When Human Rights Become a Political Weapon

Sri Lanka, an island nation of 21 million people just off India’s coast, is in the news. It will hold a presidential election next Thursday, as the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa tries for a third term by building on his 2009 military defeat of the Tamil Tigers, which waged a 30-year-long civil war demanding an independent state for the 15 percent Tamil minority. A few days later, Pope Francis is scheduled to make a three-day papal visit to Sri Lanka, where 6 percent of the population is Catholic (the majority of people are Sinhalese and Buddhist).

Many observers hope the papal visit can smooth over tensions from the presidential election. A key issue in the background of the race is Sri Lanka’s human-rights record. A few years ago an international consensus emerged that the Tamil Tigers were a terrorist organization. Indeed, they basically invented suicide bombing as we know it in the 1980s. The U.S., the United Kingdom, and India all declared it a terrorist group, followed by the European Union in 2006. 

That put a crimp in the ability of the Tamil Tigers to raise money abroad and contributed to their military defeat three years later. But now remnants of the Tigers are trying to stage a comeback by loosening sanctions on it and allowing it to raise money again. Last October, the European Court of Justice ordered the Council of European Union to annul as of January the restrictive measures against the Tigers it had put into place in 2006. It claimed that the original designation of the Tamils as a terrorist group relied too much on Wikipedia and news reports but declined to find them inaccurate.

The Tamil Tigers have also used various non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to accuse Sri Lanka of human-rights violations during and after the civil war that they say should lead to a cutoff of aid to the government. It has applauded the launching of a probe last March into the Sri Lankan conflict by the United Nations’ Human Rights Council. That body has been known for politicized probes, in part because six nations that U.N. watchdog groups have deemed as “non qualified” to comment on human rights issues because of their own domestic abuse record sit on the Council. Those members include the grisly trio of China, Cuba, and Russia.

Since the March probe was authorized, aides to U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein (who issued a press release lamenting the “institutionalized discrimination” prevalent in the U.S. after the Ferguson, Mo., incident) have been taking testimony from civilians and members of NGOs who claim to have witnessed or suffered abuses by the Sri Lankan government. Even though almost all of the witnesses now live outside Sri Lanka, many of them have given testimony with the promise of absolute confidentiality, which makes it nearly impossible to verify their accounts. As for the testimony of people inside Sri Lanka, there is reason to question its veracity. In November, Sri Lankan officials arrested a low-level Tamil Tiger who was carrying a list of 400 names and a sheaf of blank testimony forms that already bore their signature. The villagers had been told the forms were for them to be compensated by the United Nations, and the Tamil Tiger admitted he intended to use them to submit false testimony to the U.N. investigators.

Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian who directed human-rights policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and later served as leader of Canada’s Liberal Party from 2008 to 2011, has written about the treacherous path international human-rights campaigners can follow in promoting their causes: “Many of these NGOs espouse the universalist language of human rights, but actually use it to defend highly particularist causes: the rights of particular national groups or minorities or classes of persons.”

The sorry record of the U.N.’s Human Rights Council in remaining objective and unbiased led the Bush administration to boycott its activities. The Obama administration reversed that sound move and is actively funding much of its $4.3 billion annual budget. The Sri Lankan case is yet another reminder of how the use of human-rights issues as a political weapon can create a new battlefield in the settling of old scores. No one is suggesting that there shouldn’t be international monitoring of human-rights abuses, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that many of the current institutions conducting it should carry a warning label: caveat emptor. Let the buyer beware.

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