Image courtesy Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images, via RightsNow
This is among the many important challenges to the “democratically elected” Government of “democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka” (GOSL). There may be various answers but let me offer five reasons why the present Government in the present frame of mind cannot win the support of the international community at the present moment.
Professionalism in Foreign Relationships vs. Diplomatic Ambush
Politicization of the foreign (diplomatic)service started many decades ago. However, President Mahinda Rajapaksa is principally responsible for total-politicization of both the Foreign Service as well as the public service beyond restoration. He appointed his relations and party supporters without any exposure in diplomacy to key diplomatic positions in the same way he got his people to head and operate the key public institutions. Appointments are based on political connections, relationships and kick backs and nothing is on merit!
Diplomacy requires different background and skills and those who lack that exposure cannot deliver. Foreign relations are a well-studied subject the world over and all important countries invest heavily in improving the quality of their diplomats. Diplomatic historians to scholars have written so much on foreign relations. Many universities the world over teach foreign relations aiming to understand the machinery of diplomacy and its role in contemporary international society. Those who learn diplomacy will recognize diplomatic theory, historical changes, innovations and state craft. They also learn on negotiations, mediations, bilateral and UN conventions, multilateral diplomacy, coercive diplomacy, preventive diplomacy and transition regimes. They will have special exposure to international human rights mechanisms. All I want to emphasize is how important it is for the subject of foreign relations be handled by qualified professional diplomats.
Effective diplomatic relationships are not handled by ordinary public servants, officers of the Attorney General’s department, retired generals in the army or paid consulting firms. The fact that a handful of individuals had managed to secure a diplomatic victory or two does not mean that that those individuals alone can run an efficient diplomatic service. It is a different profession that can risk a future of a nation.
The Rajapaksa Government has chosen Minister GL Peiris to handle Geneva this time. It was Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe a few years ago. Dr. Dayan Jayatilleke led it once. Some time back, Sri Lanka sent hundreds of individuals to “attack” side meetings in Geneva organised by groups considered by GOSL as “anti Sri Lanka traitors”. Quite interestingly, Sri Lanka goes to Geneva with an idea of ambushing the conspirators and not to address the international diplomatic challenges Sri Lanka faces today. These “diplomatic units” are naturally guided by a brief prepared locally. With the anti-international rhetoric one can presume that such diplomatic briefs are a misfit internationally.
With “flatten” strategies, in my view, Sri Lanka has been at a disadvantageous position, even if Sri Lanka had a reasonable message to convince the international community to its advantage. In the absence of a professional team of diplomats, the international consequences may be detrimental. Naturally, the important innovative opportunities in the international arena are not understood by ordinary Officers (non-diplomats). Officers of the Attorney Ganeral’s Department (who form part of the group) have a tendency to see this as only a legal issue. International diplomacy is not a pure matter of law. On the other hand, when these groups fail on the floor, the national leaders, who trust the teams, tend to believe that the international community is crazy!
When the so called Diplomats fail in basic diplomatic functions such as lobbying, the government resorted to hire expensive commercial firms to lobby USA. This becomes worse when individuals with vested interest grab the opportunity to earn a fast buck out of these lobbying contracts. Why should we pay so much for lobbying firms, if we have professional diplomatic officials in the US capital?
Mixing Internal Politics with International Relationships
After the conclusion of the war in 2009, the focus of the Rajapaksa Government changed from winning the war to consolidation of the regime. This was done with a well planned scheme, backed by a strong and costly intelligence and propaganda mechanism, coupled with a militarization strategy. President Rajapaksa became the voice of the victorious forces as well as the Sinhala Buddhist majority. The Government left no room for any other to clinch the credit for the victory. It strongly promoted the unification of ideas while silencing or rejecting possible future political challenges. After the defeat of the LTTE, the regime was looking for a suitable imaginary enemy – this time they seem to have settled with a whole club of them in one basket – the diaspora, the west, NGOs, United Nations, Human Rights Council etc. Utterances of ministers Wimal Weerawansa, Mervin Silva and GL Peiris or the President himself are seriously not different to one another. On 9th July 2010, minister Weerawansa (who holds collective responsibility with other ministers) conducted a well planned, state sponsored and above all, a most comfortable “hunger strike” in front of the UN Office against the appointment of the Expert Panel by th UN Secretary General. “I will fast until the U.N. panel is dissolved and Ban Ki-moon gives an assurance that he will not label the soldiers and political leaders who brought peace to Sri Lanka as war criminals”. Minister Peiris took a strange position that everyone in Sri Lanka has a right to protest. We all know that is not the case but it is certainly the case if the protests are against UN and other international actors.
What Sri Lanka witnesses today is a pre-meditated misinformation campaign at public expense, where the GOSL has also become a victim of being self deceit. The worst part is that foulmouthed and ferocious individuals are deliberately picked up for key positions in the state-owned media to attack identified individuals, groups and organisations. (Not for a moment do I say that private media has been great; rather GOSL has indirect control of most of the private media as well.) Consider the appointment of the present editor of Daily news, who writes most defamatory and repulsive editorials and Chairman of Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, who conduct most disgusting programmes – with impunity. These editorials and hate programmes are used from time to time to promote hatred against the international community for a purpose. Naturally, once such public opinion is created, and the GOSL cannot extricate itself from it.
Sri Lanka’s most important neighbor is India, whose international cooperation cannot be taken for granted. Trade relationships with the West cannot be ignored. Long standing strategic relationships we had with USA and Scandinavian countries cannot be destabilized. That is however not important now. Unfortunately, Sri Lanka has ONLY one yardstick to measure foreign relationship now – whether they support the Geneva resolutions against Sri Lanka. If so, Sri Lanka will use all platforms to attack those countries as being “conspirators”, “LTTE supporters” and “being bribed by the diaspora”. This illogical approach has commenced at the national level and gone into the blood of the policymakers of the country.
Susan Sontag, writer, film maker, literary icon and political activist with enormous experience in conflicts, said “authoritarian political ideologies have a vested interest in promoting fear, a sense of imminence of takeover by aliens”. We do not probably need the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to confirm to us that Sri Lanka is fast moving towards authoritarianism. The manner in which GOSL responses to international community confirms it! Then winning international community becomes an enormous challenge.
The short-term advantage of bringing international challenges to domestic platform is meant to build up support for the Rajapaksa regime at elections! All international challenges are well used by the regime to consolidate their political position. International pressure is therefore welcomed so that there will be a common enemy to unite the likeminded opinion and to suppress domestic political challenges.
Partly, Sri Lanka’s international failure is associated with an ideological war. The government and the hard-core think tanks and nationalists have managed to infuse an ideology, in order to maintain the post- war euphoria and Sinhala Buddhist domination. In order to achieve this, the regime directly and indirectly promotes communal and religious disharmony. Sri Lanka has an ideal environment to do so with the deliberate emasculation of Rule of Law. The condition is worse with the Ministry of Defence virtually controlling, directly and indirectly, a greater portion of civilian life of the society including law enforcement, development, recreation, business and strategic decision making at all levels. Hundreds of churches and mosques were attacked in broad daylight and these continue unabated with impunity, not only because of the collapse of Rule of Law but also because, such hatred is promoted as an ideological tool. In that background, GOSL is unable to answer a single Rule of Law-related issue successfully in an international forum. Nor is there any willingness by the regime to change its attitude any time sooner. Instead, the GOSL comes out with rhetoric that s opposition and NGOs are tarnishing the image of the country!
Same is true with how government conducts international affairs. It appears that the government is confused with internal ideology and global political ideologies. We do witness different political ideologies – and in addition different dialogues based on philosophies & political theory, such as North South dialogue etc. GOSL is trying hard to sell Buddhist values, ongoing development in the North or 2500 years history of Sri Lanka but nothing is connected to international politics at diplomatic level. The issues are not raised on whether GOSL follow Buddhist values or whether GOSL does not develop the country. There are many other countries older than our civilization. However, with the ideological jumble, GOSL is unable to take a stand!
Hypocrisy on Human Rights and not being Truthful
President Rajapaksak new the importance of human rights when he went to Geneva in 1987/8. He was among the leading political figures in the Mothers’ Front, which worked against disappearances during the then UNP regime.
It is important to realize that the international human rights do not depend on few Western nations as alleged by some, rather it is a collective contribution of a combination of individuals, organizations and progressive states. I am not defending attempts to manipulate human rights by any state. International human rights have now progressed much beyond President Rajapaksa’s pro-human rights era. The world now recognizes the universality of human rights – meaning human rights is important anywhere in the world, irrespective of geographical limitations. Let us not forget that human rights that we speak of today had evolved though human experience. I have heard the President and many others boasting that Sri Lanka has learnt human rights from Buddhism for over 2500 years but are we practicing them now? In any case, what is being discussed under human rights is certain legal rights, not limited to religious values alone. Almost all religions have promoted certain aspects of human rights.
In my view, the only way to meet the global human rights challenges to be genuine in the commitment to protect and promote human rights. If Sri Lanka addresses human rights issues genuinely, no other country can point fingers at us. Why we fail internationally is because we do not do it genuinely. Look at Ratupaswela attack, ‘grease yaka’ attacks in Jaffna, Katunayaka FTZ attack, killing of journalists and ongoing attacks on media institutions, attacks on churches and mosques and so on. Sri Lanka does not address human rights issues genuinely. Quite contrary, the government has nasty reactions on those who raise the issues and undesirable denials on each of those instances.
Government portrays human rights as a devastating philosophy. Those who promote the vision and ideology of the regime continue to denounce human rights. World does not think so. At the end of the day, the regime wants public to reject human rights because human rights poses an alternative human vision to the dominant vision of created by the regime itself. It is not too late to realize that the international human rights have developed so rapidly that any anti-human rights front cannot cope up with the fresh challenges. This is the stark reality for GOSL when openly condemning human rights for survival.
Coming briefly to Human Rights Council Resolutions, the GOSL probably believe that all those who favor are in homogeneous group i.e. Tamil Diaspora. It is time to realize that for diverse reasons different groups, nationally and internationally, support those Resolutions. Those reasons include genuine grievances against GOSL such as unbearable impunity in the country. After all, judging from how Chief Justice Bandaranayaka was impeached, what hope an average person could expect from law enforcement mechanisms to protect him or her.
In my view, even the call for a war crime tribunal can be handled without further damaging the reputation of the country if the GOSL is frank. Take the proposal for a South African type of Truth Commission. If the Government is willing, I am sure the rest will fall in line. However, the Government of Sri Lanka should be frank and must be genuine about coming out with the truth. Let us not forget that In the South African model, there was a precondition for reconciliation i.e truth is not negotiable. If the GOSL is willing to come out with the truth of what happened, then the mode of reconciliation can take different penal or non-penal sanctions. If GOSL is willing to be truthful – unreservedly- I have no doubt the international community will support such an initiative without any hesitation. I might also add that the GOSL must be willing to accept the good and the bad side of it willingly and truthfully.
The last challenge Sri Lanka has is the vested interest factor. Genuine interests of Sri Lanka are not addressed by our international policy makers today. In my analysis, Sri Lanka has been a victim of state capture by a few individuals. Also connected to this group are a few intellectuals holding strategic positions. They see the international challenges to the country as an opportunity for them. They do exploit this opportunity rather than making a contribution to resolve the issues affecting our foreign relations. Think of how Sri Lanka is spending millions of dollars on contracting diplomatic work to foreign PR firms in US. I cannot understand why and under what legal authority Central Bank of Sri Lanka spends Billions of our Public Finance to pay US Public Relation Firms.
If the GOSL is genuinely interested in addressing the international challenges, probably the best way is to respect governance-related recommendation of the LLRC. If they do so, then immediately, there will be an effective accountability mechanism and the public service will be extremely independent. There will be a level playing field to impart and gather information. In my view, in such a situation, the business of patriotism, which has now become a monopoly of the Regime, will be seriously challenged by the people themselves. GOSL under President Rajapasksa and the coterie of political appointees will take all measures to prevent that happening.
Sri Lanka is passing through its weakest period in international politics, since Independence. Despite opportunities, GOSL has not tried to correct its errors. All tools of the GOSL are used to invest in a non-achievable inconclusive ideology, which are without doubt used against our own friends, whom we have now made our enemies. It is time now, to stop moving in this ruinous. In my view, the only way to correct is by being frank and truthful to our own country (without rhetoric) and to the global community. If not, we will end up in self-deceit.
LLM Colombo, Senior Lawyer, Eisenhower Fellow, Senior Ashoka Fellow, Chairman-Transparency International Sri Lanka, Former Constitutional Law Lecturer, Governance & Human Rights activist.