By Rajan Philips –
Sri Lanka is facing its 9th Resolution at the current UNHRC session in Geneva. It is also the first on Ranil Wickremesinghe’s watch as President. Almost all of them have been during Rajapaksa regimes – Mahinda’s second term (2010 to 2014) and Gota’s half term from 2020. The exception was the sponsored resolution between 2015 and 2019, when Ranil was PM, Mangala FM and Sirisena President. As Yahapalanaya Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe was effusive in his promises for constitutional changes and national reconciliation. The UNHRC resolution that Ranil and Mangala sponsored was an affirmation of what they promised to accomplish at home. But they did nothing to persuade a critical mass of the people to get on board with their approach to national reconciliation in general, and the UNHRC in particular. And they were easily outflanked at home by the Rajapaksa-led opposition to the sponsored resolution in Geneva.
To be clear, it is not the people of Sri Lanka but the government that is being embarrassed in Geneva year after year. It is also because the government shows up every year without doing any of the homework it promises to do. Every year, the resolution gets longer – with new paragraphs added to old ones. In this year of Gotabaya disgrace, a new clause has been added concerning the country’s current economic crisis. That has raised plenty of hackles among self-righteous patriots. There are also plenty of other Sri Lankans, no less patriotic and not just diaspora Tamils, who are welcoming the new resolution and its reference to the economic crisis and its criminal perpetrators.
The resolution itself does not include the words, ‘economic crimes,’ but calls upon the government to investigate and even prosecute “corruption by public and former public officials,” and assures that the Commission “stands ready to assist and support independent, impartial, and transparent efforts in this regard.” What is wrong with that? Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister has a different take. Addressing the Commission before the 9th Resolution was released, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry took the routine diplomatic exception to the Acting High Commissioners Report for making “extensive reference to economic crimes.”
The Minister went on to add that “apart from the ambiguity of the term, it is a matter of concern that such a reference exceeds the mandate of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).” Back home, the Minister has been taken to task by commentators for being oblivious to the fact that in UN lexicon, human rights – all human rights including economic, social and cultural rights – are “indivisible, interrelated, interdependent and mutually reinforcing.” All rights are one and indivisible, and the violation of each is a crime.
Even so, why pick on a small country like Sri Lanka when there is no country in the world where there are no human rights violations or economic crimes. That has been the commonplace grouse among Sri Lankan objectors to what some of them call the “Geneva charade.” But calling it a charade doesn’t solve the problem. You can argue till cows come home about how and why Sri Lanka got stuck in Geneva, but that will do little to get the country unstuck. It has become an agonizing annual ritual for the country and the yearly escalation in the resolution is a direct result of the government’s inaction during the preceding year.
The Rajapaksa regimes used Geneva as a platform to whip up political support at home. The Ranil (Wickremesinghe)-Mangala (Samaraweera) duo, on the other hand, thought they could find a way out of Geneva simply by co-sponsoring a resolution without any back up action to win public support at home. Both strategies backfired. This year is different. The UNHRC mandarins got an altogether new brief for their drafting of the annual resolution. That brief arose from the vortex of aragalaya protests that quite peacefully ended the presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa barely halfway through its elected term.
Minister Sabry can split hairs as much as he wants, but he cannot hide a pumpkin in a plate of rice. Not after aragalaya, and not after the expulsion of Gotabaya Rajapaksa from office. Mr. Sabry cannot deny that there were economic crimes committed by the Gotabaya Government that led to a wholly ‘man made’ economic crisis. Nor can he disagree that the men who made it must be made to answer for their crimes. If he wants UNHRC out of the picture, he should advise his current President to find domestic ways to bring justice to the victims of not only economic crimes, but all crimes committed by the state.
On the external front, the Rajapaksa regimes extended their native cunning methods to play one country against another, not so much for any strategic benefit for the country but for their own nefarious purposes of making money for the family through the machinery of the state. This is the root cause of the country’s over reliance on China for bilateral debt. The Ranil-Mangala duo berated the Rajapaksas for annoying India and alienating the West and played the opposite strategy of wooing the West and India without upsetting China. In the upshot, the resolutions in Geneva kept getting longer, and Sri Lanka’s debt to China kept getting bigger.
In Hambantota debt was turned into equity, like water becoming wine, for China. In Port City, again to please China, Ranil Wickremesinghe went back on his election promise to shut the project down, a promise he made without meaning to keep it. When Rajapaksas returned with Gota at the helm, the highway construction robbery resumed in earnest. But a half a billion dollar US (Millennium) grant for road infrastructure was recklessly rejected because there was no room for cuts or commissions.
The Colombo Light-Rail project with Japanese funding was stopped by an email from the President’s Secretary to the Transport’s Secretary, with no formal or informal intimation to Japan. Non-organic fertilizers were banned to save foreign exchange while hoping for an organic agricultural miracle. The military President’s select experts had other bright ideas as well. Eliminate taxes to boost the economy and print money to get out of debt. If these are not economic crimes, what are they?
The rude awakening came too much, too late, with the tanking of the economy two years after Gota became President and 17 years after the family first took office. Coincidentally, like the 17 year UNP rule earlier. Now, the government suddenly finds itself having to be exceptionally ambidextrous – talking ‘hair cuts’ with the IMF, and splitting hairs at the UNHRC. The kneejerk thinking among patriotic pundits is that the IMF and the UNHRC are in cahoots against Sri Lanka and the Core Group of countries who are navigating the resolution in Geneva are also calling the shots in the IMF in Washington.
It turns out that the countries that are positively flexible with Sri Lanka on the economic front and debt restructuring are also taking a sterner stand over the UNHRC resolution and accountability for human rights and economic crimes. India is charting its own course in Geneva after being the only country to consistently advance forex through weeks and months when Sri Lanka had neither cash nor credit. India is staying clear of the resolution but reading from the old script on devolution and provincial councils. China, on the other hand, is frightfully non-committal on debt write-off or restructuring, but leading the cheers for Sri Lanka in Geneva. Cash or cheers? That should not be the question.
Repeal the PTA
There is no need to conflate the debt crisis and Geneva resolutions as some external imposition on Sri Lanka. There is no external conflation, only domestic delusions about it. Even if there is conflation, there is little that any Sri Lankan government can do about it. The need is for the government to realize that both (debt and accountability) are of its own making and that the resolution of both should start with fundamental changes at home.
Living with a permanent stalemate in Geneva was possible so long as the economy was limping along. Now with the economy broken, nothing can be fixed until everything is fixed. That is the real conflation. Hence, the national necessity for fundamental changes at home and the need for dispelling delusions about burdens from abroad. Who will provide the agency for these changes? President Wickremesinghe alone cannot provide the agency for these changes. He can and should be the biggest contributor, but that alone will not be enough.
A positive development of note is the start of a new ‘mobile signature campaign’ for repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The campaign that was initiated by the ITAK in Jaffna on September 10 reached Gall Face last week and was joined by signing opposition MPs, Civil Society activists and even retired public servants. Former defence secretary Austin Fernando was reportedly the first person to start off signing in Colombo. ITAK MPs, Sumanthiran and Rasamanickam were joined by Eran Wickramaratne, Mujibur Rahuman, Hirunika Premachandra, Rauff Hakeem and Tissa Attanayake.
There were also social activists Pubudu Jagoda, and Dharmasiri Lankapeli, and Trade Unionist Joseph Stalin. Bringing great poignancy to the occasion was Human Rights Lawyer, Hejaaz Hizbullah, who had been long detained under the PTA for no reason by the Rajapaksa regime. Sumanthiran struck a note of unity between the north and south in the new campaign for the repeal of an old law that first entered the statue books in 1979, introduced as a temporary measure for six months. The bill was challenged by TULF activists as a fundamental rights case in the Supreme Court, with Colvin R. de Silva as the lead lawyer. Court challenges meant nothing at that time for a government that had four-fifths majority in parliament.
The law was kept in force by every succeeding government despite promises to repeal it. Just like the promise to abolish the executive presidency. All that President Wickremesinghe has to do now is to start fulfilling the unkept promises of his predecessors. One promise at a time. That will speedily shorten the UNHRC resolution from year to year and soon there will be nothing left for another resolution. The President can do most of it in one year. He could start by repealing the PTA and stop arresting political protesters. That would be a positive change after his busy schedule attending two far flung funerals from London to Tokyo.