By Laksiri Fernando –
It is quite unlikely that the US will back down without proposing a resolution on Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva this March, irrespective of the Sri Lankan government making some last minute ‘defence overtures’ and the Minister of Foreign Affairs arguing that ‘repeated resolutions are counterproductive and will further polarize the country.’ What is not yet clear, however, is whether such a resolution would directly call for a high profile ‘international’ investigation on war crimes or not.
If such an international investigation is called for and acted upon, Sri Lanka would be in a real fix, because such an investigation would probably unravel many skeletons in the Rajapaksa cupboard and not just the identification of individual war criminals or the acts of violation of this or that international humanitarian law. Depending on the composition, such an investigation also might purposely target the regime and such things are not uncommon in international power politics.
It is however unlikely that the US wants to go to that extent, at this stage, without a viable regime alternative in Sri Lanka and also the Chinese backing of the current regime. It is also a fact that the US was firmly behind the Rajapaksa administration in crushing the LTTE, although they proposed some last minute adjustments to the war effort, to which the regime did not listen. That is the stage of the war that they particularly want to investigate.
The US bargain on Sri Lanka appears to be not merely in the arena of human rights although that is one of their main concerns. This does not mean that the US is completely hypocritical or its intentions can merely be characterized by the adage of imperialism. They do have human rights concerns and that is part and parcel of their foreign policy for a very long time now, beginning with the Cold War period. In dealing with a country like Sri Lanka, if there are no major strategic interests’ involved, soft issues like human rights might take some priority, allowing the relevant State Department officials to deal with them accordingly. In addition in the case of Sri Lanka, the US commitment to eliminate terrorism of all forms or in many forms was involved after the 9/11 which had to be uneasily balanced with their concerns for the Tamils as a minority in the country.
Therefore, after the defeat of the LTTE, they may have genuine concerns on improving the conditions and safeguarding the rights of the Tamil civilians and political parties like the TNA. That is their conscience especially under the Obama administration. Just to say that ‘we have done all what is humanly possible’ might not work. However, to picture the US efforts as purely ‘imperialist’ is quite erroneous and even archaic even from a leftist or a ‘Third World’ point of view. The Tamil issue or human rights in general have been part of their major concerns in dealing with Sri Lanka for a long period. An added ingredient to this situation is the new wave of anti-Christian activities going on in Sri Lanka, particularly aftermath of the end of the war, without stern or any action taken by the government in curtailing them, even if the regime is not directly complicit.
There are of course other strategic reasons emerging out of Sri Lanka’s steady shift towards China and clearly moving away from the present US ally in the region, India. It is not merely a question of Sri Lanka’s economic links with China for which US might not have any grumble or even encourage them. The US itself is comfortable in dealing with China in the economic sphere or emerging as an economic giant. The concerns are mainly over the increasing defence overtures between the two countries given the strategic importance of Sri Lanka particularly in Sea Lanes and situated South of India. Following the traditions of Monroe thinking, the US would like to see Sri Lanka remains within the Indian orbit. This is not new but traditional. I have seen the letters and messages from Ronald Regan (through the then Ambassador Ernest Corea) to President J. R. Jayewardene in late 1980s, advising him to cooperate with India on the issues of the Tamil question and other matters such as Trincomalee.
There is a close convergence between the US interests and the Indian interests in the region particularly given the China factor, which Sri Lanka cannot easily ignore. After the end of the war, the Indian expectation was not only for Sri Lanka to implement the 13A, but also to resurrect the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement which has a considerable defence dimension. The most worrying on the part of India or the US was Sri Lanka’s ‘triumphalism’ with the emerging China connection. Of course the added factor is the pressure from Tamil Nadu on the Indian central government, largely overlapping on ethnic solidarity and human rights issues. This has also been a period where the strategic alliances between the US and India became closer and closer. The initial resolution on Sri Lanka in 2009 was not mooted by the US but by the others. Then there was a lull, and only in 2012 that the US came into the scene in full force and India eventually following suit.
Sri Lanka’s Options
This does not mean that whatever the US would bring, would carry through. This has not happened in the past particularly in the case of Palestine in the UNHRC or in UNESCO. However, the question is whether Sri Lanka would have such a clout or sympathy like Palestine at present, or Sri Lanka would be in a position to defeat a resolution against the country like in 2009. The strategy of the regime appears to be different or ambivalent; trying to appease the West as much as possible (a la GL Pieris) while at the same time trying to circumvent and defeat a resolution through allies and friends (a la DJ but minus DJ). Of course one can argue that the ‘double strategy’ is more diplomatic than one or the other in isolation. Whatever the pros and cons, the ultimate casualty would be the human rights in the country themselves.
When can Sri Lanka or its regime/s could face human rights responsibilities squarely and honestly and deal with them at the UNHRC accordingly? On the matters of human rights and minority issues, China (or even Cuba) is not a proper partner for Sri Lanka. The worst still would be the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East or Africa, not to speak of Russia on its human rights or minority rights record. These are the claimed allies of the Rajapaksa regime.
On the other hand, Sri Lanka or any other small country in the region couldn’t be blamed for moving towards China for aid, trade or loans because the US or the West or India cannot or would not supply such assistance as China does at this stage. This is also a part of their right to development in the economic and social sphere. China is an emerging economic giant which no one could stop in the forthcoming future. Even an alternative regime to the present government in Sri Lanka may have to take this reality into consideration or otherwise any such future regime might not survive for long. However, Sri Lanka also should not completely rely on China even on economic matters as some the deals could be detrimental as revealed in Myanmar.
Sri Lanka also could not or should not ignore the US or the countries in the West as they are the powers that control the international system including the UN to a great extent. The other two main entities are the IMF and the World Bank. It is a long way for China and its possible allies to wield such power in the international system. By that time, even China might be different on the issues of human rights and democracy. Even in recent times, China has asked Sri Lanka to follow the accepted human rights norms and improve the HR conditions. That is what they do in their own country of course within certain historical and political limitations.
It is quite wrong and even dangerous for Sri Lanka to gamble between the competing major powers in an insidious way. International politics is different to local politics and the repercussions would be unmistakably severe. This is why a firm non-aligned policy is necessary for a country like Sri Lanka, firmly associating with its major neighbor, India. More than a balanced foreign policy to wade off any undue international pressure what Sri Lanka needs is a genuine human rights policy that can attract required support from all concerned parties in the international system. In the final analysis, China may not have an abiding interest in defending Sri Lanka in the international arena on the question of alleged war crime charges, whether they are completely true or not.
Apart from the US, there are several other countries which are active in bringing a resolution on Sri Lanka. Canada is one and the UK is another; and the EU also might be active at present in this venture like in the past. There are of course, internal political imperatives emerging from the pressures of the Tamil Diaspora communities for Canada or the UK or the EU countries to vociferously pursue such a line. But their genuine human rights concerns cannot be ignored just attributing hegemonic reasons or highlighting that they were past colonial powers. This kind of an approach stems from a complete cynical view on human rights. The Diaspora political influences are part of the present day global reality that no one can ignore.
There is of course a major gap between the East (including Africa) and the West in approaching human rights, mixed up with power politics, cultural differences, issues of sovereignty or mere misunderstandings; although they all agree verbally at least about the universality of human rights. Closer to what we discuss here, the Western approach might be called rather ‘offensive’ while the Asian approach is characterized always by ‘defensive’ postures. Sri Lanka at present is a classic example of this Asian approach. Apart from this defensiveness, there are still several inbuilt reasons to neglect or even reject human rights as valid concerns in many Asian countries. The reasons are built in within our socio-political systems however democratic our countries may be overtly or formerly. This is the case in Sri Lanka and also in India, apart from other countries.
The offensive approach of the West may be quite offensive to us, perhaps emerging out of their long standing hegemonic status in international or world affairs. But that cannot be a valid reason to completely disregard them as imperialist or colonialist, or reject human rights that ‘they’ advocate – of course if we consider human rights to be important principles and requirements in our political life or day to day activities. Why on earth we have left the monopoly of human rights to the West in that case?
Let us face some facts and raise some questions before making judgments on countries that criticise us on human rights. I am raising these three symbolic questions to the majority Sinhala community as I am a member of that community. (1) Have we been correct particularly after independence in 1948 in treating the Tamils and other minority communities on the excuse that they were given some advantages under colonialism? (2) Haven’t we been complicit in creating conditions for the emergence of terrorism in this country through such policies and allowing the extremist sections to physically abuse and harm the Tamil community in violence (not to speak of a pogrom) such as July 1983? (3) Have we made genuine efforts to reconcile and correct the past after defeating the LTTE, as there was no other apparent option by then?
The human rights issues in Sri Lanka, which are raised by the international community, are not confined to the Tamil community or the minorities alone. They relate to the freedom of expression, freedom of religion and the right to life of all, among other issues. Even the issues of corruption or extortion or even waste are related to human rights deprivation. Human rights cannot be ensued without good governance which is terribly lacking at present in the country.
The right to life undoubtedly is the most grossly violated human right in Sri Lanka not only by the state but also by the non-state parties in different waves of violence particularly since 1971. Even if this spiral of violence is temporarily halted after the defeat of the LTTE, the impulses have again surfaced in different forms due to impunity accorded to the violators of the past who apparently live comfortably in society if not amongst the powers that be.
In facing the much talked about ‘Geneva resolution,’ the key issue this time obviously is the investigation of alleged war crimes at the last stages of the war. The importance of investigating such allegations is not to castigate the country or demean the war effort against terrorism, but to take necessary measures to curtail the occurrence of such violations in the future. This is particularly important as large numbers of soldiers are still stationed in the North. There can be past violators or potential violators among them. This does not mean that all soldiers or their commanders are violators or culpable for the past violations. But the perpetrators should be punished after fair investigations.
The impunity in one sphere is also an impunity or encouragement in other spheres. The hesitation on the part of the government in investigating them credibly and independently is the most questionable. Independent and impartial investigation into alleged war crimes cannot be a barrier for a truthful ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission,’ if the government genuinely wants to set up in addition. The important step on the part of the government would be to appoint an Independent Commission with the participation of International Members to investigate the alleged crimes during the last stages of the war before going to Geneva in March.