Can There Be a Rights Reckoning for Nations That Don’t Want to Do It?

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But where the reaction was different was in those other countries on the Human Rights Council whose votes would have been needed to impanel a strong international inquiry.

In the record of those council meetings, some of which I was actually present for in Geneva, we see these other countries picking up on the language that Sri Lanka used to defend its institutions, picking up on rhetoric about protesting “Western human rights pressure” and, you know, “infringement on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty.”

And in the end, it was actually five years before there was an international inquiry empaneled in 2014, and it was much weaker than what anyone wanted in the beginning. And I think that is owed to the fact that Sri Lanka very strategically set up these institutions, exactly at moments of kind of coalescing international pressure and, you know, shopped them quite hard to audiences that might find it persuasive.

Obviously this was a loss for the groups that were calling for an immediate, strong international inquiry. But there is a bigger-picture takeaway here that actually struck me as quite optimistic: This suggests that international responses like condemnation and investigation have real weight, because otherwise why go to such lengths to avoid or delay them?

If I have a personal motto, it’s that, you know, international institutions and human rights pressure are not doing the thing we want them to be doing, but that doesn’t mean they’re doing nothing.

We tend to get into this very all-or-nothing thinking, but it’s really worth looking at what their impacts actually are, and thinking about how we can maximize them and how we can actually use the levers that are there.

It seems as if there could be a norm-strengthening effect as well, because when perpetrators do this quasi-compliance, they are in effect publicly stating that these human rights rules should be followed, even if they are denying that they violated them. Which is reassuring to me, in some ways, because it shows a path toward incremental improvements as these norms strengthen over time.


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