By Jehan Perera –
The government seeks to give an impression that it is untroubled by the impending US-sponsored resolution on it at the latest session that has just commenced at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. In his first meeting with the Foreign Correspondents Association in Sri Lanka in three years, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is reported to have said he was not disturbed by it and that it would only be a single black mark against the country. However, other reports said he admitted feeling disturbed at being censured by the UNHRC and compared the US treatment of Sri Lanka as being similar to Cassius Clay’s “punching bag.” The Sri Lankan media which is usually respectful of the President showed him in a cartoon in a boxing ring looking flustered across from a much larger President Obama.
However, the government has not given up trying to win over countries to its side. It sent a high ranking Parliamentary delegation over to South Africa, but who appear to have returned with a request to forge a wider consensus from the national polity if they are to receive the South African government’s support for a Truth and Reconciliation process. Such a process holds the key to Sri Lanka’s ability to deal with the past issues of political violence that go beyond merely the last phase of the war. India also appears to have become a focal point of the latest governmental initiative with President Rajapaksa seeking a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh when they attend a regional conference in Myanmar this week. In addition, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa is reported to be visiting India for another regional dialogue at which he will meet his counterparts from India.
The importance of lobbying with supportive countries is amplified by the fact that the UNHRC process is primarily a political one in which countries vote on the basis of a variety of reasons, rather than being a judicial process where judges make rulings according to strict guidelines of law. Political processes are also incremental and do not take place with sharp breaks. The government still has the possibility of slowing down the political process. The government appears to be considering two options in responding to the US-sponsored resolution in the UN Human Rights Council that is expected to set the stage for an international investigation. One is to mobilize its friends in the UN to sponsor a counter-resolution. The other is to more fully make positive changes on the ground in a verifiable manner that could satisfy the majority within the international community.
External Affairs Minister Prof. G L Peiris gave an indication of the government’s positive expectations on this score. Speaking last week at a public event at the prestigious Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Affairs he affirmed the prime importance of self respect and dignity of the Sri Lankan nation. He also contradicted the 19th century British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston (1846- 1851) who said that “Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” This dictum of Lord Palmerston is widely cited in the discussions on foreign policy in academic institutions and foreign policy think tanks worldwide. It is seen as a building block of rational foreign policy. Prof. Peiris said that Sri Lanka, as a nation, had friends. Sri Lanka was loyal to its friends, and in turn Sri Lanka’s friends were loyal to it.
The validity of the critique by Prof Peiris of Lord Palmerston’s dictum can be seen in the relations between countries that have a special affinity to each other. The US-UK special relationship is one example in which there is a civilisational bond which goes back to the time of emigration to the US by people from the UK and other European countries that commenced in the 17 century. Today the US and UK are bound together by ties of kinship, language, culture and democratic traditions. In the last century they fought two world wars side by side. Therefore, it is not difficult to see how Prof Peiris’s perceptive observations about the incompleteness of Lord Palmerston’s dictum applies in the case of the US and UK.
A similar analysis can be made of the special relationship that exists between China and Sri Lanka. The relationship between the two countries goes back to the ancient past. Prof Peiris pointed out that Sri Lanka was on the ancient Silk Route and there were many Chinese travelers and merchants who have visited Sri Lanka. More recently in the 1950s, Sri Lanka defied the displeasure of the Western countries when it entered into the Rubber-Rice Pact and was able to save valuable foreign exchange at a time when it was in short supply. This earned it the disfavor of the US in particular, which led to the restriction of US aid to the country. But it sealed the relationship with China, the fruits of which were seen in the donation of the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall, and later in the unceasing supply of military assistance during the time of war, and now in massive economic assistance for development.
On the other hand, Sri Lanka’s bonds with the African countries are still too new to be tested in the firmament of world politics, especially in a contest with the world superpower. Sri Lanka also shares little in common with the African continent, as indeed with China, in terms of kinship, language, culture or democratic traditions. It is these commonalities that form the basis of the special relationship that has existed for over three centuries between the peoples of the US and UK. In this context it is unfortunate that Sri Lanka has failed to develop its relationship with India, with which it shares a civilisational bond and a common heritage of religion and culture. Indeed, it is with India that Sri Lanka has the best potential to emulate the US-UK special relationship.
The potentiality of Sri Lanka’s special relationship with India was seen recently when the Indian government took Sri Lanka’s side in the dispute over Kachativu Island. This small and uninhabited island near the Jaffna peninsula in the north, has been a source of dispute for many years. But despite its overwhelming advantage in terms of size and military strength, since 1974 India has taken the position that Kachativu is a part of Sri Lanka. This has been a source of grievance in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu which has now become even sharper due to the problem of fishing by large numbers of Indian fishermen in Sri Lankan waters. Earlier this year, in a case filed in the Madras High Court, the Indian government said that Sri Lanka’s sovereignty over Kachativu was a settled matter and that Indian fishermen did not enjoy the right to engage in fishing there.
The manner that India has dealt with Sri Lanka on the issue of disputed territory is in stark contrast to the way other countries deal with similar disputes. The continuing disputes between China, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines over various islands have even led them to deploy military assets against each other. The India-Sri Lanka special relatlonship on the issue of disputed territory is a model of how other countries should resolve their own disputes. The Sri Lankan government needs to utilize its special relationship with India to cope with the demands emanating today from other parts of the international community. The Indian government has always made it known that devolution of power and a political solution to the ethnic conflict is its priority, not the issue of war crimes. Even if it is too late to make a change in the way the current US-sponsored resolution is voted upon, the future can be better.