14 July, 2024


Why Civil Society Is In Error

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

US Assistant Secretary of State Donald Lu visited Sri Lanka last Wednesday, the 19th of October. He is reported to have arrived early morning. Having briefed US Embassy staff, he then presided over a civil society roundtable, after which he paid a visit to President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Foreign Affairs Minister Ali Sabri. Given that civil society does not see the president eye-to-eye, there’s little doubt that these two sessions yielded two completely different pictures of Sri Lanka’s situation. In any case, while commending civil society, Mr Lu went on record stating that President Wickremesinghe was “the right person to get country out of crisis.” This was obviously not a sentiment shared by civil society.

There is such a thing as diplomatic protocol. Although State propaganda immediately made use of Mr Lu’s statement, as one commentator pointed out on Twitter, there was no way a high-ranking US diplomat would describe a country’s president as the wrong person to lead the country, especially during a courtesy call. Yet if Mr Lu’s visit reassured certain members of civil society that the world’s most powerful purveyor (or propagandist, depending on how you see it) of liberal democracy was looking out for them, his visit to the president’s office left them cold. The notion that the US will promote their values, which they feel to be in the country’s interests, no longer seems to hold as it did, say, five years ago.

This is symptomatic of a wider paradigm shift among and within civil society, concerning the international community. There is a sense of disappointment at the way the Core Group operated in Geneva. While nationalists deride the UNHRC as a Western conspiracy, liberals and Colombo’s NGO-cracy point out it is not doing enough to pressurise the government. Prime among their concerns are the abolition of the Executive Presidency and the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The civil society argument is simple and tenable: given the scale of the economic crisis, there has never been a better time to unify people on issues like anti-terror legislation and minority rights. As such, it is within not merely the jurisdiction of the UNHRC, but also their responsibility, to hold the State to account.

The government’s argument, on the other hand, is that the economic crisis trumps all other considerations and that more time is needed, until the worst is over, to focus on civil society concerns. It used precisely this logic to reject the UN resolution.

There are two schools of thought about the UNHRC session. The first holds that it represents a diplomatic failure, the second that it underlines the country’s moral failures. Both note the diminution of support for the country from the Global South at the session, although the government highlights the abstentions it “won” as some sort of a victory. Yet while the first school argues that the country should do more to canvass support from other states and regions, the second contends that the government should push hard-hitting reforms to get out of the mess it pushes itself into every March or September at Geneva.

Here, then, are the main cleavages within Sri Lanka’s civil society and intellectual circles: between what I call the diplomatists and the human rightists. The diplomatists do not view human rights as ends in themselves: they consider the resolution of such issues as vital to the country’s image abroad. The human rightists, on the other hand, consider them as ends in themselves, which have no meaning outside their frame of reference. They need to be pursued because they are in line with certain moral values.

Writing to Factum, Sanja de Silva Jayatilleka notes that “in the absence of healthy respect for human rights … diplomacy, however skilled, can only play a limited, increasingly marginal role.” By contrast, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu writes in Groundviews that “the resolution keeps Sri Lanka on the international agenda.” For me this is the main dividing line: between the diplomatist view of human rights as a platform for “creative diplomacy” (Jayatilleka) and the human rightist view of it as “a reference point” (Saravanamuttu).

These differences come out palpably in the way civil society groups perceive the political dimensions of these issues. Civil society groups and activists seem to assume, and argue, that organisations like the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank look into political governance structures, outside their jurisdiction in economic reforms. The young protesters at Gotagogama who demanded early on that the IMF not bail out the government were naïve enough to believe that the IMF would prioritise their concerns; that Colombo’s civil society circuits shared their belief is, to say the least, somewhat astounding.

But it is also understandable. If these groups view human rights and democracy as universal values that have no frame of reference outside themselves, if they view them as detached from international politics, then they will see every multilateral organisation, including those having no jurisdiction over human rights, as advocates of its causes.

This argument should not belittle civil society. Civil society has played an important role in the country’s political and social life, and it should not be marginalised or made to feel like an outsider, or a terrorist. Its move against the proposed Bureau of Rehabilitation should be welcomed by all progressives, whatever their political orientation. However, the inability of civil society to understand that issues like human rights can be, and are, used by groups to promote their ends, has been their weakest spot. That sections of civil society have been co-opted by this regime only proves my point: authoritarian States can use progressive rhetoric to ensnare these groups, even while brutally suppressing dissent.

That is why I believe that civil society urgently needs to go beyond where it is now. It must use international platforms to advocate their causes. It must also come to terms with the fact, the undeniable fact, that human rights cannot be delinked from international politics, and that it is used by certain countries to advocate certain agendas. This should not make civil society apathetic to the excesses of the State: it must work against the State whenever the State works against them. Yet to jump on one bandwagon or the other, here or abroad, in the guise of protecting human rights, would be a pyrrhic victory: the yahapalana regime and its co-option of civil society is an all too obvious case in point here. The human rightist view of these values as ends in themselves should therefore not blind civil society to certain truths about their causes and the political implications of their activism.

For me, civil society assumptions about human rights, democracy, accountability, and international politics can all be traced back to their failure to account for the distinction between a State and a regime. Many civil society activists conflate the two. Yet a State is not a regime: the latter can be replaced, the former cannot and should not.

In no country in the world, not even in the United States, does civil society square the one with the other. And yet, Colombo’s civil society has given the impression that it is working against the State, instead of specific regimes harbouring authoritarian tendencies. For all their faults, the protesters at Gotagogama – the overwhelming majority of them – did make this distinction: that is why, even after occupying one government building after another, the leftist student groups that led the protests until Gotagogama disbanded warned visitors that these establishments belonged to the State, and as such belonged to all.

The diplomatists see human rights and other concerns for what they are: a platform for creative diplomacy, and not ends in themselves. I think this approach helped us a great deal in 2009, when we won support across countries and regions. The government, however, failed to seize the moment, to use it to promote rather than belittle human rights. It is one thing, after all, to call out what Eric Hobsbawm called “the imperialism of human rights”, quite another to consider human rights as alien to the country’s culture. To paraphrase a former diplomat, human rights is not a devil to be exorcised, but something to be used for the benefit of all. At the end of the day the responsibility of a country’s State is to its people, and to their well-being. Any regime that strays from this responsibility relinquishes its right to exist. This is the argument the young Gotagogama protesters used.

In the sense that values like democracy and human rights are universal, and apply to every country, every society, every community, I am hence in agreement with civil society. In the sense that they do not exist outside themselves, that international institutions like the IMF consider them universal enough to supersede all other priorities and factors, including their own functions and jurisdictions, I consider civil society to be in error. That it appears to be disenchanted with the UNHRC, and the Core Group, shows that it has realised the limits of multilateral engagement. A paradigm shift thus seems to be in order. Whether civil society will take the leap such a shift entails, however, remains to be seen.

*The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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  • 3

    “The civil society argument is simple and tenable: given the scale of the economic crisis, there has never been a better time to unify people on issues like anti-terror legislation and minority rights.”
    Nice idea, but is it possible in practice? Which Mahanayaka in his right mind will approve of, say, land powers for the Northern PC? These guys cannot even agree that there should only be one caste-free Mahanayaka, so, do the minorities have a snowflakes chance in Hell? Then there are the proponents of Ranavirwo-ism, who, like Sarath Fonseka, hold that the minorities are visitors.
    It will take a generation or two of reverse brainwashing to reverse the effects of a hundred years of Anagarika-ism.

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