Reflections on Sri Lanka’s Post-Geneva Irrationality
Photo courtesy ISHARA S.KODIKARA, AFP/Getty Images via Chicago Tribune News
One can understand to a certain extent the angst of some Sri Lankans over the injury caused to national pride by the ‘Geneva Resolution’ of March 2012. One can also understand the sense of frustration of certain others who hold the view that the Resolution does not go far enough to hold Sri Lanka’s feet closer to the fire. The effort of the present essay is to look for a way in between the two above points of view and explore a means by which Sri Lanka could salvage something from the wreck before all of us Sri Lankans go down. A brief look backwards to understand the way forward might be useful and helpful. So let us begin by doing so.
If one avoids the pitfall of blind political loyalty or jingoism in surveying the mood of our country both in the run up to and after the Resolution No 19/2 on Promoting Reconciliation and Accountability in Sri Lanka that was adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva on 22 March, 2012, one would come to the conclusion that those of us who participated in the give and take on the fairness or otherwise of that UNHRC exercise let Sri Lanka down badly in the process. Far too many of us saw the ‘Geneva Resolution’ (as it is commonly referred to) in black or white terms and, sadly, not enough noticed the grey in it.
In the early decades following political independence in 1948, Sri Lanka had, deservedly, a reputation in the diplomatic world for unusual success in explaining and clarifying to the global North the concerns, concepts and complaints of the global South. Our scholars, politicians, and intellectuals of that earlier period had the capacity for generating Northern interest rather than ire and, therefore, were able to make Sri Lanka’s measured voice heard internationally despite Sri Lanka’s physical size or its ,relatively speaking, weak economic and military power. Our national political and diplomatic skills have been used to help diffuse certain international tensions and conflict during the first half of our post-independence existence. J.R. Jayewardene’s 1951 San Francisco speech during the Japanese Peace Treaty Conference where he persuaded the Asian countries to sign the Treaty as a gesture of reconciliation, the mediatory role played by Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike during the Sino-Indian war of 1962, the solid contribution of Ambassador Shirley Amerasinghe as Chairman of the Law of the Sea Conference at the United Nations, and the quiet and unpublicized efficiency of Dr. Gamani Corea as Secretary-General of UNCTAD , all bear testimony to our past successes in the international arena. We have been a valued member of the international community. Time was when countries like Malaya and Singapore looked enviously up to Ceylon/Sri Lanka and aspired to emulate us.
Today Sri Lanka is not held in as high esteem as we used to be. In less than a decade or so after independence, we began to lose our way. During the colonial period we Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and Malay Ceylonese/ Sri Lankans were united in our opposition to the British. Post-independence, the Sinhalisation of Sri Lanka began in earnest as our political rulers now were the majority Sinhalese. This process of Sinhalisation begat Tamil resistance and the consequences of this Tamil tit for Sinhala tat is there for all to see around us today. The once ‘model colony’ and ‘the best bet in Asia’ lies in tatters a mere six decades and a bit after Sri Lanka regained self rule after nearly 500 years of colonial rule by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British.
What a tragic decline we see today from those earlier sublime heights! What a well put together country we seemed then. Given that early promise, when we focus today on what might have been, we realize how badly we have managed the nation building project post-1948. In this regard we need to hold all Sri Lankan citizens, our political leaders, and all our political parties to account. All of us have failed Sri Lanka.
It is in the light of this above-delineated context that we need to look at the post-Geneva reality and the predicament that Sri Lanka is in today. Let us get a few home truths out of the way first. Admittedly no one state or a group of states in any part of the world has a monopoly on virtue or vice. None can afford to take the higher moral ground or cast the first stone. After all, all of us who make up the different states of the world regardless of our geographical location or skin colour are imperfect and therefore fallible human beings. We also know that the conduct of business of international relations is not necessarily grounded on a foundation that is absolutely scrupulous. Be the foregoing caveats as they may, given the proud earlier record of Sri Lanka in the international domain, it is a great pity that a segment of Sri Lanka’s socio-political community has reacted in such a shrill manner to the Geneva Resolution itself and to the post-Geneva realities.
This reaction, as opposed to sober reflection and response to the realities, has been disappointingly immature as it is foolhardy. For instance, some like our External Affairs Minister seeking to display wizardry in Arithmetic (disputed) similar to the wizardry which he possesses in certain branches of the Law (undisputed) , have attempted to persuade those willing to be persuaded that Sri Lanka ‘lost ‘ in Geneva by a solitary vote (15 votes cast against the Resolution plus 8 abstentions equal 23 versus the 24 that voted for it!) None, it is wisely said, is as blind as he who refuses to see.
Others, like the External Ministers-in-waiting (we are reliably informed there are at least two) , however indirectly, appear to be fishing in troubled waters. They are trying to hold the current holder of the External Affairs portfolio solely responsible for the Geneva Resolution. Certain others from our political and social lunatic fringe blame the West (the United States in particular) and India for what happened in Geneva.
We should, even belatedly, stop the blame game and give up, as The Friday Forum has suggested, the talk of victory and defeat. The Geneva Resolution, looked at dispassionately, is not a defeat. To be asked to do what Sri Lanka promised faithfully to do for months on end – - i.e, implement the ‘home grown’ recommendations made by a Commission appointed by the President to achieve national reconciliation, cannot surely be a defeat? The crux of the problem here seems to me to be our lack of true understanding of the fundamentals of Buddhist philosophy despite our boast that Sri Lanka is the repository and guardian of Theravada Buddhism. A rudimentary familiarity with the Buddhist concepts of impermanence and non-violence will make us realize the futility of both victory and defeat and the illusory nature of our existence. Our politicians will also then come to know more vividly the truism that they are only the temporary custodians of political authority bestowed on them by their fellow citizens on trust. They are not in office for life, at least not yet and we thank our lucky stars for that relief. This inability to grasp the essentials of Buddhist philosophy stems from the false (‘Politicized, Commercialized and Institutionalized’) Buddhism that has taken root in Sri Lanka post-1956, as my friend H.L Seneviratne has argued in a recent perceptive interview with a local Sinhala newspaper (see the Ravaya, 18 and 25 March, 2012).
At the end of the day, it is the collective folly of the Rajapakse administration that is responsible for our being asked by the UNHRC to do something that we should ourselves have done in the first instance. To that extent we have embarrassed ourselves. To use Minister Dilan Perera’s words expressed in a related context, what Sri Lanka has done is akin to standing on our head with our sarong on! March 2012 was the first time ever that Sri Lanka has been subjected to a hostile Resolution placed by a UN body and docked by a majority vote therein. Perhaps unwittingly but short-sightedly for certain, Sri Lanka placed itself on the agenda of the UNHRC in 2009 through a ‘victory’ Resolution. For sure that Resolution enabled some to indulge themselves in ego-massaging and scoring domestic brownie points. Streets of Colombo were littered with billboards in praise of some envoys – -perhaps another first for Sri Lankan diplomacy. Persistent domestic political crowing about this ‘victory’ Resolution and the absence of any post-conflict efforts at national reconciliation helped trigger the 2012 hostile re-visit of that 2009 Agenda item. If 2009 was a tactical (and Pyrrhic) victory for short-term political gain, it was a significant strategic blunder in regard to the long term national interests of the country. Sri Lanka should have at all costs stayed away from the HRC agenda, not crawl into it even by way of a ‘victory’ Resolution. If Sri Lanka is in a diplomatic hole in the HRC now, the digging of that hole began in 2009. It was the quiet, painstaking, and efficient behind-the-scenes preventive diplomacy (non- billboard diplomacy) of several professional Sri Lankan envoys at the UN in New York and Geneva that saved Sri Lanka from being placed on the agenda of the UN Security Council and other multilateral bodies pre-2009 Geneva. Compared with some missile-firing Ambassadors of today, those public servants referred to above did not even want their names mentioned, let alone run self-advertisement campaigns. They simply did their duty by their pay master - – the tax payer, and stayed off camera.
Rather than resorting to sabre rattling and vituperative attacks on others, the Rajapakse administration should turn the searchlight inwards and seek to do what it needs to do to save Sri Lanka from further doom and gloom. We should focus on the beam in our own eye before seeking to search for those in the eye of others. There exists today, as it has for a long time, the concept of the ‘Balance of Power’ which sometimes makes it possible if not necessary for powerful states to bring recalcitrant small and weak states to heel. Sometimes this goal is achieved through brute force and at other times through instruments found in the UN Charter and other international treaties. Small and weak states invite the wrath of big and powerful ones when , instead of doing what is good and right, they seek by sleight of hand, to outsmart and outwit the latter. Pragmatism and moderation in our dealings with the outside world, as we have pointed out time and time and again, do not amount to national subservience. Nor should state sovereignty be misrepresented to prevent scrutiny of Sri Lanka. Again as The Friday Forum has correctly pointed out, Sri Lanka is part of the international community. To seek to interpret what is happening or likely to happen post-Geneva as a ‘us’ versus ‘them’ battle is to falsify reality. The world outside of our shores is hence not an invading force alien to Sri Lanka. We are a member of the international community and a state bound by the UN charter and international treaties we have entered into voluntarily.
Furthermore, what the current government has quite unashamedly done is to vilify those who assisted Sri Lanka to rid Sri Lanka of the intransigent Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The United States designated the LTTE as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) as early as 1997 and it leaned on some of its allies to do the same when the LTTE failed to respond convincingly to efforts made to seek a negotiated political settlement to the internecine conflict in Sri Lanka. Then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar and, following his tragic death, the career diplomats of Sri Lanka worked tirelessly to achieve this notable diplomatic success. The present government seems to have conveniently forgotten that it was the United States that sent a special envoy to Europe in 2006 in order to persuade some recalcitrant Scandinavians to join an EU consensus to impose an EU-wide ban on the LTTE despite counter lobbying by Norway, thus facilitating perhaps the most significant diplomatic achievement of this very same Rajapaksa administration that is now hurling abuse in gay abandon at their international partners .
When repeated efforts to find a political settlement for the conflict between the State and the LTTE ended in failure, both India and the United States, among other countries, assisted Sri Lanka to militarily defeat the dreaded LTTE. The expectation was that after the defeat of the LTTE, Sri Lanka would take sensible steps to come to an acceptable political arrangement, to meaningfully address the socio-political grievances that have led to conflict in Sri Lanka between its Sinhala majority and the non-Sinhala minority. Instead of magnanimity in victory, the Government of Sri Lanka opted for triumphalism and failed to minister to the needs of a wounded community, despite the fact that many a Sri Lankan Tamil had no truck with the extremism of the LTTE. Worse still it has attempted to hoodwink the very countries who gave us succour in our hour of need by promising political reform at one moment only to renege on it soon thereafter. The credibility of Sri Lanka as a country today is thus highly suspect.
Instead of healing wounds of a terrible war and opting for genuine reconciliation, the Government of Sri Lanka has sought to travel down the path of Sinhala supremacy. Sri Lanka’s political leaders have taken the low road instead of the high and used the victory over the LTTE to cement Sinhala domination of the country. An all Party Representative Committee (APRC) which was set up to find a solution to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict was reduced to a mere political tool and, despite all the high-sounding talk of its chairman, nothing came of it in the end. The APRC exercise reminded one of a mountain labouring to produce a mouse! Talk then shifted to the 13th Amendment plus and minus! Then it was the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission( LLRC) which first issued some very practical and relatively- easy- to- implement interim recommendations before coming up with its final set of recommendations. We yet do not have an official Sinhala and Tamil translation of the LLRC Report( or, at the least, even of its final set of recommendations) in the public domain in this ‘Year of Trilingual Sri Lanka’! We are now told that the LLRC had exceeded its mandate and that only some of the recommendations will be implemented and that, too, at the will and pleasure of the government in office. This kind of fast and loose political play might yet help the government to play effectively to the Sinhala gallery and win some elections to come. But that will surely be at enormous cost to the country as a whole. The talk now has shifted to the appointment of a Parliamentary Select Committee(PSC). Who amongst us can be blamed for our scepticism and utmost reluctance to take the government at its word, given the track record of the current government( which had the benefit of the most recent propitious circumstances to effect genuine reconciliation after the military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009) in particular and that of all governments since independence in seeking a political solution to the conflict between Sri Lanka’s Sinhala majority and its non-Sinhala minority?
The clock is ticking away and Sri Lanka cannot afford to while away time by seeking to ignore impending deadlines. Sri Lanka will be subjected to its second Universal Periodic Review(UPR) in November 2012 where Sri Lanka’s Human Rights record will be evaluated( every member state undergoes this Review once every 4 years)and March 2013 when Sri Lanka’s post-Geneva progress will be reviewed at the HNHRC also beckons. Meantime the cost of living keeps soaring and our economy seems set to decline further. We have to buckle down and come up with that long promised home grown solution which is at hand. The government needs to bestir itself, ignore Sri Lanka’s lunatic fringe, and act decisively as it has shown itself capable of doing at times in the past, to get out of the corner it has boxed itself into. Sri Lanka has been coerced before into doing what it could and should have done itself. A good example is the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987.
If we continue with our notorious abductions of individual citizens who disagree with the government or threaten to break their limbs, Sri Lankan democracy will be seen as, to borrow Oscar Wilde’s words, ‘ ‘simply the bludgeoning of the people, by the people, for the people’. But present and some past aberrations apart, Sri Lanka is a mature democracy peopled by literate citizens for the most part who are heirs to a rich and ancient heritage. Why cannot we summon the best in ourselves and muster the courage of our convictions to do what is right without waiting to be pushed to do it as if we are a banana republic which we surely are not?
How one wishes we had a man of vision as our late lamented Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar with us today and the services of such able and dedicated professional diplomats of the calibre of Jayantha Dhanapala, John Gooneratne, H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, Sarala Fernando among others in our Foreign or External Affairs Ministry? Lakshman Kadirgamar would surely have guided Sri Lanka away from the extremists on both sides of the domestic ethnic divide and dealt even handedly with our external interlocutors. It is Sri Lanka’s tragedy that we do not have amongst us today a man of Lakshman Kadirgamar’s intelligence, sensitivity and sagacity despite the many pretenders to his throne around us who seem to merely strut about emanating plenty of sound and fury which so far have signified only grave danger to our land.