United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay has been having a rough go of it in Sri Lanka this week during what should have been a groundbreaking visit to investigate allegations of war crimes from the country’s decades-long civil war. On Friday, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa piled on to earlier criticisms from government ministers by stating that Sri Lankans “believe the United Nations is a biased organization” and that Pillay’s upcoming report for the rights council “already prejudged” the country.
Without a doubt, Pillay must have known that she had her work cut out for her going in to her week-long visit; Colombo’s vocal hostility towards the U.N. rights council, which has passed two resolutions in as many years pressing for government accountability for rights violations, had previously made any fact-finding mission by the world body a tricky prospect. However, after Colombo appeared to cool down their rhetoric, rights activists had high hopes that a U.N. visit would help put the international spotlight back on Sri Lanka, which continues to foster a “climate of oppression,” according to Amnesty International.
Since her arrival to Sri Lanka on Sunday, however, Pillay has been hounded by protests and harsh criticisms from all sectors. The rights chief, appearing to be on the defensive, has insisted “I have not come here to criticize, I have come hear to raise human rights concerns.” That the visit has become more focused on the U.N.’s own shortcomings, including its perceived unfairness to Sri Lanka, rather than on rights violations from the bloody conflict has to come as a major disappointment for those hoping to move forward on accountability.
This also works in favor of the government, which has been long been resistant to opening any independent inquiry into the war in which tens of thousands were killed, tortured, and disappeared. Amid mounting international pressure for an investigation, however, Pillay’s visit may actually count as a win for Colombo which can now point to it as an example of its cooperation on the issue, while having also laid the groundwork to discredit the contents of her eventual — sure to be critical — report. The events are a black eye for the U.N., which now has to contend with yet more reputation management on top of its usual variety of challenges in fulfilling its stated mission of protecting human rights.