By Rajan Philips –
Last Monday, Modi’s India ‘bowed to the divine in’ (Namaste) Trump. The namaste turned nasty even before President Trump left India after his whirlwind trip. Deadly serious Hindu-Muslim clashes broke out in New Delhi. Trump returned home furious, blaming the media for exaggerating (as he sees it) the coronavirus threat and triggering stock market collapses in the US and around the world. In Geneva, Dinesh Gunawardena, Sri Lanka’s first Foreign Minister with a leftist pedigree, tried to land as softly as possible his government’s decision to withdraw its predecessor’s co-sponsorship of the UNHRC resolutions on postwar accountability.
In one long week, South Asia saw the brash new Modi-Trump chumminess, and the world watched the global sweep of the coronavirus and the market carnage it caused. For the markets, it was the worst week since the 2008 recession. The wheels did not come off because the markets have been performing at record levels after Christmas until now. Sri Lanka’s withdrawal in Geneva is lighter than a pin prick in the scheme of things, but it was a big move for the new government and a pointer about the direction that it is still trying to establish.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has been in office for over 100 days. But the government has been in a virtual holding mode, waiting for the parliamentary elections and a constitutionally ambitious two-thirds majority. As Executive President, Mr. Rajapaksa should be able to govern with any parliament under the Jayewardene constitution. That was the whole point of every word that JRJ uttered on the matter. The last government foundered because of the inability of two (or one and a half) parties and their leaders did not know how to cohabit. It is a different situation now, with one governing party having two heads, one in parliament and the other at the executive.
Politically the two are united by family, so any attempt to drive a wedge between them will only cause grief to those who push the wedge. Functionally, it is a different story with as many ropes as there are hands behind the two leaders. The political unity manifests itself quite robustly in the single-minded purpose to win the parliamentary election, and win it two-thirds big. Don’t waste time looking at the other party, the new Divided National Party and its never-ending tomfooleries. On the other hand, the new government’s only discernible purpose and direction is about winning the parliamentary election. The withdrawal in Geneva fits four square into that strategy.
At the same time, the government would appear to have wanted to avoid a full-throated withdrawal. It was a soft landing, as I said at the outset. Dinesh Gunawardena was quite unlike his fiery father and father of Sri Lankan Marxism, Philip Gunawardena. He was even more unlike his predecessor, the yahapalana government’s first Foreign Minister, Mangal Samaraweera, exaggerator par excellence. It was he who led the co-sponsoring in Geneva, in 2015, promising the sun and the moon to Sri Lankans and the fellow sponsors. Sirisena knew it, but the new government is trying to wash off his hands saying that nobody told him anything because the cabinet that he led took him to be a simpleton. The performance of the previous government fell far short of the promise, but there were significant achievements, such as the creation of the Office on Missing Persons and the Office of Reparations.
Resolution 30/1 of 2015 and its annual successors were both the code and the slogan in the Rajapaksa presidential campaign, along with the promise to withdraw from the co-sponsorship. Much will be made of last week’s withdrawal in the upcoming parliamentary election. Election rhetoric about the withdrawal will be quite loud and perhaps even obnoxious in contrast to the measured tone that Dinesh Gunawardena used in his speech in Geneva.
While withdrawing from co-sponsorship of the Resolution, Mr. Gunawardena affirmed Sri Lanka commitment “to achieving the goals set by the people of Sri Lanka on accountability and human rights, towards sustainable peace and reconciliation.” And to that end, the Foreign Minister said that the government will appoint a new “Commission of Inquiry (COI) headed by a Justice of the Supreme Court, to review the reports of previous Sri Lankan COIs … assess the status of implementation of their recommendations and to propose deliverable measures to implement them keeping in line with the new Government’s policy.”
In addition, the government “will also address other outstanding concerns and introduce institutional reforms where necessary, in a manner consistent with … (and) implement policies rooted in the Government’s commitment to the people by advancing individual and collective rights and protections under the law, ensuring justice and reconciliation and addressing the concerns of vulnerable sections of society.” Lastly, the Minister assured that Sri Lanka will “remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”
In response, Michelle Bachelet, the Secretary-General and High Commissioner of the UNHRC, would appear to have quietly rebuffed the new government’s fresh promises. Specifically, the UN agency is “not convinced with the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry to address Sri Lanka’s human rights issues.” Ms. Bachelet expressed concern that the “very different approach” taken by the new government “to the commitments previously made in the resolution (which) risks setting back efforts to advance reconciliation, accountability and human rights. She urged the government “to preserve and build upon the gains which have been made over the last few years … (and) to ensure the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) and the Office of Reparations (OR) are provided with political and resource support. “The families of missing persons from all communities, the High Commissioner said, “deserve justice and redress.”
It is noted that in his second intervention, following the High Commissioner, Minister Gunawardena confirmed that the OMP and OR offices will be allowed to continue with their work. It would be interesting to see how the government’s civilizational school of supporters will respond to this concession by the government. But it also shows, however softly the government may have executed its withdrawal, the withdrawal symptoms are not going anywhere.
Sovereignty and Human Rights
Writing from his diplomatically free and politically untethered current position, Dayan Jayatilleka has called the government’s move in Geneva “Right Cause, Wrong Tactics.” Dr. Jayatilleka is critical of the obvious failure of the government, going by Minister Gunawardena’s speech, to commit to implement the recommendations of the two COIs (the LLRC and the Paranagama Commission) appointed by Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) during his second term as President. The failure of the MR Administration to implement these recommendations was one of the reasons for Mr. Rajapaksa’s defeat in 2015, and the principal reason for the sponsorship of UNHRC Resolution 30/1 (2015) by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. Why another commission to revisit the LLRC and other recommendations? That is the question.
Beyond making specific criticisms and recounting at his usual length the postwar diplomatic battles since he led the Sri Lankan forces in Geneva, in 2009, Dayan Jayatilleka provides a succinct formulation of the principles linking international system, national sovereignty, domestic politics and human rights imperatives, which his old colleagues in the new government, as well as the new permanent representative designate to Geneva would do well to learn from. To paraphrase, the international system is essentially an inter-state system in which commitments made by a country’s state should not be unilaterally changed merely because there is a change in government after elections. National sovereignty is the defining value for a state. Democracy, on the other hand, is predicated on popular sovereignty. Lastly, to quote DJ, “for the United Nations, UNHRC, UNESCO and most UN/UN-affiliated organisations, the highest values are universal human values, such as human rights.” Well said, Sir, and I could not help thinking that Dayan Jayatilleka can do real justice to his obvious knowledge and occasional brilliance when he is not in the pay of a government.
The main task for the government at the UNHRC and at home is, therefore, to find a way “to balance and accommodate these four legitimate principles,” in a practical way. The obviously missing dimension in this formulation is the matter of the ‘minorities’ who constitute Sri Lanka’s plurality along with their majority co-existence. A part of the primary task would be to include the minorities, their representatives, in finding the balance between Sri Lanka’s international commitments and credibility, national sovereignty, popular democracy, and human rights imperatives. And a homegrown process of national reconciliation, considering that the leaders of the present government privilege anything homegrown over anything alien, will not at all be comprehensive if it does not include the minorities and their representatives in that very process.
In his speech in Geneva, Minister Gunawardena asserted that his “government is committed to examining issues afresh, to forge ahead with its agenda for ‘prosperity through security and development’, and to find home-grown solutions to overcome contemporary challenges in the best interest of all Sri Lankans.” But he gave no indication how the government will balance Sri Lanka’s international commitments on human rights and national sovereignty, or how it will involve the minorities in its homegrown efforts. It was left to High Commissioner Bachelet to remind the government delegation that “the State must work for all its people and the needs of all communities, particularly the minorities, must be acknowledged and addressed.”
The only hint about how the government plans to engage the minorities came in Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s interviews in India. The government will wait till the Provincial Council elections are over and then ‘deal with’ whoever is elected from the northern and eastern provinces. Then what about those who will be elected from these provinces in the parliamentary elections, not mention the MPs from north and east who are already in parliament? The government is also trying to create alternative Tamil and Muslim representatives to the TNA and the main Muslim parties who were associated with the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government.
The government already seems to have a lock on some of the political parties and potential representatives from the plantation Tamil communities. It might be looking to create similar divisions within the Sri Lankan Tamil and Muslim political formations. Regardless of the fact such machinations are more likely to boomerang than succeed, such an approach is unworthy of, and counterproductive to, any serious and genuine effort towards reconciliation. It is unworthy as well of the promises and commitments that Dinesh Gunawardena gave in Geneva, even though they were diluted from what were given by Mangala Samaraweera in 2015.
To put it bluntly, there is no alternative way out for the government but to directly and continuously talk with the TNA on all matters pertaining to the UNHRC resolutions. The need is all the more imperative after the withdrawal in Geneva. There is no need to wait for the parliamentary or provincial council elections. And the engagement must continue after the elections. It may be that after those elections, the government may have to deal with more than the TNA representatives, asserting less than their moderate positions.
The government has indicated that it is not going to do anything that is not acceptable to the Sinhalese people. But it cannot determine what it can do without talking with Tamil political leaders. And there is much that can be done by a government that is honest and sincere without risking a blowback from the Sinhalese. Our long post-independence history shows that blowbacks occur only when orchestrated by governments which do not want to do anything that is reconciliatory. Either it is time that this deception is stopped, or it is time to acknowledge that the annual pilgrimage to Geneva will continue even after this year’s withdrawal.