Dangerous defeat in Geneva

Image courtesy Wikipedia

“The passage of the resolution marks a historic moment…”

Having lost the crucial vote in Geneva and opened the door to an international investigation, Sri Lanka is now in new territory. Sri Lankans saw who their real friends were at the UNHRC on Thursday night. Our friends, Pakistan, Cuba, China, Russia — and in a welcome turn around, India, which opposed the intrusive mechanism of an OHCHR led investigation and abstained— did far better for Sri Lanka than the Government of Sri Lanka did for itself and the country. The performance of our friends was infinitely superior to that of our own. Ambassador Zamir Akram of Pakistan (my old comrade-in-arms from the conspicuously successful May 2009 battle in the same arena) made the speech, and argued the case, that the Sri Lankan side should have but didn’t. Not all the King’s horses and men (and gold) could secure a single vote more for Sri Lanka than the unimpressive 12 it obtained last year. In fact Sri Lanka got one vote less than estimated by the Global Tamil Forum ( or was it the British Tamil Forum— they all sound alike to me) in its on the record estimate of the UNHRC vote some weeks ago.

It is not so much that the USA won this vote on the resolution against Sri Lanka, but that Sri Lanka lost, since it was unable to convince those who abstained — which included those who stood with us in 2009— to vote get off the fence and vote with us.

Sri Lanka is in a box in Geneva. It cannot and must not agree to an international inquiry, but the rejection of it will entail an escalating price. An AFP report confirms the trap that is being set for Sri Lanka’s political and military leadership, with a view to legal decapitation:

“A Colombo-based European diplomatic source said any failure by Sri Lanka to conform with the resolution would accelerate the prospect of an international criminal investigation.
“The (draft) resolution says Sri Lanka must cooperate with an investigation,” the source told AFP on condition of anonymity. “If Colombo does not, it will only speed up an international criminal investigation that is down the road.”

A new study published by international rights lawyer Yasmin Sooka, who had also been a UN advisor on post-war accountability issues in Sri Lanka, said there was evidence that merited action in the International Criminal Court. “We urge the ICC prosecutor to explore the cases of individuals who bear the greatest responsibility,” said Sooka’s 110-page report unveiled last week following testimony from survivors of rights abuses in Sri Lanka.” (‘Sri Lanka Faces Toughest UN Censure over War Crimes’, Amal Jayasinghe, AFP March 26, 2014)

No democratically elected government can or should submit this country’s tormented contemporary history and its armed forces to an international inquiry. No party that hopes to be elected to office can be suspected of agreeing to such submission. If the UNP pussyfoots on the UNHRC resolution, it will remain in limbo and possibly go into oblivion through decomposition of its voter base. What any elected government — and that includes a future government of the UNP or the JVP— can and should do is to sincerely implement the LLRC recommendations, including its recommendation for an independent inquiry into a list of identified incidents.

The most striking single development at the UNHRC in Geneva was the fact that the West didn’t mind riding roughshod over India’s principled objections to the unprecedentedly intrusive role accorded in this resolution to the Office of the High Commissioner. This meant that the West was not willing to defer to Delhi’s perceptions in a matter that concerns Delhi, namely the post war process in Sri Lanka and the negative consequences of the resolution’s intrusive aspect. The Anglo-American axis was not willing to concede India’s leading role in a matter in her own neighbourhood. No good ever comes from an extra-regional initiative that vaults over rather than works with the regional power and the clear consensus in the neighbourhood (South Asia, and almost all of Asia, was decidedly opposed to an OHCHR investigation).

The second most noteworthy factor is that the TNA issued a statement welcoming the vote and the international investigation. It did so despite India’s abstention, following its criticisms of the international investigation aspect of the resolution and warnings about the deleterious effect on post-war reconciliation. This makes clear that the TNA marches to a Western Tamil Diaspora drum and perhaps a Western drum, much more than to Delhi’s.

Why did the US-UK overstep the consensus with its strategic partner India? Why did it not defer to Delhi’s perceptions in a matter concerning India’s interests and role? What were the considerations and compulsions driving Western policy that were felt to be more important? Exactly who and what are behind the Geneva resolution? What is the next step the main sponsors have in mind? All this is no longer a matter of guesswork because it is in the public domain. The report of the March 25th 2014 debate on Sri Lanka in the UK House of Commons quotes Hugo Swire, Britain’s Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs as stating that: “We are determined to win the council vote, which will take place later this week. The UK has taken a forward-leaning position and provided leadership, and will help break new ground if the council is successful in establishing an international mechanism.”

So it is the UK rather than the US that has taken “a forward leaning position” i.e. been in the vanguard, and “provided leadership”, leveraging its special relationship with Washington. This is exactly what happened in 2009, when as the Wikileaks cables prove, it was David Miliband who successfully lobbied Hillary Clinton. For the British, this is unfinished colonial business— over-compensating for failing to do to Ceylon/Sri Lanka what British colonialism did to India on the way out, and opening the door for the possible ‘rectification’ of that ‘error’.

Swire also admits that the international inquiry into Sri Lanka will be a precedent in the international system: “will help break new ground if the council is successful in establishing an international mechanism”. It is precisely this aspect that was part of the battle of norms in the UN that a British scholar produced an essay on, observing ruefully that during the last war, it was Sri Lanka that won this battle, especially in Geneva.

“Many of the battles over conflict-related norms between Sri Lanka and Europe took place in UN institutions, primarily the Human Rights Council (HRC)…it was Sri Lanka which generally had the best of these diplomatic battles…In fact, Sri Lankan diplomats have been active norm entrepreneurs in their own right, making significant efforts to develop alternative norms of conflict management, linking for example Chechnya and Sri Lanka in a discourse of statecentric peace enforcement. They have played a leading role in UN forums such as the UN HRC, where Sri Lankan delegates have helped ensure that the HRC has become an arena, not so much for the promotion of the liberal norms around which it was designed, but as a space in which such norms are contested, rejected or adapted in unexpected ways…As a member of the UN HRC Sri Lanka has played an important role in asserting new, adapted norms opposing both secession and autonomy as possible elements in peacebuilding – trends that are convergent with views expressed by China, Russia and India…The Sri Lankan conflict may be seen as the beginning of a new international consensus about conflict management, in which sovereignty and non-interference norms are reasserted, backed not only by Russia and China but also by democratic states such as Brazil”. (David Lewis, ‘The failure of a liberal peace: Sri Lanka’s counterinsurgency in global perspective’, Conflict, Security & Development, 2010, Vol 10:5, pp 647-671)

It is the “new ground” that Hugo Swire hoped to break, i.e. the dangerous deviation from international norms, that Sri Lanka should have focused on and convinced or neutralised a majority of the Council, but it failed to do so because its stance and strategy was not one of reasoned if sharp argumentation (the mode of Sri Lanka in Geneva in 2007-2009) but of dogmatic denial fused with arrogantly aggressive assertion, echoing the discourse of the regime’s most hawkish personality.

What is it then that the US wants? I do not believe it is a military base, because that would be readily handed over by the most militarist element of the power elite, if it gets the regime off the war crimes hook. Surely there is no grand geostrategic factor that could have changed between March 3rd when the US presented a relatively balanced draft resolution that was acceptable to India, and a fortnight later when the US-UK resolution hardened to the point that it was unacceptable to India? US foreign policy is not formulated according to a crudely uni-dimensional militaristic determinism nor can it be comprehended by a geopolitical reductionism. The minimum that the US needs to ease off on Sri Lanka is beyond the maximum the regime is willing to concede, not on military facilities, but precisely on Tamil rights and autonomy, attacks on evangelical Christians (a powerful lobby in the US), and governance and democratic norms in general. The best chance for Sri Lanka to get off the US hook was when the Kerry-Lugar report (of the powerful US Senate Foreign Relations Committee) of late 2009 expressed its willingness for a re-set, with the trade-off being that accountability could be put on the back-burner in return for real progress on political reconciliation with the Tamils, in the form of provincial devolution. Milinda Moragoda was responsible for opening that window, but the Sri Lankan government failed to respond constructively.

I believe that the minimum program of the USA is the same as that of India — containment of Sinhala militarist domination, a greater degree of equilibrium between the Sinhala and Tamils, and rendering regime behaviour more compliant with Western liberal democratic norms of governance. However, US policy seems to have more ambitious aims. Washington knows that its domestic ally, the pro-Western opposition (Ranil and/or CBK) cannot defeat Mahinda Rajapaksa electorally, and therefore, regime change and the re-shaping of the post-war Lankan order must be effected by recourse to external means— initially, international institutions and law, as well as external economic pressure.

The citizenry of Sri Lanka are trapped in a pincer, between the callous lies of the government and the hypocritical, aggressive arrogance of the West. What then is to be done?

Once the sharp contest at the provincial elections is over, Government and opposition should vote on a joint resolution in parliament which rejects any international inquiry, including one led by the Office of the High Commissioner, even if it has been endorsed by a majority of members of the UNHRC.

The way for this or any successor administration to roll back the resolution is to address positively and constructively, everything in it, except for the intrusive inquiry which must be rejected. Remove the planks of the platform by implementation of all the other points raised by both the Resolution and the High Commissioner’s Report, and the external inquiry can be isolated and neutralised.

As a country we have to hold on, hang tough. The speeches on High Commissioner Navi Pillay’s introductory remarks on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC on Wednesday March 26th 2014 showed us the faces of Sri Lanka’s true friends, whom we must never forget for generations to come: Russia, China, Cuba, Pakistan, Venezuela, Vietnam, Namibia, Algeria, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, et al. Hanging tough is not enough, though. We must be smart, and that sometimes means taking one step back so as to take two forward at the right time. There is a difference between capitulation and compromise.

Sri Lanka must hold out until our society and polity are capable of incubating, of gestating a collective Deng Hsiao Peng— a Realist reformist option, which will shift tack, manoeuvre and balance, get us out of this trap.

One does not have to agree with a single sentence of the strident stonewalling engaged in by the representatives of Sri Lanka in Geneva, in order to oppose the grotesque call for an international inquiry mechanism. One does not have to disagree with any criticism of the conduct of the Government of Sri Lanka made by the members of the UNHRC in order to reject an international inquiry. As Sri Lankans, our rejection of an international inquiry must be unconditional. Such an inquiry is so unfair, hypocritical and such an affront to our self-respect as a nation, that our opposition to it cannot be conditional.

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(Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka was Sri Lanka’s Ambassador/Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva in 2007-2009, including the Special Session of May 2009.)

  • TheRealGamarala

    “Such an inquiry is so unfair, hypocritical and such an affront to our self-respect as a nation, that our opposition to it cannot be conditional.”
    What a load of claptrap. We have already lost our self-respect as a nation thanks to the regime’s ill-thought supremacist agenda. What remains to be done is to do the right thing by the people who have been affected, and that, this govt. is steadfastly refusing to do, hence the international inquiry. You’ve admitted as much in the prior paragraphs.

    So the only reason to oppose this has nothing to do with Sri Lanka’s self-respect, but merely abject fear of how the masses in Sri Lanka will react, which in one word, will be – irrationally.

    • alex f

      Agree. You let the bully off just because some of the children will throw a tantrum. The authors reasoning is simply … ‘nationalists will go crazy’ so lets suspend the rule of law. Not sure that argument will work for anyone.

  • Jayalath

    Let us see where the LTTE born and bred and why India abstained at last moment .and you see as ashame the friends who supported . Where I see the reason is they weren’t the side that you expected , however , we must not make the crisis simple being into petty argument . And , There are not concrete friendships with any one but this is the result today . As I always said ,there are two factions in the world ,so we have to choose one side regardless that side is good or bad . But the side we chose the side of victims of the west and other side is wealthy side who accumulated the wealth being sucking the poor nations blood .they are responsible for multi million lives around the world . Therefore we are not with bad guys as to some cynics knowledge ,.i would suggest some rogues to think About the history after big breath if you have a difficulty of digesting the coming threats from the west . What we must do now is line up the people to achieve the eternal peace in Sri Lanka .which will not come to your door step unless you make a good effort to make it happen .

  • noname

    Wow. Not one word in this opinion piece about the events of 2009 and the slaughter of nearly 40,000 Tamil people. Instead, it explores ways for Sri Lanka to avoid issues of accountability and justice for the victims of genocide. The US and The West are against us. At least we have the support of such exemplars of democracy as China, Pakistan, Uzbeistan and Cuba :) This article is a disgrace.

  • Sinniah Sivagnanasun

    If Cuba can survive at the feet of great America, If China can CAPTURE Tibet in day light and be HEROIC at the INT. level If Russia can intrude in Crimea and bold enough to defend, WHY CANT TAMILS HAVE THEIR OWN COUNTRY (which their forfathers ruled for thousands of years ) ?
    Whatever said by anybody obviously things are moving in that way AUTOMATICALLY .
    India eventhough a powerful country cannot deter TAMILS more.
    Tamils are in FREE nations worldwide exposing themselves POSITIVELY through their day to day life intermingled with their REFINED culture .
    They have showed the way of FRIENDSHIP with ALL humans sometimes being concidered MEEK or WEEK too.
    Their UNSHAKABLE motto is “ ALL Countries belong to all of us and ALL People are our FRIENDS.“

    All must know for certain at this context that Diaspora TAMILS cannot be DETERED by any NEGATIVE comments made by ANYBODY as THEY are those who FLED the HOrr,EIBLE nation for good and living allmost a leading live among the MATURED souls of DEVELOPED (materially ) Nations.

    As they have the capacity IN and OUT , Honest,loving Moral ( may be there odds ) ,Nobody can STOP them from being upcomming as a positive DEMOCRATIC FORCE all over the world in near future.

  • Burning_Issue

    “Our friends, Pakistan, Cuba, China, Russia..”

    It says a lot, doesn’t it? What did Dr DJ think about Russia annexing Crimea?

    What possible bad will happen if UN were to investigate the allegations? Would it amount to the Tamils putting one over the Sinhala? No, it does not. If an Investigation were to establish or restore democracy and rule of law in Sri Lanka, it will be a big victory for all Sri Lankans. Its seems a distant memory when Dr DJ was submerged in victory celebrations with euphoric chest-thumpping utopia. He wrote articles after articles defending the euphoric celebrations over the deaths of thousands of innocent Tamil civilians; he felt no penitence! Now the situation has summersaulted he is now profoundly indignant claiming implicitly that he could have done a better job! He chestices

    • Fitzpatrick

      Exactly, if the UNHCR passes resolutions praising a victory over the terrorists (an internal war), its good but when it censures it, it is bad?

  • Keynes!

    Why were the Muslims protesting against this resolution?

  • Piranha

    “No democratically elected government can or should submit this country’s tormented contemporary history and its armed forces to an international inquiry”
    Dayan is stating exactly the opposite of what a democratically elected government must do. Dayan wants the mass murderers to go scot free. That means immunity for the war criminals that will fprovide impunity for present and future crimes against the tamils.
    India’s vote against in Geneva is because of the fear of their complicity in the war crimes coming to light in an international investigation. Manmohan colluded with Rajapaksa in committing the crimes by providing military hardware, advisers and intelligence and the diplomatic cover in the international arena. When this truth is revealed in an investigation Manmohan will stand with Rajapaksa in the ICC at Hague. The americans and the british are well aware of India’s complicity in war crimes and that’s why they disregarded India’s objections.

  • srivanamoth

    It is time to cleanse the Sri Lanka stables full of deceit and lies and far worse bloodbaths and war graves under cover of the dreadful and draconian PTA borrowed from former South Afrika! In goodness name the UN investigation should continue unabated and find out what is always driving evil over good. Sovereignty belongs to “the people”, according to the constitution, meaning ALL the people, NOT Sinhala Only and Buddhists foremost which have determined nature and conduct of governments and governance. In the final analysis if the country is to stay as one entity commonsense and even an iota of intelligence dictate that the investigation continue untrammeled.

  • Sinniah Sivagnanasun

    What is wrong with the Author ? Why he states TNA dances to the Drum of the West ? Does he not know TNA is a POLITICAL body democratically elected to SAVEGUARD the TAMILS and their culture, Rights and LAND.
    Whats wrong in their position ?

    Anybody can say anything without any knowledge or sympathy. Nobody will care now a days when it is said madly .

  • Richard Kaz

    DJ has always stood for a benign form of oppression of Tamils as opposed to the brutal form of oppression of the Rajapaksa regime. A good analogy is, DJ’s views are like British imperialism and Rajapaksa regime’s views are like American imperialism. At the end of the day, both believe in the oppression of Tamils.

    • Aia

      Could not agree you more, what matters most for DJ was the numbers, how many voted for or against ….and..his writings in this topic have been expressing one thing to me that is he could not forgive the GoSL for taking him out of the UN, that’s it. And, regardless of what GoSL has been doing/not doing during the last 5 years since the war, if Tamara and he were let to be at the helm, the outcome would have been different. That is how he is trying to simplify the whole issue. Reading his articles, how hurtful can be for those kith and kin of those who were taken into custody and slaughtered like beef castles in their own country and others, whom loved ones, were lost in the humanitarian rescue operation. Only way to regain the self-respect of this country is to have an open and honest investigation and punish those who responsible for the heinous crimes, failing,Hague will have the last laugh.

      What does the offer of releasing the fishermen of Tamil Nadu returning favor to Indiamade by our HE says to the outside world about our judicial system? Comic? Isn’t it worse stupidity than what our Prof GL did? For that, doubting on GL’s faculties are in proper order, HE asked it seems if he has got a brain. Poor GL’s priority was to keep Russia happy and ensuring 1 vote for SL at the UN and MR also knew why he did this,
      but that the clever politician he is, only what he did was a damage control taking GoSL out of any blame.

    • Hexar

      Personally, I think British imperialism was worse than American imperialism. But nevertheless, I agree with your analogy.

  • Dev

    Thank you. When you have no “recent” achievements what else can you do?

  • rec1

    Modi will be the next Indian PM and Vaiko will be a minister and likely Jayalalitha will be part of the ruling alliance
    Given the ease with which Russia swallowed Crimea, it may tempt Jayalalitha to repeat this in tamil and muslim areas. And no, China is too far away and wont directly get involved