Photo courtesy of Sri Lanka Brief

On October 6, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a resolution calling for major change after repeated abuses by the Sri Lankan regime. There were 20 votes in favour with just 7 against. The result of the vote was expected as, in previous weeks, the government continued to heap new violations while refusing to investigate past ones, harming diverse Sri Lankans. A detailed report on progress – or lack of it – is due in two years. Meanwhile there will be periodic updates and officials will continue to gather evidence that may be used for tougher action.

Predictably Foreign Minister Ali Sabry had made it clear that those in charge would not accept the resolution although it adds to the pressure they are under to act less unjustly. It is also relevant to the IMF, indicating that any conditions it imposes on Sri Lanka should not further hurt the most vulnerable and deepen inequalities. However some human rights activists are disappointed that stronger measures have been delayed, even if individual states and wider bodies may act sooner.

Nevertheless the UNHRC vote, together with other developments in 2022, could open the door to substantial improvement if those focusing on different areas of human rights can together make use of current opportunities. That the wellbeing of ordinary people from different communities and backgrounds is interconnected has become clearer, along with the pitfalls of narrow ethnic nationalism and religious supremacism. Extensive evidence of the urgent need to strengthen political, economic, social and cultural rights, and links among these, are now widely available. If such knowledge is further shared in readily understandable ways, within as well as outside Sri Lanka, and compassion, concern for justice and solidarity promoted, the chances of achieving human rights sooner rather than later will be much increased.

Rulers’ failings laid bare on the world stage

After a brutal civil war in which government forces and LTTE fighters committed serious human rights abuses, Sri Lanka’s rulers failed to investigate past atrocities while violations against minorities, dissidents and others continued. While Gotabaya Rajapaksa was president, the government managed to wreck the economy, leaving millions struggling and leading to mass protests. Although there have been some changes at the top, all but a small elite are still suffering while ministers have continued to trample on basic human rights principles. Against this background, the High Commissioner for Human Rights produced a hard-hitting report for the 51st session of the UNHRC and a Core Group of Canada, Germany, Malawi, Montenegro, North Macedonia, the UK and the US drew up a detailed resolution.

Perhaps the regime hoped to be treated more leniently because of the crisis and other countries’ fears of harming those so badly failed by their rulers. When the resolution was introduced by the UK Ambassador to the UN Simon Manley, he proposed that “further reporting” would “move from an 18-month time frame to 2 years. This is in recognition of the severe challenges which Sri Lanka is currently facing – allowing Sri Lanka sufficient time and space to make progress on human rights in what we all recognise is a very difficult context.”

The Chinese government was one of those which voted against. That of India – where there has been particular interest in the plight of Tamils and clauses calling for devolution, land return and non-discrimination on grounds of ethnicity and religion – abstained.

To quote the official news release after the vote, “In a resolution (A/HRC/51/L.1/Rev.1) on promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka, adopted by a vote of 20 in favour, 7 against and 20 abstentions, the Council recognises the importance of preserving and analysing evidence relating to violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes in Sri Lanka with a view to advancing accountability, and decides to extend and reinforce the capacity of the Office of the High Commissioner to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings, including in Member States, with competent jurisdiction.”

The Council also “urges the Government of Sri Lanka to foster freedom of religion or belief and pluralism; urges the Government to address the marginalisation of and discrimination against persons from the Muslim community, ensure the prompt, thorough and impartial investigation of all alleged crimes relating to human rights violations, and to address the ongoing economic crisis; encourages the Office of the High Commissioner and relevant special procedure mandate holders to provide advice and technical assistance on implementing the above-mentioned steps; requests it to enhance its monitoring and reporting on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka, including on progress in reconciliation and accountability, and on the impact of the economic crisis and corruption on human rights; and requests the Office of the High Commissioner to present an oral update to the Council at its fifty-third and fifty-fifth sessions, a written update at its fifty-fourth session and a comprehensive report that includes further options for advancing accountability at its fifty-seventh session, to be discussed in an interactive dialogue.” The warning was clear: how Sri Lankans were treated was under scrutiny and patience was running out.

The resolution is “a welcome step in the right direction, but more needs to be done. The Council failed to respond to civil society demands for the establishment of an expert mechanism that could address the broad spectrum of human rights violations including those arising from the serious economic and political crisis that the country faces,” said Dinushika Dissanayake, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for South Asia. “We urge all UN member states to increase international accountability in line with the recommendation made by the High Commissioner for Human Rights in her report, including through investigations and prosecutions under universal jurisdiction and, where possible, by referring cases to the International Criminal Court.”

To add to Ali Sabry’s woes, the Supreme Court gave the go ahead for petitioners to proceed with a fundamental rights case in which he was one of those named for contributing to the currency crisis. Leave was granted for Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) and activists Chandra Jayaratne, Jehan Canagaretna and Julian Bolling to file a petition in the public interest against Gotabaya Rajapaksa, his brothers and former ministers Mahinda and Basil Rajapaksa and various others. The determination of many in Sri Lanka not to be cowed by repression, along with closer international scrutiny, may make it harder to silence or side line critics.

In addition there are other partners looking at the authorities’ record, such as the European Union, which is re-examining Sri Lanka’s access to the Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) tariff concession that is based in part on human rights and good governance.

The IMF’s deal for financial assistance is conditional on commitments by key creditors. Even if these can be secured, it too will face opposition if it presses ahead with policies that inflict further misery on the worst off, even if the resolution does not explicitly address this organisation’s actions. Economic and social rights have been repeatedly highlighted alongside civil and political rights. Just days before the vote, Amnesty International brought out a report on protecting the rights to health, food and social security in the economic crisis while the media continue to examine what is happening to ordinary people trying to make ends meet, alongside others harmed by injustice.

Sharing knowledge, building understanding and strengthening solidarity

While the resolution is not as strong as it might have been and there is still a very long way to go before all in Sri Lanka can live in safety and dignity, the situation has changed substantially in a relatively short time. An authoritarian regime that relied on the power of illusion, portraying itself as a champion of Sinhala Buddhists while riding roughshod over the principles taught by the Buddha and cynically making use of ordinary Sinhalese, was exposed as rotten at its core. The persistence of those who have held out through the years, not least the families of the disappeared and assassinated, has borne fruit. Across communities, people suffering in different ways have a common cause. People with little past experience of campaigning, let alone standing firm amidst state violence, have grown in confidence that they can make a difference. And they have been heard internationally. These are foundations on which to build.

To increase the chances of achieving substantial change sooner rather than later, I would suggest that sharing knowledge in accessible forms, building empathy and mutual understanding across divisions and strengthening solidarity could be important. Many in Sri Lanka and overseas could play at least a small part.

To begin with, the sheer volume of material that has emerged this year on human rights issues, as well as less formal reflections on what worked well and not so well during the aragalaya protest movement, has made it hard for even dedicated activists to keep up. Getting better at pulling together key information in easily accessible form, including on the human cost and make this widely available in Sinhala and Tamil as well as English can better equip people to see some of the connections among issues. This is especially important because supporters of the regime will try to rewrite history to make out that the previous and current president and their hangers on were really just unfortunate and should be given a second chance, or people now open to seeking a way forward for all Sri Lankans could be drawn again to narrow nationalism.

Yet facts and figures on their own are often not enough: more spaces might usefully be created to foster empathy and deepen understanding, to share personal stories or enter imaginatively into others’ worlds through the arts, making connections at a deeper level across different human rights issues. It can be difficult for members of a majority to understand the fear, loss, humiliation and insecurity that many Sri Lankans from ethnic and religious minorities have faced or for people who are more prosperous to understand what it is like to be unable to afford adequate food, fuel, healthcare or education. The particular experiences of women and children – so often marginalised even among well-meaning progressive people – have been highlighted too. And anti-LGBTIQ discrimination has also been flagged up this year. It is also more widely recognised that environmental protection is essential for human wellbeing.

To communicate across divisions may mean dealing with feelings of shame and guilt, confronting past loss and trauma. This will take time and may not work for everyone but at a practical level there may be opportunities for acts of solidarity on a small or large scale and strengthening of relationships among those with different backgrounds and experiences. Likewise while a common vision of a better future may be unachievable, given political differences, it should at least be possible to agree that democracy and human rights for all are essential since what can happen when these are lacking has been graphically illustrated.

The latest UNHRC resolution will not, on its own, stop the abuses that have become so much part of the pattern of life in Sri Lanka. But it does make a considerable difference.