Colombo, International, International Relations, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Reconciliation

Of Foreign Policy Failures, Geneva Resolutions, Double Standards and other excuses for Non-Reconciliation in Sri Lanka


Photograph of, by some accounts, the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka. 

Reminiscences of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy triumphs spearheaded by the late lamented Lakshman Kadirgamar are fresh in my  mind given that it was only the other day (12 April) that we marked what might have been  his 81st birth anniversary with a tribute to the former Foreign Minister. It is, therefore, doubly sad to reflect on the fact that Sri Lanka’s relations with the world outside our shores are in tatters at present. To say that our foreign policy today lacks coherence,  direction  and depth is to be generous.

Had Lakshman Kadirgamar been our Foreign Minister at the time, the  short-sighted  ‘victory resolution’ introduced by Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in Geneva in 2009 would not have seen the light of day. His sagacity would have enabled Sri Lanka to avoid the pitfall of playing into the hands of our opponents, a sagacity that characterised our professional diplomacy even before Lakshman Kadirgamar came on the scene. The first decisions or resolutions on Sri Lanka were adopted by the predecessor body of the Human Rights Council, the Commission on Human Rights(UNCHR) in 1984 following the disastrous ‘Black July’ of 1983 and the outrage that that awful incident caused both domestically and externally, and later again in 1987, largely on the initiative of India supported by the European Union (EU) and Argentina. The key point we need to remember, however, is that these resolutions were adopted without a vote because the Sri Lankan delegations of 1984 and 1987 ‘with tact and professional diplomacy converted hostile resolutions into benign ones’. The then Canadian representative in Geneva in fact ‘recalled [that] the representative of Sri Lanka had rightly referred to that  country’s  reputation  as a voice of reason, moderation and prudence. His [Sri Lanka’s] delegation had laid great stress on the recognition of these qualities’.  From 1987 to 2009, Sri Lanka was mentioned in the debates of the Commission on Human Rights(CHR) and the Human Rights Council (HRC) but no resolutions against us were passed in either body. Here, we do need to acknowledge the diplomatic support we received from India  in the aftermath of the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987.

It is in 2009 that we were once again at the receiving end of a hostile resolution in Geneva during the last stages of Sri Lanka’s military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). This resolution was aggressively opposed by the Sri Lankan delegation. Discretion was not considered the better part of valour  by those guiding Sri Lanka’s diplomatic destinies at that time both in Colombo and in Geneva and anti-western ideology was allowed to trump national interest. Instead of deploying ‘quiet diplomacy’ to turn ‘a hostile resolution into a benign one’, we went in with ‘all our  guns blazing’ and initiated a counter resolution( dubbed by its critics as a ‘victory resolution’) which was adopted by the UNHRC in a divided vote (29 for, 12 against and with 6 abstaining).  Included in this ‘victory resolution’ significantly is a promise to implement the 13th Amendment to our Constitution. It is largely the content of this ‘victory resolution of 2009 that has come back to haunt us in the resolutions against us adopted by the UNHRC in 2012 and 2013. After as violent an end to a decades-long war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) that Sri Lanka endured, prudent and smart diplomacy  demanded that we stay off radar, not willingly get on it. Thanks to the foolhardy diplomatic adventurism of 2009 in Geneva and the excessively self-congratulatory post-war attitudes and non-progressive policies that that ‘victory resolution’ engendered, Sri Lanka is now doomed to remain on the UNHRC agenda for the foreseeable future.

The architects of these UNHRC resolutions against Sri Lanka in 2012 and 2013 are two countries – – India and the United States – – who supported us to the hilt from 2002 onwards in our battle against the LTTE. India, by the way, voted with Sri Lanka in 2009 for our ‘victory resolution’ as well. Previous policy blunders related to nurturing the LTTE notwithstanding, India  supported our conclusive military action to eliminate the LTTE despite the then impending Indian elections of  May 2009 and related  Tamilnadu ‘compulsions’. In 2006, the United States had sent a Special Envoy to Europe on behalf of this very same government led by President Rajapaksa to lobby support for the listing by the European Union of the LTTE as a terrorist outfit. In doing so, the United States had to resist the not inconsiderable Norwegian and the Tamil diaspora-led opposition to this ban on the LTTE.  Although the likes of David Miliband (UK) and Bernard Kouchner (France) tried their utmost to initiate international action against us, Sri Lanka was able to ensure that no Government took a concerted diplomatic initiative at the UN Security Council to compel Sri Lanka to abort the final military push against the LTTE, something similar to that which India, acting unilaterally, had done in the 1980s by compelling us to halt the Vadamarachchi operation. Transforming these intra-conflict diplomatic assets into post-war diplomatic liabilities has taken some doing and is reflective of our recent foreign policy blunders! This state of affairs indeed is a sad commentary on our post-war diplomacy.

Our External Affairs Minister declares emphatically in Parliament that our relations with the United States remain unchanged, that is, we assume, they remain in disarray. Meanwhile both the Sri Lanka Mission in Washington D.C., and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, according to the well informed Sunday Times Political Editor (see the Sunday Times of 14 April, pages 12 and 13 for details) enter into agreements with lobbying firms in the United States for a monthly fee of US$ 116, 660 or more without Cabinet approval or the formal consent of the Ministry of External Affairs. Are we to assume that these costly agreements are to keep US-Sri Lanka relations unchanged as Minister Peiris asserts or is it the case that the responsibility for the maintenance of our relations with Washington is being outsourced? Actions, we know, speak  louder  than words,  even if the words are those of our usually eloquent External Affairs Minister. In fairness to Minister Peiris, it has to be recorded that he is, unlike Foreign Minister Kadirgamar, hamstrung by Monitoring MPs who have not the foggiest about international relations and saddled with ambassadors and high commissioners who know more about selling tea than reading tea leaves!

Clearly Sri Lanka’s foreign policy record, post-2009 in particular, leaves much to be desired. Key supporters of Sri Lanka up until 2009 (the foundation for such   support was deftly laid by Lakshman Kadirgamar and our seasoned career diplomats )  – – India and the United States  – –  are now the leading sponsors of hostile UNHRC resolutions against us. Canada, a government that stood by us solidly in Geneva and  elsewhere  in 1987 and after, is today critical of our  post-2009 record. These disagreements over our post-2009 conduct have spilt over into the domain of foreign policy.  Canada is now unsupportive of Sri Lanka’s hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) scheduled for November 2013 whilst Britain has expressed considerable doubts about its level of participation in it.

The Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) is scheduled to meet on the 26th of April and indications are that our indefatigable External Affairs Minister is set to dash to London around the time of the CMAG Meeting to attempt damage control. Time was when our Ambassadors and High Commissioners could handle routine matters of this nature. But that was during a time, generally speaking, when square pegs were not placed in round holes as seems to be the case today.

Accountability, reconciliation, and the violation of Commonwealth Latimer House Principles as a result of the procedurally flawed and illegal removal of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake are expected to be discussed at the April CMAG Meeting. This discussion may have an impact on the next CHOGM, particularly with regard to the location of, and the level of participation at, that Meeting. Chances are that the developing member countries of the Commonwealth will support sticking with the venue agreed upon- – Colombo – – for the next CHOGM. But as to whether the 2013 CHOGM will be well attended at Heads of Government level is as yet uncertain. The precise level of participation of some senior member countries of the Commonwealth is likely to be decided upon only after the deliberations at the  April CMAG Meeting or even after the September sessions of the UNHRC. The key issue the Commonwealth will need to resolve, according to informed sources, is whether or not it will be comfortable with having Sri Lanka as its Chair-in-Office for the two years following the November 2013 CHOGM, were the Meeting to go ahead as scheduled. Given Sri Lanka’s parlous track record in the sphere of democratic governance in recent years, we seem to  observe in the breach  established Commonwealth  principles such as respect for and observation of the rule of law, freedom of expression, independence of the judiciary and the like. Hence  having Sri Lanka serve as Chair-in-Office, to put it mildly, may well prove an unenviable burden for the Commonwealth.

Meantime portentous events are unfolding in our neighbourhood across the Palk Straits. If the turmoil in Tamilnadu is bad, the statements of two of India’s  foremost political personalities are astounding from a foreign policy perspective. India, alone among all important stakeholders connected to Sri Lanka who, despite its early misguided support for the Tamil militants of Sri Lanka, has been from the very start categorically opposed to the establishment of a separate state in Sri Lanka, appears now to have second thoughts on this significant issue. Let us ponder over the statements attributed to Sonia Gandhi of the ruling UPA and of senior BJP leader Yaswant Sinha, a former Foreign Minister of India. Sonia Gandhi took a remarkably unusual step at the Congress Parliamentary Party meeting of a few weeks ago when she expressed her party’s concern for the Sri Lankan Tamils in the following terms:

The plight of the Tamils in Sri Lanka is close to our hearts. Our support for equal rights and equal protection of the laws to them has been unwavering since the days of Indiraji and Rajivji.

Yaswant Sinha on Wednesday the 3rd of April (as reported in the Indian Express of 4 April, 2013) urged Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to skip the CHOGM scheduled to be held in Sri Lanka.  ‘Noting that India is the pivot of the Commonwealth’,   in the course of a speech on the predicament of the Tamils of Sri Lanka,   Sinha opined  that ‘if India does not go there,  the CHOGM cannot be held’.  Sinha also called for the suspension of Sri Lanka from the Commonwealth by the CMAG for violations of the Harare Declaration. He suggested that India should initiate action to see that Sri Lanka is so suspended. He also called for ‘an India-led resolution at the UNHRC,  suggesting Sri Lanka remove all of its Forces from the northern and eastern provinces of the island’. Whilst stating that elections[ to the Northern Provincial Council]  should be held at the earliest under international supervision, Sinha also went on to say that  ‘there should be an independent inquiry into the atrocities committed against the Tamils’.

The sting, more ominously, is in the tail of Sinha’s speech.  Refraining only thinly from extending overt support for the demand for a separate Tamil Eelam, Sinha has pointed to ‘Bangladesh, East Timor and North and South Sudan, where people overthrew suppressive (sic) regimes and warned Rajapaksa to reform’.

These two statements of Sonia Gandhi and Yaswant Sinha are juxtaposed not because they are equal; no, they are so placed merely to heighten the degree to which the mutual understanding that has existed between our two countries since 2002 in particular have diminished today. Two of the leading personalities in the government and the political opposition of India are indicating dissatisfaction with what is happening in our country and this is clearly a case for serious concern. Beyond underscoring the latter fact, I should be doing Sonia Gandhi irreparable harm if I were to equate her with Yaswant Sinha. Both statements self-evidently are connected to the prospects of support in Tamilnadu  for the respective political parties that Gandhi and Sinha represent. It is but fair to say  though that in the case of Sonia Gandhi, there is a larger commitment to the Tamils of Sri Lanka  stemming from a historical involvement that goes back to Jawaharlal Nehru( although she has not invoked Nehru). There is thus a ‘civilisational acoustic’ in Sonia Gandhi’s voice that is absent in the purely political amplification of Yaswant Sinha’s.  I wish to record in this context a relevant extract from a conversation that I had some time ago with an intimate Indian friend of mine. Over a cup of good Darjeeling tea she told me that she was one among millions all over the world who has been deeply troubled by the post-war trajectory of Sri Lanka: that a yuddhayuga should be followed by a dukkhayuga  is truly tragic.

Be the above dangers and disappointments as they may, commentators partial to the government of Sri Lanka would have us believe that the socio-political mess we are in today, particularly on the foreign policy front, is thanks to interfering outsiders and not due to any of our sins of commission or omission. Is it really the United States, Canada, Britain, India/Tamilnadu or any other outsider that is the cause of our post-2009 woes? Are those ‘double standards’ of outsiders opposed to us the cause of all evil that has befallen ‘The Miracle of Asia’ in these post-war years? Or would it not be correct to say that we have been our own worst enemy and that Sri Lanka’s own ‘double standards’ have hurt us both domestically and internationally?

Can we honestly say that our government treats all of our citizens equally under the law of the land and in terms of our Constitution? Are all of us equal before the law or are not some ‘more equal than the others’? Can we honestly claim that the Sri Lankan state treats all Sri Lankan citizens, regardless of ethnicity and religion, in the same way? Do all of our religions receive equal status under our Constitution? We Sri Lankans seem very good at detecting the mote in the eye of others but hopeless at seeing the beam in ours! We make promises to our international partners and colleagues and to our own  citizens  one moment only to renege on them the next. Can a domestic or foreign policy, especially of a small state, survive such blatant prevarication and perfidy?

A favourite argument of the defenders of the state today is that our national sovereignty is not being respected by outsiders and that the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs is not adhered to by certain states.  Sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of countries of course are vital principles to be found in the UN Charter. Sovereignty, however, is no longer an absolute value, if ever it was. In this regard, one must ever remember the fundamental point that it is the people that are sovereign not the state. Acceding to the treaties/protocols/conventions may thus enhance the sovereignty of the people whilst possibly undermining the ‘sovereignty’ of the state. In any event, like everything else in geopolitics, sovereignty is also applied or practiced selectively. Try as we might, Sri Lanka will not be able to hide legitimately behind the concept of sovereignty. Each time any Government of Sri Lanka signs a  human rights treaty or a new protocol or covenant, we give other countries the right, if need be, to examine our record on human rights   and to question, comment on and review that record. We are a signatory to all major international  human rights conventions and we should be justly proud of this record. In 2005 Sri Lanka joined all of the member states in unanimously adopting the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm at the 60th anniversary of the UN General Assembly. We agreed to the setting up of the UNHRC in 2006 and with its mandate. We also agreed to the establishment of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and the procedure by which it allows individuals  and organizations to bring human rights violations to the attention of the UNHRC.  Sri Lanka, in keeping with our obligations arising from being a signatory to these UN Conventions, reports periodically on its adherence to these International Human Rights norms. A lack of due transparency makes it very difficult for the average citizen to access these reports. This absence of transparency and a lack of free flow of information only make it easier  for some of our politicians and certain individuals to  dupe the majority of us. The R2P norm accepted by consensus at the UN (2005) is conditioned by the requirement of UN Security Council approval for any action to take place. Its purpose is to ensure that humanitarian action is taken in extreme cases of genocide as in Rwanda. Beating the ideological drum  to warn our citizens of neo-colonialism and neo-imperialists is in fact a cover for human rights violations.

Let us now examine closely the rhetoric of our politicians and officials alike that vitiates the reality of Sri Lanka’s current predicament. The root cause of the current crisis in Indo-Lanka relations, asserts one observer, is ‘extra regional’ and has ‘nothing to do with the region’. Surely this viewpoint is as much an exaggeration as it is tendentious. Is it entirely or solely the US-led 2013 Geneva resolution that has triggered off violence against Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans in Tamilnadu? Has Sri Lanka handled Indo-Lanka relations in the post-war years as deftly as we did from 2005 to May 2009? Is it true to say as a prominent official said recently  ‘that protests in Tamilnadu over accountability issues in Sri Lanka  would serve to discourage those pushing for devolution of power in under the 13th Amendment  to the Constitution’? Sincere and candid answers  to the above queries would indicate that Sri Lanka has been less than honest in our dealings with ourselves as well as with outsiders. By our limited action and inaction since May 2009, we have dilly dallied over our efforts at reconciliation and thereby invited the hostility of friend and foe alike. Long before today’s protests and violence against Sri Lanka/ Sri Lankans in Tamilnadu came to be, Sri Lanka began playing unsavoury games with the issue of power devolution at home. And nobody of significance in the current government of Sri Lanka is pushing for the implementation of the 13thAmendment,   so far as we citizens know.

What progress has Sri Lanka made in the spheres of rehabilitation and reconstruction? Here I think it is unhelpful to conflate reconstruction and rehabilitation as much as it is unhelpful to conflate accountability and reconciliation.  Reconstruction, rehabilitation, accountability and reconciliation are indeed inter-related in the ultimate reckoning. The most daunting and challenging of these four tasks surely is accountability. In regard to accountability I feel the critics of Sri Lanka, both domestic and external, are on uneven ground.  Human history bears witness to the tragi-sad fact that at the end of all human conflict, more often than not, a victor’s justice prevails. Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative at the UN Headquarters in New York has eloquently held forth on this particular theme a few days ago, referring in the process, to post-conflict justice in all of its manifestations quoting, along the way, the Buddha and Shakespeare.  The problem in Sri Lanka, however, is not an absence of eloquence of which we have more than our fair share. What we desperately lack is restorative justice. As I see it, what is found in abundance in Sri Lanka post-2009 is a victor’s justice. Examples abound in other parts of the world of instances similar to that in Sri Lanka where the winners failed to look with compassion and justice on the vanquished. Yet these past errors ought not detain us at this juncture except to afford us some fresh perspective to understand the present better and to help us avoid pitfalls arising from such past errors.

Reconstruction is a priority for Sri Lanka for both humanitarian and practical reasons. The urgent re-building of the war-ravaged north and east is a must. In this endeavour it is best to be guided by the citizens of the area and their elected representatives. To this end, the announcement of plans to hold the Northern Provincial Council elections is a step in the right direction.  Let us hope that these elections will be free and fair and that they will be held as scheduled in September 2013.

Much has been achieved on the rehabilitation front although more yet remains to be done. Demining, treatment of LTTE’s child soldiers and the release of some suspected LTTE detainees are laudable acts and the government needs to be commended for the work done to date. Difficult though it admittedly is, steps should be taken to follow due process with regard to bringing to justice some of the ex-senior LTTE cadres. Four years almost to the end of the war, we have not yet been able to identify those listed as missing or believed dead.  This is a vital area on which we must move as speedily as humanly possible so that their next of kin could come to terms with their sense of loss. We should either press charges against those in custody guilty of offences against the state or release them if there is no hard evidence to keep them in jail. This complex aspect of rehabilitation needs to be attended to responsibly and speedily if we are serious about helping those of our citizens overwhelmed by tragedy of war to apply closure. Parents need to know if some of their children are dead or alive; wives need to know the same of their husbands and vice versa and relatives need to know how many of their kith and kin have survived the war and how many perished.

On the reconciliation front, Sri Lanka’s progress is tardy. Nobody expects national reconciliation to occur overnight as if we could pluck reconciliation out of thin air! But after nearly four years post-war, at least a credible beginning of that long healing process leading to reconciliation ought to have begun. It has not.  Even the basic recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission(LLRC), as has been pointed out ad infinitum by many a writer on Sri Lanka have not yet been implemented.  The External Affairs Minister is on record as saying that ‘the pace of implementation, priorities and timing [of the LLRC recommendations] are political judgements for the Government of this Country’. Heaven help us!  We have been waiting from 1980s onwards when President Jayewardene summoned an All Party Conference(APC) for our government to act and  to find a solution to our Sinhala- Tamil conflict.  Thereafter we went through the elaborate All Party Representative Committee (APRC) deliberations chaired by Minister Peiris’s other professorial Cabinet colleague, Tissa Vitarana.  That exercise reminded one of a mountain labouring to produce a mouse. Then it was a case of waiting for the LLRC recommendations.  These recommendations have, like the ides of March,   come, but, happily, unlike the ides not yet gone. How much longer does Minister Peiris want us to wait for the ‘Government of this country’ to bestir itself to implement the LLRC recommendations one wonders. One can only hope this wait will not be like our famous wait for Godot. The proposed Parliamentary Select Committee to aid in the search for an enduring political solution to the Sinhala- Tamil conflict or the National Question is yet to be appointed. In the pre-2009 period, admittedly the intransigence of the LTTE did not help the cause of a negotiated political solution. But today the LTTE is no longer an impediment to a   marriage of true Sri Lankan minds. Hence the present delay in our national search for a true peace is both puzzling and troubling.

The pressure from Geneva and elsewhere should therefore come as no surprise to us. These pressures stem from Sri Lanka’s neglect of home grown mechanisms for reconciliation for the formulation of which Sri Lanka asked for and received ‘time and space’. The LLRC laboured and produced its comprehensive recommendations unlike the APRC. Now instead of implementing these LLRC recommendations,  like Oliver Twist of old, the government is asking for more; more ‘time and space’ in which to do so.

I submit that it is our recent foreign policy debacles arising from our repeated failure to act on principle and on assurances given to our international partners that has been, to use Minister Peiris’s words used in a different context, ‘the catalyst for discord, dissension and violence’ in our international relations. Likewise the government’s failure to act on similar assurances given to its citizens has been the catalyst for domestic discord, dissension and violence. Belated though it is, we have got to extricate ourselves from the enormous diplomatic  hole we got ourselves into after May 2009 even at this late stage. This endeavour ought to be a national priority and is a task that should not be entrusted to the government or the politicians alone.

A country’s foreign policy and its domestic policies are inextricably bound together. As United States Senator Lindsay Graham has perceptively observed, ‘’investment in foreign policy is a national  security insurance’. The crucial element of balance that characterized the foreign policy of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike is markedly lacking in our foreign policy today. President Jayewardene in his period in office unwisely moved away from the balanced foreign policy of his predecessor and not merely  he and his government but Sri Lanka as a whole paid dearly for that significant failure. Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar restored that delicate balance to our foreign policy but those lesser mortals who followed him recklessly abandoned that in favour of a ‘realist’ counter-balance. We are today reaping the harmful consequences arising from our deviation from a balanced and nuanced foreign policy. As in the 1980s, it will be Sri Lanka as a whole that will once more suffer if our present government continues to follow a lop-sided foreign policy. Governments may come and governments may go, but Sri Lanka needs must go on.  Hence all of us Sri Lankans have a crucial role to play to help resurrect Sri Lanka from the dangerous depths to which it has sunk in recent times. Our failure to rise to the occasion will only serve to push Sri Lanka deeper into the mire of chaos and dissension.  The time to act to transform Sri Lanka into a viable 21st century state is now.

[Editors note: A version of this article also appears in The Sunday Times today.]