By Jehan Perera –
Multi-track diplomacy generally refers to international peacebuilding that is not limited to government to government engagements, but also brings in non-governmental actors such as the media, business community and civil society into the frame as well. The meeting between President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the US embassy, including USAID which is the development arm of the US government, indicates a possible broadening of the government’s approach to meet the concerns of the international community to which the United States provides leadership. The meeting received wide media coverage although the substance of the coverage was the same, to the effect that steps would be taken to expedite development activities powered by USAID grants.
With the unhappy situation in the country getting exacerbated, the government appears to be rethinking its strategies with regard to both problem solving and international relations. The level of confidence in its ability to solve problems is on a diminishing trend line. The latest blow to the government’s credibility is the fuel price hike which is threatening to lead to a spiral of price increases. The extension of lockdown which has already passed the three week by a further week is another unhappy news to the general population that their living conditions will further deteriorate.
The government’s dilemma is that the continuing lockdown is causing it to become increasingly unpopular due to the severe difficulties faced by small and medium entrepreneurs and those sections of the population who depend on daily earnings for their subsistence. On the other hand, the Sri Lanka Medical Association has called for a further fifth week of lockdown to ensure that the present drop in the infection rate is sustained. In this dire situation, the government will need to find a strategy that focuses on transformation and the evolution of thoughts and mindsets toward a greater understanding and acceptance of others previously seen as the enemy. The implied message of the president’s recent meeting is that the government is looking to rebuild ties with the US that had got damaged following the debacle with the MCC grant of USD 480 million. This economic development project was bitterly opposed by sections within the government on national sovereignty grounds.
Another significant shift of approach is the appointment of a member of the Human Rights Commission as Sri Lanka’s ambassador to Canada. This is in place of a former military officer whose nomination to serve as ambassador was not successful as the Canadian government did not agree to his appointment following protests lodged by the Tamil Diaspora regarding human rights violations. Ambassador designate Harsha Kumara Navaratne would face formidable challenges in the context of the Ontario parliament passing a resolution declaring that genocide had occurred in Sri Lanka. As a long time NGO development worker, who led one of the largest relief and rehabilitation programmes in the North and East during the war, including in the LTTE controlled areas, he has the ground experience and contacts on all sides to be an effective bridgebuilder.
Last week the Human Rights Commission invited several members from civil society with a background in the protection and promotion of human rights to a meeting. Issues that NGOs have taken up in human rights, including the incarceration for long periods of persons under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the difficulties of obtaining bail for them, the lack of judicial process, the killing of prisoners and other violations were brought to the discussion. The commissioners, led by Chairman Dr Jagath Balasuriya, discussed these issues without getting into confrontation with the activists, some of whom themselves have felt vulnerable to extra judicial actions, and said that they had already made their submissions to the government on these issues and expected a positive response.
When people cannot even come out of their homes much less show their unhappiness by means of public protest, there is a beguiling impression of social coexistence. Where the Covid spread and economic hardship are taking centre stage, the issues revolving around the conflictual relationship between the ethnic and religious communities that live in Sri Lanka has receded into the background of public attention. In a context in which some political leaders and public officials have been glossing over the ethnic and religious polarisations in society, the approach of the Human Rights Commission is a positive indication of a multi-track approach that the government may now be employing.
The government’s greater receptivity to the issue of human rights violations is likely to be driven by the increased international scrutiny of Sri Lanka on these grounds. This scrutiny, which got formalized following the last session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March of this year, appears to be taking a life of its own. The UNHRC has set up a special monitoring unit to document past and ongoing human rights violations in Sri Lanka. The most recent manifestation of international scrutiny by the EU. Its parliament last week passed a resolution by the enormous margin of 628 votes to 15 to upbraid Sri Lanka on a number of issues, including the refusal to amend or replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act to conform to international standards. The consequences of not heeding this EU warning is the possible withdrawal of the GSP Plus tariff concession which would be a severe blow to Sri Lanka’s struggling economy.
The resolution that is currently before the US Congress is another indication of the unfavorable attention on Sri Lanka. The US resolution does not have any sanction mentioned in it at the moment, unlike its EU counterpart which calls for the withdrawal of GSP Plus as a last resort, but calls on the Sri Lankan government to reopen the negotiation process aimed at reaching a political solution that led to the war. It is based on “Recognizing 12 years since the end of the war in Sri Lanka on May 18, 2009, honoring the lives lost, and expressing support for justice, accountability, reconciliation, reconstruction, reparation, and reform in Sri Lanka to ensure a lasting peaceful political solution and a prosperous future for all people of Sri Lanka.” It also refers to issues of missing persons, detained persons and the continuing militarization of the country.
The sanctions being planned by sections of the international community cannot be overcome by non-existent strategies as the country moves from one crisis to another. At the root of the resolutions against Sri Lanka in international forums, be they the UNHRC, the Ontario parliament, the EU parliament and the US Congress is the long unresolved issue of the ethnic conflict and its resolution by political means. The issues highlighted in all these resolutions are the events of the war and the consequences that have flowed from them. Resolving these root causes requires dialogue with the representatives of the ethnic and religious minorities and their political parties. The holding of provincial elections, which will enable them to have a share of governance in the country, and the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission to give a definitive account of the war, and end the speculations and divisive interpretations, may be matters for discussion that can lead to a unified national approach in dealing with the international community and making them allies in the development of the country.