Daunting Challenges Facing New UN High Commissioner

For Human Rights

By: Thambu Kanagasabai,  September 23, 2018

The unanimous approval of 66 year old MICHELLE BACHELET by the United Nations to take charge of the Human Rights Council from September 01, 2018 confirms her unquestionable eligibility and credentials to run this prestigious office which was set up in 1993 to uphold and protect human rights throughout the world. The new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Her Excellency Michelle Bachelet on 3rd September stated “Those who defend human rights and victims look up to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and hope that we are there to defend and support.”

“United Nations Human Rights Council is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe for addressing situations of human rights violations and recommendations.”

As former United Nations Secretary General His Excellency Ban-ki-Moon stated that “All victims of human rights abuses should be able to look to the UN Human Rights Council as a spring board for action. All citizens are entitled to thirty Fundamental Universal Human Rights and must be free from all forms of discrimination.”

The new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is more qualified to hold this coveted office as she herself carries the pains and pangs due to her confinement in prison, torture and ill-treatment when she was arrested at the age of 23 in 1975, along with her mother on the orders of the late brutal Chilean dictator Pinochet. Her family was torn apart as even her father died due to torture in prison in 1974. When Michelle was released, she fled into exile to Austria and East Germany. She later served as the President of Chile for two terms.

In his welcome statement, United Nations Secretary General His Excellency Antonio Gutererres said the following:- “Respect for International Humanitarian Laws is on the decline”. At the UNHRC”S 34th Session on February 24, 2017, United Nation’s Chief also said that “Disregard for human rights is a disease and it is a disease that is spreading. UN Human Rights Council is part of the cure”.

“Michelle Bachelet is a survivor of brutality by the Chilean  authorities targeting her and her family many decades ago.” Stated United Nations Chief His Excellency Antonio Guterres .

“Politics she believes is like medicine on a larger scale”. The statements of outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights His Excellency Zeid Al-Raad are worth quoting which expose the hurdles and challenges facing the Office and the Commissioner.

On February 27 2017 he said that:- “Our rights, the rights of others, the very future of our planet cannot and must not be thrown aside by reckless political profiteers”.  He also questioned the “United Nation’s ability to play a role as a champion of human rights.” In his farewell speech in August 2018, he said that “The Office of the UN Human Rights Council involves bending a knee in supplication, nesting a statement of advocacy, lessening the independence and integrity of my voice. My reason for refusal to an extended term of office does not bring shame on Governments, they shame themselves. This post is the greatest yardstick to tackle oppression and arbitrariness in the world.” His Excellency Zeid Al-Raad also hoped that the new UN High commissioner for Human Rights “Will work for the UN Human Rights Council for the promotion and protection of all human rights for everyone, everywhere. Among others is the duty to fight discrimination in all its forms, strengthening accountability and the rule of law, and promoting the most vulnerable from all form of human rights abuse”. He further stated that the “Five Security Council permanent members wield too much power as they can veto resolution even in cases of alleged injustices.”

“The world body could collapse if the imbalance caused by the excessive powers wielded by the Security Council’s permanent members is not corrected.” [Eg. Injustices in Syria, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians] Organizations is marginalized if they do not co-operate to resolve horrific conflicts we have seen.”

It is hoped that the undergone painful experience and bitter lessons learnt by the outgoing UN High Commissioner His Excellency Zaid Al-Raad could provide the needed strength and courage to the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to circumvent and defeat the hurdles and challenges thrown from any quarters in the performance of her statutory functions.

The current world is experiencing human rights violations on a widespread scale based on language, race and religion followed by minorities in a state. The abuses being majority dominated states who seek to entrench their position and powers by silencing the dissenting voices and opposition from any quarters. Alone with this suppression is the culture of impunity which makes accountability and justice meaningless and irrelevant.

Her Excellency Michelle Bachelet in her opening statement to the UN Human Rights Council made on September 10, 2018 made a brief comment on Sri Lanka. She stated that “Sri Lanka had moved too slowly towards meaningful implementation of transitional justice agenda”.  “We look to the Office of the Missing Persons to work quickly to begin to provide answers to the families of the disappeared. More progress in advancing accountability and truth seeking could have great weight in the long term stability and prosperity of the nation.”

It is more than three years since Sri Lanka agreed to implement the UNHRC Recommendations 30/1/2015 with a near ZERO compliance. It will be foolhardy and unwise to grant further extension which Sri Lanka will gleefully accept. The UN High Commissioner’s brief comments on Sri Lanka do not be considered as reflecting the various plethora of human rights violations committed by Sri Lanka  including war crimes, crimes against humanity and several massacres of Tamil civilians commencing from 1948 [a total to 196 until 2009] and during the state sponsored pogroms against the Tamils in 1956, 1958, 1971, 1977, 1981, 1983 and from 2006-2009. The recent discovery of several mass graves in Tamils homeland proves this. All of which proves to be amouning to GENOCIDE, besides the structural genocide which was also initiated in 1948 [state sponsored colonization of Sinhala Buddhists in Tamil Hindu/Christian traditional homeland in the North and East] Cultural Genocide by Burning of the Jaffna Library on June 01, 1981 At the time of its destruction, the library was one of the biggest in Asia, containing over 97,000 books and manuscripts.

There is no doubt that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is fully aware of the allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and massacres and destruction of human life and property amounting to GENOCIDE. [Estimated 147,000 lives] The various reports of UN Rapporteurs who visited Sri Lanka at various periods and interacted with the victims will clearly expose the mindset of Sri Lankan Government. [Delay, deviate, dilutes, refuse and forget]

To state briefly, Sri Lanka has failed to implement the core UNHRC 30/1/2015 Recommendations. Instead, it has even dared to state it is not bound to implement them as they are not legally binding

The Reports of various Commissions a total of 14 from 1977 to 2014 set up by Sri Lanka, the last being to investigate disappearances and missing persons in 2014, have been shelved and kept frozen without any follow up action.

The Office of the Missing Persons which is operational now is devoid of any powers to act on its own findings as Section 13 [2] of the Act states that “The findings of the Office of the Missing Persons [OMP] shall not give rise to any civil or criminal liability”. Hence accountability and justice has been dumped making it purposeless. The embedded culture of impunity for Security Forces and Government Officials encourages human rights violations giving free hand to commit them without any fear of prosecution. One can only count the number of Security Personnel convicted for the killings, torture, rape etc. of Tamil civilians during the pogroms, massacres since 1956 [1956, 1958, 1971, 1977, 1983 and during the brutal war between LTTE and Government from 2006-2009]
In confirming the state policy of impunity, President Sirisena has vowed on several occasions that he ”Would never allow any Security Personnel to be prosecuted and brought to courts for war crimes  which various United Nations Reports have found credible evidences while hinting that they amount to GENOCIDE.  President very recently at a meeting in Nivitigala, has again vowed to vindicate Security Forces at the United Nations General Assembly where he is scheduled to speak on September 24, 2018 [Daily News of Sept. 09, 2018]

In short, Sri Lanka not only has failed to honor its commitments made to the United Nations Human Rights Council [UNHRC] and the International Community but also challenged their commitments to uphold human rights and hold perpetrators to accountability and dispense justice to the victims. It needs to be recalled that various requests of United Nation’s Officials and UN Bodies made to Sri Lanka during the past five years were simply ignored and disregarded like the calling for truth, reparations and reduction of the presence of military in the North and East.

Sri Lanka’s record of implementing proposals, requests, promises, pledges and recommendations made to and by others is dismal and distressing. The reasons for this attitude are many, and some of which are:-

  1. Institutionalized culture of impunity and chauvinism.
  2. Backing of some powerful countries who seek to maintain their geographical, strategic, political and economic interests.
  3. Sri Lanka’s notoriety in doling out promises and undertakings at times of questions and criticisms by UNRHC, and International Community.

It is the earnest hope and trust of the Tamil victims that the new UN High Commissioner for Human Rights would neither shirk nor surrender to the power play politics of Security Council’s Permanent Members as experienced by His Excellency Zaid Al_Raad the outgoing UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Patting and encouraging Sri Lanka is of nil value effect as Sri Lanka has defied UNHRC, United Nations, International Community and it all lies in the hands of UNHRC and its Commissioner to nullify this unacceptable challenge to World Organizations and proceeds to initiate whatever steps necessary to ensure the compliance and full implementation of all UNHRC Recommendations by Sri Lanka including referral to United Nations and UN Security Council as a last resort.

Failure to do so is nothing but a complete loss of credibility for UNHRC and United Nations, along with the demise of Universal Human Rights accompanied by the cherished principles of accountability and justice for victims who will have to live with festering wounds of genocidal war.

Hence the Security Council and its members are obliged and duty bound to ensure security of nations worldwide and their citizens, and not to use the Council to secure their own agenda of political, economic or military interests as well as their friendly nations simply because the Super Powers are holding whip hand over UN Organizations with smaller and weaker nations having no muscles to act.

To sum up , the existence of Tamils in Sri Lanka is hanging in a balance due to their marginalization, discrimination by the successive Sri Lankan Governments  who proceed with the hidden agenda of Buddhisisation and Sinhalasisation in the North and East Provinces to make Sri Lanka a Buddhist Sinhalese State. [North and Eastern Provinces are the Historical and Traditional Homeland of Tamils who follow Hindu/Christian faiths for centuries]

Only United Nations and Security Council can act to halt this process with the active involvement of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights who it is hoped will live up to her reputation and credentials  to expose and ward off the sinister tactics of Sri Lana which is determined to the following:-

  1. To keep out United Nations and/or International involvement or intervention.
  2. To defy the UNHRC Recommendations including any investigation into alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity amounting to genocide.

Besides, Sri Lanka lacks the genuine political will and determination to settle the 60 year old ethnic problem with a permanent and just political settlement for political mileage and electoral gains. As a United Nations Official stated at an event on GENOCIDE on September 13, 2018 at the UNHRC “Impunity is an enabler of Genocide, accountability is its genesis, and punishment is the key to prevention.”

Fittingly Sri Lanka’s culture of impunity, being a state policy since 1958 provides the flesh and blood for the ghost of “genocide which is lying in wait, to strike at appropriate times.’

Finally it is to be noted that Sri Lanka is posing a challenge to the United Nations, UNHRC and the International Community threatening the values of universally accepted human rights. It now lies in the hands of the United Nations Human rights Council, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, United Nations, UN Security Council and International Criminal Court to act fast and force Sri Lanka to honor and maintain and deliver justice to the oppressed Tamils in Sri Lanka who have being  waiting too long for justice.

Thambu Kanagasabai, LLM {Lond.] Former Lecturer in Law, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka

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