In the run-up to Wednesday’s elections to the UN Human Rights Council, Nobel laureates Desmond Tutu, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, and Jimmy Carter have all issued statements opposing Sri Lanka’s candidacy. The case against Sri Lanka, according to Tutu:
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.
Opposition to Sri Lankan membership in the Council — the successor to the Human Rights Commission, which was much-maligned for its regular inclusion of rights-abusing and abusive regimes — does seem to have crystallized among NGOs and human rights activists. While the new Council is by no means a paragon of human rights monitoring — passing more resolutions that condemned Israel than those that censured Sudan, for example — the campaign to tighten the standards of countries accepted into the body reveals how far the Council has come. Last year, Belarus’ candidacy flopped, deterring notorious human rights offenders like Sudan and Zimbabwe from even attempting to stand for election. Sri Lanka may well not be pleased with the negative attention is receiving, but ultimately, both the Human Rights Council and the human rights situation within Sri Lanka stand to benefit.