Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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No Right to Be There

by Bishop Desmond Tutu, Guardian, UK, May 15, 2008

With a terrible record of torture and disappearance, Sri Lanka doesn't deserve a seat on the UN human rights council. It should be voted out.

Desmond Tutu 'Comment is free' section

It would seem self-evident that a country which tortures and kidnaps its own people has no place on the world's leading human rights body. Apparently not: Sri Lanka, despite repeated criticism for its human rights record, is running for re-election to the UN human rights council, with a vote to be held in New York on May 21.

Governments owe it to Sri Lankan human rights victims - and to victims of human rights abuses around the world - to ensure that the Sri Lankan bid fails. This will be an important test of the 47-member council, to show that the UN's standards for it will be honoured.

If Sri Lanka is defeated this year, that will be important not just for the Sri Lankan human rights leaders who, at great personal risk, have called for Sri Lanka's defeat, and for Sri Lankan civil society. In combination with the humiliating defeat last year of Belarus, it will send an important signal for the future: governments with track records of serious human rights abuses do not belong on a body set up to protect the victims of such abuses.

Sri Lanka has failed to honour its pledges of upholding human rights standards and cooperating with the UN since joining the council two years ago. Indeed, its human rights record has worsened during that time. The Sri Lankan idea of cooperation with the UN, meanwhile, has been to condemn senior UN officials (including the high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, and the under secretary general for humanitarian affairs, John Holmes) as "terrorists" or "terrorist sympathisers."

The systematic abuses by Sri Lankan government forces are among the most serious imaginable. Government security forces summarily remove their own citizens from their homes and families in the middle of the night, never to be heard from again. Torture and extrajudicial killings are widespread. When the human rights council was established, UN members required that states elected must themselves "uphold the highest standards" of human rights. On that count, Sri Lanka is clearly disqualified.

The separatist Tamil Tigers have used despicable tactics in their war against the government, including frequent suicide bombings. But that can in no way excuse the scale of government abuses.

Fortunately, the news from the council is not all bad. Countries running from other regions of the world have credible claims to be leaders in promoting human rights. Argentina and Chile, which suffered terribly from torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings in the past, have become leading supporters of human rights, and now seek to join the council. On the African slate, there are some true human rights leaders, and - thankfully - no candidacy from Zimbabwe or Sudan. In the entire world, Sri Lanka stands out as the most clearly unqualified state seeking election to the council this year, and the place where things are getting unambiguously worse.

Defeating the Sri Lankan candidacy would be a comfort to the people of Sri Lanka. It would place international pressure on the government to respect human rights, and to accept a UN human rights monitoring mission, which it has stubbornly refused. It would help make the council a place where true human rights leaders in all regions can help lead the world towards greater respect for human life and human dignity. An outcome, in short, that would benefit those who care about human rights in the world. Any other result would be a travesty.


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