By Dayan Jayatilleka –
At the High Level Segment of the UNHRC Geneva, Prof GL Peiris did something I haven’t seen him do in a quarter century. He read out from a text, looking up only once or twice. It was on a perfect continuum with Mahinda Samarasinghe’s clumsy, bellicose speeches at the same venue in 2012 and 2013 (which raised the curtain on Sri Lanka’s successive defeats) and GoSL’s recent written response to Navi Pillay’s report. It is certainly not the superb and convincing extempore speech Prof GL Peiris made to a distinguished diplomatic audience at a top Parisian think tank, when I served as Ambassador.
GL’s truculent address, demonstrating rejectionism and political immobility, slammed the door. It won’t bring Sri Lanka any votes and probably increased the number of abstentions from our side, thereby increasing the margin of our defeat and the magnitude of the manifestation of our dangerous international isolation. It was a depressing disaster.
The only hope is that Sri Lanka’s friends in the Council will intercede, functioning as a buffer and a bridge, bringing amendments or launching a fresh diplomatic initiative.
The problem is that for some years now, Sri Lankan diplomacy has been characterised by obduracy. In late 2011, having helped Sri Lanka deflect a Canadian attempt at a resolution in the UNHRC, the Indian delegation suggested to the Sri Lankan side, which included Prof GL Peiris and Mahinda Samarasinghe, that in 2012, Sri Lanka should offer to report to the Human Rights Council on the progress of the LLRC implementation. The Sri Lankan side rejected it as compromising the purely internal status of the LLRC process. Ironically, in 2014, Lalith Weeratunga was briefing the members of the Council on precisely the progress of the LLRC, but it was no longer enough.
By contrast, in 2007-2009, Sri Lanka even organized an event on the sidelines of the Geneva sessions which was chaired by the representative of Amnesty International.
In 2009, Sri Lanka stood ready to host a briefing at a side event at which High Commissioner Navi Pillay would be a panellist and which would be chaired by the Permanent Representative of Brazil. It was an attempt by our friends to bridge the gap between the contending sides, though we were confident of the numbers for a win. In 2009, Sri Lanka had the self-confidence to engage, to debate as part of the striving for a constructive compromise —and was willing to go the extra mile. It was the dogmatic obduracy of the West that led to the abandonment of that Brazilian initiative.
Today, by contrast, Sri Lanka is snarling in Geneva, its back to the wall, when it does not need to be. With GL’s speech, or the speech that GL delivered, it is Sri Lanka that has painted itself into a corner.
That said, I would urge the West against pushing through any resolution that insists on an intrusive external inquiry. While it is positive that the discourse of war crimes and the slogan of an international inquiry have been held back, if even for the moment, and while it is deplorable that the Sri Lankan government has not seen fit to use this opening, resorting instead to a rhetoric that is somewhere between Netanyahu’s Israel and Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, it must be recognised that there is a dualism, a parallel track running through the West’s draft resolution. A call on the Sri Lankan government to institute an independent and credible inquiry coexists with a request to the Office of the High Commissioner to investigate abuses by both sides.
Thus the drafters of the resolution have to make up their collective mind: is the resolution calling for a Sri Lankan state-led process or an OHCHR-led one? One can envisage a hybrid, but not a model which is anywhere as much a hybrid as the Cambodian investigations because that was an inquiry into atrocities by a hated defeated enemy, the Khmer Rouge (the equivalent of which would clearly be the LTTE, not the Sri Lankan army). The only reasonable and realistic resolution would be one which is Sri Lankan led but has a strictly ancillary role for the OHCHR.
Of course the Government of Sri Lanka which has a fundamentalist view of state sovereignty— disguised as national sovereignty—will probably reject even a Sri Lankan state led, OHCHR supported exercise, but such a resolution will have the positive effect of occupying the moral high ground and opening up the Sri Lankan public space and shifting the social discourse in a positive direction which can feed into the democratic electoral process of the next two years.
On the other hand a resolution which calls for an external inquiry either by the OHCHR or any UN mechanism, will generate a reverse shift in Sri Lanka— not only at the obvious level of the State but also that of society. It will set Sri Lanka on a negative course.
Surely what is important is an unfreezing of the domestic situation and progress on the ground? This can be achieved by smart pressure which doesn’t raise the collective hackles of the overwhelmingly predominant ethnic majority—not just those of the Government or the armed forces.
The TNA leader Mr Sampanthan and Chief Minister Wigneswaran have, with characteristic imprudence, signed a call by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, for a UN Commission of Inquiry. In the mind of Sri Lanka’s large and popular military, this would seem on a continuum with the call by Bishop Rayappu Joseph and the 205 Christian priests for an international investigation which identifies specific units and officers of the armed forces. In turn this would segue into the CPA led call for an international inquiry mechanism.
The GoSL speech as read out by Prof GL Pieris in Geneva may well provoke the West into escalation and a call for an international/OHCHR inquiry. But what would be its results? It is almost certain that there would be no political dialogue with the TNA. Instead there would be a freeze; a hardening of attitude and behaviour. It cannot be ruled out that Sri Lanka would exit from the UN HRC and adopt a policy of de-linking from the international system or zones of it. As a response to an overbearing and biased stance on the part of the West and attendant triumphalism on the part of Tamil nationalism, such a shut down, however unsustainable over the longer term, will reflect the popular mood and its darkening.
Sri Lanka needs to rejoin the global mainstream, starting with the Asian one. The country will eventually emerge from the tunnel into the light. But if the West and the Tamil nationalists overshoot the mark in Geneva, the interregnum, however short, is bound to be nasty and brutish. Is that really what any of us, apart from the isolationists want?