Can there be a rights reckoning for nations that don’t want to do it?
By Amanda Taub
A decade ago, Kate Cronin-Furman, then a doctoral student in political science at Columbia University, noticed something odd.
The Government of Sri Lanka, which the United Nations and international observers had accused of killing tens of thousands of civilians during the final phases of that country’s devastating civil war, had started creating what Cronin-Furman called “strange institutions” that were supposedly tasked with accountability for atrocities during the war.
“There was a Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission. There was a so-called Army Court of Inquiry. There were a couple of other commissions set up,” said Cronin-Furman, who is now a political science professor at University College London.
These proliferating new commissions and courts seemed to accept, for the first time, the possibility that atrocities had taken place, even though the Sri Lankan government was still furiously denying that. But the new institutions seemed to bring few, if any, results, and accordingly did nothing to stem the torrent of international criticism from survivors’ groups and human rights organizations or from the countries that had backed calls for an international inquiry.
So why create them?
Answering that question led Cronin-Furman to a much bigger question: whether, and how, international pressure can convince states to change their behaviour, with a specific focus on something they tended to be very, very reluctant to do: provide accountability for mass atrocities. Her answer is the subject of her new book, ‘Hypocrisy and Human Rights’.
To my great surprise, I found it actually gave me some hope about the way power works and can be worked with. Here’s my conversation with Cronin-Furman, edited for length and clarity, about the issue.
Question: When you went looking for an explanation for these strange institutions, as you called them, what did you discover?
Answer: The main question that I ended up answering is, “How do post-atrocity governments respond to international pressure for accountability when they really, really don’t want to do it?”
I mostly focused on the kind of bizarre institutional forms and strategic interactions that emerge when these governments face international pressure from human rights advocates, foreign governments or the UN to do something that is domestically just totally untenable politically: to provide justice and accountability for mass atrocities.
These strange institutions are not about convincing anyone who’s demanding justice. Victims are not going to be persuaded by this. Your Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International advocates are not going to be persuaded by this. Foreign policy bureaucracies in global north states that do this kind of work are not going to be persuaded by this.
Rather, these institutions are more about providing a fig leaf for those other states that are asked to take a position on accountability — states on the UN Human Rights Council, for instance, that would have to be persuaded to vote for a resolution. And basically, it’s about sparing them the embarrassment and the reputational loss of standing up for a human rights abuser.
The post-atrocity government itself is saying, “No, no, no, look, we set up this commission! They’re working on reconciliation! Everything’s great. Leave us alone.” And what that does is to offer to these other states the opportunity to say, “Yeah, let’s give them time. They’ve got this institution, and it’s got ‘reconciliation’ right in the name!”
And one thing that maybe gets lost sometimes in other conversations about this stuff is that time is really valuable for human-rights-abusing states. I mean, to put it quite starkly, time can give you the opportunity to bulldoze mass graves, to disappear witnesses, for perpetrators to bolster their domestic power centres to protect themselves. Time can give you the ability to get past a domestic election. You know, if a Human Rights Council resolution coming out might imperil your vote share in an upcoming election, just delaying it for three to six months, that’s valuable.
Q: Can you give an example of how this has played out in practice?
A: Sri Lanka, while continuing to insist that there had been basically no civilian casualties and definitely no atrocities in the final phases of the war, started to create this series of institutions — all of which had mandates that were sort of adjacent to the question of accountability for human rights violations, but none of which actually took that issue head-on.
And at first glance, this was really puzzling! Because none of these were compelling to anyone who was actually informed on the human rights issues or engaged on them.
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 empanelled 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.
Q: 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.
A: That is the hope, right? The fact that these human rights tools exist doesn’t, on its own, do anything. But each time someone picks them up and uses them, at great personal sacrifice and often risk, they make it that much easier and smoother the next time.
Q: I think a question a lot of people will have after hearing about this book is what it might mean for accountability for Russian atrocities in Ukraine.
A: I have a much more optimistic read on that situation than what I’m talking about in this book, which are these really hard cases for human rights where you have a repressive, intransigent government and an abused, marginalized population.
But the fact that Russia has invaded another country’s territory and that the people who are suffering under those attacks are the citizens of another state has made it much less complex for other states to stand up for Ukraine.
Usually when we’re talking about serious violations of human rights, the sovereignty concern is like, “Oh, we shouldn’t interfere in this repressive state’s sovereignty here.” But in this case, sovereignty militates in the opposite direction.
And because Ukraine is a state, they’ve got their own justice system. They’ve got their own prosecutors, some really good ones. I think the ability of Ukraine to prosecute at least the lower and midlevel folks themselves here is an unalloyed good.
Now, I suspect the question people actually want to know the answer to is what the chances are that Putin or very high-up Russian military commanders will face justice. And that’s one where there’s probably not a particularly optimistic response.
They’re not going to land before the International Criminal Court unless a very unexpected series of events occurs. It is probably not out of the question that a different international tribunal could be set up with a mandate to try some of those people. But whether they would actually be able to get custody of them would be quite tricky.
-New York Times