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Problems of success? Post-war Sri Lanka’s international challenges

Photo by Ishara S.KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images, via RightsNow

Since the end of Sri Lanka’s thirty year-long war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the island is often evoked internationally in relation to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. The UNHRC remains the only supranational body where the case of Sri Lanka has been evoked on a regular basis since the 1980s. Right from the outset of Eelam War IV, Sri Lanka attracted much criticism from policy research lobbies and senior personalities such as the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and present ICG chief Dr Louise Arbour. The UNHRC’s scrutiny of Sri Lanka was intensified in the aftermath of the final military offensive of May 2009. This was a justifiable move, given the substantive civilian casualties and the humanitarian catastrophe resulting in the displacement of some 300,000 civilians. Colombo’s treatment of displaced Tamil civilians caused considerable international alarm, as civilians were held in temporary shelters (which the government emphatically termed ‘welfare centres’ and critics categorically described as ‘concentration camps’), with accusations and considerable evidence over acts of violence and human rights violations.

In the following, I shall focus on two key aspects of what could be termed Sri Lanka’s ‘problems of success’, i.e. the negative reputation related to the conduct of the 2009 war and the management of post-war challenges. The first point invariably involves the necessity of a viable strategy of dealing with the key accusations on the conduct of war and post-war atrocities. This also includes the broader ethno-national question, which, despite the military victory, is yet to be addressed on the political realm. In contextualising Sri Lanka’s challenges of dealing with a violent past legacy half-a-decade on, I shall take a brief comparative drift, reflecting upon a somewhat parallel problem of dealing with the past that forms a substantive challenge to the present-day politics of Northern Ireland. The second aspect of the problem concerns Colombo’s management of its diplomatic apparatus, which has proved to be problematic. Even the gradual implementation of a strategy to deal with international concerns would be ineffective in the absence of a reinforced diplomatic machinery – hence the importance of raising this point. In conclusion, this article outlines the necessity of a nuanced and practically-oriented approach that corresponds to Sri Lanka’s present-day foreign policy requirements and priorities.

A Strategic void? Policy lacunae in the post-war phase

As one examines post-war Sri Lanka’s international challenges, which one writer emphatically terms Sri Lanka’s ‘Geneva problem’, the key point that comes to light is the absence of a specific programme of action from the government of Sri Lanka. It adopts a rather ambiguous policy approach, which involves diplomatic bargaining with New Delhi, a policy of surveillance and heavy military presence in the Northern Province, and an unambiguous inclination to pursue majoritarian politics. To the connoisseur of Sri Lankan politics, none of these comes as a surprise. To a large extent, this was the attitude that reigned throughout post-1948 Ceylonese/Sri Lankan politics. Not surprisingly, Colombo’s majoritarian drift has expanded in the post-war context, with the Rajapaksa administration’s emergence as the victor of a war hitherto deemed unwinnable. The singular focus on the victory effectively concealed the necessity of a programme of action concerning the management of post-war challenges. Instead, the post-war emphasis was on patriots and non-patriots, and a discourse revolving around the notion that the scars of war, suffering and the deep-seated ethno-national concerns could be reconciled through economic and infrastructure development. This policy materialised in the Neganahira Navodaya and Uturu Vasantaya initiatives. What victorious Colombo has failed to appraise is the reality that such policies of peace and reconciliation through infrastructure building and economic development have a track record of dramatic failure in Sri Lanka. In the early 1980s, President Jayewardene’s policy approach verged on this paradigm. The Jayewardene administration’s liberalisation project was implemented with a strong local flavour, intermingling open markets and the state’s patrimonial role in distributing the dividends of the new economic policy. In 2002-2004, the Wickremesinghe Peace Process was built upon the ‘liberal peace as economic development’ thesis. Similar comparative insights of the failure of ‘peace as economic development’ policies can be gleaned from many other divided societies from across the world.

In the case of Sri Lanka, an argument could be advanced that a policy of reason and magnanimity is unwarranted, as the undisputed victor is in a position to manage post-war politics on terms of its own. This, however, is a somewhat inadequate reading with regards to the Sri Lankan question. The scope of action for a small state in the South Asian region, at the intersections of India’s southerly neighbourhood and China’s string-of-pearls strategy in the Indian Ocean – despite being an impressive victor – remains constrained.

The only positive aspect of Colombo’s approach to post-war challenges has been the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). The LLRC was the consequence of international pressure for an investigative mechanism, as well as a response to the report of a Panel of Experts appointed by the UN Secretary General to examine the alleged atrocities, which was heavily critical of the government of Sri Lanka. Despite the unveiling of a National Plan of Action to implement the LLRC’s rather mild recommendations, it has been unhelpful in making a substantive difference on the ground and, by implication, in defending Colombo’s case on the international front. A complementary aspect of sanity is the lesser-heard voice of a moderate devolutionist lobby that calls for the full implementation of the 13th amendment to the 1978 Constitution of the 2nd Republic, through which the provisions for limited centrifugal devolution stipulated in the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord were constitutionalised. This lobby includes leftist political parties that are members of President Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition, but their voices have been largely side-lined in the context of a discourse of a military victory and the defeat of separatist terrorism.

Sri Lanka and Human Rights: Incompatible elements?

The international allegations and Colombo’s reactions are best understood by positing the present-day situation in its politico-historical backdrop. Occasional expressions of hollow commitment put aside, there has been no credible, transparent inquiry into in the pogrom of July 1983. There has been no impartial and extensive inquiry into the violence and murder that devastated the ‘Sinhalese south’ in 1988-1989. No mechanism to investigate the loss of lives at both these instances (as well as in the 1971 insurrection, for that matter) has been implemented. The Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP), the steering force and primary victim of both risings, held cabinet power in the early 2000s, but kept numb on such a mechanism. All they cared for in the early/mid 2000s was wrecking the Wickremesinghe government’s peace process and subsequently, bringing Mahinda Rajapaksa to power. Whether that party’s new leadership (a rare and extremely fortunate survivor of the decimation of JVP members in 1988-89) would push for such an investigation is yet to be seen. A point worth highlighting is that none of the aforementioned atrocities – which most definitely involved crimes against humanity and mass violations of fundamental rights – were reasons enough for the UNHRC or any other international body to push for impartial national-level investigations, let alone independent international inquires. As far as the government of Sri Lanka is concerned, the preference has been not un-identical to that of many governments across the world – to staunchly stick to its positions, condemning those who rose against its authority.

A comparative perspective?

In explaining Colombo’s relative reluctance to launch an independent inquiry into wartime atrocities and post-war problems (as well as to facilitate devolution), some analysts highlight the argument that Sri Lanka was not the only country that needed a long period of time to move towards a magnanimous posture. An often-cited analogy is the British government’s slow-paced approach to accountability in Northern Ireland.

The most frequently evoked example is perhaps the shooting of twenty-six civilians in the Bogside, a strongly Irish Republican neighbourhood in the predominantly Nationalist/Catholic Cityside of Derry/Londonderry, on Sunday, 30 January 1972, by soldiers of the British Army’s First Battalion of the Parachute Regiment. This incident came to be known as ‘Bloody Sunday’ and resulted in fourteen deaths. The families of victims went through a long-winded nightmare to seek justice for their deceased loved ones from Her Majesty’s government. It was only on 29 January 1998 that Prime Minister Tony Blair appointed a commission of inquiry into what happened twenty-six years earlier. The inquiry, also known as the Saville Inquiry (after the commission’s chairman Lord Saville of Newdigate) took some twelve years to be completed at a cost of 191 million GBP. The Bloody Sunday Inquiry Report (also known as the Saville Report) was published on June 15, 2010 and that afternoon, Prime Minister David Cameron made the following statement in the House of Commons, which, in the context of the present comparative reflection, is worth quoting at some length:

I am deeply patriotic; I never want to believe anything bad about our country; I never want to call into question the behaviour of our soldiers and our Army, which I believe to be the finest in the world. And I have seen for myself the very difficult and dangerous circumstances in which we ask our soldiers to serve. But the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear: there is no doubt; there is nothing equivocal; there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong… we do not defend the British Army by defending the indefensible. We do not honour all those who have served with distinction in keeping the peace and upholding the rule of law in Northern Ireland by hiding from the truth. So there is no point in trying to soften, or equivocate about, what is in this report. It is clear from the tribunal’s authoritative conclusions that the events of Bloody Sunday were in no way justified… Some members of our armed forces acted wrongly. The Government are ultimately responsible for the conduct of the armed forces, and for that, on behalf of the Government-indeed, on behalf of our country – I am deeply sorry (emphasis mine).

This apology came some thirty-eight years after the incident in question, but even then, it triggered controversy in the British military establishment. Bloody Sunday is indeed only one of many atrocities of the Northern Ireland conflict, and dealing with the past continues to be a highly divisive issue in the present-day politics of Northern Ireland. Substantive disagreements over mechanisms of dealing with past atrocities (committed especially by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, loyalist paramilitaries and the British forces), together with other controversial issues such as the hoisting of the British and Irish flags, and (republican and loyalist) parades, resulted in a series of talks in late 2013, chaired by former US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland Dr Richard Haass and Professor Megan O’Sullivan, an advisor to the George W. Bush administration. The talks – which preceded the opening of a Panel of Parties to which interested parties could make submissions – ended with no agreement, and there is little hope that local parties (especially the unionists) would agree to a serious inquiry into past atrocities in the foreseeable future. The ongoing controversy of the arrest of Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams over the Provisional IRA’s December 1972 abduction and assassination of Jean McConville in West Belfast and ensuing debates are exemplary of the high-profile nature of the challenge at hand. Sinn Féin reiterates the fragility of the peace process, and has accused the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), itself a key offspring of the peace process, as being engaged in a negative and anti-peace process agenda and in ‘political policing’. Adams’s release on Sunday 4 May 2014 further added to the politicised nature of the question of dealing with the past.

The time-consuming and delayed nature of investigations into past atrocities in Northern Ireland does provide analysts with a reason to question the international community’s keenness to call upon an international investigation on the conduct of war a mere five years into the post-war phase in Sri Lanka. This claim, despite its overt justifiability, is ill-grounded and unhelpful to Sri Lanka. It is fundamentally ill-conceived due to issues of power, international influence, leverage, and geographical context. In the backdrop of the Cold War world order, the USA-UK ‘Special Relationship’ was such that Washington DC was very keen – despite repeated pleas by the influential Irish American lobby and the Irish government – to treat Northern Ireland as an internal matter of the United Kingdom. This policy witnessed a substantive change only after 1992, when the Clinton administration found itself in a position to pursue a proactive policy on Northern Ireland. The early 1990s also marked the fruition of efforts to strengthen British-Irish cooperation on the question of Northern Ireland. This, coupled with the discourse on European integration and peaceful borders within the European Union (not to mention unprecedented financial support from the European institutions for community relations initiatives in Northern Ireland and in the Irish Border Region) resulted in a situation in which the pieces of a tricky puzzle were gradually put together. From the late sixties until the late nineties, the British government’s Northern Ireland policy involved a substantive security component. It was only in 1998, in the wake of an imminent agreement, that the British government found itself in a politically advantageous position (within Northern Ireland, in bringing the Republicans to the negotiation table, and in the realm of British politics, increasing the Blair government’s standing as the forerunner of a settlement) to launch such an inquiry. It is a combination of such factors that explains the decades-long delay in launching inquiries. The inquiries so far launched are all but a fraction of the work yet to be done in terms of dealing with the past.

It is indeed useful to engage in comparative reflection, but – as it will be noted below with regards to Sri Lanka’s foreign policy challenges – it is even more important to focus on Sri Lanka’s specific limits and capabilities. The fact that inquiries in Northern Ireland took several decades does not imply that Sri Lanka should follow suit. Concerning the conduct of Eelam War IV or post-war atrocities, Colombo lacks the level of influence and leverage the British government wielded with regards to Northern Ireland throughout the troubled decades preceding the inquiries. The prism through which the international community perceives Sri Lanka dramatically differs from the way in which violent excesses in powerful states are perceived. Focusing on this fundamental injustice is an analytical necessity. However, it is in the best interest of governments of small states to put themselves in win-win positions in confronting allegations over issues of conflict, violence and accountability. In the case of Sri Lanka, such an approach is incomplete in the absence of a concerted mechanism that transparently and credibly seeks to address the allegations.

The diplomatic quagmire: A story of ambivalence?

In the post-war phase, the Rajapaksa administration faces the foremost challenge on the diplomatic front. It has been engaged in a constant effort to demonstrate its position as a responsible government with politically correct policies. This is evidenced, for instance, in its keenness to organize defence seminars and to promote publications that seek to justify the 2009 offensive as a just and necessary war and its victory as a tremendous juncture in the island’s sociopolitical life. However, Colombo has been unsuccessful in concealing the vast gap between its policies on the ground and the politically correct and accountable posture it seeks to adopt internationally. This discrepancy is at the heart of Western critiques on the rule of law and accountability.

As the regional superpower and an emerging world power, India adopts an extremely pragmatic posture in simultaneously managing Delhi’s relations with her influential Western allies, small neighbouring states in the South Asian region, the Jammu/Kashmir/Pakistan conundrum, domestic political concerns and interactions with her star-clad red-flagged ‘Eastphalian’ counterpart across the Himalayas. Consequently, Delhi’s Sri Lanka policy is best described as ambivalent and pragmatic. Delhi may pursue a critical stance on Sri Lanka’s ethnonational question, taking domestic concerns (i.e. the Tamil Nadu factor) into account. However, on a regional paradigm, the focus is on engaging in a delicate balancing act, keeping Colombo in watch, in an effort to contain Colombo’s close cooperation with Islamabad and Peking. It is this pragmatism that prompts Delhi to support US-led UN HRC resolutions, subsequently soften the wording of such resolutions and on the day of voting at UNHRC, abstain.

Learning from Precedents?

The above-mentioned void in domestic politics reflects itself in the management of foreign policy priorities. This, coupled by acute problems of running Sri Lanka’s foreign affairs apparatus, increases the extent of the diplomatic challenge at hand. However, such critiques need to be nuanced, not only in the backdrop of Sri Lankan political culture, but also the general functional dynamics of elitist government services in any country. Yet, a key factor that characterises Sri Lanka’s present-day foreign policy problems pertains to the convoluted deployment of human resources. The exit strategy is best explained by an example from Sri Lanka’s own political history. In the United Front government (1970-1977), Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike appointed her son Anura as her foreign affairs advisor. However, the foreign affairs establishment was largely managed by highly experienced diplomats and professionals in the field of international affairs, whose expertise enabled Mrs Bandaranaike to shine on the international scene.

In the 1980s, the Jayewardene administration maintained a relatively stable international standing, despite the rise of Tamil militant activity and civil war. Pace his rows with the Gandhis, President Jayewardene was a friend of his like-minded contemporaries, especially Prime Minister Thatcher and President Reagan. Contrary to the present-day scenario, Jayewardene was never an unwelcome guest at the White House or at No. 10 Downing Street. Jayewardene’s links to Britain and to British royalty were sound, with the Queen visiting in person for the fiftieth anniversary of Universal Suffrage and the following year, invitations being extended to the British Royal Wedding not only to Jayewardene, but also to Premadasa. Despite the black spot of July 1983, which amounted to an identically (if not even more) devastating experience as that of May 2009, Jayewardene was Reagan’s guest at the White House in 1984. In 1985, Mrs Thatcher visited Colombo on terms of friendship and support. As far as Prime Minister Premadasa was concerned, he had built a considerable international reputation of his own as a man of the masses who strove to implement an ambitious housing project. Despite all odds, Sri Lanka under Jayewardene was, by and large, in the international community’s good books. Conflicts of interest were occasional, such as Jayewardene’s request for military and logistical support from the UK and US governments in combating Tamil separatism. As Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe noted at the Cabinet meeting on Thursday 6 December 1984:

The British Government has made it clear that the Sri Lankan Government could not expect any military assistance from the United Kingdom under the 1947 Defence Agreement. The Sri Lankans had…requested of the United Kingdom and also the United States and Japan a loan of naval patrol vessels for use against Tamil terrorists operating from India. It was unlikely to be possible for the British Government to supply vessels of the required type but it would, in any case, be politically inadvisable for the United Kingdom to meet the Sri Lankan request (Cabinet Minutes, CAB 128/79 f233).

Despite issues of this nature, there was no inclination in the West to scrutinise Colombo’s approach to the ethno-national question, the civil war and related violence in the 1980s. In the last decade of the Cold War world order, Jayewardene headed Sri Lanka as a senior statesman with a distinctly pro-Western posture, a factor that prevented the West from taking a critical stance on Sri Lanka, despite UN HRC allegations that were as intense as they are at present.

The challenging nature of the present-day scenario can be explained by both internal and external factors. Internally, the present incumbent lacks Jayewardene’s track record in international engagement. Externally (and more importantly), Sri Lanka’s present-day international challenges can be read as a consequence of the transforming priorities of an emergent multipolar world order. Western powers prioritise their relations with emerging superpowers. Given the substantive trade and strategic interests, Western governments are not in a position to be overtly critical of human rights and accountability issues of emerging superpowers. Cases such as Sri Lanka provide excellent opportunities to engage in liberal internationalist critiques on accountability, human rights and the rule of law, which, in the case of Sri Lanka, is further facilitated by Colombo’s lack of a clear strategy on the ethno-national question and problems in managing the foreign policy apparatus.

The only occasion at which, strategically speaking, the Rajapaksa administration successfully managed its international priorities was in the run-up to May 2009. As far as the LTTE secessionist threat was alive, there was a highly contested yet justifiable case of antiterrorism and counterinsurgency that Colombo could put forward in its defence. What was subsequently required was a strategic U-turn, and an unambiguous, upfront and see-through emphasis on fundamental rights, accountability, the punishment of perpetrators of wartime excesses, and an overall commitment to good governance. This was – and continues to be – the one and only path forward if the Rajapaksa government seriously wishes to gain international recognition as a uniquely unprecedented vanquisher of terrorism. Instead, what the Rajapaksa administration did was the pursuit of the same approach it had pursued in Geneva back in March 2009. Herein lay Colombo’s most monumental diplomatic error in recent history, which may only be second to the Jayewardene administration’s rather myopic India policy of the 1980s.

Balancing foreign policy priorities: A delicate game

In addressing the present-day international concerns, the first step that the government of Sri Lanka could and should take is the following: a realistic appraisal of its strengths and weaknesses. The vanquishing of a 30-year terrorist threat is indeed the key plus factor for Colombo. This is complemented by the fact that the LTTE was an internationally proscribed terrorist organisation. The May 2009 brutal end can be justified, especially on the basis of repeated past failures to seek a negotiated settlement, the LTTE’s intransigence, and such an argument could also benefit from the post-9/11 global emphasis on counterterrorism.

Sri Lanka’s limits and strengths as a developing small state in South Asia that vanquished a 30-year terror threat need to be constantly kept in sight. The path forward lies in taking realistic and cautious steps that would enable Colombo to counter the allegations one by one, through internationally viable mechanisms. In terms of managing foreign policy, the best insights are glimpsed from Sri Lanka’s post-1948 political trajectory. The most significant foreign policy achievements were realised when Colombo prioritised a non-aligned foreign policy agenda, in a constant effort to balance relations with key international partners, deploying the best of human resources available. Foreign policy-related problems (such as relations with India in the 1980s and the present-day concerns) have always occurred whenever that precious balance had been negatively affected. At the Republic Building, it is a fine sense of balancing foreign policy that ought to be the order of the day. Despite all odds, it could be noted in conclusion that all hope is not lost for Sri Lanka to develop a national strategy for reconciliation. Not infrequent yet seldom publicised recent visits to South Africa by the highest authority in charge of the defence establishment, if anything, is proof of a growing realisation of the way in which existing foreign policy challenges are to be handled.

Dr Chaminda Weerawardhana is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Queen’s University Belfast.

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This article is part of a  larger collection of articles and content commemorating five years after the end of war in Sri Lanka. An introduction to this special edition by the Editor of Groundviews can be read here. This, and all other articles in the special edition, is published under a Creative Commons license that allows for republication with attribution.