By M A Sumanthiran –
Many ask me what I think of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. My response has always been somewhat apologetic, as I’ve struggled to ascertain whether such a policy even exists. We are constantly forced to contend with Sri Lanka’s irresponsible international statements, riddled with contradictory positions and unsubstantiated facts.
Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Ambassador Ravinatha Aryasinha’s recent statement at the 23rd session of the UN Human Rights Council was an altogether unsurprising continuation of this trend.
Contraction and inconsistency
First, the Ambassador’s principled position contradicts Sri Lanka’s own track record at the Council. Ambassador Aryasinha observes that the ‘selective’ adoption of country-specific resolutions in the Council is ‘a tool that exploits human rights for political purposes’. Yet the Ambassador’s own argument has been selectively applied by this government, since Sri Lanka—under this very government—has been happy to support numerous country-specific resolutions in the past.
During the 7th Session of the Council in March 2008, a resolution on the ‘Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar’ was adopted without a vote. Sri Lanka held the Vice Presidency at the Council during this time and supported the resolution. The resolution expressed its ‘deep concern at the situation of human rights in Myanmar, including the violent repression of peaceful demonstrations…and the failure of the Government of Myanmar to investigate and bring to justice the perpetrators of these violations’ (emphasis mine).
During the 13th Session of the Council in March 2010, Sri Lanka co-sponsored a resolution against Israel titled ‘The grave human rights violations by Israel in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem’. The resolution specifically called for ‘the immediate international protection for the Palestinian people in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, in compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law’ (emphasis mine). Sri Lanka was not even a voting member of the Council during this session. Yet it thought it fit to endorse this country-specific resolution.
It once again co-sponsored a resolution against Israel at the 16th Session of the Council in March 2011. The resolution expresses grave concern at ‘the continuing Israeli settlement and related activities, in violation of international law, including the expansion of settlements, the expropriation of land…and the construction of bypass roads, which change the physical character and demographic composition of the occupied territories’ (emphasis mine).
It is not my intention in this article to compare and contrast the human rights practices of Myanmar and Israel with our own in Sri Lanka; let my emphasis on certain key words in those resolutions speak for itself. However, it is clear that this government has rightly endorsed international scrutiny of domestic human rights practices in the past.
Notwithstanding such a track record, the government now cries foul when its own record is rightly scrutinised. It complains of unfair treatment, as other countries with equally questionable records appear to escape scrutiny. Yet such questions of fairness do not arise when laws are violated. A man accused of murder cannot complain that his prosecution is unjust merely because another murderer escapes prosecution. If that were the case, no court in Sri Lanka could legitimately try anyone, given the gross impunity enjoyed by some. Mr. Mohan Pieris is accused of flagrantly abusing his power to withdraw indictments against government officials during his tenure as Attorney-General. Can others accused of the same crimes now claim that their cases are unjust? Not even he would think so.
False and unsubstantiated facts and figures
Second, Ambassador Aryasinha’s statement is replete with either unsubstantiated or wholly false facts and figures. He makes a number of statistical claims relating to post-war progress; the most curious of which remain the institution of legal proceedings against 194 ex-combatants, the establishment of a centralized, comprehensive database of detainees which allegedly enables next-of-kin to receive details of detainees, the estimate of only 7,896 conflict related deaths, and the reduction of military presence in the Jaffna peninsula to 13,200 personnel.
The day-to-day testimonies and the lived experience of the Tamil and Muslim communities in the North and East paint a contrasting picture. In December 2012, 45 persons in Jaffna were arrested and detained without charge under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and related regulations. Despite repeated requests, the government has refused to disclose information on the total number of similar detainees held in various detention facilities in the country. The relatives of most of these detainees still complain that they are unable to obtain any information on their detained loved-ones. Moreover, estimates of civilian deaths emerging from the communities themselves suggest that a much larger number is missing or deceased. Meanwhile, 16 of the 19 divisions constituting the Sri Lankan Army are deployed in the North and the East. Hence it is certain that over a hundred thousand military personnel remain in the Northern and Eastern provinces.
Ambassador Aryasinha also alleges that significant progress had been achieved in implementing the recommendations of the LLRC. He insinuates this by referring to plans to establish the Fourth Land Commission and to the recent initiative under the new Land Circular No.2013/01. The government is in the process of establishing a Fourth Land Commission in order to circumvent its constitutional responsibility to establish a National Land Commission (NLC) under the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. The LLRC very clearly recommends expediting the appointment of the NLC which has constitutional powers to formulate national policies on land. Yet this ‘Fourth’ Land Commission the Ambassador speaks of, in reality, refers to the fourth in a series of Land Commissions established in 1927, 1956 and 1985 respectively. The last two of these Commissions were established under the Commissions of Inquiry Act of 1948 with mandates to recommend policies on land, but certainly not to formulate such policies. The Ambassador also claims that the government launched a new programme in May 2013 to resolve issues pertaining to state land in the Northern and Eastern provinces. He claims that a notice issued by the Land Commissioner in this regard has been widely circulated in all three languages in order to inform the public of this initiative. Yet the government’s own progress report on the implementation of the LLRC’s recommendations, dated 26 February 2013, claims that the programme was launched on 31 January 2013 and that a communication campaign covering 75 DS Divisions would be completed on 31 March 2013. It appears that the Ambassador has recycled old information in order to create an impression amongst the international community that fresh initiatives are being carried out and that further time is needed to yield results. These all-too-familiar dilatory tactics aim to conceal the gross lack of progress in implementing the LLRC’s recommendations, which were first published in December 2011.
Loss of credibility
In any event, the government’s credibility with respect to factual claims made in Geneva has remained in serious doubt for some time. To illustrate this credibility gap, one need only consider Mr. Mohan Pieris’ statement on 9 November 2011 at the 47th Session of the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva when he was Legal Advisor to the Cabinet. Responding to a question on the whereabouts of missing journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, Mr. Pieris claimed that the journalist was alive and was seeking asylum in a foreign country. This information was naturally relevant to the ongoing habeas corpus case filed by Mr. Ekneligoda’s wife to ascertain his whereabouts. Accordingly, on 5 June 2012, Mr. Pieris was compelled to give evidence at the Magistrate Court in Homagama to explain his statement in Geneva. Mr. Pieris testified in court that his statement was based on hearsay evidence and claimed that he did not remember what the source of his information was. He thereafter admitted in court that he had no information on whether Mr. Ekneligoda was alive. In the context of such irresponsible statements at UN fora, the most recent set of spurious claims should come as no surprise.
What emerges from the Ambassador’s recent statement in Geneva is confirmation that Sri Lanka will continue to mislead, deceive and contradict itself at international fora. The government has been quick to defend itself by spraying retorts of ‘hypocrisy’, ‘subjectivity’ and ‘political motivation’ at its accusers. Yet it too is an easy target for those very labels. These contractions and falsities have undoubtedly resulted in a loss of credibility in the international sphere. Hence even supporters of this government would agree that its recent record in foreign affairs and international diplomacy is a source of embarrassment.
The Sri Lankan government may lack the competence to devise a sophisticated foreign policy. Yet the Sri Lankan State should not rule out the possibility of adopting a value-laden approach to international affairs. Simple values such as consistency, sincerity and fidelity to the truth ought to be the hallmarks of Sri Lanka’s international engagement. Those who represent the State overseas should not forsake their duty to uphold these values.
The author, M. A. Sumanthiran (B.Sc, LL.M) is a Member of Parliament through the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a senior practicing lawyer, prominent Constitutional and Public Law expert and civil rights advocate.