By Sumanasiri Liyanage –
I did a small survey speaking to three women belonging to different social status. The first one was a middle-aged woman from Haloya in Kandy. A middle class and middle-aged woman from Colombo (although she was originally from Anuradhapura) who is active in various social movements and a regular participant at Lipton circle protests was the second person. The third one was a young final year student following a special degree course in political science and public policy at the University of Colombo. The second person has been known to me for some time, but not the other two. I told them that the US government has submitted a resolution on (I was careful not to say ‘against’) Sri Lanka to UN Human Rights Council. Then I briefly explained the main idea of it. I tried to be objective as far as I can, but do not claim 100% objectivity on my part, even if such thing exists. In fact, the second and the third interviewees had previous knowledge on what I said, but all what I said were new to the first person. Then I posed the same question to all three: In your opinion, do you think that this US resolution on Sri Lanka should be carried through at the Human Rights Council in Geneva? Interestingly, I received three different responses from them that I report below in my own translation:
Woman 1: “They [the US] want to overthrow this government and this is part of their plan so that it should not be carried through.” [No]
Woman 2: “Mahinda Rajapaksa government is dictatorial and corrupt and violates human rights trying to impose quasi-military rule. The issue of human rights transcends national boundaries. As the international community has a role to play to correct this situation, the US Resolution SHOULD be carried through. (her emphasis)” [Yes]
Woman 3: Mahinda Rajapaksa government is authoritarian and bad in handling the post-war situation. It should be learnt a lesson, but definitely not by the US and the EU that work on a different agenda. The US Resolution should not be carried through but a big struggle by the Sri Lankans against the government should be mobilized. [No, But …]
I do not claim that this minute sample is in any reasonable sense representative as all three women are Sinhala. Nor do I say that the views on the US Resolution are confined to these three. The answers I got to my simple question raise more serious moral and political issue as the second woman claimed that she stood for cosmopolitanism against parochial nationalism. What is meant by cosmopolitanism? Do other two answers represent parochial nationalism? If I put it precisely, my main issue is: does the US Resolution against Sri Lanka stem from its cosmopolitan views and perspective? These are the theme I would like focus on this article.
Seyla Benhabib has identified three genres. (1) For Martha Nussbaum, it signifies ‘an attitude of enlightened morality that does not place “love of country” ahead of “love of mankind”. (2) The second genre ‘signifies hybridity, fluidity and recognizing the fractured and internally riven character of human selves and citizens whose complex aspirations cannot be circumscribed by national fantasies’ (Jeramy Waldron). The third genre that is associated with critical theory tradition posits that it is ‘a normative philosophy for carrying the universalistic norms of discourse ethics beyond the confines of the nation-state’. In fact all three genres focus on basic value system associated with cosmopolitanism. Nonetheless, it is misleading to argue that the support for the US Resolution represents cosmopolitanism in any of these senses just because of the apparent identity between that position and the above definitions. All three definitions would be reduced into barren lifeless abstractions unless they are situated in the real global context in which politics and power structure play a crucial and determining role. However, this discursive field and its complexity was not unfortunately given a serious consideration when many people and countries come out to support the US Resolution against Sri Lanka. It seems they consider the US as the crusader of democracy, human rights and all other goodies. As Noam Chomsky has argued, the US is the main aggressor in the globalized world. When it comes to its national interest, the US has no consideration or respect for any of these cosmopolitanist values. In the last decade or so, the US has destabilized the entire West Asian region and the Arab World. Its destabilizing role is now amply evident in Pakistan. One may deduce that its activities would also destabilize India sooner or later unless India takes precautionary actions by reversing the focus of its foreign policy. Late Hugo Chavez’s unconditional opposition to the US and his conditional support for all anti-US leaders their authoritarianism and suppression of people in their own countries notwithstanding seem to have deduced from the understanding of this real world situation.
Sri Lanka cosmopolitanists may argue that the so-called international community can play a positive role in restraining the anti-democratic and majoritarian policies of the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. They would further argue that the intervention of the West in the Arab World had produced such a positive results. This argument suffers from three flaws. First, it implies that the international pressure can be/ would be a substitution for national struggle against the regime. Many cosmopolitanists do not want to wage a struggle against the current regime going beyond the legalistic field. As a result, they have become the preferred interlocutors of the West. Secondly, they seem to assume that the West is capable of selfless intervention. The US or the West is not interested in Thamil rights or rights of other numerically small nations and ethnic groups or the democratic rights of the Sri Lankan people. They are only interested in their agenda of global domination. Thirdly, the intervention of the West in the Arab World was not uniform as in some countries the West stood for the defense and protection of highly authoritarian regimes.
Hence, my argument is that the positions of the first and third women I interviewed represent not necessarily parochial nationalist position but the concern and fear of the imperialist domination. The third woman in a way took the above discursive field into consideration at least implicitly, when she answered my question. Why the position of the second woman looks very attractive. As Vijay Prasad correctly argue, “the interventionists getting the upper hand because their position was the policy of powerful governments. That is the reason why the UN opened up a dialogue about the R2P doctrine. A concerted effort to shut down other sources of debate and action led the UN Security Council to being suborned to a western narrative, and for all regional institutions and regionalism itself to being sidelined”.
One may pose a counter-argument that the positions of the first and third woman are tantamount to the support for the current Sri Lankan regime that has delayed purposely giving a political solution to the Tamil national question, and has been practicing divide and rule tactics to maintain its power. Since, 2011, the country has been put on what I previously called in the ‘state of exception’. Of course, the position of the first may be interpreted in that manner, but definitely, not the position of the young university student. Hers is a different perspective. I admire it.
*The writer is a co-coordinator of the Marx School, Colombo, Negombo and Kandy. e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org