ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 08
Columns - Thoughts from London  

Political lip service or muddled thinking

By Neville de Silva

Those who read the foreign secretary’s remarks in another newspaper last Sunday headlined “Plenty of friends says Kohona” would not be surprised at all at the pathetic state of our foreign relations today. Palitha Kohona condescendingly dismisses the widely held belief, both at home and abroad, that Sri Lanka has become increasingly isolated internationally.

This might not be a popular view in some circles in the government where even the minister of highways and something or other, projects himself as an expert on everything including foreign affairs, making pronouncements that are later rejected by his own colleagues.

It seems to be open season on foreign affairs and every Tom, Dick and Fernandopulle has turned himself into a poor man’s Henry Kissinger. Perhaps the foreign secretary who has only lately returned to our shores seems to be trying to adjust to this world of make believe and playing monkey to the political organ grinders. That would be the only charitable explanation for his argumentative frivolity last Sunday.

The other explanation is muddled thinking that appears to have led to conclusions which would seem curious to an informed public. In sum, his arguments against the assertion in that newspaper of Sri Lanka’s increasing isolation are these. =“It is a gross exaggeration to say the country is isolated” because the biggest and most influential countries were all behind Sri Lanka. The countries are US, France, China, Japan and India.

=Sri Lanka is a responsible member of the international community and was “in possession of the same values as the international community.” =There is no withholding of funds by countries. The US has not done so, neither has Germany, contrary to common belief. =In fact Japan has increased aid and China and India continue to provide aid.

=The vast majority of the world’s influential countries were not critical of Sri Lanka. Proof of that is Sri Lanka’s election as Co-chair of the Human Rights Council by the Asian group consisting of 50 countries. Kohona perhaps thinks that isolation means not talking to Sri Lanka, not having any dealings with it.

But if isolation means increasing public criticism and at times even strident condemnation, of the conduct of a country in violation of its international obligations by other countries as well as by international organisations, then surely Sri Lanka is more isolated today than in the last decade or two.

Isolation surely is when those who were once friends turn public critic and even warn of possible sanctions if you do not mend your ways. Kohona cites five countries by name as the “biggest and most influential” implying thereby that other countries such as the UK, Germany, Canada, Russia and several others are not influential in the world arena.

Surely it is a diplomatic faux pas to name France and ignore the UK and Germany as influential European states. What does Kohona mean when he says that the countries he named are “behind” Sri Lanka? Is he implying that these countries are backing every move and decision made by this government in terms of the on going conflict and on human rights abuses that have been widely publicised internationally?

It is a brave or foolhardy foreign secretary who would venture to say so when we are aware that all those countries save China perhaps, have been critical of human rights violations and publicly expressed their concerns. To imply that these countries are standing steadfastly behind Sri Lanka which has been bludgeoned internationally for its recent human rights record would surely astonish the foreign offices of these states.

When one refers to the “international community” one is not referring to each and every one of the 192 (actually 193 including the Vatican City) countries mentioned by Kohona. It is not a numbers game unless one is talking in political terms such as a UN General Assembly vote where each ballot matters. The term in effect means the more important and influential members of the world community.

Moreover, Kohona failed to mention the European Union, which on some foreign and economic policy issues acts as a single entity. Has he forgotten that the EU consists of 27 member-states and is still growing, that EU pressure on Bulgaria appears to have stopped some arms sales to Sri Lanka, according to news reports. Has he forgotten that it was the EU, after dragging its feet in the teeth of opposition from Norway and two Scandinavian members that banned the LTTE, a move hailed by Sri Lanka?
Yet Kohona ignores the EU as an influential member of the world community. Is it ignorance or a tacit admission that the EU is not “behind” Sri Lanka.

Kohona tried to mislead the public by claiming that the most influential states supported Sri Lanka which is the kind of bovine rubbish that minister Fernandopulle was peddling the other day. Not only have those influential countries stopped some forms of aid,Kohona’s attempts at whitewashing government indiscretions, to put it euphemistically, is made even worse by uttering an untruth.

Much has already been said and written about financial assistance in one form or another being halted by Germany and the UK. Kohona contests the claim that Germany stopped some tsunami reconstruction funding. Perhaps he should read the interview given by the German International Development Minister Heimarie Wieczorek-Zeul around Christmas last year when she even urged other donors also to suspend aid. Kohona quibbles when he says the US did not withhold funds because it did not allocate any. What he does not say is that Sri Lanka was entitled to assistance under the Millennium Challenge Account but would not be receiving any as long as those like Kohona defend the indefensible.

Finally, Kohona boasts about Sri Lanka’s election to the Co-chairmanship of the United Nations HRC by the Asian group. Perhaps he is unaware that this generally goes by rotation and some countries are loath to take on the job because of the additional burden imposed on their diplomatic staff in Geneva.

Kohona claims 50 countries in Asia supported Sri Lanka’s nomination. Perhaps he would like to count how many of these Asian countries respect and uphold human rights as set out in the international conventions they have signed. They are among those that shouted loudest about “Asian values” which was a short hand for the justification of authoritarianism.

In point of fact some of these Asian states would prefer to have sessions chaired by a country like their own whose human rights record is equally tarnished. Take the three Asian giants – China, India and Japan – that Kohona talks about. Whatever the imperatives that determine Indian policy, New Delhi has been overtly critical of our human rights abuses and has refused to sell arms, except defensive weaponry, to us.

China does not care a jot about human rights here because Beijing is not particularly known as a respecter of these. That leaves Japan. If Kohona understands Japan’s imperial past and its own human rights abuses he would realise why until the 1970s it concerned itself only with the human rights of its own people.

It is only with the new ODA charter of June 1992 that it made democratisation and adherence to human rights a plank of its new foreign aid policy. But that too is observed more in the breach as its relations with China reveal. It would do Sri Lanka’s image immense good if Kohona stayed at home more and did some required reading instead of flying off in every direction.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.