First Failure in Geneva: Trap, Blunder or Model?

However bad Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is and external relations are, they have yet to hit the nadir that they did under President Jayewardene in the 1980s.

The first ever resolution on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka adopted in Geneva by the Human Rights Commission was in March 1987, while the first decision, which it ‘recalls’ in the resolution, was in March 1984, as was reported in the Lanka Guardian at the time (Vol 9, No 23, April 1 1987, p18).  This episode, which in a lead story in the same journal three months later was derided by its Editor as a “roasting”, has recently been disinterred and touted as nothing less than a model of professional diplomacy which should have been looked up to as a lodestar by Sri Lanka’s representatives in Geneva May 2009.

A persistent attempt at a revisionist history of Sri Lanka’s diplomacy posits our performance at the UN Human Rights Commission (the predecessor of the Human Rights Council) in Geneva in the period 1984-1987, as the acme of professionalism. What the record shows is that 1987 is indeed a performance to be remembered, but not exactly as an achievement, still less a model, but rather for the contrary reasons.

A close, ten-point analysis of Geneva March 1987 in the Lanka Guardian of April 1st 1987 (Vol 9, No 23, p.16) was presented in an article billed on the magazine’s cover as ‘Human Rights: Examining the Geneva Resolution’ and carrying the by-line Susantha Dias.

The opening paragraph of the ten point critique has startling contemporaneity given the recent attempts at revisionism, shedding light on spin-doctoring and mythmaking. It reads:

“The thrust of official propaganda on the subject has been, that a covert Indian attempt to gain acceptance at the CHR for an Argentine–sponsored Resolution which was politically motivated and blatantly one-sided and intended to blacken Sri Lanka’s name in an HR context, was thwarted by SLG’s diplomacy, which brought about a watered down Resolution accepted by consensus with SLG’s acquiescence. The political reality seems somewhat different”.        

Points 3&4 of the analysis help us nail down exactly when it was that Sri Lanka was first placed ‘under probation’ in Geneva.

“The Resolution was set firmly within an HR framework for, in its preamble the CHR claimed to be guided by univer­sally accepted rules of inter­national humanitarian law, and in its operative section the CHR called on SLG specifically to cooperate with the JCRC in dis­seminating and promoting such law. The CHR has thus gone on record that there is an adverse HR situation here which requires cognizance and comment, whilst identifying the SLG spe­cifically and alone as requiring to upgrade its HR performance.”

“The Resolution is to be seen as the outcome of a three-­year watching brief which the CHR has maintained over the HR situation here, because it recalls the CHR’s decision of 1984 and notes the Reports of its Special Rapporteur on torture and of its Working Group on enforced or involuntary disap­pearances (both presumably in respect of the SL situation). That is to say, that the CHR now deems the situation to have so deteriorated during that ‘probationary period’ as to warrant inscription of a resolution.”

So what really happened in Geneva in 1987?  Point 5 leaves no room for doubt:

“The prospect initially facing SLG was acceptance by a majority of a highly critical resolu­tion damaging to SLG’s in inter­national standing. The outcome claimed to represent a diplomatic victory, has been a consensual resolution which, as will be spelled out below, is not only critical of SLG’s HR performance (vide paragraphs 3 & 4 above) but undermines the foundation of SLG’s position, that it is ­engaged in fighting a terrorist ­threat to law and order. Moreover, the Resolution as adopted implicitly recognises the validity of the Tamil claim that it is engaged in resisting (even if violently) a diminution of its HRs and fundamental freedoms. It is a moot point, whether or not it is preferable to be called by some ‘a scoundrel’ whilst a few others testify to your goodness, ­or be said by all to be ‘a cad’.”

Points 6-8 of the forensic piece nail down the extent of the strategic diplomatic defeat and the damage involved.

“The Resolution calls upon “all parties and groups”, with­out identification or distinction, to forswear violence and nego­tiate a peaceful settlement. Inasmuch as there are only two parties to the internal conflict situation under reference, SLG and the Tamil militants, this equates the two in terms of res­ponsibility for violence, and undermines the ‘terrorism – law & order’ argument.”

“It also calls on all parties and groups to pursue a negotiated political solution “based on prin­ciples of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms”. In as much as it is the State or Government (SLG) which has the role and responsibility to uphold and apply HRs and fundamental freedoms in respect of all its citizens, and the only other combatant in the conflict situation is a militant armed section of the Tamil community, the implication is inescapable that the conflict itself is deemed by the CHR to constitute a diminution if not violation of HRs and fundamental rights of Tamils.”

“The only comfort the SLG may draw from the Resolution is that the CHR has called on the Tamil militants ALSO to desist from violence and negotiate a peaceful settlement.”

In his Conclusion, the analyst sums up the Resolution:

“(a) That the CHR has gone on the record, having watched the situation for three years, that there is an adverse HR situation here which warrants cognizance and comment by it. (b) that this situation stems from an internal conflict between parties it equates in respect of responsibility and  (c) that the conflict lies within a context of diminished or violated HR’s and fundamental freedoms which require to be restored by a negotiated political solution.”

What is most devastating is the author’s evaluation, and as it turns out, an accurate pessimistic prognostication of the consequences of the professedly grand diplomatic outcome by Sri Lanka in Geneva ’87. He argues that it sets the stage for subsequent action by India, opining that:

“India could not have wished for a better preparation of the diplomatic ground, as it were, in respect of any future initia­tive she may contemplate on behalf of the Tamils. One must then ask: might it not have been a clever diplomatic move by India to work for a toughly-­worded resolution, which could then, in bargaining, be exchanged for a milder but consensual one, committing the entire international community in support of her perception and approach?”

Just a few months later that ‘future initiative’ turned out to be the air-drop, the accord and the projection of Indian kinetic power onto Sri Lanka’s soil, in the form of 70,000 troops. March ’87 in Geneva had indeed prepared “the diplomatic ground”.

Mervyn de Silva in his lead article in the Lanka Guardian of June 15th 1987 (Vol10, No 4) entitled ‘Diplomatic Front: Sri Lanka’s Moment of Truth’ wrote of the aftermath of the Indian airdrop: “Sri Lanka, although the victim, suffered a near-total diplomatic isolation in the international community, a stinging indictment of the UNP’s foreign policy”.

Mervyn significantly concluded “As for the UN, it was no less a person than the UNP’s first appointee to New York…who advised …on the futility of going to the Security Council, warning that it would ‘internationalise’ the issue–something we can ill afford, especially after the roasting we got at the Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva three months ago”.

What is particularly lamentable is that such abject and myopic diplomatic masochism is presented as something that would have had the blessings of Lakshman Kadirgamar.