Photo courtesy of Voice of America

In the 1970s, an idealistic young medical student was seized during a US-backed military coup. She and her parents were tortured, as a result of which her father died. Her boyfriend, also politically active, was subjected to torture and disappeared. After a few years of exile, she returned and took up work in the field of health.

In the 1980s, in a different Global South country, a regime backed by the UK and US decided not to hold an election but instead unleash violence against minorities. An army officer gained a reputation for ruthlessness as he joined in killing rebels and civilians, including youth from the majority community. British mercenaries, with Foreign Office support, helped to crush dissent at terrible human cost.

Both went on to hold high office. Sometimes a career in government can change people, often leading them to be better at compromise. Yet neither has moved totally away from those early beginnings.

At the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) in March 2021, the two will not directly face each other. Yet there will be a clash between the worldviews each reflects, about human worth and international cooperation.

Valuing life and working together across borders

The Sri Lankan government’s failure to address past abuses and the worsening human rights situation led to a highly critical reportby the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. A Core Group of other states drew up a resolution which, due to unwillingness by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to negotiate a way forward, is stronger than it might have been in calling for action to protect people at risk and increase accountability.

Trained as a surgeon and paediatrician, Bachelet’s grim experience during Chile’s coup helped to form her commitment to political, economic, social and cultural rights. As Defence Minister, she helped to democratise the armed forces, then rose to the presidency. Her achievements included strengthening the healthcare system, improving access to education, initiating welfare programmes for poor families and seeking to increase the rights of indigenous people, a badly marginalised ethnic group.

When she was appointed to the key UN human rights role in 2018, she brought her skills in leadership and diplomacy but also a reputation for taking a strong position on human rights.

As violent chaos spiralled in Sri Lanka in the ‘80s, with atrocities by various armed groups as well as state security forces, Rajapaksa moved on from fighting the Tigers to helping to crush the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna uprising in the South. The uncovering of mass graves in recent years was embarrassing to the government and the emerging evidence was suppressed. The UK government has also been embarrassed by recent revelations about its ties with mercenaries operating in Sri Lanka at the time and their role in rights violations and war crimes, including against those suspected of JVP connections.

When Rajapaksa became a senior politician in the 21st century, in charge of defence and eventually becoming president, his disregard for human rights and democratic norms if anything intensified. This included working with international allies to bolster the interests of those leading Sri Lanka. Western governments had cracked down on Tiger operations overseas, declaring it a terrorist organisation, and Chinese support too was harnessed in a military victory that left large numbers of non-combatants dead or missing. Far from seeking to heal divisions afterwards, he has continued to make them deeper.

An interconnected world

In today’s world, countries are deeply connected, relying on one another for trade and aid links, humanitarian or military support or supplies and political alliances based on principle, self-interest or both. Often the concerns of powerful politicians and top business people take priority over justice and safety for the poor and marginalised.

In the Global South and the rest of the world, claims of patriotism and nationalism are often used to try to gain support internally and bolster a reputation for being the champion of one’s nation. Yet these often conceal close links with, and reliance on, allies and commercial partners.

The Sri Lankan leadership’s intricate attempts to gain support from China, India, Japan, Pakistan and others simultaneously may prove expensive for the ordinary people of the country. Yet there is a certain vision of the interests of a nation which focuses very much on those at the top, while those without wealth, high status or connections are treated as largely disposable.

The manoeuvring however may not be enough to prevent defeat for the regime at the UN Human Rights Council when the resolution is put to the vote.

Of course few, if any, countries are ruled by morally pure politicians and international bodies have their own complicated internal politics. Yet in international human rights-related circles as well as in trade unions, community organisations and the wider public, there are at least some people who feel a sense of connection with those overseas and concern for their welfare. Solidarity in an interconnected world is also a practical matter, as the actions of some rulers can lead to refugee crises, destabilise regions and undermine global human rights norms.

The outcome of the vote offers an opening for seeking support to help heal past wounds and rebuild a nation where all can live with safety and dignity. The lessons of a brutal past, in which abuses against minorities can pave the way for state repression against the majority, are worth heeding. And the value of every human life is a principle worth defending.