SPECIAL REPORT: UNHRC Comes Under Fire

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Photo: Navi Pillay | Credit: Wikimedia CommonsBy Kalinga Seneviratne*

SINGAPORE (IDN) - UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) head Navi Pillay’s current campaign against Sri Lanka over alleged human rights violations – along with similar campaigns against Libya and Syria earlier – could jeopardize the cause of human rights around the world, analysts say.

Pillay released a report in February calling for an international investigation into alleged war crimes when the Sri Lankan armed forces crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a final battle in May 2009.

Sri Lanka’s Permanent Envoy in Geneva conveying the Sri Lankan Government’s response to Pillay’s report stated that the UN High Commissioner’s recommendations, “reflect the preconceived, politicised and prejudicial agenda which she has relentlessly pursued with regard to Sri Lanka”, and in a 18-page document pinpointed her double standards accusing her of giving “scant or no regard to the domestic processes ongoing in Sri Lanka”.


The Sri Lanka government has also criticized the report for arriving at conclusions in a “selective and arbitrary manner” and ignoring requests from the Sri Lankan government to provide factual evidence to substantiate allegations and to refrain from making general comments.

Sri Lanka’s criticism of Pillay is not new. But, commentaries in both mainstream and online media in Sri Lanka indicate a hardening of attitudes in the island state against Pillay’s perceived bias and alleged abuse of power as head of UNHRC. She is said to have got away with it in the international media because the western media apparently tended to believe – and continue to – most of the propaganda put out by the LTTE supporters in the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora over the past 30 years.

At the twenty-fifth session of the UNHRC from March 3 to 28 in Geneva, Pillay’s report is due to be officially tabled, and she has refused to entertain a request from the Sri Lankan government that its response to the report be attached as an appendix. The United States has indicated – supported by EU and India – that they may table a resolution at the meeting to establish an independent international investigation into alleged war crimes and human rights violations in Sri Lanka, which the government is sure to reject.

“How many of the bullying countries accusing Sri Lanka of crimes against humanity and war crimes have clean hands or a flawless record?” asks Senaka Weeraratne, a Sri Lankan lawyer and international affairs analyst.

“What we see today in western dominated international organisations such as the United Nations related bodies such as the UNHRC, ICC and the like are proceedings conducted on an Inquisitorial footing i.e. witch hunts aimed at devastating the target country or individual usually of non–European descent thereby perverting the course of justice. No quarter is given to the other party until it submits to the political will of the bullying nations,” argues Weeraratne.

“It is a shameless display of brute power making a mockery of institutional rules and procedures. The targeted country is assumed to be guilty right from the start ruling out any mitigating circumstances. It is virtually a re-enactment of the Inquisition under the auspices of the United Nations rather than the Catholic Church as in the days gone by.”

It is not only Sri Lankans that are complaining about the UNHRC and Pillay’s tactics. Anti-war activists in the West and supporters of the former Libyan regime and that of Syria have also pointed out how these UN agencies, and particularly UNHRC under Pillay, are practicing double standards to promote Western imperial designs.

Veteran Canadian antiwar activist Ken Stone writing for the website ‘Syria 360’ argued in an article written last year that Pillay has abused her power to facilitate western military interference in Libya and Syria to change regimes. He argues that the western media, and CNN in particular, have used interviews with Pillay to promote military intervention in Libya and Syria, where she relates the actions of these regimes to defend their country from rebel forces, to human rights violations and crimes against humanity.

In the name of humanitarian intervention

“Two very useful precedents for illegal, but so-called ‘humanitarian’, intervention by NATO were set by the United Nations in regards to Libya,” argues Stone. “The first was that the doctrine of the responsibility to protect (R2P) was successfully invoked, for the very first time, as a legal ground for over-riding the fundamental principle of national sovereignty as the basis of international law.”

R2P holds that, if a government cannot protect the human rights of its own citizens, the international community may step in to do so. In the case of Libya, R2P was used to justify United Nations Resolution 1973, the motion that authorized NATO to create a no-fly zone over Libya.

“Resolution 1973 was perverted by NATO within hours into a full-blown military intervention for regime change in Libya that resulted in the deaths of thousands of Libyans, pogrom against black persons resident in Libya, the assassinations of Muammar Gaddafi and members of his family, massive infrastructure damage, the de facto partitioning of the country, and a failed state machine,” notes Stone.

He argues that the first precedent (above) could not have been realized without the fancy legal footwork executed in advance by the nimble Pillay in demonizing Mouammar Gaddafi and his son, Saif, at the UN. “The second precedent, then, was the initiative taken by the UN Human Rights Council, chaired by Pillay, in calling for an international inquiry into violence against civilians in Libya,” he says.

Stone goes on to detail how Pillay has been playing a similar role in appearing in the international media accusing the Syrian government of crimes against humanity and calling upon the ICC to mount a war crimes investigation against President Assad, while ignoring the role played by foreign-funded mercenaries in the civil war. “Humanitarian intervention is a powerful tool in the West, where even people on the ‘left’, who should know better, fall for it,” notes Stone.

Libya is the real tragedy of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ that has turned into an ‘Arab Winter’. This brings into question the real motives of those International NGOs who promote human rights with an evangelical zeal.

Libya under Gaddafi may have been an authoritarian state in terms of freedom of speech (not any worse than U.S. allies in the region such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and UAE), but, was a success story in human development. In >Gaddafi's Libya, the right to free education for everyone from elementary school right up to university and post-graduate studies at home or abroad were implemented with government subsidies; there was free health care with 1:673 doctor-patient ratio; free electricity for all citizen; interest-free housing loans; and free land for farmers.

Libya had no external debts and its reserves amounted to $150 billion. Today we have a Libya that is ruled by warlords and terrorists and human rights campaigners are silent about the human rights abuses taking place today in Libya and no one is asking the question what is happening to Libya’s huge financial reserves and its oil? Who is benefiting from it?

What happened in Libya amounts to a war crime for which both NATO and International Crisis Group (ICG) that came up with the R2P formula should be held accountable, analysts say. But, UNHRC is muted about it. Instead, a report will be tabled at the current session titled “Technical assistance for Libya in the field of human rights”.

The report does not discuss accountability issues with regards to human rights in the implementation of the R2P formula nor does it address in any serious manner the problem of the anarchy created as a result of regime change. It assumes that there is a regime in charge, when there is not.

A question often asked by Sri Lankans is why Pillay is not calling upon President George W Bush, Tony Blair, David Cameroon and ICG to account for the war crimes USA, UK and NATO forces have indulged in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya?

During her visit to Sri Lanka last year, at a press conference, she said that UNHRC has indeed questioned these countries on certain human rights issues and they have responded. But, what the Sri Lankan journalist didn’t press her on is why she cannot do the same with Sri Lanka, rather than indulge in a public spat and witchhunt?

Opening up old wounds

Most people in Sri Lanka believe that what she is trying to do is to open up old wounds and it is completely counter productive to promoting reconciliation between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities. Nor is it helping to improve human rights in Sri Lanka, where a government that is threatened by what they see as an international conspiracy to change regime, has cracked down heavily on internal dissent and freedom of expression.

Weeraratne argues that Pillay’s methods are harming human rights and increasing the credibility gap of UN agencies in the eyes of the international community (which is not just the U.S., EU and its allies). Instead he argues that UNHRC should adopt the Japanese model of solving a post-war crisis.

“The Japanese approach advocated by the Buddhist Prince Shotuku to use the method of consensus and dialogue, and not allow the accused party to lose face is a far more enlightened approach to resolution of complex human rights issues than the ‘ burning at the stake’ inquisitorial approach of the West” notes Weeraratne.

“It is the employment of double standards and devious methods to achieve ulterior political ends of powerful Western actors that have resulted in the moral collapse of the UN and related agencies.”

Prioritising Economic Aspects

“As a result of the financial crisis, the ability of individuals to exercise their human rights and that of States to fulfill their obligations to protect human rights has diminished,” noted Bat-Erdene Ayuush, Head of the Right to Development Section at the UN Human Rights Office speaking at a UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) panel discussion last year.

But, at its 25th session from March 3 to 28 in Geneva, only two out of about 100 reports tabled, address the economic and development aspects of human rights. Almost all other reports address individual rights specific to countries, rather than collective rights of people.

The international human rights agencies face a serious challenge today, when a new wave of colonialism is gathering steam. Would they act like the Christian missionaries 500 years ago who accompanied the European colonizers and facilitated the exploitation and plunder in the name of “civilizing the natives”?

Pointing fingers at small nations for human rights violations, when the governments are unable to provide for the rising aspirations and demands of their people, while ignoring the fact that the global economic system hinders it, may make the modern human rights campaigners no different to the old Christian missionaries.

Eleanor Roosevelt with the Spanish version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec 10, 1948 in Paris | Credit: Wikimedia CommonsThe excessive focus given to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) proclaimed in 1948 over other UN human rights covenants such as International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966 and the UN Declaration of the Right to Development (UNDRD) adopted in 1986, need to change in this era of globalization and corporate power over national governments.

A new wave of colonialism camouflaged as globalization is today threatening the hard fought freedom of people around the world from European colonialism, that was epitomized by the plundering of their natural and human resources with no recourse to human rights processes. The UDHR’s focus on individual rights needs to be balanced with collective rights to development.

In Asia, emanating from its own philosophical groundings human rights have been seen more as a participatory model rather then the western concept of individual rights. Thus, in Asia, there has traditionally been a higher focus given to social and community harmony.

With the advent of the economic crisis in Europe in 2008, these ideas are even espoused there. Aldo Caliari, Director of the Rethinking Bretton Woods Project noted, speaking at the same UNHRC panel as Ayuush, that in the past four years the EU had spent some 4.5 trillion euros – 37% of the EU’s GDP - bailing out the financial industry, while government spending on social protection had been subjected to austerity measures.

“Financial policy and rule making tends to be shockingly removed from public scrutiny - not just from human rights groups, but any public scrutiny. All sectors of society should be able to input into such a process,” he said, adding that a human rights approach to the financial crisis should not be confined to an analysis of impacts and burden allocation but should also look at austerity and financial regulation.

Addressing modern human rights issues

Social ethos that makes it okay for governments to bailout rich bankers who have indulged in criminally fraudulent practices, but, its bad economic policy to subsidise poor hard-working farmers, protect small business and market vendors, and treat migrant labourers as a commodity rather than human beings, are all human rights issues that need to be tackled as a priority on a global scale.

The ICESCR and UNDRD have ideas that could be adopted to address modern human rights issues created by this onslaught of neo-liberal economics. But, interestingly, the U.S. has not ratified both these treaties.

The UNDRD calls on member states to recognize an individual’s rights to work, for fair wages that would ensure a decent living, and a healthy and safe working environment; fundamental right for everyone to be free from hunger; right for everyone to an education; right to proper health standards and so on.

In keynote remarks delivered to an UN Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals in December 2013, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay argued that many leaders have abdicated their responsibilities to the current generation.

“Food, water, healthcare, education, housing and access to justice are not merely commodities for sale to the few, but rather they are rights to which all are entitled without discrimination,” she noted, and in an obvious reference to the European economic crisis, Pillay added that, “people have lost confidence in the dominant economic model. They are calling for a new paradigm for development, one that places human rights in the centre.”

The question is whether the UNHRC is doing enough to mobilise the international community to plan a fairer development path? Can they promote this with a passion so that it will attract the attention of the world’s leaders, especially those in richer countries?

UNHRC has often pointed fingers at governments for restricting media freedom, but, it has failed to acknowledge the lack of freedom in the global – mainly Anglo-American media – for access to voices of trade unions and other peoples’ movements that are opposed to the type of neo-liberal economics that Pillay referred to above.

How this global media ridiculed and gave almost no access to the voices that represented the “Occupy Wall Street” movement at the height of the banking crisis in the USA and Europe is a good example. If their voices were given access to the local and global mainstream media, it would have led to a strong human rights movement worldwide for social justice and a fairer economic order.

Corruption

Corruption is also a very important human rights issue. But this cannot be tackled by pointing accusing fingers at developing country governments or threatening them with sanctions of different kinds. The rich countries have to take some responsibilities and make some sacrifices if this scourge of modern societies is to be controlled.

They have to monitor their investment flows and should not allow their companies to write off commissions (bribes) as business expenses in their tax returns. They will also have to put stringent monitoring devices into foreigners opening bank accounts, buying real estate and making other investments, and sending their children to universities and expensive colleges, as lot of the money from corrupt politicians and business people in developing countries are being spent or parked safely in the West, and western governments have often welcomed it with open arms.

If such stringent controls could be introduced to stop terrorist funding, why cannot it be adopted to address the scourge of worldwide corruption?

Since UDHR was negotiated and adopted by a United Nations where most countries of Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America did not have the freedom to speak at the time, this is opportune time to bring these voices into the process of reviewing the international human rights instruments.

The over emphasis given to individual rights such as freedom of speech and public demonstrations may have to be balanced with a more consultative model of grassroots participation and dialogue on economic and development issues, that are needed to protect social and community harmony.

This process needs to consider as major human rights violators, those who promote neoliberal economic models that exploits the poor and impact on community harmony. New human rights instrumentalities need to apply to non-government actors as well, especially to huge global corporations.

*Kalinga Seneviratne is IDN Special Correspondent for Asia-Pacific. He teaches international communications at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. [IDN-InDepthNews – March 3, 2014]

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