The United Nations and Sri Lanka: A Human Rights Saga

Thamil Venthan Ananthavinayagan joins JiC for this guest post on the United Nations, Human Rights, and Sri Lanka. Thamil, LLM. (Maastricht University), PhD (NUI Galway), is the incoming Teaching Associate in IHRL at University of Nottingham. Prior to this lectureship at GCD, he worked as a Fellow and research assistant to the Irish Centre for Human Rights in Galway, Ireland.

Soldiers from the Sri Lanka army stand next to anti-aircraft gun (Photo: DW)

The United Nations and Sri Lanka: if this was an international novel, it would be one with many chapters of deceit and mistrust, but also elating seasons of hope and confidence. The island nation joined the UN in 1955. I have written extensively on Sri Lanka and the UN, culminating in a book on the international human rights engagement of the United Nations with Sri Lanka. The engagement with its Charter-based and treaty-based bodies had been long and extensive. In the end, I concluded that the human rights corpus has been used by the UN and Western powers as a tool for the furtherance of a neo-colonial agenda, setting the stage for geopolitical influence and neoliberal world order in the Global South. Meanwhile, the (Sinhala) Third World elite of the country had conveniently employed international human rights law as a strategic asset and diplomatic bargaining tool.

Sri Lanka has willingly engaged in this human rights game: the lifting of autocratic policies in the 1970s came with the opening of the domestic market to foreign investors in order to align them with the requirements of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Human rights advocacy was tethered to neoliberal values and geopolitical state interests. To this end, many actors in the region and the Tamil diaspora in the Western countries have instrumentalised the suffering of the war victims for political gain. 

Sri Lanka will be always entangled in its colonial and postcolonial past, which contributes to the contradictions of its present and future. This article discusses the role of the UN and its manipulation by powerful actors to influence the political happenings on the island. I explain the driving narratives for non-governmental organisations, foreign and native, to intervene in Sri Lanka. Finally, this post will sum up the shallow human rights discourse in Sri Lanka, while proposing ways forward in achieving global justice from the distinct viewpoint Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL). 

Human rights is the instrument of the hegemon

Sri Lanka’s lack of retrospective insight on accountability for the war crimes is once again being tabled before the UN Human Rights Council. The lack of post-war justice is striking. Yet it is part of a larger strategy of the island nation when it engages with the international institutions. Sri Lanka is a post-war, but surely not post-conflict, country. 

In its January report  on Sri Lanka, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights wrote that: 

The Human Rights Council therefore is – once again – at a critical turning point in its engagement with Sri Lanka. Twice before, the Council has leant its support to domestic accountability and reconciliation initiatives, culminating in resolution 30/1.  The Government has now demonstrated its inability and unwillingness to pursue a meaningful path towards accountability for international crimes and serious human rights violations, and signalled instead a fundamentally different approach which focusses on reparation and development, but threatens to deny victims their rights to truth and justice and further entrench impunity.”

Once again, the UN has attempted to steer the current Sri Lankan government in its ideological outlook towards accountability for human rights abuses.  It is at this juncture of international human rights advocacy that the Tamil Tiger offshoots and their supporters are using Western media, Western institutions, research outlets and their apparatus’ for the furtherance of their own politics. The utilisation of liberal and cosmopolitan normative frameworkshave helped them to generate support from the Western hemisphere. Against this backdrop, the latest draft resolutiontabled before the UN Human Rights Council is yet again being spearheaded by Western nations. The aim of this resolution is to recommit the Sri Lankan government to transitional justice, promotion of civil and political rights, a new constitution and an international accountability mechanism: all core demands from the Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in 2015._The UN is the playfield between Western powers and their allies and China and its allies for geopolitical and economic bargaining: it was never about human rights or the plight of the marginalised communities on the ground. The victims and marginalised are robbed of their agency and their subaltern voices are expropriated: human rights advocacy in light of post-war justice was always about geopolitics, trade and militaristic securitisation of the Indian Ocean

NGOs and IGOs and their human rights gamble 

Against this background, Sinhala and Tamil NGOs and INGOs take their sides, capitalising upon the plight of the most powerless for the justification of their existence. These organisations follow the agenda of industrialised democracies in the North, an agenda which rooted in hegemonic patronage. To this end, Tamil Tiger offshoots are aides to this projects (notwithstanding the fact that their ideology is rooted in an obscure form of Tamil fascism and nostalgia of an illiberal leadership cult). In this regard there is a ‘(…) possibility that their resources and structure are appropriate for groups whose aim is just to reach private interests, therefore distorting their aim and purpose.’

This is a process which precedes the end of war in Sri Lanka in 2009. When the Sri Lanka unity government under Sirisena/Wickremasinghe agreed on a renewed alliance and open human rights dialogue, it was driven in large part by market factors. Cooperation with the United States, the Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) and the under-negotiation Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) are the key pillars of the securitisation of the Indian Ocean against the background of the international human rights noise which drowns and distracts from true intentions. Was it always about human rights or rather geopolitical containment of ChinaChina has vested interests in Sri Lanka, so has India, this is no news. Against this backdrop, the Sri Lankan elite has engaged in ‘hedging’ – which is a secondary states’ strategy of pursuing contradictory policy choices or ambiguous security alignment with major powers.

The politicisation of the plight of the victims is instrumental for world politics: neither the governments of China nor Pakistan nor India nor the US are interested in the quest for accountability of the marginalised communities. Sri Lanka is the chessboard of their geopolitical display of assertion and aggressions and the powerful players of the region are offering their support to prevent the discussion at the international level

In the end, human rights language was/is a conducive tool to justify militaristic encroachment in pursuit for neoliberal policies. By doing so, human rights advocates posit themselves as morally superior and create the favourable conditions for foreign interventions. Makau Mutua used the so-called the Savages-Victims-Saviour Metaphor. The Tamil offshoot organisations of the Tamil Tigers and the elitist human rights organisations on the ground in Sri Lanka are financially sustained by donors with a clear neoliberal mandate.  And it is interesting and paradoxical how their spokespersons are using the plight on the ground by Sri Lankan Muslims – a group that their brothers in arms had once relinquished and marginalised. The clever use of human rights language and alluding to shared suffering of Tamils and Muslims is conveniently exploited to  build an advocacy network against the Sri Lanka government. In the end, it is not about the people who are suffering in the absence of justice in the native homeland and who are repeatedly facing discrimination at the hands of the Sri Lankan government. Human rights advocates of the Tamil diaspora are rallying under the banner of global justice as a self-fulfilling prophecy and justify their own  existence.

Conclusion: accountability and native responsibility 

Sri Lanka is at a tipping point (again). Nonetheless, the country is going backwards in terms of accountability and not lifting the cloak of impunity. The United Nations, however, has changed a great deal in its operations in Sri Lanka. Yet Sri Lanka has changed little to none. The result of decades of human rights engagement and international cooperation have not helped to rectify the ills of colonialism and the violent post-colonial transgressions of its leaders. As much as I had once genuinely believed that the UN with its prime human rights institution, the Human Rights Council, would change, foster and achieve accountability for the war crimes committed by both, Sri Lankan government and Tamil Tigers: this is not about to happen. The UN has failed, yet again. It is a shallow post-colonial construct which is motivated by the sensations in the Global South when the market narratives of the Global North compel it to pursue. 

Where do we go from here for justice in (post)conflict, then? This will be eventually the rallying point for the citizens of the island to decide: decades of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, recruitment of child soldiers and much more was committed by both sides to the conflict and left scars on all communities.  Sinhala, Tamils and Muslims have been targeted and suffered the consequences of the conflict – and still do . The uprising against an elitist regime which has manipulated differences based upon identity to sustain and expand their privileges and wealth must end: the unity in shared suffering is the rallying point for justice. The natives of the island need to build a cross-communal front, supported and sustained in Global South solidarity, pushing for a regional accountability mechanism that is the eventual outcome for an accountability mechanism, taking into account the dynamics and narratives in the Asian region. The time is ripe for cross-communal solidarity in the pursuit for accountability. Shared suffering is the currency that needs to translate into communal action.

About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
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2 Responses to The United Nations and Sri Lanka: A Human Rights Saga

  1. El roam says:

    Interesting post.

    So, the respectable author of the post, clearly despises those UN bodies and other organizations dealing or advocating for human rights.

    But, one should not forget:

    Even if their motives can be questioned, there is no substitute for the western theoretical models for pursuing human rights. Pursuing all the right things:

    Equality. Environment. Fair trials. Transparency.Treatment of minorities. Women. Accountability.Against cruel treatment and punishment. And more and more….

    So, it is maybe in the eyes of the author of the post, no more than empty rhetoric, yet, the rhetoric by itself is the right one. The right models. And models of let’s say:

    That one man, may rape one woman, and get away with it, if he would only marry her.Or, that women as such, are not eligible or competent for voting, for driving etc….


  2. El roam says:

    Just correcting my comment:

    Should be “And not models of let’s say” over “And models of let’s say” of course.


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