By Kumar David –
The next session of the United Nations Human Rights Council will run from 22 February to 23 March in Geneva – the dreaded Ides of March (15 March) beckons. The Ides, the 74-th day in the Roman calendar, is set apart for settling debts. Will the regime in Colombo settle the debt it has evaded for a decade? It will not, it cannot! It is bound hand and foot to saffron robe and native pride. Nobody knows as yet what contrivance the military-stuffed Gotabaya regime (Executive) and the allied Mahinda government (Parliament and Cabinet) will try in a survival bid; and it is possible tension between the two wings of state may surfaces. To believe domestic and international reports Lanka’s reckoning in Geneva will be grim. The home scene is a failing economy, an out of control pandemic, back and forth confusion about the East Container Terminal and the rupee in free-fall as debt default looms.
UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet in a damning annual report says: “I urge the international community to listen to the determined, courageous, persistent calls of victims and their families for justice, and heed the early warning signs of more violations to come. Given the demonstrated inability and unwillingness of the Government to advance accountability at the national level, it is time for international action to ensure justice for international crimes. States should pursue investigations and prosecution in their national courts – under accepted principles of extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction – of international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka. States can consider targeted sanctions, such as asset freezes and travel bans against credibly alleged perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses. The failure to do so carries with it the seeds of repeated patterns of human rights violations and potential conflict in the future.”
But I am cynical. The regime will not mind a condemnatory resolution so long as many countries vote against the resolution. With Chinese and Russian patronage Lanka’s regime is assured of that. What would jolt the regime is sanctions, but that won’t happen. The world will be entertained to verbal theatrics, a petit drama, and at worst a rap on the knuckles. Sinhala-Buddhism, Lanka’s most feared force will not permit stepping back from the ‘glorious war victory’ motto, nor permit disapproval of ‘our heroic military’. Any government that dares to abandon this hagiography will be wrecked. Regime mouthpiece Pathfinder Foundation predicts: “Lanka will be defiant in the face a condemnatory vote in the Council. If the resolution is adopted most likely it will ignore it and pitch bilateral ‘economic tents’ with countries that vote in its favour.” This is code for China though paradoxically the US, EU and India account for 71% of our exports!
Public opinion in the West and India will not buy the regime’s myths and Beijing will toy with Colombo with strategic motives. The country is bankrupt; payment of an annual average $ 4 billion to service a $60 billion foreign debt is unsustainable except by incurring additional and increasing debt to service current debt. Covid has impoverished Lanka which was tottering in any case. From about 3000 cases four months ago the number covid cases have reached 60,000 and increasing at about 700 a day – mercifully the death toll is below 300. Every one of these fears will have to be interwoven into the ploy the regime opts for in Geneva on the Ides of March. From this perspective the government is on its knees and but for the sustenance of its Chinese paymaster would be grovelling. There are signs that portions of the Nandasena cabal are crumbling. Foreign Secretary Colombage spoke to the Island (2 Feb) approvingly of a “Consensual Resolution” as opposed to a Joint Resolution. Oh crikey, Lanka’s courts will soon be flummoxed by the need to make a distinction between joint sex and consensual sex!
The Rajapaksa regime formally withdrew from a commitment to the Yahapalanaya cosponsored UNHRC resolutions 30/1, 34/1 & 40/1 on Accountability and Reconciliation. To distract attention, in the wake of Easter Sunday attacks and the covid pandemic, it unashamedly propagated anti-Muslim canards raising anxieties in human rights circles. Frustrated, the Human Rights Commissioner issued the damning report that I just quoted, urging all countries to take action including punitive measures, invocation of international jurisdiction, referral to the International Criminal Court (ICC), sanctions against targeted individuals, asset freezes and travel bans.
This obligated disorderly Tamil leaders to come together requesting the UNHRC to refer Accountability concerns back to UN General Assembly and asking the Security Council to explore other avenues including referral to the ICC and inquire into genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. In a sign of the times the moderate TNA, radical Wigenswaran and militant Gajendrakumar managed a joint statement not very different from Commissioner Bachelet’s rebukes. In light of this the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) and the Canadian Tamil Congress (CTC) hosted a webinar on the 23rd Jan facilitating dialogue amongst Tamil representatives of the North-East, Upcountry and Muslims, to initiate a search for a common programme around which all of them, and this is important, progressive Sinhalese, can rally.
The withering rebuke from Commissioner Bachelet heightened expectation in these communities and the diaspora of a tough resolution and swift international action. They are now muscling capacity to get together experts with experience in international institutions and lobbying to extract the most out of the UNHRC. The next steps are challenging and replete with possibilities, difficulties and limitations. Domestic and diaspora clusters reckon coordinated advocacy by Tamils, Muslims and progressive Sinhalese can push global powers to compel Lanka’s authoritarian Executive to implement policies of Accountability and Reconciliation. As I said before, personally however, I am pessimistic of the outcome and cynical about the regime.
The question is how tough should Geneva get to be helpful for Sri Lankan democracy? A simple rap on the knuckles will be counterproductive and gentle sermons achieve nothing on accountability, reconciliation or democratisation. For a decade the UNHRC played the softly-softly game and achieved nothing. The Nandesana regime is indebted to its powerbase of testosterone fired monks, hell-bent nationalists, grumpy generals, killer corporals, and vicious (vice?) admirals of an eleven tug boat navy (who preen in the glory of Zheng He and Horatio Nelson). To survive it must hold firm to this base. I still conjecture that as persons neither Mahinda nor Gota are racists, but those to whom they are indebted to remain in power call the shots. Another wildcard is how the Burmese coup may play out in the debate on Lanka. China will be gratified by the ouster of namby-pamby Aung San and the return of a dictatorship which will nestle in its pocket. The US, India and Japan will calculate the odds between driving the regimes in Naypyidaw and Colombo deeper into a Chinese cuddle versus crushing them with a tougher strategic equation. The gut nature of the Biden-Team is intrinsic hostility to gorillas, Burmese or other, and endorsement of Commissioner Bachelet’s fusillade on Sri Lankan governments past and present, but calculations of global power-play will be more significant.
Global human rights movements must play hardball and bring both these regimes to their knees. With the popularity of the regimes crumbling they are half way down already. Human rights movements must get tough or back-off and stop pretending they have any mileage in correcting violations in country’s possessed by the demons of die-hard racism or hard-core religious extremism. As in the past, mere censure in Geneva will be exploited by Lanka’s regime to stoke Sinhala-Buddhist extremism, its survival bedrock. Just when the Gota Presidency buggered the independence of institutions designed to check executive power and assist the rule of law, a constitutional amendment gave the president a JR-esque status. Retired kaki types some implicated in human rights concerns have been put in key positions. Two dozen military folk have been elevated to ministry secretaries and corporate bosses. The worst slap in the face for human rights was appointment of Kamal Gunaratne as Secretary Defence and Sarath Weerasekara to oversee police and civil security and screw up devolution; both are extreme Sinhala nationalists. Gotha has appointed military jackboots to direct covid control in all districts. Surveillance and harassment of civil society activists by intelligence agencies, oversight of NGOs, restrictions on foreign funding and harassment, is on the rise.
One of Gota’s Commissions recommend impunity for state sponsored murders of journalists, students and political opponents. Another was commissioned on 31 Jan to finger politicians and ‘disloyal’ former public servants who could lose their civic rights. In the interim Harin Fernando has been promised a canine funeral! It is not the job of the UNHRC to pull Lanka out of this self-made hell-hole though any assistance in melioration is welcome. Clearly Nandasena Gotabaya has made up his mind to impose a one-party regime on one of Asia’s oldest democracies and that should concern the UNHRC.