|Who’s afraid of Louise Arbour
and the UNHRC?
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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 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.
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
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
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
“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
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
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!
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
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
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?
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
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.
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
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!
Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com)