News Features

Who’s afraid of Louise Arbour and the UNHRC?

Louise Arbour Pic by Isahara S. Kodikara

The bitter irony in this is that by stubbornly resisting instead of accommodating international concerns to some extent at least, Sri Lanka may be precipitating negative international intervention. The thing that is greatly feared may come upon the country due to its uncompromising intransigence

By D.B.S Jeyaraj
Who’s afraid of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour? Very few in Sri Lanka, if reported responses to her visit are any indication!
Mahinda Samarasinghe emphatically rules out the questions of establishing a UN country office and setting up a field mission in Sri Lanka; the indefatigable Peace Secretariat Chief Rajiva Wijesinghe says she is being kicked about like a political football and urges her to issue a statement.
Rohitha Bogollagama is miffed that she was too tired to have dinner with him. First Brother Basil advises her not to ‘police’ Sri Lanka on human rights despite her being UN Human Rights Commissioner. A newspaper editorial depicts Arbour as a knight slaying Komodo dragons.
The saffron brigade takes her former student along and asks her to look into animal rights. The crimson comrades accuse her of being an American stooge and also link her to the Tigers. Selvi of the LTTE queries whether she can see through the government smokescreen.
This 60-year-old eminent French-Canadian jurist and law professor was at one time a Canadian Supreme Court Judge and Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court. She became UN Human Rights Commissioner when her predecessor Sergio Veire de Mello was killed in the Canal Hotel explosion in Baghdad.
The TV movie Hunt For Justice: The Louise Arbour Story chronicled her attempts to bring Bosnian war criminals to justice after a decades-old civil war. The film was slated to be broadcast in 2006 by CTV. The movie starred Canadian Wendy Crewson as Arbour.
Her Sri Lankan visit aroused much expectation. Arbour issued a press statement at the end of it. She scrupulously avoided any direct references to what was probably the primary purpose of her visit, namely a UN field mission and country office for Sri Lanka.
Yet, most news reports revolved around that aspect alone despite it being a non-issue in the statement. This caused Wijesinghe to rail against the media and state that Arbour never, ever made such a request. If that was the case, one is perplexed as to why the usually diplomatic Samarasinghe came out with a strong public refusal of a request that was never made according to Wijesinghe.
In her statement Arbour laments thus, “I was struck in my discussions by the fact that broader human rights issues affecting all communities on the island have largely been eclipsed by the immediate focus on issues related to the conflict. These include issues of discrimination and exclusion, gender inequalities, the low participation of women in public and political life, the rights of migrant workers and press freedom.”
Unfortunately, the focus has not only been on conflict related issues but also in the final analysis got whittled down further to a solitary issue alone. The forest seems to have been missed for trees.
The tendency to view and even portray her trip as one of UN versus the government has distorted the scenario. Sinister motives are attributed unfairly. In this political frenzy about the Rajapaksa regime’s culpability in human rights violations, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) dimension has been ignored or overlooked.
Human rights violations in this country are not perpetrated by government agencies, security forces, police and paramilitaries of the state alone. Human rights are violated with impunity by the LTTE too.
A silver lining in the dark cloud as far as the government-controlled areas are concerned is that many of the incidents are reported even if culprits are not penalised. But incidents in the LTTE-controlled areas are seldom reported.
Two terrors
The Tamil people of this country are caught between two terrors. One is state terror and the other is Tiger terror. Arbour did not intend focussing only on one aspect during her trip but the government did not allow her to visit the Wanni and meet LTTE leaders. What would she have done had she gone to Kilinochchi?
This is what she said, “I also regret that I did not have the opportunity to visit Kilinochchi, where I would have liked to convey directly to the LTTE my deep concern about its violations of human rights and humanitarian law, including the recruitment of children, forced recruitment and abduction of adults, and political killings.”
The response of the LTTE and fellow travellers towards her visit – before and after – is extremely revealing. The LTTE did not evince great interest in getting her down to their areas. Serious efforts were not made presumably because the LTTE anticipated criticism. But when it became definite that she was not coming to the Wanni, the Tigers exploited the issue by publicly requesting her to visit the Wanni.
Subsequently, the LTTE adopted a lofty attitude and advised Arbour to look beyond the propagandistic smokescreen of the state and not to be deceived by government propaganda.
LTTE stance
LTTE media organs also played up the visit and highlighted instances of the security forces preventing people from meeting her. It was as if human rights violations were from one side only and that the LTTE was pure white like a jasmine flower.
The ‘pappadam’ crumbled when Arbour explicitly stated what she would probably have told the Tigers if she had an opportunity of meeting them. With that disclosure, the Tigers clammed up and their propagandists began downplaying Arbour. Suddenly her visit became a non-event.
The LTTE response should be differentiated from the general Tamil response. The beleaguered Tamil people have no one of stature to seek solace from. They are like drowning souls, ready to clutch at straws.
The visit of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was to many Tamils a godsend. They looked up to her hopefully as ray of bright light in a dark, gloomy situation.
There was a strong element of spontaneity in the large crowds that sought to line up the streets of Jaffna. Thousands thronged the Jaffna Bishop’s house to see her. Hundreds crowded outside the UN office in Colombo too.
Humane gesture
The families of the disappeared and the detained were particularly anxious to meet her. So too were the Tamil detenues who went on a hunger strike demanding a meeting.
Arbour met representatives of all those sections seeking to meet her. She promised action and possible redress to the detenues by December.
Arbour also went out of her way to reach out to the suffering people by going to the gates at Jaffna Bishop’s house and Colombo UN office. It was a commendable humane gesture that touched the hearts of many.
The victims of human rights violations and their loved ones had high hopes over Arbour’s visit. It was seen as a prelude to a permanent UN human rights presence here. Some may have even thought that the UN could impose its will on Colombo and unilaterally set up an office here.
Arbour’s frank admission that such a course was impossible without Colombo’s concurrence would have disappointed quite a few people. Likewise, others may be elated at this recognition of sovereignty.
Major crisis
What is at stake here is not merely issues like sovereignty or face-saving bluffs or scoring brownie points. What is at stake here is that a major crisis of human rights violations prevails. This is what Arbour said:
“However, in the context of the armed conflict and of the emergency measures taken against terrorism, the weakness of the rule of law and prevalence of impunity is alarming. There is a large number of reported killings, abductions and disappearances which remain unresolved. This is particularly worrying in a country that has had a long, traumatic experience of unresolved disappearances and no shortage of recommendations from past Commissions of Inquiry on how to safeguard against such violations.
“While the government pointed to several initiatives it has taken to address these issues, there has yet to be an adequate and credible public accounting for the vast majority of these incidents. In the absence of more vigorous investigations, prosecutions and convictions, it is hard to see how this will come to an end.
“While Sri Lanka has much of the necessary human rights institutional infrastructure, critical elements of protection have been undermined or compromised. The application of treaties in domestic law has been questioned by the Supreme Court in the Singarasa case.”
Against this backdrop, the need of the hour is to recognise that there is a problem on either side of the ethnic divide in this respect. It is not a case of responding or not to global pressures. The problem is that of ours!
Such flagrant human rights violations strike at the root of our collective humanity. A country boasting a 2,500 year civilisation and of being an abode to four major religions cannot let this state of affairs continue
Forward movement
Colombo’s current refusal cannot and should not be treated as a full-stop. There has to be more forward movement on this issue. Arbour herself keeps the door open in this regard:
“I am aware that there is a lively national debate about the need for international support in human rights protection. In light of the gravity of the reported ongoing abuses, and in particular of threats to life and security of the person, I believe that we should urgently resolve our ongoing discussions about the future of a productive relationship between OHCHR and the Government of Sri Lanka,” she says.
What stands in the way? A realistic answer would be fear! Three-pronged fear!
Firstly, there is a feeling that the LTTE is on the verge of a defeat. It is tacitly recognised that deliberate human rights violations have contributed to this state of affairs. Given the ruthless manner in which the JVP insurgencies were defeated, it is felt that large scale human rights violations are a necessary evil to defeat the Tigers.
The end justifies the means. A UN field mission at this point of time will constrict such activity and perhaps let the LTTE off the hook, is one fear.
Secondly, there is the fear that the state and its armed forces will be blamed and shamed by the UN for such violations. National pride and the nation’s welfare are at stake here.
Thirdly, there is a question of sovereignty and international intervention. The UN field mission could lead to a greater UN presence here, is the fear. A peace mission accompanied by UN troops could create two de facto states, it is feared.
Resistance to a UN field presence and country office stems from these fears. Fear that victory over the LTTE will be denied, fear that the country will be disgraced and fear that de facto secession would occur. These fears may sound irrational but they are very much a reality.
The bitter irony in this is that by stubbornly resisting instead of accommodating international concerns to some extent at least, Sri Lanka may be precipitating negative international intervention. The thing that is greatly feared may come upon the country due to its uncompromising intransigence.
The UN Human Rights Council of which Sri Lanka is a member will meet this December. Arbour’s report on Sri Lanka will be presented then. If Colombo continues to be defiant, then there is a strong possibility that the report would come down hard.
This in turn will strengthen the hands of those human rights conscious nations seeking a condemnatory resolution on Sri Lanka. There is also the chance that a special session could be convened to discuss Sri Lanka. Only 16 of 46 member countries are needed for to set this up. If that happens, further international intervention is likely.
There may also be a sense of confidence prevailing in Colombo that no punitive repercussions are likely. Countries like India, China and Pakistan for reasons of their own will ensure that Sri Lanka is not condemned. The Western nations desiring action will be outnumbered.
Besides, member states will not like to rap a fellow member. Earlier attempts to bring about a resolution did not succeed, it is pointed out. Just as the world is allowing Sri Lanka to prosecute a brutal war, the international community will not restrict its pursuit of that war through reprimands, is the feeling.
This line of thought may or may not prove to be wrong. Countries may go through the motions of censuring but there may be no censure. A lot of hot air may blow but ultimately everything could turn out real cool. But the important question is whether that risk or gamble could be taken. Is Sri Lanka capable of withstanding resultant pressure if its bluff is called?
Prudent course
More importantly, what does happen to the question of human rights violations regardless of international action? Is the country to continue in this fashion, violating right after right and dehumanising itself in the process? Can this nation go on sacrificing the rights of a weak segment of its society on the altar of a military victory mirage? The problem will not go away unless constructive action to address it is taken.
Against this backdrop, the prudent course appears to be that of flexibility. Regardless of the seemingly inflexible positions, there is room for positive forward movement.
For one thing, there is already a limited but active UN human rights presence in the form of a Senior Human Rights Adviser (SHRA) on ground in Sri Lanka since June 2004. The earlier SHRA Rory Mungoven completed his term and has been replaced by Jyothi Sangheira. The possibility of enhancing the SRHA’s role is worth exploring
What would be more feasible is to engage in more quiet discussions with Arbour. The Disaster Management and Human Rights Minister is one of the few ministers in this government who has impressed me.
Crisis management
Mahinda Samarasinghe is one of the few assets acquired by Mahinda Rajapaksa from the UNP elephant kraal. His tact and tactical approach has been immensely useful in containing negative fallout against Sri Lanka. But there are limits to crisis management.
Why Samarasinghe resorted to a blunt refusal instead of adopting his customary conciliatory approach puzzles me. It may have been due to directives to that effect from the Minister’s ‘lokka,’ President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Whatever the reason for wielding the sledgehammer, it is time for damage control.
Samarasinghe must interact with Arbour and arrive at an understanding. This should not only be a device to stave off international pressure but also that of getting the UN’s aid to improve the human rights situation in the country.
So who’s afraid of Arbour? There was a picture in the papers of an enormous Samarasinghe towering over Arbour, who seemed diminutive in contrast. But appearances are deceptive.
The lady isn’t a pushover! Ask ex-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, French Anti-terror Magistrate Jean-Louis Bruguirre or former US Envoy to the UN, John Bolton!
(D.B.S. Jeyaraj can be reached at djeyaraj@federalidea.com)