Neglected human rights abuses in Sri Lanka and Bahrain

Human rights abuses in Sri Lanka and Bahrain have gone largely unreported while the world's attention has been focused elsewhere. By Colin Murray.

Good Friday offers an opportunity to reflect on some of the international human rights abuses that have been neglected in recent months. Not utterly swept under the carpet, but relegated to small gobbets of information at the tail end of news broadcasts or newspapers focused (not without reason) on the humanitarian crises in Japan, Libya and (to a lesser extent) Côte d’Ivoire. As Eric Heinze noted in a recent article ‘the media must be seen as the force that overwhelmingly decides which norms and abuses count, and which are neglected’. Through an assiduous endeavour at media manipulation, and also an effort to “bury bad news” when the world’s attention is focused elsewhere, the governments of Bahrain and Sri Lanka have set out to minimise the impact of recent accusations that they have been involved in serious human rights abuses.

Sri Lanka’s Government’s efforts to stifle a UN Report detailing breaches of humanitarian law committed in the closing phases of its 2009 assault on Tamil Tiger controlled areas constitute a particularly brazen effort at media manipulation.Warning the UN that the Report could set back post-war ethnic reconciliation, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister told reporters:

“We are very conscious of the fact that the need of the hour is reconciliation. Does [the report] further that objective, or does it make the accomplishment of that objective more difficult than it needs to be?”

Large sections of the report, presented to the Sri Lankan Government 10 days ago so that it could develop its response, have already been leaked to pro-Government newspapers in Colombo (especially sections detailing humanitarian law abuses by the Tigers, notably in using civilian Tamils as human shields and in arming child soldiers). But so far the Sri Lankan Government has refused to produce its official response. Last night, a report by the UK’s Channel 4 news, which has done more than almost any other international news organisation to keep the story alive, explained the tactics adopted by the Sri Lankan Government to delay the report and the rationale behind these delays:

“By securing an agreement that the report’s release would be held back until a Sri Lankan government response could be prepared, the Colombo authorities look to have forced the deferral of its release. It may be published over the Easter weekend, but is likely to receive much less global attention as a result.”

The UN report is expected to reveal that between 80000 and 100000 died as a result of this last phase of the 26 year conflict (total casualty figures which dwarf the estimated 28000 Tamil Tigers killed in 2009).  Nonetheless, despite the Sri Lankan military’s use of heavy weapons against areas known to contain large numbers of civilians, prominent Sri Lankan politicians such as Rajiva Wijesinha continue to downplay the report:

“I don’t think anyone’s got particularly excited about it at the moment, I think it is important that members of the Security Council have made it very very clear that this is not an official document and I think this whole exercise has been rather regrettable.”

That Sri Lanka has powerful backers amongst the permanent members of the Security Council (including Russia and China) and was even able, at the height of fighting in 2009, to thwart the UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay by achieving majority support amongst the UN Human Rights Council for a motion declaring the conflict a “domestic matter that doesn’t warrant outside interference”. Nonetheless, to characterise a report commissioned by the Secretary General as “unofficial” constitutes a rather desperate effort at news management. Much will depend on how Ban Ki-moon addresses what remains a largely exploratory report assessing the fighting in light of “applicable international standards”, but, if the story gains the attention it deserves, the next few days will be a crucial test of his strength as Secretary-General.

A further report receiving less attention than it deserves relates to the unrest in Bahrain, which continues to be overshadowed by events in Libya. The group Physicians for Human Rights, with contacts amongst the medical profession in Bahrain, have released a report detailing the detention of large numbers of medical staff in the wake of recent unrest. The report, Do No Harm: A Call for Bahrain to End Systematic Attacks on Doctors and Patients, details ‘systematic and coordinated attacks against medical personnel, as a result of their efforts to provide unbiased care for wounded protestors. In response, the BBC is reporting a spokesman for the Bahraini authorities as saying that medical facilities have been “overrun by political and sectarian activity”. These detentions seem directed towards silencing medical staff from speaking out regarding injuries they have treated amongst protestors as a result of the recent crack down. Nonetheless, the international community has hitherto treated events in Bahrain with considerable caution.

Increased attention towards these events is not meaningless good will. Neither Bahrain nor Sri Lanka have ratified the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court (although Bahrain has signed). Therefore, under Article 13 of the Rome Statute, if the Court is to gain jurisdiction to hear alleged offences arising out of events in Bahrain and Sri Lanka, a Security Council resolution is necessary (like Resolution 1593 adopted regarding events in Darfur). And this will not happen if these events continue to be neglected.

Image top (soldier on the streets of Colombo): Biel Calderon.

This piece originally appeared on Human Rights in Ireland.