Europe and most of Latin America supported the US resolution against Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council’s (HRC) 19th session in Geneva.
China, Russia, and several countries in Africa and Asia voted against it. Unsurprisingly, Cuba and Ecuador also opposed the resolution. Having never before voted for a “country-specific resolution,” India’s vote was significant, both symbolically and materially. It is unclear what Delhi’s decision will mean when it comes to US-Indian relations in the coming years or what effect it will have on Indo-Sri Lankan ties.
The Sri Lankan government has already stated said that the “intimate relations” between India and Sri Lanka will not be affected, but that is just simplistic government braggadocio. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently said that India does “not want to infringe on the sovereignty of Sri Lanka,” which appears to be incompatible with the vote his country cast on Thursday in Geneva. India was in an extremely difficult position, but it is still hard to believe that they did not abstain.
A little over a week ago, the Indian government reminded the Indian Parliament (and the international community) that India wound not support a country-specific resolution. On the other hand, India had a lot to do with “toning down” the draft resolution that the US had originally tabled, ensuring that an already weak resolution became even more irresolute.
As a result of the resolution, which passed by a 24-15 margin (with 8 abstentions) the Sri Lankan government will probably present some sort of “action plan” which shows how the government will implement some of the recommendations from the Final Report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). The resolution also calls for the government to “address alleged violations of international law.” This will not happen. An international probe into what transpired during the final stages of Sri Lanka’s civil war will never occur as long as the Rajapaksa regime remains in power. Such an investigation might not ever take place.
Sri Lanka will not be on the formal agenda of the 20th session of the HRC. Sri Lanka will probably not be on the formal agenda of the 21st session either, since a report from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) should be forthcoming at the HRC’s 22nd session, according to the US resolution. This leaves more than a year for the Sri Lankan government to receive “advice and technical assistance” from OHCHR.
Given the Sri Lankan government’s well-known aversion to any form of international assistance on matters related to human rights, one should not expect that much collaboration between Colombo and OHCHR over the next twelve months. Furthermore, according to the resolution, such cooperation would only take place “in consultation with, and with the concurrence of, the Government of Sri Lanka.”
If someone is going to put serious pressure on Sri Lanka during the next session of the HRC, it almost certainly will not be the United States. The Obama Administration will be occupied with an electoral battle that will focus on domestic policy. Sri Lanka’s human rights record does not and will not appear, even on the periphery, of topics that matter to the American public.
The administration of Mahinda Rajapaksa has only become more controlling since winning the civil war in 2009. Still, this is a disgraceful moment for the Rajapaksa regime; the Sri Lankan government’s (usually effective) rhetoric is no longer working. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine that “Sri Lanka” will garner more attention that it already has. Given the government’s propensity for authoritarianism and continued efforts to infringe upon the rights of the country’s ethnic minorities, significant policy shifts will not come from Colombo in the near term. On the other hand, the Sri Lankan government should make some moves to reduce international pressure in the coming year, especially as it relates to demilitarization and the rule of law.
The US resolution was never about human rights alone. The very same day that the resolution was passed, the US State Department announced that defense sales to the Sri Lankan government would become less restrictive.
Even though the State Department has said that the two developments are not connected to one another, this is a discouraging announcement. It, among other considerations, makes it seem like the resolution at the HRC was mostly about power and the US, yet again, exerting its influence on a small, developing country for reasons less noble than those which are advertised.