By Dayan Jayatilleka –
There is a right way and a wrong way to resist Navi Pillay —and Jayalalithaa— and the Sri Lankan regime, I fear, is almost certain to do it the wrong way, which is also the way that is least likely to succeed.
The difference between Navi Pillay and Jayalalithaa is that the former is wrong on the most important thing but right on some things while the latter is wrong on everything she says about Sri Lanka.
The way to respond to Navi Pillay is to pull the props or scaffolding from under her outrageous proposals of an international inquiry by implementing or constructively engaging with all her proposals except for that single outrageous one perched at the top of her scaffold of argumentation.
Simply put, her argument is that Sri Lanka has been badly remiss in certain matters and areas. From this she engages in sleight of hand — or makes a leap — to the proposal for an international inquiry. Many states have or have had far worse situations, especially post (protracted) war, but have not had to accept the indignity of an retrospective international inquiry, so there is no reason for Sri Lanka to submit to one.
Sri Lanka can intercept her argument in mid-flight and shoot it down in flames by the simple expedient of pledging in the Council to implement all or almost or of her other recommendations, with the help of her Office. Let’s face it: apart from the claymore mine of her recommendation of an international inquiry, the rest of what she says is pretty accurate and what she recommends — apart from the international inquiry — is quite desirable, not to mention overdue.
To re-state my case rather differently, Navi Pillay bases her case on the gap between Sri Lanka’s practice and international norms and standards, especially the ones Sri Lanka has entered international commitments to uphold. Our response must be to plug that gap by taking on board and solemnly pledging before the Council to make the rectifications that Navi Pillay has called for — apart from the ‘outlier’ of an international inquiry which is hardly an international norm but is precisely a dangerous precedent.
We can benignly ‘decapitate’ Navi Pillay’s case by adopting the body, the torso, of her proposals and criticisms, thereby separating them from the ‘head’ of her proposal: that of an international inquiry. This is our only chance of winning over the rest while deflecting the West, in the UNHRC and some day at the UN General Assembly. We cannot do so by attacking both head and body of Madam Pillay’s critical report. We must differentiate between her constructive criticisms and moderate proposals on the one hand and her destructive and extreme ones on the other. We must engage with the former while opposing the latter.
The problem with the current Sri Lankan attitude is that it cannot separate the main contradiction— and the primary aspect of that main contradiction— from the rest. The Sri Lankan regime will doubtless find everything that Navi Pillay’s report says, an affront. This approach will prevent Sri Lanka from isolating the West while winning over The Rest— which was our strategy in May 2009. It must be remembered that according to the UNHRC’s founding constitution, The Rest have 34 votes in a Council of 47, while the West can only count on 13.
If I may repeat myself: resisting Navi Pillay and the West can be done successfully only by accepting that which is right in what they have said while isolating and rejecting that which is manifestly wrong, dangerous and unreasonable. It cannot be achieved through a posture of rejectionism on the part of Sri Lanka; rejectionism based on an antediluvian and absolutist notion of sovereignty. In order to be defensible, sovereignty cannot be upheld in an absolutist form.
Navi Pillay and our Western critics must be faulted and rejected when they ask us to go beyond universal norms and global best practices. They must not be spurned when their criticisms are in the ballpark. This is the only way in which to win back the moderate middle ground and thus the majority of the Council.
In saying this I am not preaching something I didn’t practice, nor am I arguing for a reasonable moderation of the part of a Sri Lanka in retreat and on the defensive, which we failed to display when we were on top in 2009. Indeed our winning pre-emptive resolution of May 2009 incorporated a majority of the paragraphs of the EU’s draft resolution against us, discarding only that which was egregiously wrong—most notably the call for an international inquiry into war crimes allegations. As a YouTube search will show, I made that point when making my closing arguments before the vote at the Special Session.
Knowing the Government of Sri Lanka as I do, I am sadly certain it will go about it the wrong way. By contrast to May 2009 when we held the moral high ground, not just in our own eyes but in the eyes of the majority of the Council, through the method of reasoned argument and the practice of persuasion, Sri Lanka in March 2014 will continue on the disastrous path of 2012 and 2013, namely of narcissism and rejectionism; a posture in which we hold the moral high ground only in our own eyes and that of a dwindling minority of the Council’s membership.
Sri Lanka’s discourse— including its diplomatic discourse in Geneva— has shifted to one in which national sovereignty is erroneously interpreted to mean domestic and international unilateralism. While the May 2009 model was of the broadest united front based on ‘uniting the many, defeating the few’, the post war Sri Lankan discourse has been one of rejectionism. In multilateral forums, rejectionism equals neo-isolationism. It is the road to defeat in Geneva.
As for the even more dangerous commitment of Jayalalithaa to pushing for a referendum on Tamil Eelam, the Sri Lankan answer must be to seek to convince opinion to the contrary in the rest of India and among responsible elements in Tamil Nadu, and to secure an alliance with the Centre, whichever party is in office.
In short the Sri Lankan policy must be one of greater— and broader spectrum— engagement with India, in an attempt to win over hearts and minds. Balancing off the rest of India with Delhi at its core requires the ability to convince India that its national interests lie more with a united Sri Lanka than with turning a blind eye to Tamil expansionism/irredentism. This in turn means helping Delhi balance of Chennai. Such a strategy of balancing must have as its essential element, the devolution of power to the Northern provincial council to the fullest extent of the 13th amendment (but not beyond). This strategy would strive to utilize the Indo-Lanka accord and its product the 13th amendment as Sri Lanka’s shield against Jayalalithaa’s pan-Tamilian expansionism.
The current Sri Lankan approach of regarding the Indo-Lanka Accord and the 13th amendment not as a shield but rather as impediments to be shuffled off or shrunk is dangerously counterproductive. In the face of the manifest threat emanating from Tamil Nadu, it is even more dangerous to regard Delhi as an enemy which can be balanced off by Colombo through recourse to a very distant Beijing or by imitation of Pakistan.
Difficult as it may be for the rational mind to grasp, the present ‘strategic’ perspective of the dominant faction of the Sri Lankan regime, is that it is possible to simultaneously wage a Cold War against Indian influence (i.e. be locked in a low-intensity Cold War with Delhi) while eyeballing it with the sole superpower, the US.
If Sri Lanka proceeds along its current path it will find itself in the most dangerous of strategic encirclements. Young Prince Gemunu felt himself bereft of strategic space, hemmed in between a Tamil kingdom and the sea. The dogmatic delusions of the current Sri Lankan regime will find us caught between two spearheads: a Western offensive driving through Geneva which will reach its final form with a Hillary Clinton presidency in 2016 (a mere two years away), and a more proximate and ferocious offensive driven by Jayalalitha, while our collective back will always be to the (Indian) Ocean.