One of the erudite scholars of the nation Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam said “Despite all the difficulties, there needs to be a concerted effort to develop a negotiating framework that can command the widest possible support. Such a negotiating framework must include at least minimal acceptance, by both sides, of the norms and standards relating to international human rights and a determination to restore peace, normalcy, civil society and democratic governance”. Even after 21 years of his death, the nation has chosen the wrong path at the UNHRC.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Government concluded its first 100 days on 25th February 2020. The previous Sirisena administration maintained a website[i] to track the progress of the initial 100 days. It went defunct after most promises were not addressed. While unattainable promises are pledged during elections, Sri Lankan political history is filled with such deceived domestic and international promises and policy reforms. In the international arena, the country often loses its reputation and credibility due to unfulfilled pledges and duality of its own policy.
On October 1st 2015 Sri Lanka committed at UNHRC to probe allegations of human rights abuse during the protracted civil war by co-sponsoring the 30/1 resolution. Three foreign Ministers Mangala Samaraweera, Thilak Marapana and Dinesh Gunawardena during the last five years have taken three dissimilar actions contrary to each other on Geneva cosponsored resolution by Sri Lanka. First, Minister Samaraweera cosponsored the 30/1 resolution fully in 2015 along with 11 other nations. In 2019 Minister Marapana was articulating his position on government reservation for having international judges ‘hybrid court’ referring to a constitutional amendment with 2/3rd of parliament and a referendum is required to have foreign judges[ii] for its judicial process. This year the present Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena explained his administration’s position to withdraw from the co-sponsorship, an election pledge by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The US ‘travel ban’ on army chief, Lt-Gen Shavendra Silva[iii] and his family came as a surprise. Upon meeting Alice G. Wells, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary, in Oman at a conference a few months ago, I advised the previous government that this could be in the process. The same travel ban was applied to the only Field Marshal and the cabinet minister Fonseka a few years ago despite former President’s intervention. Lt-Gen Shavendra Silva’s travel ban could be a revisit of US policy carried out in the past towards the Rajapaksa regime.
The consequence of moving out of the 30/1 cosponsored resolution will have a significant negative impact heading towards a confrontational course in the global arena due to its weak internal policies. Long-term implications of the withdrawal have not been considered. The Government which is about to face a Parliament election, is pushing a short-sighted ‘irrational decision’ in the global arena. The previous government rushed to co-sponsor the resolution in 2015 without prior consultation of the parliament nor any public discussion about the decision was also unaccepted in a democratic nation. I have analyzed the duality of policy within the Government in my article titled ‘U-Turns are difficult’ [iv] published in March 2019. Some of the advisers and policy experts have ill-advised the political leadership to move out from the cosponsored resolution without calculating nor understanding its long-term impact on Sri Lanka.
First, the country cosponsored a resolution against itself in 2015, and now it wishes to symbolically withdraw from the cosponsorship after 5 years. It is a blaring display of policy inconsistency. Withdrawing from the resolution will require 27 votes at UNHRC at the time of the vote end of the moratorium period, a rather difficult exercise. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena explained closure is important at this stage because of the resolution violates countries constitution, a factor which should have been considered prior to the cosponsorship, not post, this was not considered nor agreed upon as a violation of the constitution by his predecessors, a serious blurring in domestic policy which will be explained and displayed how weak national policy decisions could be at the global arena. U-Turn from such statements is near impossible for the next several years and the country will face significant consequences.
Such decisions should be taken not thinking of next month’s election but analyzing different scenarios and in-depth foresight study with much discussion along with foreign policy experts and with think tanks weighing the impact. Unfortunately one such Government think tank that could have sent some sensible recommendations was reset last month after appointing a former military officer. The nation has failed in this regard in many policy decisions in the recent past. Meeting a distinguished Sri Lankan foreign service officer a few days ago, I was inquiring on the withdrawal, to which the officer said ‘we have not calculated the long term implications to the nation and what’s the guarantee that China and Russia will support us in every occasion?’
The country will be seen by the international community as a place of duality in its policy, changing according to the political circumstances. Political pledges and unfulfilled promises one after another proving a clear point for the diaspora and the nations supporting the
Resolution. Sri Lanka will be seen as subjected to selective targeting by the West and will invite new phase of risk factors. Firstly, the nation will tilt towards its savior nations China and Russia at the Security Council, this will directly impact the so-called executing ‘balanced and equidistance’ foreign policy of the President. Second, a clear indication that Sri Lanka will drift away from the international assistance for the reconciliation process including inviting international judges, isolation from many friendly nations where our democratic values and economic interest are intertwined from the past. While we disengage from the international process we will have a systemic barrier to improve the domestic mechanism to achieve reconciliation, accountability and human rights targets in Sri Lanka. Third, working outside the UNHRC framework will limit regular visits by rapporteurs who played an important role in trust-building with the international community will be absent. How will a mechanism outside the UNHRC framework guarantee a genuinely inclusive process?
UNHRC chief Michael Bachelet has taken a stronger position on Sri Lanka due to the unfulfilled targets towards the overall reconciliation process, during the last decade which continuously identified the diminishing hope year by year. Bachelet said “that domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda… I am therefore troubled by the recent trend towards moving civilian functions under the Ministry of Defence or retired military officers, and renewed reports of surveillance and harassment of human rights defenders, journalists and victims. The increasing levels of hate speech, and security and policy measures appear to be discriminately and disproportionately directed against minorities, both Tamil and Muslim,”[vi]
Four years after co-sponsoring Resolution 30/1 and 40/1, the Sri Lankan government has fulfilled six out of 36 commitments on reconciliation, human rights and accountability[v].
Despite the slow progress post 2015 Sri Lankan Government did invest heavily in transitional justice, human rights and accountability along with international actors committing to international processes. UNHRC has given a moratorium till March 2021 for the Government of Sri Lanka to implement the provisions of the resolution. With lapses in the progress and the present decision to symbolically withdraw from the cosponsorship has sent the wrong message to the global arena. The past investments made by the previous government to fill in the foreign policy gap created by pre 2015 Rajapaksa regime with the international community will be lost. Reversing the nation to a pre 2015 scenario. The government should have made amendments rather than completely resetting the process, a loss for the country. Seen as a permanent solution, the entire exercise will only sweep the problem under the carpet which will immerge at a later stage. The Government should have navigated with the international community embracing global best practices and addressed the domestic political concerns such as devolution of power to build a secular nation which will lead to prosperity rather than bandwagon towards a more ultra-nationalist stance where dominated by irrational decision-makers.
The Resolution 30/1 debacle saw Sri Lanka’s government reach a crossroads and take a step while many watched on helplessly. The choices are asserted and the path is set. Who speaks political rationale in Bedlam?
the promised reforms during President Sirisena’s regime.
Minister Referring to para 68 (C) of the OHCHR Report (A/HRC/40/23) Full
[iv] U Turns are difficult
[v] Verite Research, SL resolution 30/1