Colombo Telegraph

The Need For A Broader Multilateral Diplomacy For Sri Lanka

By Kamaya Jayatissa

Kamaya Jayatissa

If you’re in a coalition and you’re comfortable, you know it’s not a broad enough coalition.” – Bernice Johnson Reagon

When fighting in the international arena, one should know that the only way to survive is to constantly build new coalitions while strengthening and maintaining the existing ones. Due to its belonging to the Non Aligned Movement and to the various “Gs” (G77, G15), but also due to its long standing friendships with key countries such as Russia, China and India, Sri Lanka was so far able to keep close ties with the predominant coalitions present within international organizations; close enough to overcome the post-war international pressures in 2009 but not sufficient to maintain a prolonged legitimacy on the Geneva battlefield.

For Sri Lanka, these past three years were marked by the abandonment of some of its closest allies, underlying a drastic shift of solidarity away from the island not only by its Latin American friends but also by the African countries– let alone India. And what better illustration than the international political quake which brutally shook the island of Sri Lanka in March 2012 when the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted a country-specific resolution. The fact that a supposedly non-politicized organ of the United Nations adopted such an unorthodox vote against one of its Member States not only demonstrates a broad international dissatisfaction against Sri Lanka’s peace-building process but also illustrates a shift of political attention and scrutiny towards Colombo, a shift that will be hard to reverse if no better focused foreign policy is implemented by GoSL. This abandonment was unfortunately, as we all know, further confirmed with the March 2013 resolution.

From an internationalist’s perspective this is where things get interesting, not to say entertaining. The outcome of the recent Geneva battles offers us a fascinating illustration of what I wish to describe as the State Coalition phenomenon. In the absence of a precise legal framework, I wish to define the said notion as follows: a State coalition is an informal multilateral group based on a concerted set of States with a view to achieving one or several objectives common to the group. Illustrations of such like-minded groups are: the different “Gs”, the BRIC/BRICS, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the Visegrád Group, the Group of Cairns or even the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to name a few.

Unlike Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s concept of alliances (Contribution à une théorie générale des alliances, 1963), ‘State Coalitions’ are not solely based on a military or any legal/formal component. Instead, they deal with a wide range of issues (human rights, peace and international security, economical issues, environmental issues, etc.) and have now become one of the main components of international governance. Indeed, as an emerging instrument of multilateral diplomacy, their role in the international arena keeps on increasing to the point of becoming vital in times of crisis. These coalitions are no longer simple consultation forums. On the contrary, they are used as a preliminary to the subsequent decision making process within international bodies, as witnessed at the UNHRC with the United States sponsored resolution pertaining to the promotion of reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka. Hence, we now witness the emergence of a two-speed or two-level global governance where international organizations and informal forums compete, complement and coexist with each other.

The emergence but mostly the multiplicity of these informal multilateral forums and their diverse modalities –reciprocal, unequal, ephemeral, permanent, defensive or offensive- demonstrate the discontinuity of the international order traditionally founded on the balance of powers between States.

This new instrument of multilateral diplomacy enables even the smallest State –in terms of size and/or economy- to act in a more efficient manner and sometimes even counter the existing superpowers. Such example is of Palestine which, despite pressures from the US, gathered 107 votes in their favor and was admitted as a Member of the UNESCO in October 2011.

Depending on the way we build them, strengthen them and mostly maintain them, these interstate networks can either work against us or in our favour. Such a factor should therefore be taken into account when dealing with international affairs. In the case of Sri Lanka, the Indian vote in favor of the United States sponsored resolution also illustrates the limits of the common position between two countries which are bound by millennia of historical, geographical, political and socio-economic ties. Indeed, one of the main weaknesses of any coalition is the persistence of its Member States in privileging their national interests and acting sometimes at the expense of their own allies. This usually leads to a precarious solidarity between States, both in their relations within the coalition and in their bilateral relations.

Given its current position in the international community, Sri Lanka cannot afford to cut, not even partially, the relationships it built within its own coalitions. These forums represent an additional platform of action for States, such as Sri Lanka or Palestine, that are facing difficulties when using the traditional tools of international law. Mostly built on a certain unity of thought (‘like-minded’), those relationships should be maintained not only in times of needs but throughout, in order for them to grow efficiently.

Sri Lanka’s 2013 defeat, following its defeat in 2012, at the UNHRC proves more than ever that our country needs to further reach out and open itself to international solidarity while preserving at the same time its national sovereignty. Else, the island might end up further isolating itself from its own allies creating irreversible frictions that will have an inevitable impact domestically.

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