By Jehan Perera –
The election of President Maithripala Sirisena in January this year and the formation of a new government led to an immediate improvement of Sri Lanka’s relations with the western world. This relationship had become increasingly strained during the period of the last government and was getting progressively worsened. However this improvement in relations cannot be taken for granted if it is to yield concrete benefits to the country. One example has been the attempt to get back the the European Union’s GSP Plus tariff benefits that enables Sri Lankan exports to enter the European markets at lower rates of tax which gives them a cost advantage over other countries. Mere goodwill is not enough to meet the standardized EU criteria. There are several targets that the country has to meet if it is to obtain the tariff benefits that it lost five years ago. The criteria that the previous government failed in achieving related to human rights and post war reconciliation.
The government has recently announced that it will set up a Secretariat for Reconciliation that will coordinate the different government agencies that have been earmarked for this purpose. When there are multiple agencies that are dedicated to the same broad objectives, there is likely to be overlap between their activities and even rivalries on the ground, unless they are coordinated. Therefore it has been proposed that the new secretariat will develop a plan on proposed new institutions such as the Office on Missing Persons and the Truth, Reconciliation and Prevention of Conflicts Commission. These were identified by the government in the days prior to the last session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in September. The Secretariat will be responsible for the coordination of other requirements related to strengthening the rule of law, human rights and administrative and judicial reforms as well.
Since the election of the new government in January there has been no doubt about the government’s conviction that it has to steer a new path that is different from that of the previous government. In this context the new secretariat is expected to follow up the progress of implementation of recommendations made by various government bodies, including the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and also the Office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, apart from coordinating with the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission. One of the chief government bodies working in the area of reconciliation is the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR), which is concerned about assisting civil society organizations, and is headed by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Another is the Ministry of National Dialogue which Minister Mano Ganesan has proposed should be renamed the Ministry of National Coexistence, Dialogue and State Languages.
It is noteworthy that the government’s declaration that it will be setting up the Reconciliation Secretariat coincided with the visit to Sri Lanka of senior representatives of important Western countries. Both the United States and United Kingdom sent members of their governments who have responsibilities in the areas of democracy and security to meet with their counterparts as well as travel to the former conflict zones of the north and east of the country. At the height of the war, when international human rights organizations were being extremely critical of the Sri Lankan government and insisting on strict actions being taken against it, a visiting US Senate delegation noted that Sri Lanka was too important a country for the United States to lose in terms of its geopolitical location. There are many in Sri Lanka who seen the international interest in Sri Lanka being primarily due to its strategic location in the Indian Ocean.
The former government’s increased dependence on countries such as China and Russia, which do not use human rights issues to pressurize other countries, led to ties with them becoming stronger. The Chinese decision to build an artificial island just outside Colombo port, and to pay for it in full, was another indication of Sri Lanka’s strategic location. The absence of transparency in the negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and Chinese government and the terms on which this island was to be built has been a source of grave concern to the countries in Sri Lanka’s neighbourhood, including India and stretching as far as Japan. These developments have given rise to the belief that the international interest in Sri Lanka is primarily a matter of geopolitics and security interests.
On the other hand, geopolitics cannot be only limited to the hard power of military might and the location of military bases. Sri Lanka’s location in the Indian Ocean and on the main shipping routes gives it a special significance. Geopolitics is also played out through soft power. Hard power is about compelling others to comply through the threat or use of force. Soft power is about attracting others to share goals through dialogue and exchange. The soft power that the Western countries have a virtual monopoly over in the international discourse is democracy and human rights. These are the highest forms of governance and the Western countries are at the best examples of them especially in their internal dealings with their own citizens. Sri Lanka’s international value at the present time is that of a third world country that has transited from war and authoritarian rule to peace and democracy.
During their visits to Sri Lanka the messagethat the Western government representatives kept stressing was the importance of continuing with the post war normalization process while addressing the issues of accountability to ensure that what happened in the past would not happen again. These are also the main features of the UN Human Rights Council resolution that Sri Lanka co-sponsored in October. Although the opposition has sought to portray this as being a betrayal of the war heroes and a demonstration of intent to hand them over to an international tribunal for war crimes, this is not an accurate depiction of what the UNHRC resolution is about. The cornerstone of the UNHRC resolution is one of ensuring transitional justice in Sri Lanka. This resolution has many recommendations, but the attention of the Sri Lankan public has been focused negatively on the issue accountability for war crimes and the hybrid nature of the judicial mechanism which will have an international component.
The general public is still not aware that the UNHRC resolution has many other things in it as well, such as implementing better the 13th Amendment and devolution, returning land and restoring livelihoods and economic normalcy to the lives of the war affected. It has a broader canvass than that of accountability in the last phase of the war which could be extended to include the violence of earlier periods as well, such as the massacre of Buddhist pilgrims in Anuradhapura and the expulsion of Muslims from the Northern Province. It also includes compensation and institutional reform that would ensure non-recurrence of war and violence in the form it took. The recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by the former government continue to be relevant in this regard.
The United States Under Secretary of State (Designate) for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon who was one of the high ranking visitors to Sri Lanka said Sri Lanka is an example of the “power of citizens to reinvigorate their democracy, to retake control – through the ballot box – of their country’s trajectory, and to set a course to a brighter future.” He said “We now look to Sri Lanka to also provide inspiration to others around the world, to show them how justice and compassion can overcome a difficult past and help create a stable and prosperous future, and strengthen a nation’s security, prosperity, and prestige.” It is important for us to note that the Western countries are prepared to support Sri Lanka’s transition and reconciliation process to be a model for other countries of the values that the Western countries strive to uphold as theirs, and not only for geopolitical and military interests. This is also why accountability, being responsible for what we do to our fellow citizens, human rights and reconciliation are important.