United Nations, empty declarations

-Manny Thain

The annual pilgrimage to Geneva is over. All those praying that the United Nations Human Rights Council would deliver democratic and human rights in Sri Lanka have come away disappointed. The miracle did not happen. In fact, if anything, the 37th Regular Session of the UNHRC (26 February to 23 March) was another step backward.

In October 2015, the government of Sri Lanka had actually promised to set up a court including international judges to investigate war crime and made what were called ‘transitional justice’ commitments. It was all set out in HRC resolutions 30/1 and 34/L1. Some claimed this was a breakthrough, even though it gave the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government two years to postpone implementation.

This year, the can was given a further kick down the road. Resolution 30/1 is now due to be discussed at the 40th session, February/March 2019.

The government of Sri Lanka, meanwhile, has made it perfectly clear that it will not implement the measures outlined in the resolutions anyway. Its spokesmen have boasted that they have not and will not prosecute the military chiefs and politicians who planned and executed the genocide in 2009 – they are ‘war heroes’, according to them.

They have not repealed the notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act – another promise made at the UN. Even if they do, eventually, the draft for a new Counter-Terrorism Act (to replace the PTA) allows for serious human rights abuses. Human Rights Watch – in what should be a warning to anyone campaigning against government policy – reports that the draft includes “overly broad definitions of terrorist offences to possibly include peaceful political protesters”. (World Report 2018, 18 January)

It is true that Sirisena did set up an Office of Missing Persons – just a couple of months before the UNHRC session to show ‘progress’ was being made! What he hasn’t done, however, is staff and fund it. It’s a fake.


Stark reminder

The 37th session of the UNHRC was yet another reminder – how many more do we need? – that Tamil-speaking people cannot have faith in the UN to deliver justice, land and rights.

It would be a tragedy for the Tamil-speaking community if its organisations now put all their hopes into next year’s UN event – on the basis, maybe, that resolution 30/1 is due to be discussed.

The run-up to the tenth Mullivaikal commemoration must not be marked by a huge expense of energy and effort in lobbying the UNHRC. The tenth anniversary must be a time for mobilisation, for action.

We can only rely on the strength of our own movement – and link that to our natural allies among the organised workers and other exploited and oppressed people. That is the strongest basis on which to struggle for the right of self-determination, for an end to the military occupation and land-grab, for the release of political prisoners, for full disclosure of those imprisoned and disappeared, and for a genuinely independent, public inquiry into the genocide and war crimes.

That is not to say we should not put pressure on the UN, other international agencies and governments. That is an important part of building the movement. Such activity can help raise awareness of the issues. It can also be used to mobilise people.

That comes with dangers, however. If lobbying the UN and conducting top-table talks with government ministers and businesspeople is the only tactic or the main plan, we will get nowhere. Even worse, that actually mis-educates people because it gives the impression that these bodies can and will deliver rights to Tamil-speaking and other oppressed people.

That is why Tamil Solidarity emphases the need to build the movement from below, building mass pressure, mobilising people and politically educating a new generation.


Power politics

It has to be understood that the United Nations is not some neutral organisation. Nor is the UN Human Rights Council an independent body which acts purely in pursuit of human rights – whatever its name suggests.

The UN is made up of representatives of the governments of most of the states of the world. But it is not an equal representation. The most powerful countries wield most power. Not necessarily through outright military might – although that is always available as a last resort. Governments of countries like the USA and China can ensure that other states toe their lines by offering favourable trade deals, military or diplomatic backup, through regional spheres of influence – all kinds of incentives, carrots and sticks.

In addition to the USA and China, of course, there are other rich, influential second- and third-tier states, such as Britain, India, Russia, Pakistan, etc. Furthermore, at the top of the UN tree sits the Security Council, on which there are five permanent members – USA, China, Russia, France and Britain. Each of those five has a veto on the council. So they have to agree for anything to happen on any major issue.

Clearly, that affects countries the world over, and Sri Lanka is in the middle of a strategically very important part of the globe, on major sea lanes to and from Asia, with deep-sea ports and so on. It’s in India’s backyard, China’s portfolio, the USA’s sights, and part of Britain’s legacy. Everyone wants a piece of Sri Lankan action.

That gives the government of Sri Lanka a fair bit of room for manoeuvre. To keep up appearances, world powers might criticise Sri Lanka over human rights every now and again – hypocritically pretending to be the ‘defenders of the free world’. In reality, however, they will do nothing to undermine their own ‘national interests’. (That really means the interests of big business and the political establishment – certainly not the interests of working-class people.)


International community

This was all reflected in Geneva this year. The government of Sri Lanka was given plenty of recommendations from numerous states. There were even quite a lot of ‘voluntary pledges’ made by Sri Lankan representatives, including to “Fulfil commitments contained in the HRC resolution 30/1 towards the operationalisation of the Office of Missing Persons, and the establishment of a truth-seeking commission, an office for reparations, and a judicial mechanism with a special counsel.”

But there is nothing binding about it. And the UN has no means to impose it.

The only force that can put in place meaningful measures are mass movements of the working class and oppressed – within Sri Lanka and from the diaspora, especially when linked to the workers’ movement internationally and the campaigns of other exploited and oppressed people around the world.

That is our international community. The one that really matters. The one that can be a force for real change.