How South Asia's Women's Movement Voted On The Sri Lanka Resolution
By By Ponni A.
Chennai, (Women's Feature Service) - On March 22, 2012, a Resolution was tabled at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) urging Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC) and asking its government to provide a viable plan towards this end.
The LLRC recommendations have covered many issues, including the need for further investigations into violations committed during the war, the introduction of a Right to Information Act, assistance for the displaced, addressing demilitarisation and disarmament of armed groups and the need for a political solution in the region. This Resolution at the UNHRC, brought forward by the United States and co-sponsored by France, Norway, Nigeria and Cameroon, was supported by the UK as well.
For many weeks in the run up to the tabling of the Resolution, the Indian government chose to remain silent on the issue. Meanwhile, pressure was building on it, not just from political parties in Tamil Nadu, particularly the UPA's coalition partner, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), but from civil society organisations within India and South Asia, including many women's groups and individual activists.
So when the Resolution was tabled and India voted for it - albeit after introducing some amendments to water it down - it was seen as an important moment in the struggle for human rights in South Asia. True, the Resolution in itself was regarded as far from ideal. Award-winning Sri Lankan Women's Rights Activist Sunila Abeyesekera, in fact, commented that it was "extremely weak" and disappointing for Sri Lankan human rights defenders. And V. Geetha, feminist historian and activist from Tamil Nadu observed that "as expected there is no reference to an independent international mechanism to probe alleged violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law during the war's final phases".
But in spite of the weaknesses of the document, some saw the Resolution as an opportunity to address the glaring flaws in the LLRC report. A statement released by the North East Women's Network in Sri Lanka on International Women's Day 2012 read as follows: "The LLRC report is far from what is required if this country is to move forward…The LLRC was also not sensitive to women and the vulnerabilities that they have been placed in even though women were the majority of those who testified at the LLRC sessions. We, the North East Women's Network, call upon the UN and its member states to help Sri Lanka on its road to reconciliation and peace through accountability and justice and to strengthen its domestic mechanisms by ensuring international monitoring. We call upon the Sri Lankan State to view the proposed resolution at the UN Human Rights Council as a tool for the implementation of its vision for a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic community and for ensuring long lasting peace for the women who have lost so much and continue to suffer."
Others, like Sithara Shreen, a Sri Lankan Women's rights activist, saw the Resolution as a first step. As she put it, "Many of us feel that the US-sponsored Resolution is just an opening to move forward towards an accountability process in order for Sri Lanka to address its bitter past and India's support in this regard is very vital."
Amidst all of this, Indian women's rights activists from across the country brought out a statement that urged the Indian government to vote in favour of the Resolution. It said, "When the Government of Sri Lanka released the report of the LLRC in December 2011, a spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs of the Government of India welcomed it and expressed hope that its Recommendations would be implemented by the GoSL… We sincerely hope that the Government of India will follow through on its own statement by supporting this resolution, and strongly urge it to do so."
This statement was signed by various eminent women's rights activists, including Farah Naqvi, Member National Advisory Committee; Usha Ramanathan, eminent expert on Human Rights and Law; Dr Uma Chakravarti, historian and activist; advocate Vrinda Grover; and Dr Mary John, Centre for Women's Development Studies.
Through the process of signing this statement, a broad-based discussion between various Indian feminists emerged, which looked at various issues, including the silence on the sexual violence perpetrated on women in the LLRC recommendations. They noted that Tamil women in Sri Lanka faced sexual violence and continue to do so, not only within the home but also from the military, police and other security forces that hold immense power in the northern and eastern regions. Many of these women are today single-handedly managing the economic burden of running their households in the absence of the men, against a backdrop of increased militarisation.
These women, it was noted, are still awaiting any mechanism that can help them find their disappeared relatives and friends. Yet, humanitarian groups and civil society organisations that seek to address these everyday concerns are unable to function freely because of the restrictions imposed on them. The passing of the UN resolution, it was hoped, will make for some positive changes. As Rohini Hensman, Sri Lankan writer and activist who lives in India and writes extensively on Sri Lanka, puts it, "The measures recommended by the Resolution are especially important for the women of the North and East. They should not be seen as passive victims; in fact, they are making heroic efforts to rebuild their shattered lives and communities. But these efforts are being frustrated at every turn by the state."
This UN Resolution was one of the few remaining opportunities to initiate a process of reconciliation in the violence-scarred island nation. It is only a small step. But given the helplessness of thousands of Tamils still living in a horrific post-conflict situation, even the smallest of developments matters a great deal.
At the very least, the international debate that built up on the alleged human rights violations of the Sri Lankan government would perhaps not have taken place without this Resolution.
As for the women activists of Sri Lanka and India, it was a moment of coming together and raising voices in unison.
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( © Women's Feature Service)