The South Asia Channel

Where Can Sri Lanka Go From Here?

On March 27, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed its third resolution on Sri Lanka in as many years. Twenty-three countries voted in favor of the resolution, 12 voted against it, and 12 abstained, most notably India. The current resolution is more demanding than previous ones, but that's not saying much. While the U.S. and its allies have spent a tremendous amount of resources getting these resolutions passed, the return on their investment may be minimal.  

The resolution calls on the Sri Lankan government to account for unresolved wartime atrocities, look into attacks on religious minorities, activists, human rights defenders and others, and punish those who have committed crimes. It asks the government to implement past recommendations made both by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights -- including dealing with human rights, the rule of law, impunity, militarization, and disappearances - and by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, Sri Lanka's homegrown accountability mechanism. It also encourages the government to allow the recently elected Northern Provincial Council - the only provincial council that the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) doesn't control - to operate without interference from the central government.

Most notably, the resolution also calls upon the U.N.'s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to monitor the human rights situation within the country and to undertake an investigation into the country's civil war. The office will investigate events from the beginning of the February 2002 ceasefire agreement to the war's end in May 2009, the same period examined by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.

These are all positive steps, but the resolution has disappointed some people by not going far enough.

To move towards a lasting peace and genuine reconciliation, a Commission of Inquiry should be conducted in Sri Lanka, rather than an investigation by the Office of the High Commissioner. A Commission of Inquiry would be seen as a more legitimate, independent, and comprehensive investigation. An investigation by the Office of the High Commissioner would place some additional international pressure on the government of Sri Lanka, but it will also forestall the possibility of a Commission of Inquiry for at least a few years. In addition, the presence of Russia and China on the U.N. Security Council makes it unlikely that the security council would create an ad hoc criminal tribunal, like those used to address human rights violations in Rwanda and Yugoslavia, to bring senior government officials to accountability in the near-term.

The unfortunate truth is that - like many other places riven by conflict - justice isn't going to come to Sri Lanka quickly, if it does at all.

While many groups, including the opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA), have reacted positively to the passage of another resolution, there's ample reason to doubt it will make any difference. The investigation will probably result in yet another damning report providing evidence that both government forces and the separatist Tamil Tigers committed war crimes during the end of Sri Lanka's brutal civil war. When this report is delivered at the Human Rights Council's 28th session next March, Sri Lanka will again be scrutinized. But what then? What more can really be accomplished at the Human Rights Council? Where do we go from here?

Some believe that the Sri Lankan government's continued intransigence, embrace of impunity, and rising authoritarianism will result in increased diplomatic pressure and eventually, a rigorous Commission of Inquiry. On the other hand, the more time that passes, the more difficult it becomes to muster support for increased action - at the Human Rights Council or elsewhere.

The bitter reality is that the United States and its allies have invested an enormous amount of time, energy, and diplomatic capital to pass three resolutions on a small island nation in South Asia. And still, justice has not prevailed. It's unclear what will happen over the next few years, but Sri Lanka's case at the Human Rights Council appears to be another reminder of the limits of American power.

During each of the past three years when Washington floated a resolution on Sri Lanka at the Council, the Obama administration knew it would pass. After all, it's imperative for American prestige and diplomacy that the Obama administration appear to be "winning" at venues like the Human Rights Council whenever possible. Unfortunately, the past two U.S.-led resolutions on Sri Lanka simply haven't worked.

Part of the reason that the resolutions - especially the first two - have been weak and ineffectual has to do with the composition of the Human Rights Council itself. Washington is normally able to rely on its European partners for support in human rights issues. However, current Council members include China, Russia, Cuba, Pakistan, and Venezuela - none of which are keen on promoting human rights. Achieving consensus at a forum like the Human Rights Council is hard enough, but having states that consistently disregard human rights as members makes it even tougher.

Meanwhile, in many areas - including governance, human rights, media freedom, militarization and the rule of law - the situation in Sri Lanka is actually getting worse. Mahinda Rajapaksa, the current president, has shown no interest in having a meaningful negotiation with the TNA, suggesting that the prospects of a political solution for ethnic Tamils in the near future remains bleak. Besides, the Rajapaksa regime has skillfully used international criticism to further consolidate its political power at home. Though one can argue that two recently held provincial council elections in the western and southern provinces did not go as planned for the UPFA, nobody is in the position to challenge the regime on the national level.

Sadly, there are many reasons to believe that little will come out this most recent Human Rights Council resolution except another highly critical report and a prediction that the situation in Sri Lanka will continue to deteriorate. If President Obama really does want to turn things around in Sri Lanka, he may need to finally recalibrate the bilateral relationship and encourage other countries to do the same.

Taylor Dibbert is an international consultant based in Washington, D.C., and the author of the book Fiesta of Sunset: The Peace Corps, Guatemala and a Search for Truth.