By Bandu de Silva –
I am glad that a plethora of views, much more than I expected, has already been expressed on my quick observations on the first day events of Biswal’s visit to Sri Lanka this time. I thank all who have contributed to the discussion including the one’s who tried to re-educate me [like Spark] who said: “It is fellows like you who have been an absolute zero, just rumbling absolute rubbish, over issues that one is ignorant or rather have a twisted understanding of it to satisfy ones own mind set”; and the one who reminded me that “Biswal was received by Prime Minister of Bangladesh and the Sheik of Abu Dabhi received Secretary John Kerry. That is to say, other countries too set aside Protocol ” and principles when receiving visitors from both the “lower drawer” and “upper drawer” (I am indebted to Rajan Philips for tis terminology).
Yes, I may be ignorant of how all other countries conduct themselves in receiving visiting dignitaries from other lands but I do have some experience of how other countries responded negatively to requests from our own Ministers to calls on Prime Ministers or their counterparts during their visits to those countries which I brought to bear in discussing Biswal’s first visit here. I could understand the negative responses received from other countries to requests from our Ministers when these visits had nothing to do with our own country’s official programmes or with bi-lateral matters with the country visited. These were typically “Tikak godawela yanna awa” type situations of our village folk and also not without a relationship to massive travelling claims preferred on behalf of the Ministers involved.
In my essay on Biswal’s first visit to Sri Lanka I remarked about these requests from our side which included almost monthly visits to France by our former Foreign Minister, ACS Hamid and former President Chandrika Kumaratunga to London when in the latter case, she was denied a call on the British Prime Minister and had to be content with a meeting with a ‘lower-drawer’ official from the British Foreign Office – a shame indeed – but to avoid the Protocol embarrassment, the venue of the meeting was arranged at the High Commission. I must say that our High Commissioner then faltered in not advising the President not to accept the appointment. Hamid’s visits to France were so frequent (almost monthly regularly) that not to speak of the French government, even I, as Ambassador, refused to meet him except though earlier, as Charge d’Affaires I arranged for him to call on Foreign Minister Guirango who was a former career diplomat with whom I had close rapport. Yes, with these situations at the back of my mind, as an old codger, I may tend to look at Protocol situations differently from those who have thought of advising me of ‘rumbling over absolute rubbish.”
My main objective was to explain a phenomenon – big states-small states relationship – with countries like the US demanding attention by small powers (pea-nut countries) even for their ‘lower-drawer’ visitors by virtue of the former’s capacity to dictate terms internationally. It was not to compliment the former President Rajapaksa for not receiving the Assistant Secretary Biswal on her first visit, or to run down the Present President for receiving her though in the process one may get the impression that I was actually doing so. I agree that I should have been more explicit but I was making a few hurried comments on events of day one of the visit as I explained.
Day Two of Biswal’s Visit
Now things are falling into clearer focus with more public statements by Biswal and her colleague, Assistant Secretary (Human Rights) Malinowski, to say that US expects to present a resolution in Geneva this time which supports Sri Lanka’s proposed domestic probe on H/R violations during the war. As if to explain the shift of US position from earlier insistence on an international investigation, Biswal has cited External Affairs Minister Samaraweera explanation to her team of Sri Lankan government’s intention to conduct an internal inquiry. It is not clear if the External Affairs Minister made any reference to Prime Minister’s resolve not to permit an international investigation, it can be presumed that the particular aspect was kept under the palm. That statement of Prime Minister can be understood as having been intended more for the local audience considering the background of issues raised during the recent election campaign.
A point that has been missed by many critics of my initial observations is that in discussing the call by Biswal’s team on the President, I allowed some lee-way to understand the possible reason for setting aside Protocol other than Big power-small state considerations, (the inferiority complex) in meeting the visiting Assistant Secretary. That is by offering the hypothesis that it could be because of prospects of receiving US backing for a moderate (not strong) Resolution at Geneva this time. My thoughts are now vindicated by Biswal’s and Malinowski’s public statement at the media interview cited by the media that US would present a resolution which would be supporting a domestic probe by Sri Lanka. However, nuances are important. As ‘Patriot’ commenting on my observations pointed out: “… I sensed a very subtle escalation in the US position when listening to Mr. Malinowskis remarks. He said “As long as the GOSL keeps making courageous decisions, the US will stand by Sri Lanka’s side and provide the support that is needed…”. To me, this came across as a veiled threat: “We will stand by your side only as long as you do as we say”. That begs the question, what does not having the US “by your side” mean – what does that looks like in practical terms? I don’t think it means that they are going to pack up and go away; the US has made it very clear that they are in it “for the long haul”, as Ms. Biswal’s predecessor Mr. Robert Blake put it.”
Biswal’s statement that US will “assist Sri Lanka” to draft the resolution to a local investigation “with the support of the Sri Lankan government “and other stake-holders” would seem to introduce further nuances besides passing the initiative to draft the resolution to the Sri Lankan government. It is not going to be Sri Lankan government’s way all the way. The reference to “other stake holders” introduced here cannot be a reference to human rights watchers outside the country but stake-holders within Sri Lanka, which in this case are none but the Tamil parties, principally, the TNA, the majority political group. The fact that Biswal’s team did not fail to meet representative s of TNA this time too but without theatrical as during Biswal’s first visit, is a pointer that “other stake holders” besides the government of Sri Lanka, i.e., the interests of the Tamil minority is very much in US’s view. This time, after listening to the TNA representatives Biwal’s team stated that it would present these views to the government of Sri Lanka. So , US has accepted a mediatory role there. Whether the government would respond to the Tamil requests (details not available), in the absence of a role for the Tamils in drafting the resolution it can be expected that US would take care of that interest short of insisting on an international investigation as TNA has been demanding in the past.
The other “stake holder” in the Sri Lankan issue to be reckoned with would be India not because of US’s recognition of her geo-political interest but the relevance of the Sri Lankan issue to the stability of India’s political system. As “Native” proposed , it would be of interest to follow up what Biswal team would do in India in persuading that country to the emerging new US position on the resolution on Sri Lanka. If the initiative taken by Salman Kurshid of observing neutrality is being followed up under the Modi government, there is no reason to expect a variance from the new US point of view.
The delineation of a role for US [behind the scene?] in drafting the new resolution can mean a strong US hand to be present in drafting. It is on the extent to which US exerts its point of view that the success of the new draft resolution would depend. China and Russia the two countries which had supported Sri Lanka to the hilt in the past against US pressure on Sri Lanka would watch from the side on this on-going game plan. Sri Lanka will have to continue to solicit their support.
The conclusion is that the shift in US policy towards the resolution in Geneva from one of demanding an international investigation made last year to one favoring (read supporting) an independent domestic probe this time is simply because of changed circumstances in the political scenario in Sri Lanka and not for any other reasons. The question one may raise then is ‘Was the Geneva resolution used in the past as a pressure point on the previous Sri Lankan regime under Mahinda Rajapaksa with its strategic concerns posed to US through the government’s China bent’? That is also the reason for India with similar concern on growing China’s influence in the island to an extent of posing a conceived threat to India’s own interests in the Indian Ocean for aligning with US in supporting the US stand until last year. India began to rethink of her strategy only under External Affairs Minister Salman Kurshid when it was thought that by pushing Sri Lanka India may further alienate Sri Lanka from coming under India’s influence.
Having adopted a particular line against Sri Lanka in Geneva all this while, it would be embarrassing now for US herself to take a different initiative upsetting the old position. The move to pass on the initiative to Sri Lanka herself to draft the resolution on the conduct of investigations in the future with US holding the reins from behind, appears to be the strategy to get over the embarrassment to US and sustain her credibility.
To sum up, except for the specific reference to the intention to support a Resolution at UNHR sessions in Geneva the visit of the Biswal team followed the parameters laid down by Secretary John Kerry in his prepared statement made earlier this year after the installation of President Sirisena in office in respect of the four possible areas for cooperation by US, namely, reconciliation, justice and accountability, advancement of human rights and the strengthening of democratic institutions.