By Jude Fernando –
Follies of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs: An Assessment of Foreign and Domestic Policy Nexus during the Rajapaksa Regime – (Part II)
Sri Lankan Exceptionalism
In defense of the Rajapaksa regime’s human rights record, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs tried to construct Sri Lankan identity as an exceptional one in contrast to other nations that needs to be understood within the context of thirty years of LTTE terrorism. This was an intellectually dishonest argument, since the history of State abuse of and torture of private citizens predates LTTE terrorism, dating back to the JVP period and cannot be entirely explained in terms of the LTTE and JVP. The exceptionalism argument is grounded in an opportunistic cultural relativism in order to deny ordinary Sri Lankan citizens their universal indivisible and inalienable human rights and to avoid drawing national and international scrutiny to human rights abuses and post-war militarization. It was rooted in tub thumping ethnoreligious nationalism of the BBS ilk, foreign policy rhetoric during the Rajapaksa regime, aroused public anxieties about external conspiracies and forestalled rational debate on human rights and accountability issues in Sri Lanka. This paved the way for and legitimized even greater distortion of civil-military relations in post war Sri Lanka, as the military expanded its mission and mandate within the Rajapaksa regime.
The only noticeable outcome of the foreign policy efforts was that the Sinhala public became suspicious and fearful of international interventions that were sincerely intended to safeguard human rights in Sri Lanka. At the same time the majority community was turned against the minority communities with the entire Tamil Diaspora labelled as terrorists and Muslims coming under direct attack from Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). The inevitable polarization of the country along ethnic lines was then exploited by the Rajapaksa regime to enhance its popular legitimacy and to avoid or delay the implementation of its obligations to improve country’s human rights conditions. This inevitably restricted Sri Lanka’s bargaining power at international forums and subsequently contributed to the fall of the Rajapaksa regime. One could concur with Abraham Lincoln that “A house divided against itself cannot stand” and that “government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free” (June 15, 1858). Rajapaksa got trapped in his own duplicity as evident from the Buddhist Sangha and Sobitha and Rathana Thero’s push back that effectively countered BBS’s effectiveness in helping Rajapaksa at the election.
The conduct of the Ministry in international forums repeatedly gave the impression that the Rajapaksa regime was fearful or disinterested in coming to terms with the truth about human rights conditions or charting a meaningful path for restorative justice and democracy. The regime reduced the Ministry’s responsibility to prevent international scrutiny of the regime’s rights abuses, to help the regime enhance its domestic credibility, and not to harm economic relations with countries that did not make good governance and human rights the preconditions for their economic and political relations with Sri Lanka. As long as these three conditions were met, the regime was unconcerned about honoring its national and international obligation of accountability for charges human rights abuses levelled against it.
By expending all its energies on preventing international punishment for human rights abuses and trade sanctions on the country, and by procrastinating on the search for truth and justice for victims, the Ministry contributed to ethonationalism and xenophobia becoming influential forces in the country’s political arena. Subsequently, the External Affairs Ministry’s interest in the issue of peacetime demilitarization got sidelined after it was drawn into the international terrorism discourse and the militarization of South Asia with India-China competition. The Rajapaksa regime’s hyper-activism in this discourse was yet another way of escaping its responsibility to honor domestic and international obligations. The regime’s fixation with security related approaches in its engagement with international relations is a direct reflection of the specific moral underpinnings of its ideological orientation.
Flawed International Relations Theories
Sovereignty and Security
The ideological orientation of the External Affairs Ministry was derived from intellectually and morally bankrupt international relations theories of political realism. In the world of political realists, the international system is anarchic and lacks a supra-coordinating center. Each nation follows its own interests, making it extremely difficult to coordinate policy among nation. The principle of state sovereignty means that any given state is primarily interested in its own independent course, and cares little about the general or shared interests of the all or the majority of other states.
As theory realism emphasizes the competitive and conflictual characteristics of the states, all of which are primarily concerned with their own security, act in their own national interests, and compete for power. The analysis of these theories and the policies influenced by them are extremely militaristic; the distribution of military capabilities, not good governance, is seen to be fundamental to national security. Expanding domestic military capability and the militarization of the society are justified in terms of safeguarding national interests while suppressing the democratic rights of those who are under- or misrepresented in the pursuit of national interests.
Realists take the state sovereignty as given. They are primarily concerned with the present security and stability of the state. They are not concerned with how the states evolved historically and how that evolution impact wellbeing of their citizens. The anarchic nature of the states does not follow logically or causally from the principle of anarchy, but from its socially constructed identities and power relations. Nations (their meaning of national security and national sovereignty) are imaginary and social constructions shaped by ideologies, values and norms. By starting with the questionable assumptions of anarchy as the constitutive principle of the international state system, realists fail to address the discriminatory and oppressive nature of national identity/national interests/national power. Realist’s fixation with the stability of the present completely ignores how stability is in fact grounded in revisionist and racialized histories that are central to the human rights violations in the past, present and future. Realism fail to provide guidance foreign policy makers to effectively deal with the challenges posed by emancipatory politics relating to race, class and gender, transnational human rights activism particularly by the Diaspora, the neoliberal economic, and moral issues pertains to human rights.
Racism and emancipatory politics
As many authors have argued, realism is either disinterested or assigns secondary status to the place of morality in favor of security and stability of the state. Consequently, it provides no space to engage with emancipatory politics relating to race, class and gender. For example take the issue of racism. By relegating ethics and morality as secondary considerations, realists fail to account for manifestations of racism in construction of national sovereignty and state’s pursuits of national security. The realist paradigm from inception, that provide the “intellectual foundation of international relations is grounded in racism. Race is fundamental to and it continues to an enduring impact on IR theory today.” (Errol Henderson, 2013). Such racism is evident (since the colonial period) when in instances where it is assumed that there are some states and dominant groups within them constitute as the core of civilization, as such, they are entrusted with the special missionary task to play a key role in bring stability to the international order and in nation building.
Racialized framing of national security in multicultural states negatively impacts the relations between different ethnic groups within them and their external relations. Those states that are only vocal about racism of other states tend to normalize racism inside their own borders, and suppress the struggles against racism under the pretext of protecting the country from other racist states. In the end realist projects end up protecting inter and intra state racism. Realism is not helpful in responding to international relations issues that have to do with domestic and international racism.
Diaspora and Transnational Human Rights Solidarity
Realists have no answers good answers to the challenges to foreign policy posed by transnational solidarity group founded upon human rights that defy the cherished conventional meaning and the power of national sovereignty. The extent of binding and non-binding human rights treaties is explained by the 64 human-rights-related agreements under the auspices of the United Nations and the Council of Europe. A member state of both of these organizations that has ratified all these agreements would have to comply with 1,377 human rights provisions (Freedom House Project). The point here is the recognition that the human rights of individuals and of cultural collectives with distinctive identities are indivisible and inalienable and cannot be forever reduced or suppressed in the name of national interest. We have to be mindful of exceptional circumstances that require exceptional responses. In the Sri Lankan case, exceptional circumstances were primarily the interests of the Rajapaksa regime as opposed to those relevant for the wellbeing of the country.
The involvement of the Sri Lankan Tamil and Sinhala diaspora in international affairs does not necessarily make Sri Lanka an exceptional case, therefore it warrants an exceptional treatment either. Politics of Diasporas are products and extensions of politics of their countries of origin. With globalization, the influence of various diaspora on national politics of their countries of origins has grown, and governments have to reckon with this transnational political reality. The Sri Lankan exception during the Rajapaksa regime had to do with how its biases and uses of diaspora mainly to serve its parochial interests and legitimize its discriminatory policies impacted the regime’s domestic policies and external relations.
The Sri Lankan diaspora, with its ethnic diversity and political differences, is an important force for country’s foreign policy makers to reckon with. Elements within this diverse diaspora, in order to realize their respective political aspirations, have spread false allegations against the country, ridiculed sound government policy, supported corrupt politicians, and have been complicit with those ethno-nationalist forces that carry out international propaganda to cover up human rights abuses at home. They have also sought to obstruct the devolution of power to minorities, and campaigned against efforts to fulfil the aspirations for transitional justice for the victims of human rights abuses at home.
Foreign policy could effectively counter these adverse influences exerted by the Sri Lankan diaspora by a radical reorientation of how it approaches the diverse and complex politics of the diaspora. This would necessitate domestic political support that would change the current meaning of ‘national interest’ and ‘national sovereignty’ to accommodate the diverse and shared democratic aspirations of different ethnic groups in Sri Lanka. Lack of political will for such changes under the Rajapaksa regime contributed to Sri Lankan diplomatic arguments about country’s exceptional situation to be an ineffective tool of defeating the influence of diaspora on UNHCR resolutions. In order to defeat the resolutions, the Ministry was primarily preoccupied with countering the propaganda of the diaspora. It failed to positively engage the diaspora by addressing their concern for transitional justice, which was the moral basis them to command influence (desirable and undesirable) over the UNHCR resolutions.
The neoliberal economic order
Realists either ignore or down play the importance the economic interdependence between nations for national security and stability. For example realists does not provide necessary guidance to build robust international relations is the increasing economic interdependence among countries that are not only politically, geo-politically, and culturally different but also antagonistic towards each other. In this context, I think that Sri Lanka’s strategic importance in geopolitics of the world is highly exaggerated and misconstrued. The economic interdependence between India, China and the West continue to grow, and the qualitative differences of their interventions in Sri Lanka are only a matter of degree. At the same time, all these states, including the Sri Lanka are complicit with the global neoliberal economic project.
The current human rights discourse at the interstate level is militantly committed to furthering the interests of neoliberalism (privatization, deregulation and state retreat from social provision). The neoliberal emancipatory promise of universal human rights is about securing freedom for people to participate in the market economy. It certainly is not about giving them the freedom to challenge the inequalities arising from that economy. Despite the noble goals of equality and dignity for all, universal human rights are an unattainable goal as long as the human rights abuses relating to dispossession and displacement under neoliberal capitalism remain intact.
As Immanuel Wallenstein put it, “if all humans have equal rights, and all the peoples have equal rights, then we cannot maintain the kind of inegalitarian system that the capitalist world economy has always been and always will be.” However, the States will act in unison and remain committed to ensure human rights will not interrupt being a companion of neoliberal imperialism, while they have no incentive to offer viable solutions to ever increasing economic gap between the rich and the poor and environmental degradation. The transnational struggles against economic inequality will continue to militate against the stability and security of the state.
Under these circumstances, human rights issues will complicate the relations between these states more than it was during the cold war, and cannot be comprehended within conventional international relations paradigms and simplistic Western verses non-western binaries that is popular in the politics of the global South. The cold-war mentality of geopolitics, which drove diplomacy during the Rajapaksa regime, was counter-productive to safeguard human rights in the light of the challenges to the cherished ideal of sovereignty posed by transnational economic and political forces. The point is not that national ‘sovereignty’ is irrelevant in international relations; rather it is that today it has to be imagined and negotiated differently in relation to the growing importance and difficulties in safeguarding of human rights in international relations. States that are not accountable for universal human rights norms are more prone to authoritarian governance and human rights abuses. As we saw in Sri Lanka’s case the only noteworthy impact of its foreign policies (including the so-called Geneva victories) was that they safeguarded an oligarchic regime and strengthened neoliberal capitalism’s hold over the country’s economy. The Rajapaksa regime and the foreign ministry were not concerned about Sri Lankas’ vulnerability to potentially undesirable interventions by all these foreign countries, unless they threatened its survival, or hindered its role in the same neoliberal project.
Foreign policy advisors, arguably sympathetic to theories of political realism, provided unqualified support for the Rajapaksa regime’s alignment with China more than other countries because of China’s ambitious regional and global economic and military spread and enormous amounts disposal capital that it is willing to invest in developing countries. High economic and political consequences of China’s involvement in Sri Lanka are well documented. The point is not that other countries were kept completely out of Sri Lankas economy. The attraction to China is that it neither demands democracy nor human rights accountability from the governments that depend on its assistance, at least not as much as other aid granting governments do. Realist foreign policy advisors were not concerned about long term economic and social costs of Chinese investments as long as China supported Sri Lanka to defeat human rights resolutions.
By the time the regime fell, the country had become estranged from the international community and vulnerable to hostile external forces. The regime could not bring any human rights issues in the international arena to a closure because its international and domestic relations thrived on portraying itself as being above international pressure. The foreign Ministry’s complicity in dismantling democracy and the obstruction of transitional justice in Sri Lanka, finally, contributed to the fall of the Rajapaksa regime. I do not vilify China, as its geopolitical and economic ambitions are not radically different to that of other capitalist countries. My question is whether the country’s domestic economy and governance, and its external relations would be in a far better situation today, had it demonstrated sense humility to search for the truth about human abuses, and render justice for the victims?
It is no defence to argue that the foreign policy and the domestic governance under the Rajapaksa regime as product of their times. They were product of conscious decisions made by those who were willing to exchange the wellbeing and security of country’s citizens for the security of an oligarchic regime. The challenge of rebuilding the foreign and domestic policy nexus fundamentally rests upon moral questions of human rights. These questions are about morality and power, and how morality animates the desire and responsibility to protect human rights.
Morality and Human Rights
Finally, the weakest characteristic of realism has to with its position on moral issues in foreign policy. “Foreign policy is not self-validating”; its legitimacy depends on compliance with moral standards. As human rights become central in framing foreign policy debates, the moral bases of human rights have become important determinants of foreign policy. Human rights exist primarily as moral questions (there is no distinction between moral rights and human rights) before they become institutionalized: “In reality human rights are normative rather than institutional—though the course of institutions may be designed to enforce them” (Nigel, 2002:33). In the affairs of domestic and international governance, human rights should take priority over and not be subordinated to the rights of nations.
Political realism has no room for morality, ethics, and justice that are central to the construction of meaning of sovereignty and national security. Machiavelli even justified immoral actions in politics. I am not naively advocating moral perfection in foreign policy here. I concur with Henry Kissinger that “a country that demands moral perfection in its foreign policy will achieve neither perfection nor security.” What I am suggesting is that a foreign policy that is completely blind to moral questions will have no basis to anchor and justify for either its foreign policy or its national security. Issues in international relations, including national security, are primarily moral issues. The amoral nature of political realism and its preoccupation with national security absolve individual politicians from their responsibility for human rights abuses at home. Countries whose national security policies are devoid of moral considerations become more vulnerable to being exploited by their own governments and others regardless of their consequences for human rights and democratic freedoms.
A sound foreign policy should spring from (an extension of) domestic social policies (including national security) that reflect the “highest moral principles that safeguard human rights and human dignity” (Jimmy Carter). Defining the country’s national interests on behalf of its citizens should begin with morality and morality should be the basis of negotiating national interests and country’s international relations. This means that it is the moral basis of human rights needs to be derived from the premise that inalienable and indivisible human rights, justice and equality bind individuals and groups within a country, not mystical notions of blood relations, sons of soil, or a manufactured national homogeneity and belonging. These notions are often based on revisionist and racist histories and universal morality of capitalism that are central to inter and intra state conflict.
We must come to terms with the increasing influence of multiculturalism and transnational advocates of human rights have on national security and international relations that defy the taken for granted meaning and power of national sovereignty. Multiculturalism is not an artificial or recent construct; it is a reaction to the suppression of diverse cultures by the discriminatory ideologies and practices that emanate from national sovereignty, and the longing of these cultures for a state where justice can be found. The solidarity among global international groups founded on shared norms of morality (however conceptually and legally messy they are) makes it difficult for the states to suppress domestic human rights violations under the cover of protecting its national interests. Those countries still attempting to do so, are faced with internal conflicts, and have lost their internationally credibility as globalization continues to expand opportunities for self-reflective and emancipatory political struggles.
Jimmy Carter, a formidable defender of human rights in United States’ foreign policy, has said that “For too many years, we’ve been willing to adopt the flawed and erroneous principles and tactics of our adversaries, sometimes abandoning our own values for theirs. We’ve fought fire with fire, never thinking that fire is sometimes best quenched with water.” Sri Lanka must also be sensitive to this sentiment if it is serious about placing its foreign policies on high moral ground, which I think is the best antidote to those hypocritical states that demand universal standards of human rights from selected foreign countries, while making a distinction between what they owe to their own citizens and what is owed to citizens of those selected countries.
The advantage of deriving foreign policy from morality is that morality is universal, and politics is exclusionary; morality would temper the inherently exclusionary character of politics. Despite all its limitations, moral suasion in foreign policy is the best and most reliable strategy to improve human rights at home and around the world. In Thucydides’ writings on the Peloponnesian War, an important text in Realist theory, the basis of politics is morality, and the basis of relationship between the states is norms, values and economic relations. Even Machiavelli, the great philosopher of Realpolitik who is notorious for defining a set of amoral principles about how to gain and consolidate political power, occasionally had to come to terms with the moral question in political power. “What’s more, you can’t in good faith give the nobles what they want without doing harm to others; but you can with the people. Because the people’s aspirations are more honorable than those of the nobles: the nobles want to oppress the people, while the people want to be free from oppression” (9.3). Kautliya’s counsel on relationship between the rulers was based on the principles of Raksha—(protection of life and liberty within the state); Palana (law and justice); and, Yogakshema (welfare of the people.)
We hope that President Maithripala Sirisena uses this window of opportunity (the “rainbow revolution”) and does what the public trusts him to do: build Sri Lanka’s external relations in harmony with morality-based domestic governance. That is what I expect from his yahapalanaya (moral governance). The Minister of External Affairs Mangala Samaraweera must begin reforms by overhauling the current administrative structure and the Ministry of External Affairs, and he must then implement a comprehensive program to prepare the country’s diplomats to face the challenges of 21st Century. Reforms should build a new vision for country’s foreign policy. His efforts will bear fruit only if his domestic governance succeeds in granting an effective devolution of power to the Tamil minority, bringing closure to accountability issues in human rights violations, and creating a more economically egalitarian society.