Kath Noble

Sri Lanka’s defeat

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on March 27, 2013

The lessons the Government won’t learn from the vote at the UN Human Rights Council

UNHRC voteThe UN Human Rights Council sessions ended last week with the passage of another resolution on Sri Lanka. It was a victory for the United States, which secured 25 votes in favour compared to 13 against, with eight abstentions and the representative from Gabon being recorded as AWOL.

Life having continued as normal in Colombo, the Government is bound to learn all the wrong lessons from the experience.

For a start, it will think that it can continue to allow the Bodu Bala Sena to run around inciting hatred against Muslims, since Muslim countries overwhelmingly backed Sri Lanka. Half of the votes the Sri Lankan delegation could muster were from Muslim countries – Pakistan, the Maldives, Indonesia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Mauritania – as well as half of the abstentions. Only Libya and Sierra Leone – both recent ‘beneficiaries’ of Western military intervention – voted with the United States.

The Bodu Bala Sena, which is entirely comprised of people who consider any comment on what goes on in Sri Lanka by non-Sri Lankans as tantamount to an invasion, will pretend that it hasn’t noticed. Since it claims not to notice much more obvious things – such as that Sinhalese not only aren’t in danger of being wiped out but are actually increasing their share of the population in Sri Lanka, even without the help of retrograde bans on contraception – this should come as no surprise. Noticing the voting pattern in Geneva would make it difficult to continue with its ridiculous and totally destructive campaign, and that would mean going back to obscurity.

Unfortunately, the Government is not much more intelligent.

Muslim countries may not choose to express their concern via the Human Rights Council – or not yet, anyway – but they are certainly worried. They said as much in a very carefully worded letter to the Government just days before the vote in Geneva.

Mahinda Rajapaksa must take note, before Sri Lanka is completely isolated internationally.

Dayan Jayatilleka’s new book – ‘Long War, Cold Peace’, launched in Colombo at the weekend – is a timely reminder of why international isolation is not just the Government’s problem.

As he puts it, ‘When the war ended in May 2009, the Eelam movement was more globalised than ever. The struggle between Sri Lanka and the Tamil separatist project would continue in the global arena, on an international scale, and the country’s future in the next stage would be greatly influenced if not decisively determined in the international theatre. This included the preservation of the military gains on the ground. There had to be a shift of national emphasis and priority, to the international front. Just as the country and state matured to the point where it shifted to the correct policy stance on the war, overhauled its military machine and placed the right personnel in the right places, the same or a similar task would have to be undertaken in the domain of Sri Lanka’s external relations.’

Separatism would have been dead and buried if Mahinda Rajapaksa had done what he promised and followed the military defeat of the LTTE with a generous political settlement. But he chose to delay, if not drop the idea altogether.

As a result, Sri Lanka is in trouble.

Anybody who doubts it should ask themselves how else there could once again be self-immolations taking place in Tamil Nadu.

Protesters haven’t only just heard allegations of war crimes. They were made even while the fighting was taking place, and a call for an international investigation was included in the resolution that the European Union wanted to pass in the Special Session of the Human Rights Council on Sri Lanka in May 2009. What has changed is the global consensus on what to do about them.

The Government no longer occupies what Dayan calls the ‘moral high ground’.

During and immediately after the conflict, the world compared its actions to those of the LTTE and took decisions accordingly. It got away with a lot because it was up against a ruthless terrorist organisation that killed both Tamils and Sinhalese, ordinary villagers, human rights activists and political leaders as well as members of the armed forces, and in particular also the leaders of other countries.

With the annihilation of the LTTE, the Government ran out of excuses. Globally, the consensus is that it is not living up to expectations.

This is what last week’s vote in Geneva confirmed.

The Government will no doubt be tempted to treat it very lightly, since it is the second resolution that the United States has succeeded in passing on Sri Lanka.

Indeed, the only difference is the result of changes in the composition of the Human Rights Council. In 2012, 24 countries voted in favour compared to 15 against, with eight abstentions. This became 25 in favour and 13 against in 2013, with eight abstentions and the absence of Gabon. Meanwhile, Russia and China had left the Human Rights Council, while in the Eastern Europe group two small actual or aspiring members of the European Union had joined, and Japan and South Korea had joined the Asian group.

It was on the first occasion that Mahinda Rajapaksa should have understood the need for a change of approach.

That is when the major shift took place. The Sri Lankan delegation had secured 29 votes in favour compared to 12 against, with six abstentions, in the Special Session of May 2009.

The tendency in Sri Lanka is to focus on the role of India, which played such a crucial role in support of the Government at the May 2009 Special Session, only to vote with the United States in 2012. Indeed, India is the most important single country for Sri Lanka’s external relations, as its only neighbour and the regional superpower with such long-standing ties in so many fields. However, India was but one of many countries that deserted the Government in 2012.

Crucially, the majority of both the Latin American group and the African group joined India in siding with the West.

What needs to be done to recover this natural constituency is as usual best summed up by Dayan Jayatilleka: ‘No one, even among Sri Lanka’s friends, would countenance either an insensitive or slow alleviation of the problems of IDPs and related humanitarian questions or an absence of an immediately post-war political solution based on autonomy and equality for the Tamil people. The lesson was that the Sri Lankan state had to catch up, get with the new calendar and new times, and learn to speak a new language. ‘Bush-speak’ had no acceptance outside the USA even during his administration and now it is rejected within the USA itself and has no resonance anywhere in the world. Sri Lanka’s dominant discourse had to change or it would lose the global struggle by simple default. With the victory of Obama, macho nationalism, religious majoritarianism, unilateralism and ‘anything goes in the struggle against terrorism’ were out. The attempt to combine ethics and power (‘ethical realism’) was in.’

Looking at what has happened since then, it would appear that the experience had the opposite effect on Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Government has moved more recklessly than ever in exactly the same direction.

If Muslim countries were to abandon Sri Lanka, the descent into hell would surely be even further accelerated.

A notable feature of this year’s sessions of the UN Human Rights Council was the emergence of a number of pressure groups within the country. For example, there were media events by an organisation claiming to be working on behalf of relatives of the disappeared, which focused on disappearances carried out by the LTTE. There was also a major demonstration in support of the Government in Jaffna. Whether these efforts are genuine or managed is not the point – they show what lies ahead. Before long somebody is bound to call for an investigation into the war crimes of the IPKF.

Such initiatives are very much part of normal life in Colombo.

That too is a defeat for Sri Lanka, which should now be focusing all of its attention on rebuilding the country, both physically and psychologically.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 27th March 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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