By Rajan Philips –
The UNHCR vote on the Sri Lankan resolution divided along continental boundaries. Europe (Western and Eastern) and America (North and South) were the overwhelming supporters of the resolution. No country from these continents abstained on the vote; only three (Russia, Cuba and Venezuela) voted against, and the remaining 18 accounted for nearly 80% of the 23 ‘yes’ votes for the resolution. Asia and Africa voted in stark contrast: almost half the countries from each continent (six from each and 12 in all) abstained from voting, nine (six from Asia and three from Africa) voted against, and only five countries voted for – four from Africa and a solitary South Korea for all of Asia. It will not be too cynical to say that the Sinhalese and the Tamils, rather their self-accredited (if not discredited) representatives are not only at one another’s throats, but they have also managed to divide the world – East and West – between them. India suddenly saw new light and found the whole business “intrusive … inconsistent and impractical” and declared its non-alignment. Remember Nehru’s famous musing: “I am a queer mixture of the East and the West, at home nowhere, and out of place everywhere!”
The responses to the vote have been equally divided and wholly contradictory, within Sri Lanka and outside. Let us look at the domestic reactions first. While the Sri Lankan President has rejected the resolution out of hand in keeping with the government’s official position that the resolution is ‘illegal’, the TNA leader, R. Sampanthan, has welcomed it as “a victory for all Sri Lanka’s people in their struggle for truth, justice and reconciliation … and … a meaningful opportunity for all communities in Sri Lanka to join an impartial, independent process in which we grapple with serious violations of human rights and crimes committed in our own respective names.” In between, there are other voices – some calling rather mischievously, for example, for a new LLRC to start probing everything from beginning to end and targeting not just the government and the LTTE but “all parties” to include India; and others suggesting more responsibly that the Sri Lankan government must rapidly and sincerely carry out every requirement in the resolution except agreeing to investigation by the Office of the High Commissioner. The latter approach was also the exit door that the LLRC Commission suggested to the government to avoid the predicament that it has now gotten into.
There is enough opinion going around about the implications of this resolution and the consequences that would flow if the government were to choose to ignore it. I will not go into that. The government’s material position, apart from Peiris’s pettifogging about process and precedent, has been that it has already started doing everything that the UNHRC is asking it to do. But that position has no credibility not only at the UNHRC but also within the country. The only way to interpret the large number of abstainers from Asia and Africa (this is also true of India but there is a separate narrative about India) is that they were not comfortable with one government being targeted by others, especially others more powerful, but at the same time they were uncomfortable with Sri Lanka’s record on the matters that were raised before the Council. Otherwise, that is to say if the government’s record is believably positive, it is fair to conclude that all the abstainers would have voted no to the resolution. Fairer still, the prime movers of the resolution would have had no cause to generate a resolution in the first place.
The government’s record
So what is the government’s record? There is a depressing world of difference between the lifeless numbers that are projected in powerpoint presentations and the real life experiences of people living in still appalling postwar conditions. No government leader has publicly or privately empathized with their plight. No one has visited them like Cameron did and that is why the people gave him a resounding reception. The government is yet to treat the postwar plight of the people seriously and work concertedly with the Northern Provincial Council and its Chief Minister to address their problems. Instead, it is picking a fight with the Chief Minister over the role and rights of the Provincial Chief Secretary. Politically, the government’s record is even worse. It has not only done nothing new towards achieving a political solution, but it has officially and otherwise indicated its intentions to roll back and repeal whatever that had been achieved previously. The reference to the Thirteenth Amendment in the new NHRC resolution is a response to the government’s record on devolution.
How did the government’s record get to be so dismal? Most of us have good answers to this question but I will attribute the government’s record to what Dayan Jayatilleke has described as the change that has come upon Sri Lanka in the five years after the war ended in 2009: “What is this change? The Sri Lankan state is undergoing an unethical conversion into a quasi-theocratic ethnocracy; our government into a clan based oligarchy and Ministry of External Affairs, its Missions overseas, and even its think tank, into front organizations of the Security apparatus (when they do not function as places of religious worship). Our diplomats have become fellow travelers and our Foreign Minister a puppet of the powerful Securocracy.” My only comment on this would be that these changes were inherent in the manner and the method of the prosecution of the war that finished off the LTTE in 2009. On that there will be much disagreement. Be that as it may.
The point to be made, however, is that the state’s theocratic and ethnocratic deformation is another reason for the government’s heightened notoriety overseas and this is reflected in the clauses of the resolution dealing with attacks on places of worship and the army attack in Weliweriya. The question now is whether the government is capable of changing its ways whether on its own volition, or, in order to (directly or indirectly) comply with every stipulation of the resolution other than the one relating to OHCHR investigation in the hope that the dynamic of compliance with everything else will wither away the insistence on external investigation. It should not be unreasonable to assume that the Rajapaksa government is capable of positive transformation especially after it was assumed during the peace process that the LTTE was capable of positive transformation. But the disturbing similarity is that the government is turning out to be more and more like the LTTE and in more ways than one. In other words, regardless of being capable, there is no will to effect transformation. Put still another way, the patrons of theocracy and ethnocracy within the regime – the “clan based oligarchy” and the ‘securocrats’, will not countenance any positive transformation or change.
The situation would have been different if there was a strong opposition, but, again, with a strong opposition there would not have been a “clan based oligarchy.” But the power and entrenchment of this clan oligarchy should not be underestimated. Suffice it to say that the old Uncle-Nephew-Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Family Party (SLFP) were harmless sheep in comparison to today’s all powerful and sinister oligarchy. In any event, the UNP today is all but dead politically as a challenge to the Rajapaksa government, and the SLFP is seamlessly subordinated to the Rajapaksa oligarchy. So what prospect is there for change or transformation from within? Could the UNHRC and its resolutions from outside, be catalysts for a positive change or transformation? Or will they be counter-productive? I am not talking about regime change here, but the potential for the regime to change its direction and priorities.
UNHRC: help or hindrance?
The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, issued a statement welcoming the vote and affirming that “the United States stands with all the people of Sri Lanka … committed to helping them realize a future in which all Sri Lankans can share in their country’s success.” The Secretary seems blissfully unaware that not all Sri Lankans take equally kindly to the US. And in regard to the Geneva resolution, a majority of the Sinhalese and hence a majority of Sri Lankans are not taking kindly at all to the US and the West. For them, the US and the West are biased against the Sinhalese.
On the other hand, one of the Tamil criticisms of the resolution, advanced by the Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF), is that the language of the resolution ‘de-Tamilizes’ the Sri Lankan problem – formulating it as a general human rights problem and failing to acknowledge the historical and structural domination of the Tamils by the Sri Lankan (overwhelmingly Sinhala) state. If the average, not just extremist, Sinhalese point of view is that the West is set against them, the extremist Tamil point of view is that the West is not sufficiently with them.
The truth of the matter is that the West, or no one else in the world today, is not going to be sufficiently with the Tamils to divide Sri Lanka. Indeed, the Sri Lankan government is puzzled according to an anonymous spokesman about the American persistence at the UNHRC given that the “US provided vital assistance by way of critically important intelligence which led to the sinking of four LTTE vessels on the high seas in late 2007, thereby helping Sri Lanka to bring the war to a successful conclusion in May 2009.” It is not the US or the UN that have changed after 2009, but the Sri Lankan government – in failing to fulfill its commitment, formal and informal, to address the needs of the war victims as a priority and find a political solution to the problems that led to the war. This is what former US Embassy official Donald Camp has said and it is this change for the worse on the part of the Sri Lankan government that Dayan Jayatilleke has described and I have quoted earlier.
There has been a great deal of speculation about the reasons and motivations for the West, the US and the UK in particular, to be so concerned about the situation in Sri Lanka and to be so persistent at the UNHRC. The fundamental factor is the situation in Sri Lanka itself and the depressing usurpation of the state by a clan-oligarchy predicated on a self-sustaining ethno-theocratic-security agenda. It is this reality that fuels and legitimizes the Tamil diaspora. The major change in the international climate, that was not there say in 1983, is the emphasis on human rights. This emphasis has been growing over the last two decades culminating in the still teething UN norm: R2P. The emphasis on human rights in the Obama administration has been singularly remarkable – starting with Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and continuing under the so called “Action Women”: Susan Rice (National Security Adviser) and Samantha Power (UN Ambassador).
All of this does not answer the question whether the UNHRC resolution will help or hinder positive progress in Sri Lanka. But this is a ‘practical question’ and much of the answer will depend on what happens on the ground, how President Rajapaksa will respond, how he will work with the TNA, and whether he will facilitate co-operation and concerted action between the central government and the NPC. The President could exorcise the clan cabal and the ethno-theocratic forces, but he may not. And if he doesn’t, it is fair to ask the question as to how long must the Sinhalese people endure the ignominy of international oversight to sustain a regime that insists on getting worse rather than changing for the better. Two weeks ago when I wrote on ‘Jennings and Geneva’, I was trying to ride on the remarkable Jennings nostalgia that is still sweeping Colombo’s older intelligentsia, to drive home a point that should have been obvious to anyone familiar with the development of constitutional politics in Sri Lanka: If a communal compact was achievable and the “rest of the constitution was easy” in 1948, how did Sri Lanka end up in Geneva in 2012? Is President Rajapaksa capable of leading the undoing of the intervening history? Seen in this perspective, the UNHRC resolution could become more irrelevant than intrusive. Not otherwise.