Image courtesy ITU video
Though I cannot say the same of his companions on the voyage, my friend Lalith Weeratunga embodies a rare combination of intelligence, ability, affability and civility. He made a valuable presentation of the government’s case, in Geneva and the USA. Mr Weeratunga has made some very valid points on the dangers of an international accountability mechanism. The problem is that the case itself is inadequate to deter, defer or rally the support needed to stop precisely such a dangerous move being made in Geneva.
Mr Weeratunga’s crisply professional presentation loses efficacy because it does not reflect, and is not embedded in, the right strategy. Indeed it reflects a major strategic error. That error, if persisted in, will render the sovereignty and security of the Sri Lankan state vulnerable in the overall strategic environment.
None of that which I am about to argue is either a secret from the government and state nor does it date back to the end of my diplomatic stint in France. The points that follow were presented as an extended intervention at a working dinner hosted by the Minister of External affairs, chaired by President Rajapaksa, and in the presence of a total of 15 persons including Mr Weeratunga, a handful of ministers (including a member of the ruling troika), Sri Lankan ambassadors posted to frontline countries, senior officials (including the newly appointed Secretary to the MEA, at the time my successor in Geneva) and the Monitoring MP of the MEA. This ‘policy roundtable’ style evening was as far back as late April 2011, when we convened to assess the so-called Darusman Report and implications for Sri Lanka. I was then Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to France.
At this dialogic session which had elements of a policy debate, I made the following points:
- Sri Lanka must identify the main threat — that of an international accountability hearing—and the quarter from which it comes—the West.
- It must then seek to make trade-offs on secondary issues to ward off that main threat
- To this end, it must use broad coalitions and a classic ‘balance of power’ strategy to defeat, deflect or contain that main threat and the zone it emanates from.
- I argued that for all practical purposes the world is divisible into three strategic zones on the issue of Sri Lanka. I likened these to three baskets. These are:
- the US-UK led West which wants accountability and democratisation.
- India, most of the BRICS and much of the Nonaligned (because of the Indian factor) which wants the implementation of the 13th amendment.
- the Far East ( mainly ASEAN) and some parts of the global South which want an integrated, multiethnic, meritocratic, non-discriminatory Sri Lanka — a return to the rather more level playing field that prevailed in Ceylon modified by that which I dubbed ‘Soulbury Plus’.
- I said that we must decide which of these three baskets we shall fill and with which ‘bowls’ of policy reforms as it were. We can either fill the
- Western basket with the bowls of accountability and democratization
- The India/BRICS/NAM/G77 basket with devolution up to and including the 13th amendment, or
- The East Asian basket with strong anti-discrimination legislation and a Singaporean type high profile integration of the Tamil community in the ruling elite.
- I cautioned against the assumption that Sri Lanka could ward off accountability while not really conceding anything significant to anyone on any issue. That would be a grave strategic mistake and prove untenable, I stressed.
- I suggested that we should trade-off to some degree, democratization for accountability with the West, but that the main trade-off should be devolution for accountability. This would enable us to leverage the East against the West, the South against the North. Without adequate devolution this could not be done, because India cannot be kept on board, and without India our coalition of the BRICS and the NAM cannot be sustained and is doomed to shrink.
- I also made the case that the UN PoE (‘Darusman’) report should be responded to formally and frontally. I went onto make that case on TV as a search of YouTube (‘Dayan Jayatilleka on UN Panel Report’, uploaded on May 2, 2011) would show.
After a productive to-and-fro, the President made exactly the right decision. He instructed the Minister of External Affairs and the team that was negotiating with the TNA to take the 13th amendment as the basis and to discuss trade-offs through the fair reallocation of the powers contained in the Concurrent list. He followed it up with instructing his officials to invite the TNA leader and the India High Commissioner for breakfast with him.
I left for Paris with the comforting illusion that something of a breakthrough had been achieved. I had underestimated the new balance of forces in decision making circles in Sri Lanka.
A few weeks later I read while in Paris, the ghastly account of how the junior most member of the Government’s negotiating team and the one who had absolutely no experience in handling the ethnic issue, Mr. Sajin Vass Gunewardene, had insolently provoked the senior most TNA politician Mr Sampanthan, and then planted a story in a newspaper to the effect that ‘the TNA was demanding the same things that the Tigers had wanted’. The talks broke down.
The Government shifted to the new position that negotiations would henceforth have to be through a Parliamentary Select Committee, and not take the form of a dialogue. To date the process of seeking a comprehensive political reconciliation through dialogue with the leaders of the TNA and now the Northern Provincial Council has not resumed.
Thus ended the three dimensional strategy of trading devolution for accountability, keeping India on side, and leveraging the East against the West and the South against the North— in short, the winning strategy of Geneva May 2009.
This then is the problem I see with Mr Lalith Weeratunga’s presentation: the large lacuna in the otherwise lucid rendition. It doesn’t concede anything tangible to anyone on any front.
The only real achievement of the past five years — and it is a historic achievement—is the holding of the Northern province election but that can be spun by Sri Lanka’s critics and opponents as too little, too late. It should either have been held earlier (as I had argued at the cost of my job) or followed up swiftly with a structured dialogue mechanism and a reasonable time table on the implementation of the 13th amendment, which could have got India back on board and therefore also many of those who voted for us in 2009 but against us in 2012 and 2013.
Mr Weeratunga’s presentation does not contain any of the following points which could rally the requisite support to deflect the threat of an international accountability mechanism:
- A credible local investigation by distinguished Sri Lankan personalities of high international repute.
- A compressed time frame for the full implementation of the 13th amendment.
- The speedy arrest and prosecution of those identifiable through video evidence of attacking places of religious worship.
- A strong anti-discrimination legislation and a powerful watchdog body with teeth.
- A UNESCO supervised revision of school text books by a panel of internationally renowned Sri Lankan scholars (such as Prof Sudharshan Seneviratne) so as to minimize prejudice against communities and ‘build the defences of peace in the minds of men’.
- The reconstitution of the Ministry of Human Rights and the Peace Secretariat (SCOPP) as well as the appointment of a highly respected National Ombudsman for Human Rights who would report to parliament and a more autonomous and credible National Commission of Human Rights.
- The restoration of the independent commissions proposed by the 17th amendment, albeit with no prejudice to the 18th amendment and the removal of presidential term limits.
- The bridging legislation needed domestically to fully incorporate the ICCPR.
Thus there are no serious, verifiable structural reforms on offer which can be counter-posed to the dangerously de-stabilising call for an international accountability mechanism and intrusive (even invasive) process.
Mr Weeratunga’s ably presented report does not avoid the strategic triple error I warned against in April 2011:
- That we can defend Sri Lanka’s sovereignty without balancing off a coalition of states against the Diaspora driven West;
- That we can cobble together a coalition that can defeat or deter the West without India as the cornerstone of that coalition;
- That India can be retained or won back without addressing the Tamil Question through devolution.
In other words, the grave strategic delusion that Sri Lanka can ward off or ignore the accountability threat without conceding anything to anybody on any front.
What passes for strategy is the upper reaches of the Sri Lankan state these days is the double Israeli delusion. The decision makers think that the Israelis can and will defuse the US campaign on Sri Lanka. They also assume that Sri Lanka can behave as obdurately as Israel and that China’s commitment to Colombo is the equivalent of Washington’s to Tel Aviv.
These assumptions are nonsensical. Firstly Israel’s interest is in allowing the attention to be focused on Sri Lanka as a diversion from the human rights and humanitarian law campaign against its practices. Israel has no interest in reducing the attention being paid to Sri Lanka in global civil society and by the UN. Sri Lanka is the perfect red herring. Secondly, Israel does not control US policy making, not even in the Middle East, as it learned when the US ignored Netanyahu and entered the diplomatic track with Iran on the issue of nuclear power. Certainly in Asia, the role of India is far more influential in US thinking than that of Israel. Therefore it takes a particularly low brow intellect to think that Sri Lanka’s road to Washington DC lies via Tel Aviv rather than New Delhi. Thirdly, China’s support to Sri Lanka is nothing like, and cannot be anything like, the US security guarantee for Israel. Fourthly, Sri Lanka’s strategic strength in its neighbourhood is vastly inferior to that of its neighbour, unlike Israel which militarily dominates its neighbourhood.
My friend Mr Weeratunga is an intelligent man. But he doesn’t make the decisions. He should have stopped off for a chat in the neighbourhood before he proceeded to Geneva, Washington and New York.