Human Rights Council Rejects ‘Interference’ in Sri Lanka – But Not in Israel

By Patrick Goodenough | May 28, 2009 | 5:37 AM EDT

Sri Lankan human rights minister Mahinda Samarasinghe addresses the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Tuesday, May 26, 2009. (AP Photo)

( – As the United States prepares to take its seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, the Geneva-based body once again has come under fire – this time for siding with the Sri Lankan government despite charges that its recent offensive against Tamil terrorists caused a humanitarian crisis for tens of thousands of civilians.
An acrimonious special session called at the request of mostly European and Latin American member states displayed in stark relief the gulf between Western-led democracies and developing nations at the 47-member human rights watchdog.
Sri Lanka garnered a powerful group of allies including China, Cuba, Russia, India and Islamic states, defeating a European bid to have an internal investigation into alleged war crimes by both sides in the civil war.
Instead, the council on Wednesday passed by a 29-12 vote a Sri Lankan-authored resolution that congratulated the government in Colombo for its efforts to address the needs of civilians displaced by the fighting. The measure also acknowledged the government’s commitment to provide access to international humanitarian agencies – “as may be appropriate.”
The resolution condemned that Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for attacks on civilians and for “its practice of using civilians as human shields,” but made no reference to allegations of abuses against civilians on the government side. Up to 300,000 ethnic Tamils are being detained in camps set up by the government to house those who fled the warzone.
The contrast to numerous previous Human Rights Council resolutions condemning Israel was striking.
Before this week, five of the 10 special sessions held by the council since it began operating three years ago focused on Israel. The most recent, last January, strongly condemned the Israeli government in the aftermath of its offensive against Hamas terrorists in Gaza (see end of story below for comparison between Gaza and Sri Lankan resolutions.)
During the Sri Lanka debate this week, its backers voiced support for the government’s legitimate right to fight against terrorism. The resolution that was passed reaffirmed “the principle of non-interference” in “domestic” matters.
U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based non-governmental organization, pointed out that Sri Lanka, while a member of the council from 2006-2008, had voted 23 times for resolutions that took the opposite stand on the question of “interference” in domestic matters – in 19 cases involving Israel, and four cases involving Burma.
It also quoted Sri Lankan ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka as saying during the January special session on Gaza, “If the council does not stand up for innocent people, then what does it stand for, and why does it exist?”
On Wednesday, after passage of the resolution commending his country, Jayatilleka savored the victory.
“This was a lesson that a handful of countries which depict themselves as the international community do not really constitute the majority,” he told the Associated Press.
In Colombo, Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said the vote result “shows that Sri Lanka stands on top in terms of wide support from states across the globe.”
But the outcome brought criticism from international rights advocates. Human Rights Watch called the resolution “deeply flawed,” accusing the council of wasting an important opportunity to promote human rights.
“It is deeply disappointing that a majority of the Human Rights Council decided to focus on praising a government whose forces have been responsible for the repeated indiscriminate shelling of civilians,” said Juliette de Rivero, the group’s Geneva advocacy director.  “They undermined the very purpose of the council.”
Canadian ambassador Terry Cormier said the council’s credibility had been further undermined by the outcome of the special session.
Canada, which has been a member of the council since its establishment in 2006, has led Western nations’ efforts to counter the influence of Islamic states and their allies. On several occasions it has voted alone against a resolution, while European and other democracies abstained.
Canada leaves the council on June 19, the day when newly-elected council members, including the U.S., take their seats.
The Obama administration said it decided to join the council, shunned by its predecessor, because it believes it can, along with likeminded countries, strengthen and reform it from within.
Critics of the council say it has an inbuilt failing in that its seats – in line with U.N. tradition – are carved up among regional groups.
While only seven of the 47 seats are held by members of the Western group, 26 seats – a majority – are earmarked for Asian and African countries, many of which restrict political freedoms and civil liberties. The rest are designated for countries in Latin America (eight seats) and Eastern Europe (six seats).
Comparing the resolutions

A.   Jan. 2009 Human Rights Council resolution

Title:  The grave violations of human rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, particularly due to the recent Israeli military attacks against the occupied Gaza Strip

Gaza civilian death toll:  930 (Palestinian figures); 300 (Israeli army figures)
Proposed by:   Cuba, Arab, African and Islamic groups
Main features:
-- “strongly” condemned Israel
-- accused Israel of “aggression” (twice)
-- accused Israel of grave or massive “violations” (seven times)
-- demanded that Israel withdraw forces, end occupation, stop targeting civilians, stop destruction of property and open Gaza’s borders
-- appointed a fact-finding mission to investigate violations by Israel
-- urged “all parties” not to harm civilians but Hamas not mentioned by name
Vote:  33-1;  13 abstentions

Voting record:
For: Angola, Argentina, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Chile, China, Cuba, Djibouti, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mexico, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Africa, Uruguay, Zambia
Against: Canada
Abstained: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cameroon, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Switzerland, Ukraine, United Kingdom

B.  May 2009 Human Rights Council resolution

Title: Assistance to Sri Lanka in the promotion and protection of human rights
Sri Lankan civilian death toll:  7,000 since January (U.N. estimate; the U.N. says the figure “cannot be fully, reliably, and independently assessed”)
Proposed by:  Sri Lanka
Main features:
-- commended Sri Lankan government for addressing humanitarian needs of civilians displaced by the fighting
-- LTTE mentioned by name and condemned for attacks on civilians
Vote:  29-12;  6 abstentions

Voting record:
For: Angola, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Bolivia, Brazil, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, China, Cuba, Djibouti, Egypt, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Jordan, Madagascar, Malaysia, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, South Africa, Uruguay, Zambia
Against: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland, United Kingdom
Abstained:  Argentina, Gabon, Japan, Mauritius, South Korea, Ukraine
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow