The passage of the United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution on Sri Lanka raises a fundamental question: what next? When the dust settles and tempers calm, all parties concerned will be faced with the actuality that things have changed quite dramatically. This piece attempts to identify the challenges and opportunities presented by the passage of the Resolution to a number of political entities or individuals.
Sri Lankan government
The Sri Lankan government now faces an awkward situation. Having lost more than one half of the entire membership of the Council including almost all of Latin America, and given the exhortations from even sympathetic members that it should implement the recommendations of the LLRC, the options at the Rajapaksas’ disposal have narrowed. What is clear is that twelve more months of slow or no progress on key issues of demilitarization, devolution, disarming paramilitaries, democracy and accountability will only isolate Sri Lanka further, and augment the likelihood of an international investigation into war crimes. To avoid this, the government will need to demonstrate tangible progress on these key issues, whilst domestic compulsions will determine that those steps be taken without a loss of face. While it is theoretically possible for the Rajapaksas to chart a course that successfully straddles these two concerns, the question is whether it will. If the regime perceives that implementing the LLRC’s recommendations and taking steps to investigate and prosecute soldiers will weaken its hold on power, it may well decide to gamble on Council inaction in March 2013 and beyond. Moreover, the regime may be tempted to continue its nationalist posturing for domestic consumption in search of the popularity it enjoyed just after the war and subsequently lost. For a regime that since May 2009 has overestimated its diplomatic weight and underestimated its friends’ growing irritation with its intransigence, making the right call at this stage will be more important that ever.
The United States
The Resolution against Sri Lanka signals a change in gear of the US – Sri Lanka relationship. For all the diplomatic courtesies about the Resolution being designed to assist the government, the reality is that the US has begun flexing muscle in a bid to signal a coming battle unless Sri Lanka backs down. Commentary within and Sri Lanka has focused much on the text of the Resolution, without examining the text against a broader backdrop. The text was decidedly unorthodox, and perhaps the first of its kind. To be clear, it does not necessarily commit Sri Lanka’s fate to an apolitical bureaucratic process that inevitably leads to a decisive vote at the Security Council. An international investigation, or even a call for a fact-finding mission under the auspices of the High Commissioner for Human Rights [OHCHR] may well have done that, but this Resolution does not. Neither, as evidenced by Clause 3 and the role of the OHCHR, is this Resolution meant as a one-off rap on the knuckles. Instead, it provides for the Council to remain seized of the matter till at least March 2013. However, any future decisions on action will have to be taken by States, leaving the process open to political maneuvering and judgment calls. In other words, by retaining the power to decide whether to initiate an international inquiry into Sri Lanka’s war crimes, the US believes it can exert diplomatic pressure on Sri Lanka to make progress on key issues. Ultimately, for all the reporting responsibility [likely to be expanded through creative interpretation into a monitoring responsibility] of the OHCHR and concerns about India-inspired oral revisions to operative paragraph 3, the US has ensured that it is firmly in control of the UNHRC processes relating to Sri Lanka.
India’s unwillingness to convince at least some of the other Asian states to vote with them in favour of the Resolution, coupled with their weak explanation of vote that sounded a lot like it was prepared to justify a vote against, cut a pathetic figure at the Council. The swelling of American influence over the region through extra regional means will trouble India, especially where such influence is used to direct policy in a direction the South Block was hesitant to tread. However, the silver lining for India is the increased bargaining power it will bring to the table if it glibly warns Sri Lanka that Colombo will face heavy costs for continued intransigence. Moreover, India may slowly come to realize, like the US, that Sri Lanka’s China card has been played and overplayed. Its value has been exhausted, and the Sinhala population has not the stomach for more dodgy mega-infrastructure deals, stolen jobs, loans at commercial rates and land grabs. Whether India’s timorous diplomats will sense this opportunity is anyone’s guess, but a betting man can reliably count on the South Block’s specialty – the art of passive bungling.
China’s shadowy diplomacy and its disinterest with permanent friendships or values means that China’s strategy is hard to predict. However, what is clear is that China has a direct interest in the perpetuation of the Rajapaksa family’s hold on power, for no other reason perhaps than the sense that a Ranil Wickremasinghe led regime will be more disposed to friendly relations with the West. That in turn will give Sri Lanka more access to concessionary loans, aid, and an opportunity to move away from Chinese control over Sri Lanka. However, with India now appearing to take a position critical of Sri Lanka, China will remain conscious of the reputational costs of propping up an international pariah, in the event Rajapaksa regime continues to isolate himself from the West. It is for this reason that China has a direct interest in preventing a pitched battled between the West and Sri Lanka, not least in the Security Council where China possesses a rarely used veto. Thus, China may well quietly nudge the Sri Lankan government towards greater engagement with the West, in the knowledge that expending valuable political capital to defend Sri Lanka will hurt its interests.
Tamil National Alliance
The passage of the Resolution was indubitably a modest victory for the Tamil people. The TNA’s stock among the Tamil people will be expected to rise for it’s behind the scenes role in contributing to the conclusion. More importantly, as the beneficiary of American and Indian support, the TNA has managed to slowly accumulate international influence. To retain this international support, the Alliance may engage in many more rounds of talks with the government, if not for any other reason than to enable the TNA, US and India to gauge the post-Resolution attitude of the government to devolution. The TNA’s challenge for the future however will be to maintain international respect and influence without losing traction at home. The fierce hostility directed at the TNA from hyper-nationalists in the Tamil community has caused some discomfort to the party. The TNPF, a breakaway party from the TNA led by Kumar Ponnambalam Junior appears to be gaining significant ground within the University of Jaffna – a traditional hotbed of Tamil nationalism. However, the TNA’s fortunes will depend on how it manages to thwart the TNPF’s outflanking move. That, in turn, will largely depend on its ability to produce results internationally and initiate a grassroots program to communicate its strategy with the people.
The UNP – Ranil wing – will be aware that Rajapaksa’s risk taking can potentially wobble the regime. There is a clear nexus between the government’s economic mismanagement and its authoritarian and nationalist bluster. The mishandling of monetary policy, cash-draining prestige projects, the low likelihood of a waiver from US imposed sanctions on Iranian oil, the drying up of concessionary Western aid and dearth of foreign direct investments are all attributable, at least in part, to the government’s actions and omissions. Given the UNP’s established credentials for rescuing the country from economic distress, the regime’s authoritarian nationalism – while bolstering its popularity in the short term – will also gradually and slowly set the conditions for the UNP’s return to power. The lack of impetus on the UNP’s part to put up a functional opposition to Rajapaksa – however damaging to democracy – is also likely due to the patient optimism of the nephew of President Jaywardene, who, after a lifetime in politics, became Head of State at the age of 72.
Navi Pillay is not a fan of Sri Lanka’s human rights record, or of the manner in which it conducted itself during the last stages of the war. As one of the earlier voices to call for an independent investigation, Navi Pillay’s views are well known. Pillay has also been the subject of some fairly fierce attacks on her integrity by the Sri Lankan government. Pillay is now tasked with the provision of advice and assistance to the Sri Lankan government on the implementation of the LLRC’s recommendations and on dealing with accountability. Regardless of the attitude adopted by the Sri Lankan government with respect to her advice and assistance, what is clear is that Pillay – a human rights lawyer and activist in the age of apartheid – does not mind a scrap. If she senses a lack of cooperation, Pillay is likely to use the Resolution to provide public advice to the Sri Lankan government, and complain – also publicly – when Sri Lanka ignores her. A former judge at an international criminal tribunal, Pillay’s advice is also likely to focus quite intensively on questions of accountability, thereby drawing further attention to allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. To make matters worse for the government, a scathing report by Pillay in March 2013 could speed up any action contemplated by the US at those sessions, or subsequent ones.