We call upon the new High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet to continue to lead the OHCHR in a steadfast and admirable manner just as her esteemed predecessors. Accountability for human rights violations and redressing the grievances of the victims, not just from Sri Lanka but across the world – past and future – will require spirited tenacity and sense of justice.

We have no doubt the rich political, diplomatic and human rights record of the new High Commissioner will stand her in good stead in dealing with these and several more challenges she is sure to face. We wish that her tenure will be remembered as a golden era for human rights through the leadership of the UNHRC.

GTF is a global diaspora organization of Tamils. Nearly a million Tamils from Sri Lanka forced out by the war and human rights abuses are now living in countries around the world hoping for the UNHRC process to succeed.

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