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Why do Sri Lankan human rights advocates repeatedly place their trust in an imperfect and highly politicised inter-state human rights mechanism year after year? For many of us working in the domain of human rights, there is a long history to engaging the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Mine began in 2008, when I spent some time in Geneva learning about the (then) new body established to protect and promote human rights around the world. Often (not always), the Council mutates into theatre. The players play their part. ‘Good countries’, ‘bad countries’ and ‘neutral countries’ play their respective lead roles. A plethora of UN staff, INGOs, and local human rights activists constitute the supporting cast—most of them genuinely committed to the human rights cause. Some others are not even invited to the play. Many of us have grown extremely cynical of this process because, at the end of the show, we question what tangible benefits have accrued to those we represent—the victims of human rights abuses.
The 46th session of the UNHRC (HRC46) is no different to its predecessors. We will once again witness on stage the various actors. There will be smoke and there will be lights and when the curtains close, we risk returning to our deteriorating human rights predicament. Those who strive for accountability in Sri Lanka for abuses of the past have only a slim chance of securing sustainable reform in Sri Lanka through HRC46. Meaningful reform would require genuine political will to reckon with the past and convince a largely indifferent majority community that reconciliation and accountability are crucial for Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, the UNHRC process has given us a string of broken promises. Even the small ones that were kept by the previous administration have too easily been discarded. If its genuine reform we seek, HRC46 is not the forum to secure it. So there is no point in this process, right?
Well, not quite. So long as we understand HRC46 for what it truly is, there are some concrete benefits that those who care about human rights in Sri Lanka can secure. HRC46 is about attention. It is not just about the actors on stage, but about the spotlight shone on them, and the audience that watches keenly. For when you’re on stage you must still perform in the open. And when the spotlight is upon you, you tend to present your best performance. Although HRC46 may not give us reform, it may give us respite.
Under the spotlight, Sri Lanka is more likely (even marginally) to avoid the worst abuses. Politicians—at least the smart ones—respond to practical pressure, and governments run by smart politicians tend to behave better when under scrutiny. We see evidence of that sad reality all the time. Sri Lanka’s human rights record between 2012 and 2018 improved. Any human rights index will confirm that. In 2012, the UNHRC adopted a resolution on Sri Lanka, so its improved record coincided with the period in which it came under the UNHRC’s microscope. Even as I write this article, the Prime Minister, perhaps one of the smartest politicians Sri Lanka has ever had, casually announced in parliament that the government would reverse its forced cremation policy (his office is now scrambling to backpedal). Shakthika Sathkumara, a writer and poet unjustly targeted under the ICCPR Act, was discharged this week. The timing of these gestures is no coincidence. A looming HRC46 is proving its worth.
So if nothing else, human rights advocates will and should continue to engage the potential theatrics of HRC46 to secure some respite from the abuses currently taking place in the country. The process has improved the chances of ending the forced cremation policy. It would perhaps improve the chances of ending land grabs, maintaining media freedom and releasing human rights defenders such as Hejaaz Hizbullah. In a context where no amount of local advocacy seems to be working, it is entirely forgivable for human rights advocates to place their bets on an imperfect international mechanism. The calculation is simple: perhaps the government will be pressured into granting some respite.
It is not pleasant to think that governments require external pressure just to do the right thing—respect human rights, and treat citizens with dignity. Why should any civilised and dignified community have to rely on external pressure to get its government to do the right thing? The equation hints that the majority in our society doesn’t really care for these things. So the greater challenge that confronts Sri Lanka is apathy. HRC46 is a stopgap to a deeper chasm within Sri Lanka. What we really need is political leadership that is genuinely introspective, and willing to build an internal consensus on human rights—civil, political, economic, social, and cultural—and on genuine human development. If such leadership ever emerges, perhaps Sri Lanka can step off this stage once and for all. Until then, we can expect a cycle of theatrics where respite rather than reform is the only real item on the programme.