By Izeth Hussain –
What is the State? The writer is not asking for a definition of the State but for information on how people view the State. For many the State is potentially or actually the enemy of the people. Also for many the State is potentially or actually the friend of the people. Both views are of course correct to varying degrees: some States are enemies of the people while others are people-friendly. What are human rights? Again what is sought is not a definition but information on how people view human rights. For many human rights are what the people have for the most part to extort from unwilling States. Human rights can be secured without much difficulty from people-friendly States but they are difficult or impossible to extort from States that are enemies of the people.
The ambiguous relationship between the State and human rights outlined in the preceding paragraph has to be grasped for us to be able to understand the tragi-comedy that is presently being enacted at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. We must also grasp another factor: the ever-growing spread and power of the human rights movement after 1945. That has frightening implications for devotees of the State because it entails a shift of sovereignty from the State – one of the givens in international relations since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia – to the people. It is a shift that is fully in accord with the revolutionary democratic ideology of both the American and French Revolutions of the eighteenth century. All the same, it had to be expected that the holders of State power in the US, just as much as the holders of State power elsewhere, would not want the human rights movement to go too far. Therefore Eleanor Roosevelt and others who led the American delegations in formulating the UN Declaration and Covenants on Human Rights were resolved on giving human rights their due place but also they wanted to stop it from going too far: human rights yes, but not empowering the people to such an extent that they can ignore the diktats of the State.
Consequently there are two dimensions to the drama being enacted at the UNHRC. One is the dimension of tragedy: horrors have been perpetrated on a mass scale against minorities as in Sri Lanka as well as against members of the majority – as in the case of the mass butchery of JVP youths in Sri Lanka. The view has taken hold in the West after 1945 that a better world and a stable world order will not be possible without a minimum observance of human rights. There is therefore an admirable resolve in the West to address and minimize tragedy in the world resulting from the violation of human rights. But at that point the dimension of the comic comes in. The West, at the UN and elsewhere, has steadfastly refused to take really effective action against the miscreants, the States, who are responsible for mass violations of human rights. Right from the inception of action on the UN Declaration and Covenants on human rights the emphasis has been on naming and shaming the miscreants into better behavior, not on the punitive action that can be really effective in securing that end. Most often the miscreants get away scot free. Furthermore there is the problem of shocking double standards: no action against the worst miscreant of all, the US which has the world record in killing innocents, and we find that its buddy Saudi Arabia struts about at the UNHRC. The factor of the comic in the proceedings of the UNHRC cannot be denied. But some would say that tragi-comedy is too refined a term because what is going on there is really farce, utter farce. The writer suspects nevertheless that the underlying problem about taking really effective action on human rights is that that could strengthen the sovereignty of the people at the expense of the sovereignty of the State.
Our Tamils will of course be deeply dismayed by proceedings at the UNHRC: they have undergone tragedy but that is being given comic treatment at Geneva. The expectation is that the Sri Lankan Government will be given a reprieve of two years after which there can be further reprieves, which means that nothing really effective will be done at Geneva towards the redressing of Tamil grievances, all because the Government has managed to bamboozle the West that it is really in earnest about solving the Tamil ethnic problem. That will be the typical Tamil perspective on the proceedings in Geneva. Therefore the Tamils will expect the Government to go into hibernation once again over the Tamil ethnic problem. But we cannot be sure of that outcome.
In the preceding account of the essentials of what is going on at the UNHRC an important factor has been left out: it is the factor of power in international relations. The Rajapakse Government fell afoul of India and a powerful bloc of countries in the West partly because it was seen as veering towards China to an unacceptable degree and partly because it was seen as utterly cynical about working towards a political solution of the ethnic problem. That led to Sri Lankan becoming embroiled in a peculiar style of confrontational diplomacy in Geneva. The present Government has reversed that trend by co-sponsoring the 2015 UNHRC Resolution on Sri Lanka. That can be seen as an act of abject surrender to powers that have been inimical to Sri Lanka or as an act of supreme pragmatism that is paying rich dividends: co-operative diplomacy has replaced the confrontational one and there are no threats of sanctions. But the present trend could be reversed if the factor of Chinese power in South Asia leads to serious misunderstandings with India and the West – a possibility that prudence dictates we should never rule out. In that event the UNHRC could again become the site of action against the Sri Lankan Government.
What should be done? The first principle, from which all the rest follows, is that the Government must show that it is really in earnest about solving the ethnic problem and giving a fair deal to the Tamils. It is only then that India and the rest of the international community can be expected to give due weight to the problems that the Government has to face in dealing with the ethnic problem. There must be an international recognition that there are matters on which the Government can be expected to deliver and that there are other matters on which no Government in Colombo can ever be expected to deliver. That applies to 13 A. We and the rest of the international community have been fixated on the notion that a solution will be possible only through devolution and consequently 13 A has come to be seen as something sacrosanct. The problem is that the Tamils want 13 A in full and more than that while the Government cannot be expected to deliver on anything more than a modified version of 13 A. But the Government can deliver on a solution through a fully functioning democracy. Why not focus on that solution while abandoning devolution altogether?
The writer has come to believe that what Sri Lanka has on its hands is not a purely indigenous Tamil ethnic problem but an Indo-Tamil problem. If not for the factors of Tamil Nadu and Delhi there will be no Tamil ethnic problem in Sri Lanka today meriting international attention. A further point to be born in mind is that if not for Indian intervention in 1987 the Vaddamarachi operation would have led to a military victory followed by a political solution long ago. The Indian intervention had no imperialist intent behind it but all the same it led to disaster for Sri Lanka. So, it is arguable that India has a very special moral obligation to help us towards a solution. Why not try out the model that helps India deal satisfactorily with its Indian Muslim minority: a fully functioning democracy without any devolution at all?