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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Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rural cunning

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 4, 2012

It is not foreign policy but domestic policy that has to change

The cancellation a month ago of another overseas speech by Mahinda Rajapaksa due to protests by the Tamil diaspora has intensified debate on Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. Does it need to change? Or is it just being poorly implemented by the country’s diplomats? The President’s spin doctors tried to present his UK visit as ‘extremely successful’ and ‘a substantial advance in bilateral relations’, but not even Lalith Weeratunga can really believe that – shaking hands with the Queen is only significant for people who have blown up her cousin, and David Cameron was so impressed by his meeting with the President that his office immediately felt the need to clarify that it was no more than a short discussion on the way to lunch, of which the main content was the usual reminder of the need to investigate war crimes allegations.

Now even the Government appears to think that something is amiss. It is reportedly organising a workshop for its heads of mission this coming weekend, to educate them on the direction it wishes to take henceforth.

The moment of realisation should have come with the lost vote at the UN Human Rights Council in March, which resulted in a critical statement being issued calling on the Government to do better in its efforts at reconciliation and even accept the help of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – Navi Pillay, sometimes very undiplomatically referred to by ministers as a Tiger sympathiser. Given that the Government won in Geneva in 2009, not just fighting off censure but actually getting members to praise its military campaign, when memories of the bloody end to the war were still fresh, the 2012 defeat was pretty spectacular. The ‘score’ went from 29:12 in favour of the Government to 15:24 against.

This was followed by the very public dumping of the unfortunate Ambassador Tamara Kunanayakam, and the more or less simultaneous attempt by the Foreign Ministry to (once again!) get rid of Dayan Jayatilleka.

However, this time the Geneva vote had nothing to do with the capacities of the representative but everything to do with the behaviour of the administration being represented. It was the result of the Government’s apparently tireless efforts to alienate India, a country that had protected it from interference by the West throughout the final stages of the war, at quite some cost to the Congress domestically – while neither Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa nor her predecessor and main rival Karunanidhi are at all serious about their advocacy in support of Sri Lankan Tamils, they make a lot of noise, and Tamil Nadu is full of people with Vellupillai Prabhakaran bumper stickers (really!).

It seemed to me at the time that India might even have encouraged the United States to put up the resolution against Sri Lanka, to create an opportunity to demonstrate its displeasure. Too many of its ministers and officials had been made to look complete idiots. Throughout the final stages of the war, the Government had promised India that it would work out a political solution that went beyond the 13th Amendment. Yet three years on it has still not happened. Worse, it has now become commonplace for the Government to reiterate its commitment to ’13 Plus’ to each and every visitor from India and then deny it as soon as they are on the plane home. External Affairs Minister SM Krishna suffered this fate in January.

It is easy to imagine nuclear-armed India, on its way to getting a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, thinking, ‘How dare they! That insufferable Mahinda Rajapaksa has less people in his whole country than we have in one of our cities! We probably lose more money in one of our scams than his economy even generates!’

Indeed, some weeks before the Geneva vote, I attended a seminar at a Ministry of Defence-funded think tank in Delhi at which participants said more or less exactly that, albeit rather more diplomatically. They were trying to understand how the Government had ‘managed’ India so effectively, and what India should do about it.

Amusingly or bemusingly, top of the list of explanations was ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rural cunning’. I must admit that I had expected a more practical evaluation. Still, the proposals for action were eminently practical, ranging from pulling out of reconstruction work in the North and East and forcibly repatriating all Sri Lankan refugees to pushing ahead with the Sethusamudram Canal, demanding the return of Kachchativu Island and easing up on controls on radical elements in Tamil Nadu. Pumping in aid and investment to make Sri Lanka more economically dependent on India was also put forward as a long term strategy. Short term, there was of course a suggestion to withhold support in forums like the UN Human Rights Council.

Geneva 2012 could be just the beginning, in other words.

It would not be possible to revisit the arguments for and against ’13 Plus’ here, nor do I care to. What is more relevant is that ’13 Minus’ – which even the JHU accepts as an interim measure, making it an eminently practical way forward – has not been implemented and does not look like happening any time soon.

Indeed, arguments are now emerging to suggest that elections to the Northern Provincial Council had better be postponed indefinitely, since the West may try to use a TNA-led administration to break up the country (Dayan Jayatilleka: ‘Incremental Secessionism – Why Devolution Mustn’t Be Open-Ended’, Groundviews, June 25th). Suspicion of their intentions is quite natural and sensible – they do indeed employ such divide and rule tactics against states they perceive as ‘targets’, as Sri Lanka seems to be for them at the moment. However, they are not the only players in this game. There are other powers who don’t take kindly to regimes who refuse to fall in line as ‘client states’, and they too have a history of intervention.

At the risk of being called well-intentioned (or worse!), I must say I think there’s been more than enough delay already. As the Opposition said last week, let’s have polls in the North before anywhere else. Let’s also rebuild the relationship with India, I might add, since it is the one country that is definitely committed to a united Sri Lanka.

The alternatives that have been floated in the last few months since the Geneva vote are not very convincing. Some are keen on abandoning both India and the West, now seen as lost causes, and pushing forward in the relationship with China. These people are very happy with decisions to close Western embassies and particularly delighted when the Government unleashes its ministerial attack-dogs like Wimal Weerawansa for a bit of their trademark anti-West grandstanding – effigy burning is so much fun, it would seem. They say Sri Lanka doesn’t need the West, although of course the West has the capacity to totally destroy the economy, dependent as Sri Lanka is on Western markets for its exports – note how systematically the West is currently going about the much more difficult task of bringing down Iran by getting all other countries to stop buying its oil.

Sri Lanka doesn’t need India either, apparently, since it is China’s new best friend. Never mind how many other countries are competing for that title, or how only one of the pair is located a mere 30 kilometres away.

Others want Sri Lanka’s new best friend to be the West, to take advantage of their ever growing interest in Asia. There is much talk of the island’s strategic location, and enthusiasm for anything even vaguely resembling military cooperation – these people are perhaps dreaming of converting Sri Lanka into another Diego Garcia, in case Diego Garcia proves too small for the West’s ambitions.

Fortunately, the Government isn’t quite that stupid. Depending on any one power is a strategy that has been proven to be short-sighted – balancing several is vital.

The problem isn’t actually Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and its implementation, although there are certainly many deficiencies in the details – why was Mahinda Rajapaksa even at the UK Jubilee celebrations? It is more of a challenge than that. Diplomacy can do many things, but it cannot change the facts on the ground. Indeed, diplomacy has to be based on them. David Cameron and other leaders may bow to pressure from the Tamil diaspora from time to time, but they will not be able to mobilise the world against Sri Lanka so long as it is clear that the Government is more in the right than in the wrong. This is what the President achieved during the war, and what he must do again if he wants to ensure that his difficulties don’t go beyond the occasional cancelled speech.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 4th July 2012. The internet version can be accessed here.

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