Human rights: The force and the farce

By Ameen Izzadeen
The United Nations Human Rights Council is in session. As expected it is assuming the moral high ground to name and shame those countries that have violated human rights and humanitarian laws. Largely at the butt end of UN censure are politically isolated countries or countries that wield little or no power in the international arena. Among those paraded as suspects in the highest human rights assembly is Sri Lanka. Slapped with a long-war-crime charge sheet, Sri Lanka has, since the end of the 30-year war in 2009, got itself entangled in a UNHRC gauntlet and finds itself in the company of international pariahs such as Syria and South Sudan.
Sri Lanka got into this mess largely through its own doing and mishandling of the UNHRC process. Remember it was the Rajapaksa government which permitted the UN Secretary General to internationalise the accountability process. Not only that, it then went on to confront the United States and the West in the erroneous belief that by allying itself with China it could frustrate any international attempt to punish Sri Lanka on account of its alleged war crimes. Little did Sri Lanka realise that in international politics, power is a key factor. A country should assess its power before it ventures out to challenge another country. One of the first lessons Machiavelli learnt as an ambassador, when his small city state, Florence, was ridiculed at the court of Louis XII, was that in the game of politics, economic and military power held sway. A country that wields power sets the agenda. It can kill and still emerge as the saint of saints to preach to other countries the virtues of human rights and the importance of upholding humanitarian laws and the rules of warfare.
Where was Sri Lanka in this global power equation when it set out in 2012 to challenge the powerful nations at the UNHRC? We were just like Machiavelli’s Florence – Ser Nihilo or Mr. Nothing. If a country does not wield the power to prevail over the rest of the world, then it should adopt the next best policy – call it cooperation or paying pooja to the very powers that are gunning for you. Well this is what the present government is doing, after the previous regime, counting on the political support of China, in what could be regarded as Sri Lanka’s biggest foreign policy faux pas, dared to challenge the US and the European Union
As a result of this policy correction, Sri Lanka heaved a sigh of relief on Tuesday when United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein presented his oral submissions to the UNHRC sessions, without calling for any punitive measures in lieu of Sri Lanka’s lack of progress in inquiring into allegations of war crimes.
From the point of view of power, the issue of human rights has a political aspect. To escape censure for human rights violations, all that a country has to do is to have the right ally or allies: In Sri Lanka’s case, it has now rightfully chosen the United States and its Western allies, which are seen as human rights champions, though their conduct in the wars they wage may paint a different picture. However, it is a political liability for a country to ally itself with a country that itself is accused of violating human rights, however powerful the ally is. This was what happened to Sri Lanka when it allied itself with China and Russia.
The bottom line is there is nothing called human rights in dirty international politics. It is all sheer power. The rich and powerful get away with blue murder, while the weak without the right connections when they violate human rights have the rich and the powerful pouncing on them. Incidentally, this allows them to cover their own sins. Should we remind ourselves of how the West had, for 52 long years, pampered the white supremacist regime of South Africa, of how the then US President Franklin D. Roosevelt supposedly remarked in 1939 that Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza, one of history’s most ruthless dictators, “may be a son of a bitch, but still he is our son of a bitch,” or of how the West justifies the horrendous crimes of Israel in occupied Palestine?
When some developing nations — like Malaysia under the legendary Mahathir Mohamad — argue that human rights should be viewed from the point of view of cultural or moral relativism, according to which the limits of human freedom are determined by the culture or moral values of a given society, the West insists human rights are universal. But when the rich and powerful commit human rights violations or use cluster bombs they call it a necessary evil for the greater good of the greater numbers. But politically weaker nations have no luxury to say this and get away.
If this double standard was conspicuous and shameful, the United Nations Secretary General’s recent action — under threat — to delist Saudi Arabia from a list of nations and groups committing war crimes against children can be the peak of ignominy.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, whose 10-year term expires in December, caved into pressure when Saudi Arabia warned the world body that it would withdraw millions of dollars in humanitarian funding if it was not removed from the annex to the UN’s annual report on children and armed conflict.
One Asian diplomat told veteran UN correspondent Thalif Deen, on condition of anonymity, “The credibility of the United Nations has been undermined…. Ban Ki-moon should be inducted into a UN Hall of Shame.”
According to a UN report released earlier this month, the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for nearly 60 percent of child deaths and injuries in the Yemen conflict last year, killing 510 and wounding 667.
When confronted by journalists, Ban said, “I’m Chief Administrative Officer of this Organisation. I have to take care and consider so many crises happening at the same time.” He said the decision to backtrack on the list was “quite painful for me” but that he “had to make a decision just to keep all United Nations operations, particularly humanitarian operations, continuing.”
What has the United States, the co-sponsor of the Sri Lanka Resolution at the UNHRC, done to condemn the Secretary General’s cowardice? Virtually nothing. When a journalist posed the question, Mark C. Toner, deputy spokesperson for the State Department, said, “Look, I’m not going to second-guess the UN’s decision and the secretary-general’s decision. It’s up to him to explain and defend his rationale for doing so.”
Well, this was not the only occasion that Ban, under pressure, has removed a country from the blacklist. Last year, he removed Israel from the list. This he did after he came under pressure from the United States, which protects Israel whether it is right or wrong. Ban apparently feared that the US which in 2011 withdrew funding for UNESCO in retaliation for the agency’s recognition of Palestine as a full member, would take similar action.
So money talks, Mr. Secretary General. A country’s economic power or political influence is much weightier than the United Nations’ commitment to human rights.
So whom are we deceiving by the thrice-a-year UNHRC circus in Geneva? If the rich, the powerful and those with the right connections can bully their way out of blacklists after committing war crimes, then why pursue other countries? We are not calling for the dissolution of the United Nations or its human rights council. We call for a uniform human rights code and an end to the farce.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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