By Rajiva Wijesinha –
In discussing, as suggested, recent American moves on Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan reaction, I am struck most of all by the failure of those in theory responsible for foreign policy to understand those moves. After the recent visit by Bob Blake, who had been ambassador here during the conflict period, and had a relatively positive if patronizing approach, I was assured by a senior External Affairs official that relations between Sri Lanka and America were excellent. He claimed that the negative reports in the papers were exaggerated.
Similarly, I was assured by those who claimed to have the ear of both the President and the Americans that there would be no American resolution against us in Geneva this year. Now it is conceivable that the Americans deliberately misled us, but I do not think that was the case. Not only from the pronouncements Blake made, but also from the comments made by both his successors, it was evident that criticism was the order of the day.
Why was this not understood, and why were we lulled into complacency? After all, there were several things we could have done that would have dealt with the more reasonable criticisms that were made, while also ensuring that the Americans would not find it so easy to build up a coalition against us. But we did nothing, and then affected surprise when not just the Americans, but a large majority in the UN Human Rights Council, came down on us like a ton of bricks.
Our failure to deal with this is primarily because we do not look at what has gone wrong in the past, and we fail to follow up on decisions taken. In short, we have both a failure of intellect and procedure. It may seem strange to say this since the Minister of External Affairs is supposed to be the brightest intellect in Parliament, but he does not seem to use his intellect at all in his current position. While it is possible that he decided that analytical skills had to be forgotten if he was to keep rising higher on the political ladder, and unpleasant advice would be unwelcome, a kinder explanation is that he knows follow up is not possible in the Ministry as it is currently constituted, so he might as well keep quiet and hope for the best.
As a result, we have sudden and inconsistent reactions to American moves, and no efforts at all to anticipate those moves and forestall them. Thus this year, after the debacle in Geneva, we are told how wonderful relations with America should be, and we are now paying enormous amounts to an American public relations firm to promote them. It is forgotten that in fact we have been paying enormous amounts to different American public relations firms over the last few years, and that that strategy has failed completely.
However, though wasting money is not something we should be doing given the worsening economic situation, at least this is not a vindictive and destructive reaction. In contrast, last year elements in the Foreign Ministry attacked anyone who had stood up previously to American pressure, and decided, in the memorable words of a Communist sparring partner at University, that since the Americans wanted to bugger us, we should roll over and let them. Therefore the Foreign Ministry sacked Tamara Kunanayagam from her ambassadorial position in Geneva, and ensured fore that we would not be able to build up any resistance to American moves.
An analysis of what was motivating the Americans however would have suggested how we could have dealt with the situation with relative ease. One reason for American irritation was what was seen as increasing dependence on China. In addition to their own worries in this regard, they used this to apply pressure on India. But we could have dealt with this very simply by making very clear the special relationship with India which has been the foundation of any foreign policy successes we ever had.
Unfortunately there are elements in the Ministry who are determined to destroy that relationship, based on the way J R Jayewardene ran foreign relations in the eighties, and the Minister is completely incapable of controlling them. So we are left with extremists, some of whom want us to run behind America, and others, who are not in the Ministry but still interfere in foreign policy, who think we can hide behind China. The simple fact that we should maintain a good understanding with India, and also cooperate actively with China while making it clear that this is not intended to be at the expense of anyone else, is not something our decision makers understand.
Secondly, we have not dealt sensibly with the diaspora, an influential part of which is driving the American agenda. The answer to this is to deal systematically with their allegations, whilst also coopting the moderate members of the diaspora who simply want a better deal for Tamils. However the very sensible recommendations of the LLRC in this regard have been completely ignored. Though recently the LLRC Action Plan was revived with the appointment of Mrs Wijayatilaka, who had been sidelined previously, to head it, I do not think we will get action at the speed and efficiency we need until we have a fully empowered Ministry for Reconciliation.
Finally, we need to improve our Human Rights record, since it is actual lapses in this regard that lend credence to allegations about lapses that did not take place. With regard to the war, where our Indian friends have made clear, even while supporting the resolution against us, that the question of war crimes is nonsense, we need simply to move quickly on the allegations that the LLRC has deemed credible. There are very few of these, and as in the case of the Trincomalee killings of seven years ago, we owe it to our own people to make it clear that cold blooded killing is not acceptable. Unfortunately we still have amongst us individuals who think – as the Americans do when their own security is involved – that anything is acceptable, and individuals should not be charged with actions against known enemies (or even their dependants, as happened with the poor child killed when Osama bin Laden was executed).
But even more important is to ensure that we re-establish the Rule of Law. Though many incidents that have occurred recently do not relate to the conflict, they can be used to paint a picture of a lawless society. We must therefore move quickly to strengthen the police and ensure proper investigation and prosecution with regard to heinous crimes. We must also make sure that those determined to stir ethnic and religious tensions are dealt with firmly when the peace is breached. At present we seem to be entrenching double standards, and that must be changed, if we are to regain the moral ascendancy that allowed us to deal so successfully with Western moves against us in the conflict period, between 2007 and 2009 – and we had better make use of intelligent and principled people like Dayan Jayatilleka, instead of getting rid of them