Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe,
U.S. Representative to the Human Rights Council
At a press stake-out at the United Nations,
March 21, 2013
I’d like to open with a few general remarks about the current session and then turn to the important resolution on Sri Lanka that just passed.
This session, which draws to a close tomorrow, has been one of the most significant in the Council’s short history. The packed agenda and vast portfolio of country situations and human rights issues that we have dealt with in this session serve as clear evidence of the dramatic improvement in the Council’s functioning and in its ability to serve as the lead entity in the UN for promoting and protecting human rights.
In addition to the formal work of Council members in the chamber behind us, I will note that more than 150 different parallel events sponsored by NGOs, civil society and governments have taken place. These activities signal that human rights defenders and civil society do consider now the Human Rights Council as an essential platform and venue for their work and for ensuring that international attention and focus remains on important human rights issues.
I want to highlight a couple of the other priority issues that we have before us at this Council session.
Obviously, the global community is seized with the crisis in Syria, which has taken a terrible toll on the lives of so many, and is truly one of the most difficult humanitarian and human rights crises of our time. As we were meeting here in Geneva during this session, we learned that UN High Commissioner for Refugees registered the one millionth refugee forced to flee Syria, challenging the humanitarian community, as well as Syria’s neighbors. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians are internally displaced. Tens of thousands have been killed, including many, many women and children.
We condemn in the strongest terms the brutal, persistent attacks of the Assad regime against its own people. The United States is committed to working within the international framework to try to bring about an end to this crisis and a change that is necessary in Syria. The actions we take together at the Council are part of this international effort to bring an end to this crisis.
The Commission of Inquiry, charged by this Council with investigating the atrocities and massacres, is amassing a body of evidence that will play a very important part in ensuring accountability and justice for the Syrian people. At this session the United States is cosponsoring an Arab-led resolution on Syria that will extend the mandate of the COI so that it can continue its important work documenting the ongoing gross human rights violations taking place in Syria. The work product of the Commission of Inquiry will help ensure that there is accountability for the massacres and atrocities committed over the past two years. We expect that this resolution will have overwhelming international support.
Also of note, the U.S. is very pleased to be cosponsoring a landmark resolution on North Korea. This year’s resolution on DPRK breaks new ground by establishing a Commission of Inquiry to investigate grave, widespread, systematic violations of human rights in the DPRK. Special Rapporteur Marzuki Darusman will serve as part of the COI team. We call upon the DPRK to provide access into North Korea for the COI as well as the other OHCHR special procedure mandate holders. The creation of a COI sends an important message that the global community is paying close attention to the situation in the DPRK, not just on the nuclear front but also especially on the human rights front. We believe the creation of this Commission of Inquiry will help focus the spotlight of sustained international scrutiny on one of world’s darkest and most secretive regimes.
We are also pleased to co-sponsor the African Group’s resolution on Mali, and to see the Council’s determination to work with Malian authorities to end all human rights violations and abuses in the country, and bring all perpetrators to justice.
On Iran, the U.S. is part of the core group sponsoring the resolution addressing the human rights situation in Iran which will this year renew the mandate of the Special Rapporteur. We are extremely concerned about reports of a growing crackdown on opposition groups, and increasing numbers of incidents against human rights defenders and journalists in the lead-up to Iran’s election in June. We once again call upon Iran to provide access to the country for OHCHR special procedures mandate holders.
Let me come now to the resolution that was just adopted by the Council overwhelmingly on the subject of the human rights situation, reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka.
The resolution just passed should be seen as both an expression of support by the international community to the people of Sri Lanka, and as an expression of encouragement and concern to the government of Sri Lanka. The international community has sent a message that lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka will require meaningful steps toward truth and accountability.
Today, in effect, the international community came together to call upon the government of Sri Lanka to fulfill its stated obligation to its own people to take concrete steps to move forward to address outstanding issues related to truth and reconciliation, and by meeting its obligation on accountability.
The resolution relied upon the detailed report of the High Commissioner Navi Pillay, which made clear that Sri Lanka must take meaningful action on reconciliation and accountability, including the establishment of a truth-seeking mechanism as an integral part of transitional justice. The resolution passed today also addresses the growing concerns over the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka, including reports of forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, as well as intimidations and reprisals against human rights defenders.
Over the past year the United States and many others have expressed strong concern over the lack of process on these vital issues as well as backsliding on respect for human rights and the rule of law.
The United States, along with 40 co-sponsors, put forward this resolution in a spirit of friendship toward the people of Sri Lanka, but also out of genuine concern about the lack of follow-through on the promises by the government of Sri Lanka to carry out a credible form of domestic accountability. We are concerned about some worrying signs of back sliding with respect to the rule of law and protection of human rights in the current situation as well.
The United States stands ready to assist Sri Lanka as it makes necessary progress on these longstanding issues of reconciliation and accountability. The Office of the High Commissioner, as well as the Special Procedures, are also standing by ready to assist the government of Sri Lanka with technical assistance and capacity building so that they can move forward toward a sustainable peace and reconciliation, based on truth and accountability.
The resolution, which includes specific follow up actions including an interim update by the High Commissioner in September and a comprehensive report in March 2014 by the Office of the High Commissioner, is a strong signal that the international community intends to remain seized with the situation in Sri Lanka.
And with that I will take your questions.
Question: I was wondering, you say it’s a strong signal, but a number of NGOs are complaining that you didn’t ask for an international probe. Could you address that please?
Ambassador Donahoe: The resolution does very clearly state that the international community knows an independent and credible investigation must go forward and that that’s what’s lacking. We did not today take the step of calling for an international commission of inquiry or independent inquiry because we have not yet completely closed the door on the possibility of a domestic independent credible investigation. That’s what we’ve been calling for. That is what the Sri Lankans have promised. But that is exactly the area where we are seeing a lack of progress and we have underscored the need for an independent, credible investigation. Our hope is that it is done domestically, but we have made it clear that we have not yet seen signs of that happening. I think the resolution makes clear that that is what is expected.
Question: Was there any last minute discussion or any [late] proposals from India seeking some sort of amendment?
Ambassador Donahoe: I will tell you, we’ve been in conversation with the Indian government for months on this subject in Geneva and in Delhi and in Washington. We’ve had wide-ranging conversations. We took input from the government of India with their suggestions along with suggestions from many many other delegations. The final product reflects our view of the consensus about how to send a strong signal to the government of Sri Lanka that the international community expects an independent, credible, truth-seeking mechanism to ensure accountability.
Question: Are you saying that this is just a step forward and it is a possibility that if we come back next year international investigation could be added?
Ambassador Donahoe: The door is open for next steps that are required, depending on what takes place in the coming year. Our hope is that the government remains open to allowing the High Commissioner to come to her visit, allowing special procedures mandate holders to do their visits. There have been numerous outstanding requests over the years. Our strong hope is that the government of Sri Lanka responds to this resolution by facilitating those visits, allowing them to take place. We will get a report, an interim update from the High Commissioner in September, and a comprehensive report next March that will determine next steps by the international community.
Question: [What next steps?]
Ambassador Donahoe: We remain open to progress this year and we hope that’s how they respond to this resolution
Question: One of the subjects that I don’t think you alluded to was the call by Special Rapporteur Emerson for the U.S. to respond to allegations and human rights violations in the context of counter-terrorism and specifically to release a report by the Senate Committee, by Senator Feinstein. I noticed your delegation that day just said that you’d had to study it. I’m just wondering, did that fall on deaf ears? Is the U.S. going to response?
Ambassador Donahoe: Yes. The U.S. has responded and is responding directly to the Special Rapporteur Emerson. It’s not on our agenda right now in terms of voting and resolutions at the Council, but the U.S. is in the process of responding to the Special Rapporteur, and I believe he intends to come back to the Council perhaps in the fall.
Question: There have been some responses to this resolution. A lot of people said that perhaps it’s mired and it’s stalled. Does this mean that the last resolution has had some effect or not? Or has there been non-cooperation? Number one. Also, is there mood for demand for an international probe? Was there a mood here for a probe to be asked for? What do you think is India’s role as one of the biggest neighbors of Sri Lanka and has that role changed from last time to this time at all? Because in 2009 India’s role was very very different from what it has been in the last two years.
Ambassador Donahoe: A nice multi-part question.
We are not satisfied with the progress to date, which is why we felt the need to go forward with this resolution. I think if you compare the text from last year to this year it is fair to say there’s a strengthening in the language and the meaning of the text, and some of the comments by those delegations that were not in favor of the resolution alluded to that strengthening and that’s part of the criticism. They feel like it does go beyond the bounds of Resolution 19-2 from last year, and does rely heavily on the findings of the High Commissioner which were serious and reasserted the need for a truth mechanism. Very clearly.
In terms of the mood for an international probe, as I stated, no determination has been made by the Council members yet as to whether an international probe is required. What we’re hoping for is a domestic, credible, independent investigation that satisfies the people of Sri Lanka. That has not happened to date. That’s what’s being called for this year. And it remains open, it’s an open question as to whether and how the government will respond.
On the government of India, they supported the resolution last year. They supported the resolution this year. They have played a very constructive role in the negotiations on the text.
Question: As soon as this resolution is concerned, Sri Lanka raises doubts and says this report makes a lot of mention from the OHCR, the [High Commissioner] report. And Sri Lanka, as _____ says now that the [High Commissioner] report has gone over the mandate. What is your take on it, ma’am
Ambassador Donahoe: I would say the High Commissioner has done an excellent job and she is absolutely within the bounds of her authority to present her assessment on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. I thought her report is not only fair and accurate, but it sent an important message to the government of Sri Lanka about the need for truth, and that’s the essence of the resolution that was just supported by the international community and that’s the animating spirit behind the U.S. initiative in the first place.
It also happens to be what the government of Sri Lanka has previously promised their own people and we think it’s important to understand that.