As 47 countries meet in Geneva to take stock of the world’s human-rights performance, Sri Lanka finds itself in the dock, haunted by the legacy of a fierce civil war that spanned two and a half decades and came to a violent end three years ago. The Sri Lankan government is under fire for failing to investigate human-rights violations said to have taken place in the final months of the military’s scorched earth offensive — a relentless battle that destroyed the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam but left behind a bloody trail of civilian casualties. Ratcheting up the international pressure, the U.S. has introduced a resolution to the Human Rights Council calling on the island nation to take steps for reconciliation recommended by Sri Lanka’s own domestic investigation and, perhaps more crucial, to bring to book those responsible on both sides of the conflict for crimes that activists say killed 40,000 civilians in the final stages of the war in 2008 and ’09. (The government figure stands at 9,000.)
Faced with intense international scrutiny, Sri Lanka is cutting a defiant pose. Government-backed protests have filled the streets decrying “foreign intervention” and a “Western conspiracy.” Even as the U.S. and its allies mobilize support for more action, representatives from Colombo are lobbying tooth and nail with members of the Human Rights Council to defeat any international resolution against their country. And this confident rebuttal is more than just bluster. The government is banking on a loose coalition of like-minded countries at the U.N. known to block — and publicly denounce — any kind of foreign intervention. “A resolution on Sri Lanka will, many feel, be the ultimate test of the council’s politicization,” said Tamara Kunanayakam, Sri Lanka’s permanent representative to the U.N. in Geneva. “It will make it or break it.” This confrontation, which comes on the heels of a neutered world response to Syria’s crackdown on civilians, brings into sharper focus the question of the international community’s role in protecting human rights in a political landscape so bitterly divided between countries inclined to intervene and those staunchly averse to the very notion of it.
The U.N.’s foremost human-rights body, experts say, serves as the perfect microcosm of these cleavages. Sitting at one end of the table are the so-called interventionists led by the U.S. and parts of Europe; at the other are the Russians and the Chinese, armed with a long-standing policy against interference in the sovereign, internal affairs of other countries. “Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility,” Barack Obama said last year when establishing an atrocities-prevention body to monitor activities overseas. But opponents have cried hoarse over the West’s double standards on human rights, refusing to align themselves with what they call an imperialist worldview. Also joining this ideological fight are a wide spectrum of countries that lie in between: intervention-skeptic India, the Israel-focused Arab nations, circumspect Latin America and obstinate Cuba.
Unsurprisingly, this fractured house has made it difficult, oftentimes impossible, for the U.N. to respond to human-rights violations. Opponents of foreign action have vigorously steered clear of singling out countries for censure. And, in chasing an elusive majority, the Human Rights Council has, since its inception in 2006, passed a litany of weak — and sometimes counterproductive — resolutions. It ended the mandate of the independent expert to the Democratic Republic of Congo despite ongoing mass atrocities there, passed a watered-down resolution against Yemen’s repressive regime and wholly ignored Bahrain’s violent crackdown of protesters.
Speaking squarely about “spoiler” countries, Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth wrote in 2009:
These human rights opponents defend the prerogative of governments to do what they want to their people. They hide behind the principles of sovereignty, non-interference, and Southern solidarity, but their real aim is to curb criticism of their own human rights abuses or those of their allies and friends … Shifts in global power have emboldened spoiler governments in international forums to challenge human rights as a “Western” or “imperialist” imposition.
This assessment rings true, given the backdrop of recent events. A few weeks ago, a Security Council effort to end the violence in Syria collapsed in the face of a double veto by Russia and China, provoking worldwide outrage and concern. The responsibility to protect is in “a major crisis,” said Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations in an online video, referring to an emerging norm that casts on the international community a duty to protect people against mass atrocities when governments fail to do so. Indeed, the March 2011 Security Council resolution allowing military action against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya was touted as a vindication of this very principle. But the Libyan intervention may have polarized the world debate on intervention even more. Many have accused NATO of misusing the U.N.’s mandate aimed at protecting civilians to effect a change of regime in Libya. “The UN-supported intervention door is closed and we are if anything farther from enshrining the duty to protect in international law than we were six months ago,” writes political-affairs professor Walter Russell Mead in the American Interest.
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While world powers continue to remain deadlocked on the question of intervention in Syria, analysts say they smell the first hints of change at the Human Rights Council. The main reason, said Philippe Dam, a Human Rights Watch advocate in Geneva, is the changing attitudes of countries in Latin America, Africa and Southeast Asia that appear to be moving away from their uncompromising positions to play a more “proactive” and “progressive” role at the U.N. In the past year, despite continued resistance from some quarters, the council passed useful resolutions establishing investigations on Syria, Libya and Ivory Coast.
The case of Sri Lanka, however, is different. Interventionists are pushing the envelope, analysts say, as their efforts are aimed not at preventing mass massacre by an authoritarian regime but at ensuring greater accountability for human-rights violations in a functioning democracy. “We are saying to Sri Lanka, what you have already done is valuable, but to ensure reconciliation and lasting peace you need to do more,” tweeted Eileen Donahoe, the U.S. ambassador to the council. Activists insist that the Sri Lankan government, with a history of failed internal investigations, can’t be counted on to take credible measures, especially since many of those accused are top-ranking government officials. Sri Lankan leaders, on the other hand, see the resolution as an affront to their country’s sovereignty and democracy, and warn that “internationalizing a domestic issue” would derail the ongoing reconciliation process. “As we look around the conflicts unfolding globally and the prescriptions meted out by a part of the international community,” said Foreign Minister G.S. Peiris, “it is clear that external interventions without the consent of the country concerned do not achieve the envisaged sustainable peace but continue to exacerbate the situation.” In a landscape so divided, analysts are looking at the vote on Sri Lanka as an important marker of things to come.