By Dayan Jayatilleka –
The UNHRC session this month in Geneva succeeded in punching through to the news pages, despite the overwhelming dominance of stories about the no-confidence motion. However, there was no acknowledgement of the two most important aspects.
The first was from the government delegation or more correctly the discourse of the government team. Foreign Minister Marapana whose views are known to be a huge improvement on those of Minister Mangala Samaraweera, was accompanied by two nominees of the President, namely Dr Sarath Amunugama and Faiszer Mustapha. All in all, it was a decent team, lacking only State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Vasantha Senanayake.
The government’s position was laid out in a balanced presentation by Minister Marapana. What was crucial about the speech was what it did not say, and not only what it did say. What it did not do was to reiterate a commitment on the part of GoSL to the full implementation of the Geneva 2015 resolution. Indeed it did not reiterate any degree of commitment to the implementation, let alone the ‘full’ implementation, of that Geneva resolution. Better still, Minister Marapana’s speech did not refer at all to the 2015 Geneva resolution, which we should perhaps call the Ranil-Mangala resolution, so happily lapped up and regurgitated by the upper bureaucracy of the Foreign Ministry.
What Minister Marapana did say was that all issues pertaining to post-war reconciliation could and would be implemented within the Sri Lankan Constitution and through the existing independent judicial system.
In short the Government of Sri Lanka has pivoted to some degree, away from the 2015 Geneva Resolution and in the direction of a feasible, national solution in cooperation with the UNHRC. The delegation is to be commended on this.
The new tone and content was best expressed in the excellent post-Geneva remarks of Dr. Sarath Amunugama at a briefing at the SLFP headquarters.
‘Dr. Amunugama, who is one of the members of the recent government delegation to Geneva HRC session, said they had clearly explained to the UNHRC that they would not allow the international interference in matters in violation of with the Constitution.
“Whatever the things discussed at earlier UNHRC sessions, we have clearly told them that the government will not allow any foreign judges to come to Sri Lanka and interfere with the local judicial system as Sri Lanka has enough of lawyers and a completely independent judiciary to look into its matters,” the Minister stressed.
Compared with other countries which had war crime charges at UNHRC, Sri Lanka had successfully achieved a considerable progress during the last ten years and, therefore, it was unfair to categorize Sri Lanka as one of the countries that had to face war crime charges, Dr. Amunugama said. The Minister also said that the international community should understand that the terrorist group which Sri Lanka had defeated in 2009 was the most dangerous out of all the terrorist group around the world. Today, anybody who visited the country could travel anywhere without fear of terrorist attacks, he added.’
(‘Minister Amunugama urges Foreign Ministry to clear Lanka’s name’, March 30, 2018, The Island)
According to the report Dr. Amunugama also made a rather pointed aside:
“Referring to the statement made by Sir Michael Morris, better known as Lord Naseby, the Minister said that the Foreign Affairs Ministry should have used the statement to deny the allegations against the country by giving it more publicity among the international community.” (Ibid)
The Government’s Geneva stance is changing because of three realities:
1. The results of the local government election and the presence on the horizon of the Presidential election on late 2019.
2. The change in the balance of forces between the President and the Prime Minister, with a greater assertiveness on the part of the President. Though the President is not guiding foreign policy as yet, he is clearly drawing the parameters and exercising a veto. The SLFP is also making its input into foreign policy.
3. As a result of the two earlier stated factors, the natural centrist ideological tendency of the Cabinet Ministers, including that of the Foreign Minister, UNP member Tilak Marapona, is coming to the fore, overriding the neoliberal globalism of Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mangala Samaraweera, the epitome of which was the co-sponsorship of the Geneva 2015 resolution by GoSL.
These three factors of change can be summed up in a simple, short sentences: 2018 is not 2015. 2015–the spirit of collaborationism and appeasement– is dead. GoSL will no longer swallow the full Geneva dose which is felt to be electorally lethal in its toxicity.
The second most important development for Sri Lankans in Geneva this March was the emergence of the Muslim factor in Sri Lanka’s external relations and in the UN arena in particular. At a side event at which paper presenters and audience conducted themselves admirably, moderate yet critical representatives of the Muslim community rationally presented their case, their grievances and their apprehensions. Given the importance of the organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) as a voting bloc in UN forums, it would behoove the Sinhala extremists who attempt to coerce the Muslims, to grasp the fact that no vote in the UNHRC can be won without the OIC’s support.
What the Sinhala Islamophobes have done with their behavior in Ampara, Digana and Teldeniya is to open a new front in the diplomatic arena, for the Sri Lankan state to have to deal with. For a state already overstretched with having to handle the Tamil Diaspora and Diaspora-driven Western pressure, the emergence of the Muslim factor as a new issue, is another needless problem created by the Sinhala Far Right. This factor should be nipped in the bud while it’s still possible, and as the other should have been.
The shift in the government’s discourse in Geneva deserves a cheer, not two, still less three cheers. There is a long way to go to unhook Sri Lanka from the 2015 and 2017 resolutions. This is a laudable step back though; a demarcation of limits and a taking of a measured distance, if not yet a delinking. This is the prelude to the imperative process of revisiting and renegotiating Geneva 2015. If we have no partners for renegotiation, then a ‘roll back’ will be necessary. A roll back/repeal of Geneva 2015 cannot simply be decreed by any Government in Sri Lanka, even the most patriotic one. It can be done only a by winning a vote, which requires winning over the majority of the Council.
As one who has done this in Geneva, was prominently part of a similar victory at the UNESCO in Paris, and watched sadly as others lost the vote three years running back in Geneva, I know what can and cannot win a majority in that Council. Certainly a hawkish Sinhala rhetoric is hardly likely to help us get more votes than we got when we lost in 2012, 2013 and 2014 under a patriotic government (serial defeats which paved the path for the sellout of 2015). The UN Human Rights Council and even the egregiously offending Office of the UN Human Rights High Commissioner in Geneva cannot be treated as if either entity were a café in Ampara suspected of introducing (non-existent) infertility tablets.